The founder of a Roman Catholic religious order that ran retreat centers for troubled priests warned American bishops in forceful letters dating back to 1952 that pedophiles should be removed from the priesthood because they could not be cured.
The Rev. Gerald M. C. Fitzgerald, founder of the order, Servants of the Paraclete, delivered the same advice in person to Vatican officials in Rome in 1962 and to Pope Paul VI a year later, according to the letters, which were unsealed by a judge in the course of litigation against the church.
The documents contradict the most consistent defense given by bishops about the sexual abuse scandal: that they were unaware until recently that offenders could not be rehabilitated and returned to the ministry.
Father Fitzgerald, who died in 1969, even made a $5,000 down payment on a Caribbean island where he planned to build an isolated retreat to sequester priests who were sexual predators. His letters show he was driven by a desire to save the church from scandal, and to save laypeople from being victimized. He wrote to dozens of bishops, saying that he had learned through experience that most of the abusers were unrepentant, manipulative and dangerous. He called them “vipers.”
“We are amazed,” Father Fitzgerald wrote to a bishop in 1957, “to find how often a man who would be behind bars if he were not a priest is entrusted with the cura animarum,” meaning, the care of souls.
His collected letters and his story were reported this week by The National Catholic Reporter, an independent weekly. Father Fitzgerald’s papers were unsealed by a judge in New Mexico in 2007 and are now becoming public in litigation, although some letters were public before now, said Helen Zukin, a lawyer with Kiesel, Boucher & Larson, a firm in Los Angeles. The letters were authenticated in depositions with Father Fitzgerald’s successors.
The scandals, which began in the 1980’s and reached a peak in 2002, revealed that for decades bishops had taken priests with histories of sexual abuse and reassigned them to parishes and schools where they abused new victims.
It was not until 2002 that the American bishops, meeting in Dallas, wrote a charter requiring bishops to remove from ministry priests with credible accusations against them.
Asked why Father Fitzgerald’s advice went largely unheeded for 50 years, Bishop Blase J. Cupich of Rapid City, S.D., chairman of the United States Bishops Committee for the Protection of Children and Young People, said in a telephone interview that in the first case, cases of sexually abusive priests were considered to be rare.
Second, Bishop Cupich said of Father Fitzgerald, “His views, by and large, were considered bizarre with regard to not treating people medically, but only spiritually, and also segregating a whole population with sexual problems on a deserted island.”
And finally, he said, “There was mounting evidence in the world of psychology that indicated that when medical treatment is given, these people can, in fact, go back to ministry.” This is a view, he said, that the bishops came to regret.
A Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said he could not comment because he did not have enough information.
Responding to Bishop Cupich’s comment about Father Fitzgerald, Ms. Zukin, who represents abuse victims, said: “If the bishops thought he was such a bizarre crackpot, they would have shut him down. In fact, they referred their priests to him and sent him financial contributions.”
She also said the psychiatrists who worked at the Servants of the Paraclete’s centers said in legal depositions that they had rarely recommended returning sexually abusive priests to ministry, and only if the priests were under strict supervision in settings where they were not working with children.
From the 1940’s through the 1960’s, bishops and superiors of religious orders sent their problem priests to Father Fitzgerald to be healed. He founded the Servants of the Paraclete in 1947 (“paraclete” means “Holy Spirit”), and set up a retreat house in Jemez Springs, N.M.
He took in priests who were struggling with alcoholism, drug abuse or pedophilia, or who had broken their vows of celibacy, whether with men or women. He called them “guests.” His prescription was prayer and spiritual devotion to the sacraments, which experts say was the church’s prevailing approach at that time.
At one point, he resolved not to accept pedophiles at his center, saying in a letter to the archbishop of New Mexico in 1957, “These men, Your Excellency, are devils, and the wrath of God is upon them, and if I were a bishop I would tremble when I failed to report them to Rome for involuntary layization.”
Laicization — or removing a priest from the priesthood — was what Father Fitzgerald recommended for many abusive priests to bishops and Pope Paul VI.
But that step was rarely taken, said the Rev. Thomas Doyle, a whistle-blower who often serves as an expert witness in cases against the church, “because the priesthood was considered to be so sacred that taking it away from a man was something you simply did not do.”
The Paracletes did not return calls for an interview.
After Father Fitzgerald died, his order grew and established retreat centers around the country and overseas, which became regular way stations for priests with sexual disorders.
His successors added psychiatry and medical treatment to the prayer regimen. They sent priests back into ministry, at the request of bishops. The Paracletes later became the target of lawsuits, and had to close most of their centers. New York Times