08 February 2012
by Philip Lawler
For well over a decade, the poisonous influence of the sex-abuse scandal has been spreading through the universal Church, shaking the faith and undermining the hierarchy in one country after another. Now the toxic influence of the scandal has seeped into yet another aspect of Catholic life, tarnishing the memory of potential saints.
In a story published January 11, carrying the suitably sensational title “Tainted Saint,” the San Francisco Weekly suggested that the scandal might damage the reputation of the beloved Mother Teresa, who was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 2003.
In making that argument, the Weekly stretches the available evidence well beyond the breaking point. At worst, Blessed Mother Teresa was guilty of misjudging a priest: a mistake that many others made, regarding the same abusive cleric. Unfortunately the same chain of evidence raises more serious questions about another beloved Catholic figure who is now a candidate for beatification: the late Father John Hardon, SJ.
The Weekly story involves the case of Donald McGuire, whose sordid story is among the most appalling in the annals of clerical abuse. As a Jesuit priest, McGuire was a popular speaker, retreat director, and spiritual adviser, renowned for his vigorous orthodoxy. He enjoyed identifying himself as a retreat director for Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity (which was true), and sometimes even as her spiritual director (which was a stretch). For 30 years his shining reputation concealed the string of abuse allegations that trailed behind him.
Finally, when the sex-abuse scandal broke open across the United States—as victims grew more willing to come forward, and ecclesiastical superiors less likely to cover up evidence—those accusations caught up with him. Charged and convicted on several different counts, McGuire was dismissed from the Jesuit order in 2007 and laicized in 2008. He is now serving a 25-year federal prison term which, in light of his age (81) and ill health, is almost certainly a life sentence.
At this stage I should probably interject that to this day, I know people who are persuaded that McGuire is innocent of the charges against him. Despite the findings of several different courts, despite the documentary evidence that is now readily available on the internet, his stalwart defenders cannot imagine that a priest who preached so powerfully in favor of chastity could have sinned so grievously against that very virtue. McGuire himself has never admitted his guilt.
Back in 1994, before all of the most damning evidence came to light, Mother Teresa had been among McGuire’s defenders. When he had preached retreats for her Missionaries of Charity, she had been impressed with his wisdom and fervor. When she heard that McGuire had been suspended from ministry because of accusations that he had molested a teenage boy, she evidently assumed that the charge was false. In a letter to his Jesuit provincial, Mother Teresa wrote:
I understand how grave is the scandal touching the priesthood in the U.S.A. and how careful we must be to guard the purity and reputation of that priesthood. I must say, however, that I have confidence and trust in Fr. McGuire and wish to see his vital ministry resume as soon as possible.
To place that letter from Mother Teresa in the proper context it is important to keep two crucial factors in mind. First, although she mentions the “scandal touching the priesthood in the U.S.A.” she was writing in 1994, long before the sex-abuse scandal had reached its zenith, at a time when it was still unthinkable that bishops and religious superiors would have ignored clear evidence of abuse. Second, there is no reason to believe that Mother Teresa was presented with any solid evidence whatsoever to back up the charges against McGuire. On the contrary, she seems to have heard about the charges only from McGuire himself and from Father John Hardon, who was convinced that McGuire was innocent. She no doubt assumed that the hearsay evidence mentioned by these two priests was the only evidence available.
Thus in all likelihood, Mother Teresa was told that McGuire had been charged with abuse, but assured—by two priests she trusted—that the charges were false. She was apparently told that he had foolishly left himself open to charges, and she wrote to the Jesuit provincial that McGuire had “admitted imprudence in his behavior.” She believed that he was innocent, and she said so.
