What Do the Church’s Victims Deserve?

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The Catholic Church is turning to outside arbiters to reckon with its history of sexual abuse. But skeptics argue that its legacy of evasion continues.

Some time before Brooklyn was incorporated into New York City, in 1898, it was dubbed the City of Churches. Houses of worship remain thick on the ground in the borough. In the part of Brooklyn where I live, churches outnumber grocery stores, pet shops, and nail salons together. There’s the Institutional Church of God in Christ (red brick, stained glass) and the Revelation Church of God in Christ (a converted movie theatre); the French-Speaking Baptist Church, founded by Haitian immigrants; the Zion Shiloh Baptist Church, whose members come from all over the metropolitan area, parking their cars in a long row; and the Ileri Oluwa Parish, where congregants of Nigerian descent worship shoeless and in long white robes. And there are the Catholic places. Queen of All Saints Church and Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School face each other across Lafayette Avenue. Up the hill is the walled-in motherhouse of the Sisters of Mercy; down the hill is the old church of St. Boniface, now the home of a community called the Brooklyn Oratory, where I go to Mass on Sundays.

A few blocks away is St. Lucy–​St. Patrick Church, on Willoughby Avenue. Over six years, beginning in 2003, Angelo Serrano, a religious educator at the church, sexually abused four boys. He raped or molested them in the church’s offices and at his apartment, in a brick schoolhouse converted to low-cost housing by Catholic Charities. Eventually, one of the boys told his mother, who told the police. In 2011, Serrano was sentenced to fifteen years in prison. The victims then sued the Diocese of Brooklyn; in a settlement reached last September, they were awarded $27.5 million.

My wife and I have been raising three sons in this part of Brooklyn, and the morning that the news about the settlement broke I cycled up Willoughby Avenue toward the church. St. Lucy–St. Patrick’s is one of the oldest Catholic churches in the borough, dating from 1843, and it has a haunted, left-behind aspect. On the edge of a row of restored brownstones, it is notably unkempt: pink paint is peeling from the doors, and the iron fence along the sidewalk is broken in places.

When I arrived, a correspondent from “Noticias Univision 41,” a Spanish-language news program, was standing nearby. A white car rolled up, the flag of Puerto Rico dangling from the rearview mirror, and a large middle-aged man stepped out, wearing a T-shirt, jeans, and sneakers. “If I had my way,” the man hollered, “he would get raped every night at that prison where he is, for what he done.”

I cycled on, unsure how to respond. The situation was straight out of a college course on justice. A legal settlement had expressed an idea of justice as financial restitution; my neighbor had expressed an idea of justice as physical retribution. Neither felt like a way forward.

Back at home, scrolling through BishopAccountability.org, which aggregates material about priestly abuse, I counted more than a dozen churches within easy cycling distance of our Brooklyn apartment that had been served at some point by priests accused of sexual misconduct. In Bushwick, Father Augusto Cortez touched a twelve-year-old girl’s breasts at St. John the Baptist Parish School. Father George Zatarga, long the chaplain at Bishop Loughlin, the high school on Lafayette Avenue, later admitted to “inappropriate behavior” with boys on trips to a cabin north of Albany (behavior he recorded lyrically in a “travel log”: skinny-dipping and the like). Father Anthony J. Failla, who served at St. Michael–St. Edward Church, near Fort Greene Park, was accused of sexually abusing a young orphan who slept in the rectory bedroom next to Failla’s quarters. Father Francis X. Nelson, while serving at St. Mary Star of the Sea, in Carroll Gardens, visited the home of a teen-age altar girl on the pretext of paying a pastoral call to her sick grandmother, and molested the girl. Father Romano Ferraro was posted to St. Francis Xavier, in Park Slope, after committing acts at other churches that later led to allegations of abuse; during his time at Xavier, Ferraro, on yearly Christmas visits to a friend in Massachusetts, raped the friend’s son (a crime for which he is serving a term of life in prison). A more recent incident caught my eye: in 2011, when my sons were in elementary school, the Brooklyn diocese removed Father Christopher Lee Coleman from the ministry for alleged sexual misconduct with a minor, though the diocese waited seven years to disclose its reason. Coleman had once been in residence at Queen of All Saints, down Vanderbilt Avenue from our apartment.

Like many Catholics, I wonder whether this story will ever be over and whether things will ever be set right. Often called a crisis, the problem is more enduring and more comprehensive than that. Social scientists report that the gravest period of priestly sexual abuse was the sixties and seventies, and the problem has been in public view for the past three and a half decades. For most American Catholics, then, the fact of sexual abuse by priests and its coverup by bishops has long been an everyday reality. Priestly sexual abuse has directly harmed thousands of Catholics, spoiling their sense of sexuality, of intimacy, of trust, of faith. Indirectly, the pattern of abuse and coverup has made Catholics leery of priests and disdainful of the idea that the bishops are our “shepherds.” It has muddled questions about Church doctrine concerning sexual orientation, the nature of the priesthood, and the role of women; it has hastened the decline of Catholic schooling and the shuttering of churches. Attorneys general in more than a dozen states are investigating the Church and its handling of sexual-abuse allegations. In February, New York State loosened its statute of limitations for sex crimes, long the Church’s bulwark against abuse claims. And that is just in the United States. Priestly sexual abuse has had grave effects around the world, including in Rome, where the three most recent Popes have been implicated in the institutional habits of concealment or inaction, and where Pope Francis has yet to find his voice on the problem.

It’s not that the bishops in this country haven’t responded. They’ve cycled through one crisis-resolution strategy after another. They’ve consulted experts, set up review boards and hotlines, issued charters and reports, trained parish staff in “best practices” for avoiding and reporting sexual abuse. They have met with survivors and led Masses of penitence and healing; they have apologized and begged for forgiveness. And they’ve made payments, through settlements and court-ordered damages, amounting to three billion dollars.

All that crisis response has worked, and it hasn’t. As questions about restitution arise, the bishops’ responses feel inadequate, insincere, or off point. The Vatican, meanwhile, now regards American bishops as masters at handling abuse allegations. At a meeting in Rome in February, Pope Francis and his deputies, addressing a “global crisis” of “the protection of minors,” suggested that the rest of the world could learn from the American Church. “Church moving from ‘American problem’ to American solutions on clergy abuse,” a recent headline from a Catholic news service declared.

In all of this, a distinctly American solution to the problem has emerged—the commissioning of an independent, secular authority to arrange settlements between the Church and survivors of abuse. This strategy has been taken up by an unlikely advocate: Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, and a traditionalist who generally relishes defending the Church against its adversaries.

Nearly three years ago, Cardinal Dolan decided to hire Kenneth Feinberg, an arbitration and mediation expert who has led programs to compensate victims and relatives of victims from the 9/11 attacks, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the Boston Marathon bombing, and other disasters. Under Feinberg, the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund distributed more than seven billion dollars to fifty-five hundred claimants. After the Deepwater Horizon spill, in the Gulf of Mexico, Feinberg and his longtime associate Camille Biros distributed more than six billion dollars to two hundred and twenty-five thousand claimants. After the shootings at the Pulse night club, in Orlando, Florida, they worked, pro bono, to help distribute charitable donations to those affected.

An Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program, run by Feinberg and Biros, began hearing and processing claims of priestly sexual abuse for the Archdiocese of New York in the fall of 2016. Feinberg and Biros subsequently established compensation programs in the Dioceses of Brooklyn (which includes Queens) and Rockville Centre (Long Island), and upstate, in the Dioceses of Syracuse and Ogdensburg. Their portfolio is expanding dramatically: five dioceses in Pennsylvania and all five dioceses in New Jersey have signed on, and multiple dioceses in Colorado and California are expected to do so later this year. Other I.R.C.P.s, which are similar to Feinberg and Biros’s template but are not under their supervision, have been established elsewhere, including the Dioceses of Buffalo, in New York, and Harrisburg, in Pennsylvania. Soon there will be Feinberg-branded I.R.C.P.s in the dioceses of two-fifths of American Catholics. His and Biros’s model for reconciliation and compensation is becoming the standard approach to priestly sexual abuse just as bishops worldwide are looking here for standard approaches.

The Church has paid survivors for decades. What makes this strategy different? Part of the answer is that Feinberg and Biros do. Over many years, they have maintained a reputation for probity and independence while disbursing some twenty billion dollars in funds. And the Church’s use of external, worldly arbiters is meant to assuage suspicions of self-protection. Much rides on Feinberg and Biros’s independence, and yet this independence may define the limits of the I.R.C.P.s’ success. Critics of Catholicism from Martin Luther onward have faulted the Church for dealing with matters of sin and repentance through mechanical means: the system of indulgences, the confessional booth. Is the Church today essentially outsourcing a reckoning with its past?

“Ken and Camille,” as Feinberg calls the duo, have worked together since 1979, when Feinberg was serving as Senator Edward M. Kennedy’s chief of staff and hired Biros as an assistant. I met with them several times in recent months, at the Willard Office Building, in Washington, D.C., where their six-person law firm is based. Feinberg, who is seventy-three, grew up in Brockton, Massachusetts, and he speaks in a chowdery accent unsoftened by fifty years among the power brokers of New York and Washington. He is bald, wears tortoise-shell eyeglasses, and leaves his shirts open at the neck. Biros, three years younger, has long, dark hair and favors loose blouses, slacks, and weapons-grade heels. Both are opera enthusiasts, and they (with their spouses) have followed many long days at their desks with long nights at the opera. The walls of their offices display framed newspaper articles in which Feinberg is referred to as the “Master of Disaster” and the “Compensation Czar.” Mediation runs deep for Feinberg; to spend time with him is to see him mediate continually between different aspects of his character—between a wish for humility and a taste for publicity, a commitment to produce agreeable outcomes and an instinct to tell the whole truth.

“The Cardinal called, and he wanted to brainstorm,” Feinberg told me. Pope Francis had spoken of a Year of Mercy, urging Catholics to undertake acts of reconciliation and forgiveness, and Cardinal Dolan saw this as an opportunity to address priestly sexual abuse, at a time when the Church was under great pressure concerning the issue. The 2015 film “Spotlight,” about a team of Boston Globe reporters who uncovered priestly sexual abuse in the Boston area, stirred public anger against the Church, and won the Academy Award for Best Picture. The watchdog group SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) characterized Cardinal Dolan as “among the most secretive” of the roughly three hundred U.S. bishops on matters of priestly abuse. New York state legislators nearly passed a bill loosening the strict statute of limitations on sex-abuse lawsuits. When he was the archbishop of Milwaukee, from 2002 to 2009, Dolan had instituted a settlement program of sorts, but it had gone awry. Engaging Kenneth Feinberg gave the Cardinal a chance at a dramatic, high-profile do-over.

Feinberg and Biros met with Cardinal Dolan at the archbishop’s residence, joined by the chief counsel for the archdiocese. “The Cardinal discussed with us his desire to create a program to promote reconciliation and healing between the victims and the Church, as well as his hopes that this will help bring back to the Church those who have been alienated due to the Church’s past conduct,” Biros recalled, choosing her words carefully. “Of course, not lost on us was the secular issue of the ongoing possibility of a change in the statute of limitations opening a window which would allow time-barred cases to move forward in the courts.”

The new program would offer compensation to survivors and would require them to sign releases forfeiting the right to sue the Church if the law changed later. It would take care of cases, Biros told me, “that were ‘in the drawer,’ as Ken likes to say, and were known to the archdiocese—going back, in some cases, as far as thirty-plus years.”

The New York archdiocese, with 2.8 million Catholics, is the second largest in the United States, after the one in Los Angeles, and its fifteen hundred or so clergymen and the value of its real estate would make its Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program one of precedent-setting scale. To fund it, the archdiocese took out a short-term loan against the mortgage on some property it owns: the block of Madison Avenue between Fiftieth and Fifty-first Streets, occupied by the Lotte New York Palace hotel. “We’ll have to do like any other family at a critical time,” Cardinal Dolan said, when he announced the program. “We’ll borrow the money.”

Feinberg’s approach to mediation, outlined in a 2005 book about his 9/11 work, “What Is Life Worth?,” is rooted in the belief “that a third-party magician can help us bridge our differences.” That magic often involves math. As the special master of the 9/11 fund, Feinberg typically employed a formula that estimated the deceased’s lost future lifetime earnings, accounted for other sources of household income, and gave weight to the number of dependents. Then he would use his discretion in order to “narrow the gap between high-end and low-end awards”—between, say, awards made to the families of highly compensated investment bankers and those made to the families of restaurant workers who had been paid by the hour. In the end, the median award was a little under $1.7 million.

The compensation programs for priestly sexual abuse are comparatively inexact: they involve weighing intangibles to determine, first, what happened, and then what sum of money represents appropriate compensation. When a diocese agrees to work with Feinberg and Biros, it sets aside a sum of money for compensation to survivors or indicates that it will pay claims as assessed. Biros evaluates each claim of abuse, taking into account the priest’s history and the quality of the claimant’s evidence that the abuse took place. A diocesan review board (usually made up of faithful Catholics in public life: judges, psychologists, law-enforcement officers) may also provide an assessment. If Biros approves the claim, she decides how much compensation to offer, weighing the nature of the abuse, how long it went on, how it affected the life of the claimant, and other factors. If the claimant accepts the offer, he or she relinquishes the right to sue the diocese but is not bound to confidentiality. “The program is not adjudicatory,” the archdiocese’s spokesman, Joseph Zwilling, told me. It doesn’t make any recommendations about measures against accused priests still in active ministry; it passes those claims to the diocese, which then conducts its own assessment and decides whether or not the priests should be disciplined or removed.

The Archdiocese of New York’s program proceeded in two phases: one for people who had already accused priests of abuse, and another for people who were making accusations for the first time. “The Cardinal was delighted with the program,” Biros told me—Feinberg nodded his assent—and set out the numbers in support. Three hundred and ninety-four people applied. Biros accepted all but forty-eight claims. More than half the claimants were represented by counsel, such as Mitchell Garabedian, the lawyer who was featured in “Spotlight,” and a bitter foe of the Church. Only one declined the I.R.C.P.’s offer of compensation. Individual payments ranged from twenty-five thousand to five hundred thousand dollars. In total, the program awarded more than sixty-three million dollars to claimants, with little controversy.

One reason for the high level of participation that Feinberg and Biros saw was a lack of alternatives: most claimants could no longer sue, because the alleged acts of abuse lay outside the statute of limitations, which, at the time, required a person to make a claim of abuse by the age of twenty-three. Another reason was what Feinberg calls “our lenient standards of evidence.” In “What Is Life Worth?,” he described his ideal stance toward victims as “compassionate and generous but not profligate.” He maintains that compensation programs must pay on “weak claims” as well as strong ones, in order to lead to a collective sense of resolution. This strategy costs more, but it keeps dissension to a minimum. It’s part compassion, part public relations.

