As Father F. Dominic Menna, a senior priest at Saint Mary’s in Quincy, MA, was sent into exile, The Boston Globe’s role in the story of Catholic Scandal grew more transparent.
“I’m a true Catholic, and I think what these priests are doing is disgusting!” One day a few weeks ago, that piece of wisdom repeated every thirty minutes or so on New England Cable News, an around-the-clock news channel broadcast from Boston. I wonder how many people the reporter approached in front of Saint Mary’s Church in Quincy, Massachusetts before someone provided just the right sound bite to lead the rabid spectacle that keeps 24-hour news channels afloat.
The priest this hapless “true Catholic” deemed so disgusting is Father F. Dominic Menna, an exemplary priest who has been devoting his senior years in service to the people of God at Saint Mary’s. At the age of 80, Father Menna has been accused of sexual abuse of a minor.
There is indeed something disgusting in this account, but it likely isn’t Father Menna himself. He has never been accused before. Some of the news stories haven’t even bothered to mention that the claim just surfacing now for the first time is alleged to have occurred in 1959. No, I didn’t transpose any numbers. The sole accusation that just destroyed this 8O-year-old priest’s good name is that he abused someone fifty-one years ago when he was 29 years old.
Kelly Lynch, a spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Boston, announced that Father Menna was placed on administrative leave, barred from offering the Sacraments, and ordered to pack up and leave the rectory where he had been spending his senior years in the company of other priests. These steps, we’re told, are designed to protect children lest this 8O-year-old priest – if indeed guilty – suddenly decides to repeat his misconduct every half century or so.
Ms. Lynch declined to reveal any further details citing, “the privacy of those involved.” That assurance of privacy is for everyone except Father Menna, of course, whose now tainted name was blasted throughout the New England news media last month. Among the details Kelly Lynch declines to reveal is the amount of any settlement demand for the claim.
Some of the fair-minded people who see through stories like this one often compare them with the 1692 Salem witch trials which took place just across Massachusetts Bay from Father Menna’s Quincy parish. The comparison falls short, however. No one in 1692 Salem ever had to defend against a claim of having bewitched a child fifty-one years earlier.
Archdiocesan spokesperson Kelly Lynch cited “the integrity of the investigation” as a reason not to comment further to The Boston Globe. Does some magical means exist in Boston to fairly and definitively investigate a fifty-one year old claim of child abuse? Is there truly some means by which the Archdiocese could deem such a claim credible or not?
Ms. Lynch should have chosen a word other than “integrity” to describe the “investigation” of Father Menna. Integrity is the one thing no one will find anywhere in this account – except perhaps in Father Menna himself if, by some special grace, he has not utterly lost all trust in the people of God he has served for over fifty years.
TRANSPARENCY AT THE BOSTON GLOBE
The June 3rd edition of The Boston Globe buried a story on page A12 about the results of an eight-year investigation into the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Eight years ago, it was front page news all over the U.S. that the Los Angeles Archdiocese was being investigated for a conspiracy to cover-up sexual abuse claims against priests.
After eight years of investigation at taxpayer expense, California prosecutors reluctantly announced last month that they’ve found insufficient evidence to support the charges. That news story was so obviously buried in the back pages of The Boston Globe that the agenda could not be more transparent. The story of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church is front page news only when it accommodates the newspaper’s editorial bias. That much, at least, is clear.
But all transparency ends right there. The Globe article attributed the lack of evidence of a conspiracy by Catholic bishops to the investigation being “stymied by reluctant victims.” Now, that’s an interesting piece of news!
The obvious question it raises is whether these claimants were reluctant to speak BEFORE obtaining financial settlements in their claims against the Archdiocese. If they are reluctant witnesses now, then, at best, it may be because the true goal of some has long since been realized and there’s nothing in it for them to keep talking. At worst, the silence of claimants in the conspiracy investigation could be interpreted as an effort to fend off pointed questions about their claims. Perhaps prosecutors were investigating the wrong people.
I have seen this sort of thing play out before. Last year, a New Hampshire contingency lawyer brought forward his fifth round of mediated settlement demands against the Diocese of Manchester. During that lawyer’s first round of mediated settlements in 2002 – in which 28 priests of the Diocese of Manchester were accused in claims dating from the 1950s to the 1980s – the news media announced a $5.5 million settlement. The claimants’ lawyer was astonished that $5.5 million was handed over with no real effort at proof or corroboration sought by Diocesan representatives before they paid up and deemed the claims “credible.” The lawyer was quoted in the news media:
“During settlement negotiations, diocesan officials did not press for details such as dates and allegations for every claim. I’ve never seen anything like it.” (Mark Hayward, “NH Diocese will pay $5 million to 62 victims,” New Hampshire Union Leader, Nov. 27, 2002).