That is the sum total of the evidence against Mother Teresa, as presented in the gaudy headline story in the San Francisco Weekly. Oh, the Weekly does toss a few other charges into the indictment, rehashing the complaints of the late Christopher Hitchens that the Missionaries of Charity do not provide state-of-the-art medical care, and that the order has accepted donations from shady figures such as “Papa Doc” Duvalier (who was the recognized head of state in Haiti at the time) and the banker Charles Keating (who was a respected financier and contributor to many political candidates before being caught up in the savings-and-loan scandal). But as I told the reporter who interviewed me for the Weekly story, the case against Mother Teresa is too thin to be taken seriously. If she was taken in by McGuire’s display of piety, that fact may duly be entered in the debit column against her account. But with her credits piled so high, a small withdrawal will make very little difference to her overall standing. Mother Teresa is generally regarded as a saint—not just by the Catholic Church, but by the more cynical secular world. The Weekly story, despite its breathless presentation, will not alter that judgment.
If Mother Teresa was conned by McGuire, she had plenty of company. Over the years, hundreds if not thousands of pious Catholics had come to believe implicitly in the renowned priest’s virtue. Yet during all that time, McGuire’s Jesuit superiors had evidence that would have put those pious Catholics on their guard—and saved many young men from trauma.
The first complaints that McGuire was making improper advances on teenage boys arose in the 1970s, when he was teaching at Loyola Academy in Chicago. There were several charges that he was unduly harsh as a disciplinarian, and at least one accuser made the more sinister charge that the Jesuit teacher was a “pervert.” Soon he was re-assigned to the University of San Francisco, where superiors recorded his “highly questionable acts.” By 1990, he had set himself up as a roving retreat director, often bringing a teenage boy along as his companion. This pattern of behavior was to continue, off and on, for 20 years.
Catholic parents were generally delighted to have their sons spend time in the company of a priest they held in high esteem, and McGuire evidently had a knack for finding boys whose family circumstances made them anxious for the approval of a revered adult male. By 1991, Jesuit superiors had their first explicit reports that McGuire was engaged in sexual activities with a young companion. His provincial ordered him to stop traveling with teenagers. But the rule was not enforced, and McGuire did not adhere to it. In 1993, after a fresh complaint, McGuire’s provincial sent him to St. John Vianney Center in Pennsylvania for psychological evaluation. It was at this point that Father Hardon entered onto the scene.
Like McGuire, Father Hardon was a Jesuit. (Father Hardon was of the Detroit province; McGuire the neighboring Chicago province. The two have since been combined.) If McGuire was a minor star in the eyes of orthodox Catholics, Father Hardon was a major luminary. The author of many books—most notably The Catholic Catechism, a project he undertook at the suggestion of Pope Paul VI and completed in 1975—Father Hardon was also an accomplished speaker and retreat director. Known for his unswerving orthodoxy, he was also famous for scrupulous exactitude and attention to detail. Father Hardon died in 2000 at the age of 86. A cause for his beatification was opened in St. Louis by then-Archbishop Raymond Burke in 2005.
In 1993, while McGuire was at the St. John Vianney Center, Father Hardon was called into the case. The California family that had lodged the latest accusation against McGuire—an accusation that McGuire stoutly denied—agreed to accept Father Hardon’s evaluation of the case. Evidently Jesuit superiors also saw him as an ideal intermediary. Father Hardon was a friend of McGuire’s, and his ally in the theological battles that often rattled the Jesuit order. But the older Jesuit also had an impeccable reputation for honesty and for looking at facts without blinking. If Father Hardon testified that McGuire was innocent of grave wrongdoing, the Jesuit order seemed prepared to accept that testimony.
So Father Hardon visited McGuire in Pennsylvania, spoke to him privately at length, and—sad to say—he blinked.
In their long conversation, which Father Hardon later recorded in correspondence that has now been made public, McGuire admitted that he had showered with his teenage companions. He admitted that he had asked the boys to give him massages. He admitted using pornography with them. But he denied the more serious charges of engaging in actual sex acts. Father Hardon wrote that he accepted the veracity of McGuire’s denial: “I do not believe there was any conscious and deliberate sexual perversity.”