Drawing the line is tricky. In the 9/11 program, there was seldom any dispute that a claimant’s relative had been killed in a terrorist attack. In a claim of priestly sexual abuse, however, it is often hard to determine exactly what happened. Typically, the person who applies for compensation reports that he was sexually abused decades ago, without witnesses, by a priest who is dead, and offers corroborating material that wouldn’t stand up in court. This is where “lenient standards” come in.

“What are we looking for?” Biros said. “Some form of documentation from before the program was announced: correspondence, a medical record. You told your therapist and the therapist made notes. You told your best friend: not as good, but we’ll take it if the priest in question is a recidivist.” She has reviewed claims for two decades, and she makes her assessments with confidence that a pretender or a scam artist won’t slip through. When she and her staff meet claimants in person, she told me, “we can tell in thirty seconds whether you are telling the truth.”

A claim is rejected, Biros said, mainly if there are no other claims against the priest and if there is no evidence for the claim other than the accuser’s recollections.

In theory, by reviewing claims and setting compensation, I.R.C.P.s have freed the Church to take up reconciliation. In practice, Biros has done plenty of reconciling. Six decades after her own Catholic girlhood, in Brooklyn (“We were not particularly devout,” she says of her family), she has engaged personally with about two hundred claimants, either face to face, on the phone, or via Skype, doing the work of listening and reflecting that the bishops have struggled to perform credibly.

“We hear it said that ‘all the cases are old cases,’ ” Feinberg said. “But there are sixty-five-year-old men sobbing in Camille’s office. These are people in damaged emotional states.”

“Abuse at the hands of a priest was the defining experience of the Church in their lives,” Biros said. “Their families didn’t believe them. They find themselves questioning their sexuality, their self-worth. We see P.T.S.D. We see people who have attempted suicide.” In her view, this aspect of the I.R.C.P. model, in which claimants recount their experiences, is no small part of what it delivers. “The program is limited but beneficial,” she said. For the victims, “the benefit is the ability to tell two individuals what happened and for us to believe that they’re telling the truth. It says to the victims, ‘No more hiding. This happened. We believe you.’ ”

Last year, a claimant told the New York I.R.C.P. that, in the early nineteen-seventies, he had been abused as an altar boy by Theodore McCarrick. The abuse took place in the sacristy of St. Patrick’s Cathedral on two successive Christmases. McCarrick, who was born and raised in upper Manhattan, served as secretary to Cardinal Terence Cooke, the archbishop of New York, and then rose in the hierarchy under four Popes: he was made a bishop by Paul VI; hosted John Paul II’s visit to Newark, in 1995; helped elect Benedict XVI, in 2005; and became a trusted emissary of Francis, representing the Church in informal negotiations with China and taking a hand in the selection of American archbishops. Since 2001, he had been a cardinal and the leader of the Washington, D.C., archdiocese. Throughout his episcopal career, he was trailed by talk that he routinely made seminarians under his supervision sleep in the same bed with him. That history was kept semi-suppressed until the former altar boy came forward to the New York I.R.C.P. Feinberg and Biros notified the archdiocese’s chief counsel, who went to Cardinal Dolan and notified the Manhattan district attorney. Dolan notified the Vatican and then initiated an internal investigation. The archdiocese’s review board for sexual abuse produced a report, which Dolan sent to Rome.

“It was the first claim we had involving a cardinal,” Biros told me. “And clearly the processes had to go beyond an internal, in-house investigation. It came to us, and it was a big deal, and it went up the chain, all the way to the Vatican.”

In June, when Cardinal Dolan announced the “credible and substantiated” claim against McCarrick, Cardinal Joseph Tobin, the archbishop of Newark, disclosed that the Archdiocese of Newark and the smaller Diocese of Metuchen had negotiated cash settlements in 2005 and 2007 with two former seminarians claiming abuse by McCarrick, and that the archdiocese was aware of a third. Meanwhile, a lawyer for the former altar boy in New York told the accuser’s story to the Times; soon afterward, a second accuser came forward and told the Times another appalling account. McCarrick, a family friend who had baptized him as an infant, began sexually abusing him in his teens. The abuse went on for many years, taking place in summer houses, a beach parking lot, hotels, cathedral rectories, and an apartment over Mount Sinai Hospital. A photograph accompanying the article showed McCarrick, who was about forty years old, and his teen-age victim in swimsuits, the man’s arm around the boy’s waist. McCarrick was beaming.

Once the story was out, Pope Francis and the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith responded decisively. Last summer, McCarrick was removed from the College of Cardinals and exiled to a friary in Kansas; earlier this year, he was laicized—defrocked. A painful episode for the Church, it was a big win for the I.R.C.P. At a moment when it had become axiomatic that the Church was incapable of policing itself, a Church-sponsored program had pushed the archdiocese to acknowledge a truth that it might otherwise have continued to ignore. The result also had an unexpected benefit for the archdiocese, firming up Cardinal Dolan’s bona fides: he had established himself as a churchman willing to turn in a fellow-churchman for the greater good.

Theodore McCarrick is now just another Catholic. His full history isn’t out, however.

“We have a few more against McCarrick,” Biros told me offhandedly.

I asked how many.

“I think I have four or five.”

“All minors?”


“Including the two we know about?”

“Are you asking about those specific cases? That I can’t answer. But there are three more. I think we have a total of five.” (Biros said later that the program had a total of seven claims against McCarrick. Barry Coburn, McCarrick’s lawyer, declined to comment.)

The archdiocese’s files are subject to examination by the New York attorney general and by Barbara Jones, a retired judge and prosecutor whom Cardinal Dolan engaged, in September, to review the archdiocese’s practices on sexual abuse. No matter what their scrutiny turns up about McCarrick, it is clear that Feinberg and Biros compelled the Church to take action against a powerful prelate whom it had protected for decades.

The Church’s response to abuse scandals has had false starts before, however. “For thirty years, the Church has been doing a little bit of this and a little bit of that,” James Marsh, an attorney who has represented many victims of clerical sexual abuse, told me. Skeptics wonder whether the I.R.C.P.s will prove to be just one more way for the Church to control information about abuse while admitting as little culpability as possible.

Priestly sexual abuse first got widespread attention in 1985, when Jason Berry, a journalist and a Jesuit-educated Catholic from New Orleans, reported in depth on the issue in Louisiana. In Abbeville—Creole country—Berry sat in on the trial of Father Gilbert Gauthe, a priest of the Diocese of Lafayette who had sexually abused dozens of boys over a decade, while a bishop who knew of his behavior simply transferred him from parish to parish.

In Washington, Father Thomas Doyle, an aide to the papal nuncio, followed the case against Gauthe, and concluded that priestly sexual abuse was more prevalent than the U.S. bishops realized. A few months later, with another priest and an attorney, Doyle produced a report called “The Problem of Sexual Molestation by Roman Catholic Clergy.” Doyle has since turned against the bishops and had a vibrant second career as an activist and an expert witness against the Church, but at the time he was a canon lawyer advising the bishops on how to deal with an imminent crisis. The report described priestly abuse as “probably the single most serious and far reaching problem facing our Church today.” Yet the real “problem” it identified was not that of priests sexually abusing children; it was “the possible cost to the Catholic Church of many millions of dollars and the potential devastating injury to its image.” The solution, then, was to devise a legal strategy to avoid discovery and testimony, and a public-relations strategy to cast the Church “as a sensitive, caring and responsible entity which gives unquestioned attention and concern for the victims.” Although the report was never officially sanctioned, the bishops adopted its approach, managing accusations of priestly abuse in secret.

