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“These men…are devils and the wrath of God is upon them…”

Father Gerald Fitzgerald

Father Gerald Fitzgerald

Those words were written in 1957 in a letter from Father Gerald Fitzgerald to the Archbishop of Santa Fe, New Mexico, Edwin V. Byrne. The National Catholic Reporter uncovered documents containing letters that Fitzgerald wrote to Bishops, Archbishops, and even the Pope, warning that priests who sexually abused children could not be rehabilitated.

Fr. Gerald Fitzgerald, founder of the Servants of the Paracletes, an order established in 1947 to deal with problem priests, wrote regularly to bishops in the United States and to Vatican officials, including the pope, of his opinion that many sexual abusers in the priesthood should be laicized immediately.

Fitzgerald was a prolific correspondent who wrote regularly of his frustration with and disdain for priests “who have seduced or attempted to seduce little boys or girls.” His views are contained in letters and other correspondence that had previously been under court seal and were made available to NCR by a California law firm in February.

The NCR has made the letters available here (warning, PDF file).

Despite the claims of the Church hierarchy, Bishops were well aware of the problem of pedophilia in the priesthood and were warned that offenders should not be simply moved to another parish, as regularly happened.

In September 1957 the bishop of Manchester, N.H., Matthew F. Brady, sought Fitzgerald’s advice regarding “a problem priest,” John T. Sullivan, who seemed sincerely repentant and whose difficulty “is not drink but a series of scandal-causing escapades with young girls. There is no section of the diocese in which he is not known and no pastor seems willing to accept him,” Brady wrote. The “escapades” involved molestation of young girls. In at least one instance, he procured an abortion for a teenager he had impregnated. In another case, he fathered a child and provided support to the mother until she later married. The charges of molesting girls would follow him the rest of his life.

“The solution of his problem seems to be a fresh start in some diocese where he is not known. It occurred to me that you might know of some bishop who would be willing to give him that opportunity,” Brady wrote in his original letter.

Fitzgerald responded that in his judgment the “repentance and amendment” in such cases “is superficial and, if not formally at least subconsciously, is motivated by a desire to be again in a position where they can continue their wonted activity. A new diocese means only green pastures.”

That is what the Church did with these priests–again and again. Some of these pedophiles who were enabled by Bishops were able to molest hundreds of children before being stopped. Sullivan’s rampage continued until the 1980s.

According to a 2003 Washington Post story, Sullivan, who had bounced around from diocese to diocese for nearly 30 years, “was stripped of his faculties to serve as a priest after he kissed a 13-year-old girl in Laconia, N.H., in 1983, when he was 66. He died in 1999, never having faced a criminal charge.” After his death the church paid out more than a half-million dollars in awards to Sullivan’s victims, including three in Grand Rapids, Mich., and one in Amarillo, Texas, two dioceses that did not heed the warnings of the bishops in New Hampshire. The victims said they were abused when they were between 7 and 12 years old.

Of course this is far from an isolated case. Here in Massachusetts we have heard innumerable stories like this. As someone who grew up Catholic, and still feels affection for many things about the Church, I’m grateful that Father Fitzgerald at least tried to make a difference. He tried again and again and never gave up, it seems. He is a true unsung hero. At least his correspondence with Catholic Bishops around the country provides proof that Bishops knew what was happening and were utterly irresponsible in allowing these pedophiles to have continued access to children. This should help victims who are suing for damages.

Good for the National Catholic Reporter for doing the digging and for making public both Fitzgerald’s letters and the story of his struggle to protect children. If only the Church hierarchy had listened, generations of children could have avoided the terrible pain and trauma as well as the long-term effects of sexual abuse.

Feel free either to discuss this topic or use this as an open thread.


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21 Responses

  1. Oh, my God….

    They knew since the 1950s?

    • They were warned. I heard this on NPR today. Just one of these pedophiles can molest hundreds of children. The first high profile case was in Massachusetts–James Porter.

  2. Priests who molest children should be prosecuted by the criminal justice system. Bishops who moved these priests to new parishes and never warned parents of the danger should also be prosecuted and jailed.

  3. we had at least 2 pedophile priests in my parish — one of them baptized my sister and abused 3 members of my neighbor’s family — an “ideal” catholic family with way too many kids and not enough money . . .

    read about this in the Globe BB, thanks for writing about it.