Father Hardon concluded that McGuire’s behavior had been “highly imprudent.” But he accepted a series of rationalizations: That showering together had been necessary because McGuire, who suffered from chronic back and leg pain, needed assistance in the shower; that massages were done to relieve pressure on the priest’s sciatic nerve; that the pornographic magazines were there accidentally (McGuire denied buying them), and were no worse than Playboy or Penthouse. Father Hardon recommended that McGuire “should be prudently allowed to engage in priestly ministry.” And so he was, for another decade, during which time several more boys were molested.
How could Father Hardon have seen so admittedly circumstantial evidence in this case, and not concluded that McGuire was a danger to young boys? How could he have seen much smoke and not recognized a fire? Was he one among the many good people taken in by a very manipulative personality? Remarkably enough, the father of the family that had asked for Father Hardon’s involvement in the case, and later accepted his verdict, is prepared to accept that conclusion: “That McGuire fooled Father Hardon and Mother Teresa like he did so many others is disappointing, but not a surprise,” he told the San Francisco Weekly.
Others are not so charitable in their evaluations of Father Hardon’s judgment, and their skepticism is understandable. Once McGuire had admitted to some degree of misconduct, after earlier blanket denials, why was Father Hardon ready to accept his later denials of the more serious charges? A priest who takes teenage boys into the shower with him, or views pornography with them, is clearly a grave danger to young people. Even if there was no compelling evidence of rape, there were plenty of reasons—based on McGuire’s admissions alone—to suspect that rape may have occurred.
Again, Father Hardon was not known as a priest whose head was in the clouds: a man who might be cavalier about facts, and might not recognize the clear evidences of human frailty. On the contrary, he had a deserved reputation as a hard-nosed realist. For such a man to look at the evidence in the McGuire case, and conclude that there was no immediate danger, seems at least a serious lapse of prudence. When informed about Father Hardon’s role, Father Robert McDermott, the postulator for his cause for beatification, admitted to the San Francisco Weekly, “I don’t know why he didn’t take a harder line on this.”
(Father McDermott made that remark when he was originally contacted by the San Francisco Weekly for an earlier story on the McGuire case that appeared in May 2011. When the Weekly contacted the postulator again, after unearthing more extensive evidence of Father Hardon’s involvement of the June 2012 story, Father McDermott declined to comment.)
Maybe there is an explanation for Father Hardon’s willingness to endorse his colleague’s return to active ministry. Maybe something is missing from the story as we now see it. Father Hardon can no longer defend himself, and the others involved in the case—McGuire and the Jesuit superiors who covered up evidence of his misconduct for years—are unreliable witnesses.
Certainly it is true that the leaders of the Jesuit order were guilty of lapses far more serious than the apparently imprudent judgment of Father Hardon. (In fact in retrospect it is exceedingly curious that the Jesuit order accepted Father Hardon’s recommendation, with so much countervailing evidence already weighing against it.) At least six different Jesuit provincials were warned that McGuire was molesting teenage boys. His ministry had been restricted, but the restriction had not been enforced. His superiors had been warned repeatedly that he was traveling with teenage boys, yet the travel continued. In 1998, a provincial who had access to all the personnel records wrote to a bishop that McGuire “had never been accused of improprieties with minors.” As late as 2007, Jesuit leaders denied having evidence of abuse beyond the cases for which McGuire had already faced formal charges. Even while he was awaiting trial on federal abuse charges, McGuire was living without restrictions at a Jesuit residence in Chicago, where he was free to entertain young men in his room.
Perhaps Father Hardon’s opinion would have changed if he had been aware of all the evidence against McGuire that had already been stored up in the personnel files of his Jesuit province. In this case the complicity and dishonesty of the Jesuit leadership is appalling. But the available evidence also sheds a very unflattering light on Father Hardon’s involvement. In the absence of some better explanation, it appears that his gross misjudgment had devastating consequences for the lives of several young boys—and perhaps for his cause for beatification as well.