In the next decade and a half, the scope of the problem became impossible to minimize. Early in 2002, the Boston Globe published its “Spotlight” investigation, revealing patterns of abuse that implicated at least seventy priests, and establishing that Cardinal Bernard F. Law and his subordinates in the Boston archdiocese had disregarded warnings and repeatedly placed abusive priests in range of children. Cardinal Law sought to turn the controversy into a demonstration of his crisis-management prowess. He promised “zero tolerance” for such priests, visited parishes to apologize, and vowed that the archdiocese would commence “reviewing the past in as systematic and comprehensive a way as possible.” He said that he hoped his approach would “become a model for how this issue should be handled.”

In April, 2002, Law and the other American cardinal archbishops went to Rome for an “extraordinary summit” on priestly sexual abuse, hosted by the Pope. ABC’s “Nightline” devoted a program to the summit, featuring Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the archbishop of Washington, as the guest. Ted Koppel asked him if he was pleased with how things had gone.

“My—my hope is that we’ve turned the corner,” McCarrick said. “The Holy Father’s talk yesterday, I think, made it very clear, as his language was, no one who is harming children or young people will—will ever be able to serve as a priest in the Church. And I think that’s a—that’s a—a clear statement.”

What McCarrick offered was not a clear statement. It was a squirrelly evasion. He referred only to the example of a cleric who “is harming” young people in the present (not to one who did so in the past), and he referred only to priests (not to bishops or archbishops). That is, he phrased his answer to exclude the great majority of clerical abusers, himself first of all.

Asked when an offender might be removed from the priesthood, McCarrick offered something like an inadvertent mea culpa for crimes not yet revealed: “If thirty years ago, a—a young priest fell in love with a seventeen-year-old and—and—and had improper conduct, and it was the last time this ever happened and everything worked out well after that, and the people get to know that he had done that and the people say, ‘We love him. Give him another chance. He’s been fine for thirty years,’ then, I think, you’d take a look at it.”

At a meeting in Dallas that June, the bishops adopted the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People,” affirming “a commitment to transparency and openness” and pledging that priests would be removed “for even a single act of sexual abuse of a minor—past, present, or future.” They also engaged John Jay College of Criminal Justice to conduct a study of priestly sexual abuse. Its report, released in February, 2004, presented a trove of data about abuse allegations across four decades. More than a third involved penetration or oral sex. Nearly a quarter involved abuse of children ten years old or younger. Bishops allowed most accused priests to continue in the ministry without treatment or discipline. The head of the bishops’ conference at the time, Wilton D. Gregory, the bishop of Belleville, Illinois—named the archbishop of Washington last week—presented the report in reductive, Church-protecting terms. “The terrible history recorded here is history,” he said.

Nationally, Catholics’ attention to priestly abuse flagged. Pope John Paul II, eighty-three and afflicted with Parkinson’s disease, was failing physically, and the urgency of change within the Church in the United States was displaced by the imminence of change within the Church in Rome. When the Pope died, in 2005, traditionalist Catholics called for him to be canonized, and he was, within eight years. His indulgence of Father Marcial Maciel—Legion of Christ founder, serial child abuser, the subject of formal complaints submitted to and buried by the Vatican in 1998—was seen as a peccadillo.

Today, two Popes later, bishops ritually invoke both the Dallas Charter and the John Jay report as transformative moments in the Church’s handling of abuse. But the bishops haven’t reckoned with the question of restitution systematically or as a group; instead, they have operated in patchwork fashion, through their various compensation programs and other efforts. And they have declined to address the problem of priestly sexual abuse in frank human terms. Instead, they have fallen back on the very practice that enabled abusive priests to thrive: dealing with sexual conflict through a blend of prudery, euphemism, and evasion. The Dallas Charter did not name a single act of abuse, relegating the crime itself to a footnote about “delicts” (a Latin term used by canon law for any sort of violation). The John Jay report, full of tables and totals, addressed no specific incidents, stressing the need to preserve the anonymity of priests and their “alleged victims.” Again and again, the bishops vowed to solve a grave problem that they wouldn’t describe.

This habit of evasion has carried over into the bishops’ posture toward their own reconciliation-and-compensation programs. The programs are expressly designed to elicit claimants’ accounts of particular acts of abuse. They place no restriction on the freedom of claimants to speak about what priests did to them. Camille Biros pointed out to me that this means claimants can tell people—including members of the media—that their accounts of abuse “have been validated by an independent entity and by the Church itself.” Cardinal Tobin, the archbishop of Newark, told me that the programs are a means “for the voices of victims to be heard by the whole Church.” With the I.R.C.P.s, then, the Church—which, in the Dallas Charter, sixteen years ago, generally swore off gag clauses—is taking credit for allowing survivors to exercise their right to speak and is touting that right as a benefit of the programs. Meanwhile, Feinberg, Biros, and the bishops categorically decline to address particular claims that come in through the programs—except when the accusations are made against active priests.

Last October, a claim of sexual abuse made through the New York I.R.C.P. led to the departure of John Jenik, a Bronx pastor who had been made an auxiliary bishop in 2014. Although the archdiocese’s review board judged the claim “credible and substantiated,” Cardinal Dolan, in a pastoral letter announcing the departure, essentially came to Jenik’s defense. He noted that “the alleged incidents occurred decades ago,” and that “this was the first time any such allegation” had been made against Jenik, who insisted on his innocence and, Dolan suggested, was not being removed but was stepping down voluntarily, “loyal priest that he is.” Of the abuse itself, Dolan said nothing. That fell to the survivor, Michael Meenan, who, in a press conference outside St. Patrick’s Cathedral, described Jenik’s taking him, as a teen-ager, to X-rated movies, getting him drunk, and sleeping in the same bed with him at the priest’s cottage upstate.

The John Jay report found that many victims of priestly sexual abuse had come to know their future abuser outside of church, often because he was a friend of the family. This is a truth well known to American Catholics. For us, priestly sexual abuse and its concealment is not an episode from “history” or a sociological phenomenon. It is part of our personal story.

My father’s father was a monument dealer, working with cemeteries in upstate New York, and my father’s maternal uncle, Robert F. Joyce, was the bishop of Burlington, Vermont. My father went to a Catholic seminary and then entered the civil service. In 1963, Bishop Joyce, fresh from Rome and the Second Vatican Council, officiated at my parents’ wedding, at St. Peter’s Church, in Saratoga Springs. “The happiest day of your grandfather’s life, that was, with the bishop up on the altar,” my uncle Bill told me. My uncle Eddie, an altar boy that day, was less happy in the Church. Years later, he told his sister that Father Joseph DiMaggio, who taught in the parish school, had nuzzled his face. When Eddie went home and told his father about it, his father told him never to speak that way about a priest again.

The church of my childhood, in a suburb of Albany, was oblong, carpeted, and brightly lit. Unknown to most of us in the parish, a priest who served there, Gary Mercure, was a sexual abuser: in 2011, he was convicted of raping two boys in the nineteen-eighties, during trips to rural Massachusetts.

