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Michael D'Antonio Headshot

Priests as Pintos: Fraud and the Next Catholic Crisis

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One can only guess what the pope might be thinking. In Rome, his butler has been arrested in connection with a "Vatileaks" scandal that has revealed venomous internal conflicts over the Church's finances, child abuse scandals and doctrine. In America, the faithful flock to support their nuns in their fight with Church disciplinarians, while a Philadelphia monsignor accused of endangering children faces heavy jail time in a criminal trial now in its second month. And these problems are not worst of it.

Amid all the more notable intrigue and scandal, a jury in the little city of Appleton, Wis., recently demolished a defense that has shielded the church from hundreds, if not thousands, of claims related to sexual crimes committed by priests against minors. The historic verdict threatens the Church with a new round of sexual abuse lawsuits that could expose it to billions of dollars in liability.

Like countless other victims of clergy abuse, Todd and Troy Merryfield had been unable to sue for damages because a state statute of limitations said too much time had passed between the moment when they knew they had been harmed and their decision to go to court. Noting that fraud stops the statute clock from ticking, their attorney Jeffrey Anderson re-filed the case to claim that higher-ups had defrauded his clients and the public by permitting a criminally flawed man to work as a priest. The way Anderson saw it, bishops who didn't act swiftly to protect the public from suspect priests were like the Ford Motor Company executives who unleashed fatally flawed Pintos on an unsuspecting public and should be held responsible.

The most remarkable thing about the Appleton case is that the facts were not unusual or extreme. Father John Patrick Feeney had been the subject of complaints about his behavior with children years before he met Todd and Terry Merryfield, and each time his superiors quietly transferred him. After Feeney assaulted the Merryfields in 1978, a district attorney showed his bishop evidence that the priest had committed other sex crimes. Still the Church did not remove Feeney from ministry. Finally, in 1983, the bishop barred Feeney from working in Green Bay but sent him off with a letter of recommendation -- calling him "a cleric in good standing" -- that allowed him to work as a priest in California and Nevada. All of this -- Feeney's pattern of behavior, the bishop's foot dragging and the deceptive letter of recommendation -- were standard operating procedure at the time.

In the records in the Feeney case his superiors don't use the kind of smoking gun language that would scream "we knowingly loosed a criminal on the community." Instead his bishop sounds exasperated, scrawling, "Father Feeney Please!" at the top of one letter of complaint and writing "If I hear any more about the swimming in the nude and encouraging boys to do it I'll suspend you." But as the evidence of Feeney's criminal sexual compulsions accrued, the bishop neglected his threat. And it was this neglect of duty, juxtaposed with the bishop's role as pastor to the Catholic people of Green Bay, that met the legal definition of fraud. In his closing argument Anderson said, "They knew he had sexually molested and they knew he posed a danger and a risk to children and thus they deceived the Merryfields and the community."

If it survives appeal, the Appleton verdict will establish an avenue for lawyers who brought abuse cases that were dismissed on the basis of state statutes of limitations to bring them again as fraud complaints. Victims who have been frustrated for decades could finally get their days in court. Bishops, who historically responded to complaints of abuse by moving suspect priests to new assignments, face a new wave of crisis and liabilities that would add substantially to the billions of dollars already paid out by the church in America to resolve sexual abuse lawsuits. Many dioceses could be bankrupted by claims.

Beyond the financial threat it poses to the Church, which is substantial, the Appleton verdict highlights the conflict of values between a religious institution that is also a monarchy, and the morality of liberal democracy. And it is in this arena, the moral arena, where the pope and the Church face the greatest challenge as ordinary citizens render their judgments. "You folks are the only people in this community and the only people in this world that can hold them responsible," said Anderson, in his closing. The jurors responded by requiring the Diocese of Green Bay to the face same standards other corporations confront in civil suits.

Holding the Church accountable was the Merryfields' first objective, and the jurors who obliged them exercised their authority over the Church as a competing moral power. The same can be said for the Philadelphia district attorney prosecuting Monsignor William Lynn, the Catholic laypeople who are rallying on the streets to support American nuns, and even the journalists exploiting the Vatileaks documents. Although the Vatican calls a book based on those papers "criminal," it is, in fact, an example of how press freedom functions as a check on the powerful. Similarly, the Catholics who support besieged nuns express themselves based on the freedom of assembly and the prosecutor pursuing the monsignor acts on the principle of equality under the law.

The freedom and equality that allow individuals to confront powerful institutions have been ascendant for centuries and for centuries the Vatican has lagged behind the world as it moved to embrace them. Internally the Church is, of course, entitled to its own form of governance and its doctrines and beliefs. It can even cling to its traditions of secrecy and intrigue. However, as it engages with the larger society in courtrooms and the court of public opinion, its authoritarian mindset leaves it ill prepared for challenges raised by people who believe that they are equal to any bishop or pope. In the contest between monarchy and democracy, the world, if not the universe, is becoming more democratic and open every day.

This week the Vatican press office reported that the Pope Benedict XVI is "suffering" but serene as controversy swirls around him. If this is true, it's because events are unfolding in a way the pope envisioned more than 40 years ago when he predicted a future Church that "will be small and, to a large extent, will have to start from the beginning." This future Church, which sounds an awful lot like the original Church, "will lose many of her privileges in society" he said in 1969. It will, of necessity, "acknowledge new kinds of ministry and raise will raise up to the priesthood proven Christians who have other jobs..."

In trusting itself to become what he called "a church of the little people" served by a kind of amateur priesthood, Benedict's future Church would "no longer be able to fill many of the buildings created in her period of great splendor." However it would also become far more democratic, egalitarian and relevant to the lives of modern men and women. Seen in this light, the verdict rendered in Appleton may constitute a step toward a better day for the Church as well as for the Merryfields. Perhaps this is why the pope is serene.