Early last November, the Rev. Father Bernard A. Healey, present pastor of Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Church in East Greenwich, Rhode Island, posted photos on the parish web site of the church sign, with its trademark crimson outline with gold lettering, blown face down by a wind gust.
Located in the affluent, bayside town of East Greenwich, a suburb minutes south of Providence via I-95 and Route 4, Our Lady of Mercy (O.L.M.) Church is the spiritual home to over 2,000 area households. Its adjacent Our Lady of Mercy School educates students, grades K-8, from the parish and surrounding communities.
Having lived on either side of town of East Greenwich, R.I. for almost my entire life, I was a parishioner at O.L.M. for 15 years, from 1997 to 2012. Long before then, I attended the O.L.M. parish regional grammar school for grades one and two, from fall 1985 through spring 1987. By my late youth in the late 1990's, I was attracted by the comparatively solemn, traditional-styled liturgies and choir music that the parish had adopted in its liturgies (this would become one of the church's "selling points" among area congregations). While never featuring the totally traditional, altar-pushed-back, pre-Second Vatican Council Mass entirely in Latin, its celebrations occasionally included rituals and customs somewhat uncommon in post-1960s Catholicism, leading me to a deeper level of fascination with the faith. For most of my years at O.L.M., I never quite fathomed what else this seeming spiritual hamlet – in some ways apparently so removed from the wicked, everyday world with all of its celebratory beauty and splendor – truly represented.
The church’s trademark sign being blown over by gusts of wind indicated that a choppy storm was upon this parish, very soon.
At some point in either 2010 or 2011, I was curious about the why the pastor, the late Rev. Monsignor John W. Lolio had still not set up a parish web page. Most other parishes had begun doing so in the late 90s, and O.L.M., a particularly large parish, and the spiritual home of the sitting Rhode Island governor in the 2000s, Donald Carcieri, was unfamiliar to even many lifelong Catholics from either end of this very small state. So I performed a google search for “Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.”
The search instantly revealed the stories of Helen McGonigle and Jeff Thomas. As two O.L.M. grammar school students in the late 1960s, both were molested and repeatedly raped by the Irish missionary priest, Father Brendan Smyth. Formerly assigned to O.L.M. parish from the mid to late 1960s, Smyth had long garnered international notoriety. The following Northern Irish Television Network broadcast -- which clearly features the Rhode Island church -- demonstrates this:
EXTREME VIEWER WARNING IS IN ORDER:
See also this CNN report, also featuring O.L.M.
After the wind storm last November, came this series of reports on Providence's WJAR-TV Channel 10, the local NBC affiliate. The I-Team discovered that apparently, the Diocese -- under the leadership of Most Reverend Bishop Thomas J. Tobin -- has been referring claims of priestly impropriety to the Rhode Island State Police. In making this discovery, I-Team reporter Katie Davis obtained many of the diocese's reports to the authorities -- 45 letters with names of the accused, their accusers, and many other identifying details, all REDACTED.
So what's the rub in all of this?: As the Diocese made these reports to the state police over the course of a decade, they failed to inform the people of the Diocese simultaneously -- as is now standard under American Church policy -- of these allegations. And even then, reporter Katie Davis states:
Helen McGonigle grew up in East Greenwich where she says she was sexually abused over a four-year period in the 1960s at Our Lady of Mercy by a priest visiting Rhode Island from Ireland.
The priest was the Most Rev. Brendan Smyth, a notorious pedophile. Smyth was convicted on more than 140 counts of child molestation and died in prison in Ireland in 1997.
McGonigle said she reported her abuse to the church in 2006.
But when she read the letters uncovered by the I-Team, she found no record of her case being reported to state police.
"If they're doing it selectively, that's not right. That's absolutely not right. They have to do it in all cases, and not selectively," she said.
Bishop Thomas Tobin declined to sit down with the I-Team for an on-camera interview. But in a written statement, the diocese says all credible allegations of child sexual abuse are reported to law enforcement and that no priest credibly accused of sexual abuse is still working for the diocese in any capacity...
Given this, who the hell knows (outside of the Providence diocesan chancery) if all, most, or only some of the claims against priests, living or deceased, are being referred for investigation to state authorities. As Ms. McGonigle suggested, it certainly seems as though the diocese makes these law enforcement referrals selectively.
McGonigle (herself a trained attorney) and Thomas are suing to have the state's statute of limitations extended, in order to seek compensatory damages from the Diocese.