    • Murphy,

      This has probably gone on in the Church for centuries. My mom told me there was a pedophile priest in her parish when she was a kid. She is now 83. She thinks he molested her two younger brothers.

  4. Have any of the bishops who just moved these priests around made any statements about why they didn’t take this more seriously? I would love to hear their rationale. They know very well that poorer families with a lot of kids who hung around the church because it’s free and supposedly safe were walking right into the lion’s den.

    • I really don’t know. Frankly, I think the Bishops should be prosecuted for what they did. I know it will never happen.

  5. Get this. There were 101 victims who sued ex priest James Porter. He probably abused many more. He was even convicted of molesting his own children’s babysitter. God knows how his kids turned out.

    • That case is absolutely unbelievable. Literally. You read some of these things and go, “that didn’t happen. It couldn’t. Nobody could do something like that.” he used to take busloads of kids on overnight trips and go through the entire room, raping kid after kid

  6. The bishops and others in the hierarchy should have been prosecuted as accessories after the fact. They just did their apology thing and put their diocese in bankruptcy, oftentimes, to protect assets such as in Spokane, Tucson, and San Diego. The tragedy is some of these victims committed suicide in later life.

    • I agree. If my neighbor is raping kids in his basement, and I know about it, and have known about it for years, and not only do not report him to the authorities, but assist him in finding a house in a new neighborhood when the other neighbors get suspicious, and go to great lengths to help him hide his crimes, then I would be prosecuted. Especially if the pattern kept repeating, and I helped him find a new house time after time. You bet yer bippy I would be prosecuted in that circumstance

  7. hey, they have to spread the good news of Christ somehow, right?
    No problem that they are probably now responsible for the deeds of all the boys and girls who went on to be abusers or married abusers and looked the other way then their own kids were abused.

  8. I would just ask that everyone not take the egregious actions of these men that abused their power as the symbol of the Catholic faith.

    • Absolutely, SOD. That wasn’t the point of this post at all. I wrote it because I was impressed with Father Fitzgerald’s courage and his efforts to change this situation, although few were listening at the time.

    • however in a less top down authoritative church this would not have happened to the extent and in quite the same way it has in the RCC. If the RCC did not so completely buy it’s own rhetoric about being the one and only church of Jesus/God then falibility would come in to the picture.

  9. I absolutely know that boomer. I was just cautioning any commenters to be sensitive to the distinction.

    • Isn’t that true of every religion and every government? Leaders are fallible and the people cannot always control them.

    • Oh no. I hadn’t heard that the Inauguration speech was loaded on the Queen’s I-pod. I thought the photos of her trip to the U.S. being loaded on there was thoughtful.

      I wonder why the British are so obsessed with these gifts? In the U.S. the President can’t even keep any of the gifts–even the ones for the kids. I think they have to be given away, I think. I’ve never heard so much discussion about politicians gifts before in my life.

  10. Good morning – here is a question: Is it just me who finds it odd that he drags along Michelle to all meetings. This is a pretty serious summit and I have not heard of Ms Sarkozy, Mr. Merkel or anybody else touring around lovely London.

  11. This was a powerful and thought provoking post.

    I read it last night, but didn’t feel fully comfortable commenting. Obviously, these men should have never been allowed to continue molesting children, and the Catholic Church made some serious mistakes.

    One of the reasons these men might have been given so many chances though was that at the time, men were at the top of the pecking order, especially men with any type of power (even more so than they are today). Women were subservient and children were at the very bottom (perhaps stemming from the days when so many children didn’t live to adulthood).

    Many men, not just those within the clergy, were allowed to abuse and mistreat women and children, they were given chance after chance when it came to spousal abuse and various forms of child abuse including incest.

    In fact, I don’t think most men in authority positions realized just how bad these forms of abuse were (the man after all was viewed as the bread winner). Taking away a man’s reputation and livelihood was viewed as a serious measure, while bruises, broken bones, cuts and unwanted sexual encounters were thought to be things that would leave no lasting damage.

    There really is no excuse for went on, and Fitzgerald seems to have been a man who was ahead of the times (or one who didn’t allow his judgement to be clouded by what was deemed acceptable by society).

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