When I enrolled at Fordham University, in 1983, there were nearly a hundred Jesuits in residence, and I came to know a dozen of them, ranging in age from a septuagenarian English professor who was saving “Finnegans Wake” for Heaven to the “baby Jebbies,” in their twenties. As a sophomore, I volunteered at a Catholic community center run by Father Joseph Towle, S.J., in the South Bronx. Father Towle was a street priest, trim and no-nonsense in his clerical blacks. He was later accused of abusing a boy back in 1971.

During my junior year, I had a more direct encounter with priestly abuse. I had fallen under the spell of Thomas Merton, the author of “The Seven Storey Mountain” and other books of Catholic spirituality, grounded in the discipline of silent self-emptying called contemplation. When I spotted a flyer for a Saturday retreat dedicated to Merton, led by Father Edward Zogby, S.J., I signed up. Shortly after the retreat, Zogby offered to guide me in spiritual direction—a centuries-old Jesuit tradition. I accepted, and after that we met weekly, in the evenings. He was fifty, large, and bald, and he dressed in an oxford shirt and tie rather than a black suit and Roman collar. He would close the office door, hug me, and pour two Scotches while we talked. He spoke of his wish to combine contemplation with the “body work” of Werner Erhard. He said that many of “us Catholics” had trouble integrating spirit and body, and that it took years to work these things out. We closed our eyes and prayed side by side in the small office. “Wasn’t that good?” he would ask before I left. It was clear to me where things were going, but Father Zogby liked to say that the first step in the contemplative life was letting go of preconceptions and expectations—so I pushed my suspicions aside.

On a Monday in March—St. Patrick’s Day, 1986—I met again with Father Zogby, and he invited me to a dinner party that evening at the West Side Jesuit Community, on Ninety-eighth Street. For once, other people would be around. I said I would go. A Scotch, a prayer, another Scotch. When I arrived at the party, a little drunk, I sat down in an easy chair away from the other guests and dozed. I woke up with Father Zogby bent over me, breath Scotchy and near, hands advancing—neck, arms, chest, penis. I sprang up and speed-walked to the subway. I never met with him again.

I was married at St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral, on Mott Street, in 1999. The celebrant, Keith Fennessy, was a friend of a friend; he had served at St. Gabriel’s parish in the North Bronx, where my fiancée had grown up. Father Fennessy was smart, funny, distinctly Catholic, but not self-righteous or condescending toward women. It was a surprise when, sixteen years later, the archdiocese removed him from public ministry, saying that he had downloaded pornography onto a parish computer.

In Rome, in 2005, reporting on the Vatican, I had a caffè granita in Trastevere with Cardinal George Pell, the archbishop of Sydney (recently convicted of sexually abusing two minors at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne); had lunch with a Jesuit priest accused of inappropriate conduct toward a teen-age student before joining the order; and had a long interview with Cardinal McCarrick at the Pontifical North American College, the finishing school for ambitious American clerics in the making. It was a holiday in Italy, and the seminarians had no classes. “Let’s sit here, by the window, so we can watch the boys play baseball while we talk,” McCarrick said.

That’s eight clerics accused of sexual misconduct in my personal experience—eight out of the couple of hundred priests that I have known. Eight out of two hundred is four per cent, which matches the percentage of priests who have been accused, according to the John Jay report. That my experience is typical doesn’t make it any less disturbing.


Three of those clerics are dead, two are in prison, one was defrocked, one has agreed to leave the priesthood, and one is still in active ministry, in Rome. I often ask myself: How should I judge such men—as sinners, as products of a Catholic sexual culture, as statistical outliers, as frail human beings like the rest of us? I repeat the mantra that committed Catholics have repeated for a third of a century: “Remember the good ones,” the priests we know who strive to live holy lives. How to sort the good ones from the bad ones—the saved from the damned—is a question that religions exist to answer. And yet my personal history suggests that there’s no clear way to know who the good ones are.

My great-uncle, Bishop Joyce, of Burlington, was one of the good ones; he was a staunch advocate for workers’ rights, served as a trustee of the state university, sent handwritten notes to my siblings and me for two decades, and elicited our best behavior during Sunday dinners at our house, a bishop’s pectoral cross swagged across his chest and a twinkle in his eye. But, during the years that he took part in Vatican II, in Rome, the Catholic orphanage on North Avenue in Burlington was a house of horrors. Nuns allegedly disciplined children entrusted to them in a manner best described as torture—beating them with sticks and paddles, confining them in closets, pushing them out of high windows, making them eat their own vomit—and sexually abused them. I learned about the orphanage last August, when BuzzFeed published a report. A photograph showed Bishop Joyce, in cassock and biretta, standing in front of a Christmas tree with children on each side. He was a lifelong Vermonter who knew every parish in the state. Either he was aware of the abuses at the orphanage and abided them or he ought to have been aware but remained in willful ignorance.

The Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program of the Brooklyn diocese received two hundred and eighty new claims of abuse in about fifteen months, beginning in October, 2017. One of them, according to the diocese, involved Christopher Lee Coleman, the priest whose 2011 removal had caught my eye because he had been in residence at a church not far from where I live. Coleman’s ouster epitomized the Church’s classic mode of coverup: he’d been removed from active ministry without any explanation to the parish, the diocese revealing the underlying accusation of abuse only years later. Then, last fall, the diocese issued a warning to the faithful, posted online and published in the diocesan newspaper, the Tablet, declaring that Coleman was still acting as a priest and wearing clerical attire. It added that, “with the release of the Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program, a new allegation against a minor has surfaced” and “has been found to be credible.”

Who was Christopher Lee Coleman? I found the outlines of the ex-priest’s career visible on social media. He had a Twitter account and a LinkedIn profile. On a Facebook page, Coleman had written, “I live a vowed life.” He listed a Ph.D. in sociology from CUNY and ten years of teaching sociology at St. Joseph’s College, in Clinton Hill. The Catholic Directory indicated that Coleman was assigned to six New York parishes after he was ordained, in 1994: St. Rose of Lima, in Far Rockaway; Blessed Virgin Mary Help of Christians, in Woodside; St. Ann–St. George, in Vinegar Hill; Our Lady of Monserrate–St. Ambrose and St. Martin de Porres, in Bedford-Stuyvesant; and Queen of All Saints, near St. Joseph’s College and the gated mansion that is the residence of the bishop of Brooklyn, Nicholas DiMarzio.

I called Raymond D’Angelo, the chair of the social-sciences department at St. Joseph’s. He told me that he had found out about Coleman the same way I had—from a news story, six years after Coleman left. At the time, Coleman told him “he had to deal with a medical issue and was going for treatment for that.”

Then I paid a visit to Father Joseph Ceriello, the pastor of Queen of All Saints, where Coleman was in residence until 2010. Ceriello, a Navy man, is sixty-seven and tightly built, with broad shoulders and thick graying hair. “Coleman was living here when I came,” in 2009, he said. The two priests ate separately; Father Coleman left early, returned late, kept to his room, and had no clerical duties at the church, apart from a men’s prayer group he was said to lead nearby. “I hardly saw him,” Ceriello told me. “I’ve had more words with you just now than I had with him the whole time he was here.”

One day, Ceriello said, Coleman left, carrying out his belongings with another man. Why did he leave? Ceriello said he didn’t know, but assumed Coleman was changing residences: “It’s not my business to ask why or what the reason was.” In the Dallas Charter, bishops pledged to inform parishioners when a priest was removed owing to abuse allegations, in case any children were, or had been, in danger. But, if Father Ceriello’s account was accurate, the diocese removed Father Coleman from the ministry owing to credible abuse allegations and never informed the people of the parish where he lived—not even the pastor.

