Catholic to a Fault


The Catholic Church is famously one of the most hierarchical and centralized institutions imaginable, demanding and enforcing obedience to its various levels of authority.

Which makes the latest development in the priest sex scandals all the more outrageous.

Cardinal Bernard Law, head of the Boston archdiocese that is at the center of the controversy, has testified that he relied on recommendations by underlings when it came to assigning Rev. Paul Shanley, a priest whose personnel files were stuffed with credible accusations of improper sexual behavior. Law said that records were kept in "a lot of disparate places" but noted that "there was information about Paul Shanley that was not readily available and it would be helpful to have been."

Maybe, maybe not. It's far from clear that if Law had known, he or his underlings would have acted much differently. The Boston archdiocese has been hit with hundreds of allegations of abuse by priests, and in many cases, it was clear that various people in the hierarchy, including Law, knew about the charges. Indeed, while testifying for a deposition in a civil case against the cardinal brought by alleged abuse victims, Law acknowledged the diocese knew about a 1966 charge against Shanley (Law was not then in charge of the archdiocese). What's more, Law was presented with a 1985 letter from one of his bishops that claimed the cardinal had been informed of another allegation against Shanley.

Law, in short, is acting more like an Enron CEO than a man of the cloth, eschewing responsibility for indefensible decisions made under his watch. That's a disturbingly old pattern for Law. Earlier this year, he admitted under oath that in 1973, when he was a top prelate in Mississippi, he let a priest remain in a parish after credible allegations were made that the priest was molesting children.

But let's not damn business executives through association. Cardinal Law–and Catholic Church higher-ups more generally–have far less credibility than the run-of-the-mill thieving CEO. As the Dallas Morning News has documented, about two-thirds of Catholic bishops "have allowed priests accused of sexual abuse to keep working, a systematic practice that spans decades and continues today."

Given the control they exercise institutionally and the scope of the rapist-priest problem, it is nothing less than grotesque when they disavow responsibility. The U.S. Catholic Church may not be a criminal organization whose core business is protecting pedophiles, but sometimes it sure acts like one.