And let's put it this way: Brendan Smyth irrefutably went down in history as one of THE WORLD'S MOST NOTORIOUS PRIEST ABUSERS. He found himself at home in a local parish in Rhode Island that, by all indications, to this very day, HAS NOT DISCLOSED DIRECTLY, to the impacted community, the reality of Smyth's defilements of then-young children in the school, inside the actual church, and within the rectory. Just take a look at the church's elaborate web site (linked above at the top), which includes a lengthy page devoted to the parish's history. How unspeakably despicable and ruthless of them! It shows utter callousness toward the (known) victims from East Greenwich. And it CERTAINLY makes one wonder WHAT ELSE (indeed, with Smyth being long dead, apparently along with others now being reported to the R.I. State Police -- certainly then none of their rights must be protected if long ago deceased) church authorities are hiding: Obviously, bringing out the mere fact that sex abuse had occurred anywhere -- even several decades ago -- always makes people extremely weary, to say the least.
And the fact that they STILL cannot talk about it at O.L.M. Parish -- 45 years later??? Even in the face of ultra-sordid international media exposure -- with film crews literally camped out right on the church's front doorstep?????
What adds to that dimension is that since November 1999, Our Lady of Mercy has been the on-again, off-again home of the "resident" monsignor, Robert C. Evans, who would ultimately be named by The Vatican as the Providence Diocese's current auxiliary (or assistant) bishop: At that time (2009), he was the pastor of St. Phillip's Church in Greenville, R.I. Upon his initial arrival at O.L.M. Parish, where he would return after his episcopal elevation, then-Monsignor Evans was director of priest personnel for the Providence Diocese, under then-Bishop Robert E. Mulvee.
By 2003 and 2004, many Catholic and conservative pundits and “intellectuals” declared the Catholic Church sex abuse scandals that erupted in 2002 to be, by and large, completely over. It had been like a massive car and truck pile-up that sparked flames, explosions, and an epic scene, to be witnessed miles away. But now the blazes were extinguished, the smoke and vehicle wreckage had been cleared, most lanes had reopened, and traffic was now flowing smoothly again. There was no getting around the accident having happened in the first place and the (perhaps permanent) damage that was done, as news choppers endlessly hovered over the disaster with cameras zoomed down upon it. It was surely all very nasty.
Likewise, the Boston archdiocese scandals of 2002 were etched into an ugly, and permanent, piece of global Catholic Church history. Boston's then-sitting archbishop, Cardinal Bernard Law and his deputies were exposed and backed into the corner with their (figurative) pants down, along with several other American bishops, for covering up and obfuscating the removal of known pederast clergy. At that point, there were only condemnations to be made by faithful pundits like George Weigel, the famed Catholic writer and biographer of John Paul II, and the late Father Richard John Neuhaus, a Catholic "neo-conservative" intellectual luminary, along with the many television personalities on the Eternal Word Television Network (E.W.T.N.), and even other high-ranking American prelates and clergy. What had been exposed, and had been covered-up for decades, was horrendous and undeniable. Why normal people wouldn’t be mocking the Church, after something like this happened, was even beyond the minds of stalwarts like them. To Father Neuhaus, it all came down to a lack of “fidelity, fidelity, fidelity” – even among some of the most seemingly fervent members of the U.S. hierarchy. That is, Church teachings like celibacy and chastity were never the causes of the scandals -- rather, the failure of some clergy to adhere to these very central tenets was the central pathology.
But within a year or two at most after Cardinal Law's downfall, and countless other exposures (made mostly by secular media outfits) in other dioceses (and among many religious orders as well), Weigel, Neuhaus, Catholic League president William Donohue, and other conservative Catholic notables declared that "the crisis" was "over." Priestly sex abuse in America was history, dead and buried, with the wrongdoings being avenged on the Church's own accord. Aggressive reforms of the seminary system were finally underway to root out deviants well before priestly ordination, and better psychologically equip those being ordained for the challenges of lifetime celibacy.
The American bishops – including many of those who “misguidedly” reappointed offending priests – authorized a new one-strike policy against priests who were credibly accused. This policy would work either retroactively, with priests who had past accusations lodged against them being removed from ministry, and any new accusations against anyone else, prompting their removal as well. The bishops would be paying huge sums of church funds in legal settlements (totaling in the billions) to the litigating abuse survivors, and also commissioning independent auditors to routinely drop in on them and review priest personnel files for any claims of misconduct. Compliance offices were set up in many diocesan chanceries to investigate any new abuse allegation, made by anyone, from any point in time.