I called Sister Sally Butler, who, during her seventy years as a member of the Dominican Order, provided social services and pastoral care in Fort Greene’s housing projects. “Oh, I knew Chris,” she said. “I liked him. He was very, very bright.” Butler said that when he was serving at the now demolished St. Ann–St. George, near the Navy Yard, he was the only adult who engaged with the community. Did she know what prompted his removal? She didn’t, but she recalled an episode in which “he was in the rectory, and there were several boys there, playing, African-American children.” She found the sight disturbing. The next time she saw him, she recalled, “he said to me, ‘Sally, they’re telling me that I have too many young boys around me at the house.’ ”

When I spoke to the communications person at the diocesan headquarters—called the chancery, as it is the office of the chancellor, or record keeper—it was proposed that I sit down with the chancellor himself, Monsignor Anthony Hernandez. The chancery is housed in a plain brick building near Prospect Park. I met Hernandez there one morning last November. He is fifty, of Puerto Rican heritage, and stocky, with thinning hair. He told me that Coleman had been a classmate of his at a diocesan seminary in Huntington, Long Island, and that they had seen each other in passing during their first parish postings in Brooklyn. Frequent reassignment is often a sign that a priest has a problem, such as substance abuse or sexual misconduct. I asked why Coleman had been moved so often. “I’m not sure what specific issue caused him to change assignments,” he said. I asked whether any of the issues had to do with sex, and he told me that pornography had been spotted on a computer Coleman used at St. Rose of Lima, in the nineties. “It wasn’t criminal, but it certainly wasn’t appropriate,” Hernandez said.

He then told me that someone called a sex-abuse hotline in 2009 and said that, on multiple occasions, Coleman had given him money for physical contact—Coleman wanted his stomach rubbed—and taken pictures of him and his friends without clothes, supposedly for artistic reasons. According to the caller, this started when he was a student of Coleman’s at LaGuardia High School and continued past Coleman’s ordination as a priest.

“I was surprised—I wouldn’t have expected it,” Hernandez said. “He was the kind of guy who always projected himself as an intellectual, a very spiritual guy, a very prayerful guy.” He told me that, after the hotline accusation, diocese officials called Coleman in for a meeting. They then examined Coleman’s personal computer and found pornographic images on it. “They appeared to be of minors,” Hernandez said. “But, when we brought it to law enforcement, they said it would be very difficult to prove.” After the diocese’s review board recommended Coleman’s removal, the diocese decided to go further and ask the Vatican to defrock him. “Because it was difficult to prove that he had committed a delict, we began to pressure him. He got a canon lawyer. We wanted him to go voluntarily, but we threatened him with a canonical trial.” Coleman eventually gave in and left the priesthood.

Why didn’t they tell the people in the parishes where he had lived and served? “We did not have, at the time, a person who was accusing him as a cleric,” Hernandez said. “So we went back and forth about an announcement, because we had some concern that he might turn around and sue us.” It was a liability concern, then.

I said, “It’s reasonable for the Catholic people to expect after the Charter that, if a priest had been laicized for a problem having to do with sexuality and minors, the pastor of the church from which he is removed is notified.”

“Yeah, it’s not unreasonable.”

“So, correspondingly, if the diocese did not do that, then that’s wrong?”

“I can see why you would see it that way.”

I told Hernandez that I’d been raising three sons in the neighborhood. The absence of a public announcement—the fact that I’d found out only years later, in the newspaper—troubled me.

“It’s a very complicated case,” Hernandez said.

I had been following Coleman through Twitter and the Facebook page of the Hermitage of Peace—a convent of sorts in Ashford, Connecticut, which, until recently, was maintained by two elderly nuns. (One died a few months ago.) According to the Hartford Courant, the two women were estranged from the Church; they have been accused of maintaining the pretense of a religious institution, which does not have to pay property taxes. I called a phone number on the Facebook page and reached Coleman. He told me that during the week he lives in New York City and acts as a spiritual guide to people in need. On weekends, he joins the remaining nun and an eighty-one-year-old monk at the Hermitage of Peace.

I asked him about the diocese’s claim of sexual misconduct that led to his laicization. He replied that the allegation was false, but that the bishop refused to give him due process; he checked into St. Luke’s, a treatment center in Maryland, as the diocese requested, but when he was discharged the diocese would not take him back, and it withdrew his stipend and benefits. I asked again about the claim of sexual abuse.

“I never abused anybody,” he said. “The allegation is a false one. What I saw on the computer was not mine. They put it there. If it was child pornography, I would have been arrested. The allegation is based on a lie, and I cannot accept a lie.”

Later, I brought up the fresh claim against him that the Brooklyn diocese said had come in through the I.R.C.P. “I don’t know anything about it,” he said. “Nobody reached out to me, and how could they? There’s nothing there.”

Feinberg and Biros’s work in New York State is well advanced: thirteen hundred and forty-seven claims made across five dioceses, eighty-seven deemed ineligible by the program, eleven hundred and twenty-nine paid, sixty-eight payments not yet accepted by the claimants, five payments rejected by the claimants. More than two hundred and fifteen million dollars has been distributed to victims.

Meanwhile, the legal context in which such compensation programs operate is changing. “The New York statute of limitations was as solid as the granite those old city churches were built with—until it wasn’t,” Paul Mones, a California attorney who has worked on many suits involving priestly sexual abuse in New York, told me. In November, Democrats were elected to the New York State Legislature in a “blue wave”; in January, the legislature passed the Child Victims Act, a revision of the statute of limitations that the bishops, through their policy arm, the New York State Catholic Conference, had spent years lobbying against. Under the new law, people have until the age of fifty-five (rather than twenty-three) to make a claim, and people of any age will be allowed to make a claim during a one-year “look-back window,” set to begin in August. Anyone victimized by priests during the peak years of abuse will soon be able to sue the Church—unless the person has signed away the right to sue through an I.R.C.P. or some other settlement.

Because Cardinal Dolan must have known that changes to the statute of limitations were under discussion when he enlisted Feinberg and Biros, his critics wonder how committed he really is to “reconciliation.” Were the I.R.C.P.s established in bad faith?

Joseph Zwilling, the archdiocese’s spokesman, said, “The I.R.C.P. was established to help victims of abuse, and for no other reason.” But the attorneys who tangle with the Church on sex-abuse claims are skeptical. “For the Church, this is business,” Patrick Noaker, who represents two McCarrick accusers, told me. “Reconciliation is just language.”

Marci Hamilton, a legal scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, who has worked to reform the statutes of limitations in various states, thinks that the programs are essentially preëmptive. “Seeing the train down the track, they decided to try to pre-settle even out-of-statute cases—a smart move, in my view,” she told me. “But the funds do not deliver the ultimate good to the public: the release of the truth through discovery and the release of records documenting the Church’s coverup and callous disregard for children.”

Mitchell Garabedian put it more bluntly: “Look, Dolan is using the I.R.C.P. as a shield to avoid the release of documents and get publicity.” Garabedian nonetheless supports the programs as an option for clients who wish to avoid the cost and stress of litigation.

“This approach to sex abuse in the Church treats the priests as the problem,” Paul Mones told me, “when really it’s the whole ecclesiastical structure that is the problem.”