“He and his clients did not encounter resistance from the Diocese of Manchester in their six months of negotiations. Some victims made claims in the last month, and because of the timing of negotiations, gained closure in just a matter of days.” (Albert McKeon, “Settlement reached in abuse claims,” Nashua Telegraph, Nov. 27, 2002).
That lawyer’s contingency fee for the first of many rounds of mediated settlements was estimated to be in excess of $1.8 million. When the mediation concluded, the news media reported that at the attorney’s and his clients’ request, the diocese agreed not to disclose the claimants’ names or any details of their claims or the amounts they received in settlement. “No confidentiality was sought by the Diocese,” the lawyer declared.
In contrast, the names of the accused priests – many of whom were deceased and none of whom faced criminal charges – were repeatedly released and publicized throughout the news media. This process served one purpose: to invite new claimants against those same priests with assurances that their names would remain private and no real corroborating details would ever be elicited. It was clear that non-disclosure clauses were demanded by the contingency lawyer and his clients, though the diocese and its lawyers were eager to oblige as part of the settlement.
It’s fascinating that the news media now blames “reluctant victims” for stifling an investigation into cover-ups in the Catholic Church. That is a scandal worthy of the front page, but we won’t ever see it there. If the news media now has concerns about the very people whose cause it championed in 2002, we won’t be reading about it in the news media. Transparency in the news media, after all, is a murky affair.
TRANSPARENCY AND THE U.S. BISHOPS
Writer Ryan A. MacDonald has a number of contributions published on These Stone Walls. His most recent is, “Should the Case Against Father Gordon MacRae Be Reviewed?” I am told that Mr. MacDonald has an essay published in the June/July, 2010 issue of Homiletic & Pastoral Review entitled, ”Anti-Catholicism and Sex Abuse.” In the essay, the writer also recommends These Stone Walls to H&PR readers. Though I subscribe to the well respected H&PR, I haven’t at this writing seen the current issue.
Ryan MacDonald also has a letter published in a recent issue of Our Sunday Visitor (“Raising the Alarm,” June 13, 2010) Ryan makes a point very similar to one I made last month in “As the Year of the Priest Ends, Are Civil Liberties for Priests Intact?” Here’s an excerpt from Ryan’s OSV letter:
“A number of courageous bishops have argued in opposition to retroactive application of revised civil statutes of limitations. Such revised statutes typically expose the Catholic Church to special liability while exempting public institutions.
But I must raise the alarm here. As a body, American bishops lobbied the Holy See for retroactive extension of the time limits of prescription, the period of time in which a delict (a crime) exists and can be prosecuted under Church law …
…Many accused priests now face the possibility of forced laicization with no opportunity for defense or appeal because our bishops have embraced routine dispensation from the Church’s own statute of limitations. The bishops cannot argue this point from two directions. Some have defended this duplicity citing that the delicts involve criminal and not civil matters. This is so, but these men are also American citizens, and the U.S. Constitution prohibits retroactive application of criminal laws as unconstitutional.
Statutes of limitations exist in legal systems to promote justice, not hinder it. Our bishops cannot have it both ways on this issue.”
Ryan MacDonald made this point far better than I ever could. The issue for me is not just the obvious double standard applied when the spirit of Church law is set aside. The issue is one of fundamental justice and fairness, and what Cardinal Dulles called “The great scandal of the Church’s failure to support Her priests in their time of need.” Pope John Paul II said that the Church must be a mirror of justice. Let’s hope our bishops can respond to the public scandal of sexual abuse without perpetrating a private scandal of their own.
There are people in groups like S.N.A.P. and Voice of the Faithful who clamor for the Church to ignore the rights of priests in favor of an open embrace of “survivors.” It’s always easy to deny someone else’s rights and restrict someone else’s civil liberties, and that, historically, is how witch hunts begin.
This was supposed to be one of my shorter posts in the heat of summer. Sorry! As I type this, it’s 90 degrees in Concord, NH, unbearably humid, and we’re stuck inside all day. I’m scrambling to finish this because the sun is blazing in my cell window, and things are heating up fast. So I have to print this before I lose it all – AGAIN! Thanks for reading.
Lots of people have asked what they can do to help with These Stone Walls. Sending a link to your own contacts would help much. So would posting a comment with a link on other Catholic blogs and websites.
May the Lord bless you and keep you this summer.