On April 1st, New Jersey revised its own statute of limitations for sex crimes, enabling people claiming abuse in past decades to sue. The New Jersey I.R.C.P. will be launched in June. “Now victims will have a choice,” Biros told me. “They can come to our program, see what we offer, and make a determination: either yes, I’ll accept this, or no, I’m going to spend two or three years trying to get my case before a jury.” Biros predicts that ninety-five per cent of claimants will accept the I.R.C.P.’s offers, but the existence of litigation and compensation approaches side by side will be an important measure of what it is that survivors of priestly sexual abuse really want: a semi-amicable settlement with an aureole of reconciliation, or justice through a long legal fight? The Church could wind up offering to pay a claimant through the I.R.C.P., having its offer refused, and defending itself against the same allegation in court.

Critics say that bishops have already found a simple way to resolve such tension between the determinations of independent compensation programs and those of the Church: by making sure that the programs are not truly independent. Claimants’ lawyers stress that Feinberg and Biros are paid by the Church and communicate with a diocese’s review board, an arrangement that, the lawyers say, can enable the dioceses to shape outcomes. In 2017, Thomas Davis, a man in his fifties, asserted that he had been abused in the nineteen-seventies by Father Otto Garcia, who later served as vicar general and is now the pastor of St. Joan of Arc parish, in Jackson Heights. (Garcia has denied all of Davis’s allegations.) The claim went to the Brooklyn diocese’s review board, which interviewed Davis twice and found the accusation “not credible.” An attorney for the diocese wrote to Davis’s counsel, J. Michael Reck, that, “accordingly, Mr. Davis is not eligible to participate in the IRCP.” “It’s a Texas two-step,” Reck told me. “The program’s supposedly independent of the diocese, but the diocese determines whether you are eligible or ineligible for the program.” The following year, Reck did in fact apply to the I.R.C.P., which reviewed the claim twice and rejected it both times. The Daily News then told Davis’s story, implying that Garcia had been given a pass owing to his stature in the diocese.

Biros told me that the program makes its own decisions, with the review board’s findings as only one factor. The I.R.C.P. denied Davis’s claim, she wrote to me in an e-mail, because “1) There was no supporting documentation to corroborate the abuse; 2) There are no other allegations of sexual abuse of a minor against this priest; and 3) There was a finding of Unsubstantiated and Not Credible by the outside investigators for the Diocese.”

Contested accounts like Davis’s point to a quandary that’s bound to arise in the case of events that took place years ago: when the truth of what happened can’t be known for certain, it is hard for justice to be done. Even now, the Church takes shelter in this gray area. In recent months, several Catholic dioceses have responded to outside scrutiny by issuing lists of priests who have been “credibly accused” of sexually abusing minors. It’s a gesture of seeming transparency, but the lists are actuarially spare: name of priest, dates of parish assignments, year of accusation, year of alleged incident, action taken. The lists don’t say what the priests did or where or when, and they’re probably incomplete. The list for Illinois names a hundred and eighty-five priests; the former state attorney general Lisa Madigan counted six hundred and ninety accused priests. Either way, the numbers suggest a dismaying order of magnitude. The list for Texas named two hundred and eighty-six priests, the list for New Jersey a hundred and eighty-eight priests. The list for the Diocese of Brooklyn named a hundred and eight priests and deacons; a quick cross-check suggested that five had served at St. Boniface, now the Brooklyn Oratory, where I go to Mass these days—Fathers Thomas F. Brady, Brian Callahan, Francis Gillen, Webster J. McCue, and George Wilders. (The Brooklyn diocese defines “credible” accusations as those its officials believe “may be true.”)

The Jesuits’ U.S.A. Northeast Province released a list of fifty-five credibly accused priests in January. Among them was Father Joseph Towle—the priest who ran the community center where I volunteered in college, and who later co-founded a tuition-free middle school, St. Ignatius. I called the province and was put in touch with Father Philip Judge. Father Towle, he told me, had been “impeded” in 2002—when the Church took action against a number of priests suspected of abuse—and was removed as principal at St. Ignatius. After that, he said, Towle lived at the infirmary for elderly Jesuits on the Fordham campus and engaged in “internal ministry.” He died in 2016. I said that I had worked with Towle and wanted to know what he had done. Father Judge wouldn’t say.

Father Edward Zogby died in 2011. He appears on no such lists. I never made an allegation against him, and, as Biros explained to me, mine was not a claim that would have merited her attention. “The moment you said you were twenty, you were out,” she said. “We probably wouldn’t even have sent you a form.”

When Feinberg served as special master of the 9/11 fund, he was struck by how many relatives were determined to tell him their stories of the dead, and his book about the experience is vivid and persuasive in part because their voices are heard on nearly every page. The independent compensation programs set up for the Church are also rooted in the power of stories—in the human desire to know what happened and to tell others about it. Such programs allow survivors of priestly sex abuse to speak and to feel that they have been heard. Many tell their stories to Biros, directly and at length. Unfortunately, the process generally stops there. In order to regain its legitimacy in the short term, the Church is farming out the work of judgment and moral renewal on which its long-term legitimacy depends. The I.R.C.P. captures the survivors’ stories, prophylactically, rather than entering them into the public record. The act of reckoning ends where it ought to begin.

I asked Feinberg and Biros if the Church hadn’t, in effect, placed the burden of grappling with its history in the hands of lay experts.

“I think that’s right,” Biros said.

“Absolutely right,” Feinberg said. “Implicit in your question is the question: Will the Church ever cleanse itself with transparency? I’ll defer to you on that. That one’s beyond my pay grade.”

Later, I asked Biros what would happen to the I.R.C.P. records. She told me that they would be retained for a period of time, set by “standard operating practices,” and then destroyed.

What the Church calls a crisis consists of thousands of criminal acts, including rape, molestation, harassment, and violation. It’s disturbing to think that the survivors’ accounts of those acts—which priests did what and where and when—become dead letters in the Willard Office Building, where a program framed as an instrument of reconciliation enables the Church to perform one last feat of evasion. It’s like something out of a story by Pope Francis’s Argentine acquaintance Jorge Luis Borges: the personal, generation-spanning accounts of priestly abuse in the United States all going to their final resting place in two claims examiners’ heads.

In 2007, Timothy Dolan, then the archbishop of Milwaukee, moved nearly fifty-seven million dollars from the archdiocese’s books into a trust fund for the perpetual care of Catholic cemeteries in Milwaukee. Documents later released by the archdiocese show that he told the Vatican that the transfer would shield the money from “any legal claim and liability.” (A spokesperson for the archdiocese said that the money was always held in trust in a separate account designated for cemetery maintenance; Dolan simply formalized this relationship by establishing an official trust.) Twelve years later, Cardinal Dolan has paid out more than sixty-three million dollars in compensation to survivors of priestly sexual abuse through the I.R.C.P. of the New York archdiocese.

I spoke to him at the archbishop’s residence, a Gothic Revival mansion toward the back of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. In the middle of the last century, when Cardinal Francis Spellman was archbishop—and a confrère of J. Edgar Hoover, Joseph McCarthy, and Pope Pius XII—the residence was known as the Powerhouse. Today, the power of the office is diminished, but the trappings remain: high ceilings, broad staircases, a grandfather clock that rings on the quarter-hour.

Cardinal Dolan, a native Missourian, gave the benediction at President Trump’s Inauguration, and once joined the Rockettes’ kick line at Radio City Music Hall. At sixty-nine, he is a large man, slimmed by black clothes; he wears eyeglasses with severe black frames. We sat in a salon featuring an oil portrait of Cardinal John O’Connor, the late New York archbishop. Dolan told me of arriving in New York a decade ago, and wishing to enact a spirit of reconciliation around priestly sexual abuse akin to the spirit of unity he had seen in the city after 9/11.

“It was a festering wound here,” he said. “That’s not to criticize my predecessor—I think he did a very effective job, but it was still a huge wound on the mystical body of Christ.” He engaged Feinberg and Biros, known for independence, “because, look, as much as it bothers me to admit it, a lot of people, and a lot of victims, don’t trust the archdiocese. They say, ‘Anything that you’re running: forget it!’ ”

I mentioned Cardinal McCarrick as an example of the program’s success. Dolan replied, “I don’t like to brag about it, don’t like to trumpet it, but, since you said it, I would say yes, bingo, you’re right. A victim had the courage and the trust to say, ‘I’m gonna take Dolan at his word, I’m gonna come forward with something that’s been haunting me for, what, a half century almost,’ and they took it very seriously.”

I pointed to the portrait of Cardinal O’Connor. “The question is: What did he know?” I asked, and cited a report that O’Connor, on his deathbed, had sought to block the appointment of McCarrick to Washington. “Can we expect Barbara Jones to look at that?” I pressed, referring to the retired judge Dolan had retained to conduct an internal review. “Is it part of her purview?”

“I had not heard that,” Dolan said, of the O’Connor report, and explained that, after hiring Jones to review the archdiocese’s policies on sexual abuse, he added McCarrick to her mandate: “I was, like, Oh, brother, now I gotta investigate this. I said, ‘Judge, could you do it?,’ and she said, ‘Sure.’ ”

But didn’t his handling of the Bishop Jenik case, minimizing the accusations in his pastoral letter, undermine the independent compensation program?

“I didn’t undermine it,” Dolan said. “I removed him from the ministry, right? But, just as I have an obligation to the victim, I also have an obligation to listen to the priest—we’re dealing with a very good priest who did this.”

“What did Bishop Jenik do that led to a credible and substantiated allegation against him?”

“I know, but I don’t feel free to talk about the details of it. Let’s just say it rose to the level of a violation of the Dallas Charter.”

“So we can’t talk about what he did? Why not?”

“I’m not sure—we can. What he did was a violation of the Dallas Charter.”

“You removed a bishop for a violation that you can’t discuss?”

“It’s hardly secretive. The victim will tell you.”

I said, “You’ve asked, ‘Why don’t my people believe me?’ Well, I think part of the reason is that you’ve outsourced the telling of the story to the victims and the attorneys. Can you tell me, what did Bishop Jenik do that led to his removal? You can’t say in plain English what he did?”

“No. Well, I could, but I’m not going to.”

When Pope Francis convened the first-ever Meeting for the Protection of Minors, at the end of February, there were panel discussions, Masses, and testimony from survivors of abuse. The papal audience hall rang with the discourse of “best practices”: the mission and the road map, oversight and ownership. For once, Catholic women were allowed to speak: the Nigerian mother superior Veronica Openibo said that “Spotlight” had brought “tears of sorrow” to her eyes; the Mexican Vatican reporter Valentina Alazraki scolded the hierarchs for having called the abuse crisis a “plot” fomented by the press.

The meeting was heavy on rhetoric and light on specifics. It produced no churchwide norms for the prosecution of abusive priests, and gave no indication of how the Church would reckon with abuse and coverup in its past. In a concluding address, Pope Francis said, “In people’s justified anger, the Church sees the reflection of the wrath of God, betrayed and insulted by these deceitful consecrated persons.”

The language was sonorous but vague. More than any other recent Pope, Francis has found ways to address complex situations in clear human terms. Why hadn’t he done so this time? Perhaps he felt that he had adequately addressed the situation simply by calling the meeting. Other clerics suggested as much: Archbishop Mark Coleridge, of Brisbane, likened the Church’s new grasp of sexual abuse to “a Copernican revolution,” and Father Hans Zollner, a German Jesuit who is the Vatican’s sexual-abuse czar, said that the meeting was “a quantitative and qualitative leap” forward. And yet Father Zollner told me last month that he hadn’t spoken with Francis since the meeting about what Francis thought of the proceedings and how they had affected his outlook.

What would count as a revolution, or, at least, a leap forward? It’s hard to say, given the multifaceted nature of the problem. It is a problem of celibacy and sexual ethics. It is a problem involving a subculture of secrecy surrounding gay men in the priesthood. It is a problem stemming from male institutional power over women and children, such as the power that led priests in France to coerce nuns into having sex with them—part of a wider practice that Francis likened to “sexual slavery.” It is a problem of “clericalism,” as Francis has put it, whereby clergy are elevated, protected, and given the benefit of the doubt. Massimo Faggioli, a professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova, sees it as a problem akin to those of postwar Europe, and proposes that the Church, although it is “not a Nazi or Fascist regime,” must undergo “something similar to a process of ‘de-Nazification’ and ‘de-Fascistization.’ ” Robert Orsi, a historian of Catholicism at Northwestern, sees it as a premodern problem. He told me, “This has been the Catholic normal since the sixteenth century, a culture of sexual permission, in which priests carve out exceptions—with women, with men, with boys—through the idea that sexual experience in those areas is ‘outside the vow.’ As in, ‘I keep the vow when I’m in my clerical blacks, but not outside.’ ”

Beneath all these problems is a problem of truth. With the Second Vatican Council, the Church accepted the vernacular, and with it modern standards of truth in politics, economics, social science, and the like. But, when it comes to sex, the Church still defines truth its own way. A third of a century of abuse and coverup, of crisis and reform, has made that obvious. People are Catholics because they believe there is truth to the story that the Church tells and has told for a very long time. Nothing is more corrosive to this faith than the drawn-out spectacle of a Church that shrinks from the truth about its own past.

Shortly before the meeting in Rome, the Vatican announced that John Henry Newman would be canonized. Cardinal Newman, who died in 1890, is renowned as a founder of the Oxford Movement for religious reform; as an illustrious convert from Anglicanism; as a stirring homilist; and as the figure who brought the Oratorian tradition—priests living in community in cities without taking vows—from Europe to the English-speaking world. He also was almost certainly gay; at his request, he was buried alongside his “earthly light,” Father Ambrose St. John, whom he called the one great love of his life. But Newman is known above all for his spiritual autobiography, the “Apologia pro Vita Sua,” which he wrote in 1863, in response to a critic’s claim that Newman, because he was a Catholic priest, could not be trusted to tell the truth, for “truth, for its own sake, had never been a virtue with the Roman clergy.” A century and a half later, that critic, not Newman, seems to have been vindicated.

The Oratory Church of St. Boniface, in downtown Brooklyn, has a chapel dedicated to Cardinal Newman, with an oil portrait, a prie-dieu, and a gold-leaf etching of his poem “Lead, Kindly Light.” One Sunday evening not long ago, I locked my bicycle outside the church, climbed the steps, kneeled in front of the portrait of Newman, and prayed to be led to wherever it is I ought to be going. This old church is small and lovely. The clergymen here are intelligent and devoted—good men, as far as I know. The Masses are full of the faithful. And yet this church is haunted by the spectres of priests accused of sexual abuse who served here when it was the faltering St. Boniface parish, and by the anguish of the victims. The Mass began: I tried to focus on the readings, I tried to listen to the priest’s homily, but I wanted to cry out—to say in a few words what happened here. ♦

This article appears in the print edition of the April 15, 2019, issue, with the headline “Acts of Penance.”

  • Paul Elie is a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. He is the author of “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” and

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