This was all very groundbreaking indeed. Not only for the Church, but by comparison to any organization that serves an underage or vulnerable population. No public school system, Protestant denomination, or Boy Scout troop had established a comparable system as thorough, and seemingly so accountable, as had the American Catholic Church, to transparently manage allegations both past and present. If the media should focus specially on the Catholic Church for any reason now, it was for these innovative measures to remedy the abuse problem – rather than focusing on the abuse itself.
According to the faithful punditry, the problem now was solved, and from this point forward, ANY negative media attention to this “crisis,” -- which was no longer really a crisis except for what the media made it out to be -- was only a symptom of the secular world’s ready-to-pounce anti-Catholicism – the REAL work of the Devil. By virtue of the “one strike” policy the American bishop put in place, it was already expected that a handful of priests would still be removed from parish ministry by his Bishop from time to time, based upon old allegations. But this wasn’t to be viewed negatively as far as the Church hierarchy went: they were only demonstrating their “compliance” with the “one-strike” policy, by investigating the allegation and, even above the protestations of the accused and his lay supporters, removing the priest from his ministerial assignment if the claims warranted doing so.
Sounds good, right?
So for many of the truest Catholics, the problem was always less about the pederasty, or the cover-ups, but the mainstream, radical liberal media rage that dragged the Church through the mud over and over. There had always been evil in the Church, they rationalized, but the greater maleficence was the secular media, whose values were so opposed to those of Catholicism. The sex abuse crisis was the press's ultimate means to vanquish the Church from any influence in the public square (i.e., political influence) at best, and more so to silence the Church, and even suppress rudimentary expressions of the Faith.
For the crisis of sexual abuse and episcopal malfeasance has been seized upon by the Church’s enemies to cripple it, morally and financially, and to cripple its leaders. That was the subtext in Boston in 2002 (where the effort was aided by Catholics who want to turn Catholicism into high-church Congregationalism, preferably with themselves in charge).
But then 2010 came along, and the Irish church abuse scandals broke open. It wasn’t just Brendan Smyth, who was convicted in Ireland in 1994, after all (though he can still claim recognition as among the worst of priestly pederasty AND pedophilia, anywhere). But dozens of other clerics who were reasonably very guilty of underage abuse came to the fore. Several bishops resigned at the request of Pope Benedict XVI, and Archbishop Martin of Dublin became a louder, more vociferous critic of the Church on this issue than perhaps any member of the American hierarchy was in the decade before. By this time, The Vatican had fully conceded the longstanding allegations of seminarian molestation against Marcal Maciel, founder of the stalwart Legionaries of Christ religious order, to be entirely true. But it was also revealed that Maciel fathered multiple children over the years – then molesting them as well.
In the now-famous book-length interview with German journalist Peter Seewald, Light of the World (Ignatius Press, 2010), the now pope-emeritus stated the following:
"There was no overlooking the fact that what guided this press campaign was not only a sincere desire for truth, but…some pleasure in exposing the Church and…discrediting her. All that notwithstanding: one thing was always clear…we must be grateful for every disclosure. The truth…is the number-one value. And finally, the media could not have reported in this way had there not been evil in the Church herself…Even the press formerly did not take up such matters; the mentality back then was different." (Benedict XVI, Light of the World pp. 27-28, emphasis mine).
But the faithful Catholic media in America, from tuning in to Relevant Radio, watching the Eternal Word Television Network (E.W.T.N.) or flipping through the National Catholic Register newsweekly, or scrolling online publications like Catholic World Report and Crisis, HARDLY lends to the impression of gratefulness for ANY disclosure that could POSSIBLY, in any way, further reflect poorly on the American hierarchy. George Weigel said it most succinctly: the secular media are “scoundrels.” But who here is going against the will of the Pope? Who here is being hyper-hypocritical? How many "faithful" Catholic publications were the first to break open the reality of any priestly or episcopal wrongdoings??? That is, with the exception of selectively singling out a few of the liberals in the hierarchy they already disapproved of.
As Weigel commentated in The Philadelphia Inquirer (April 11, 2010):
"Far more than the public schools, far more than the teachers’ unions, far more than other organizations that regularly work with young people, and far more than countries that turn a blind eye on sex trafficking and childhood prostitution, the Catholic Church has addressed what Pope Benedict XVI has called the “filth” in its own house.
Catholicism has cleaned house in America, where the church is likely the country’s safest environment for young people today (there were six credible cases of abuse reported in 2009: six too many, but remarkably low in a community of some 68 million members)…
…That the church has too often failed to address past problems of abusive clergy has been frankly admitted by everyone from Popes John Paul II and Benedict to the U.S. bishops in 2002. In 2001, the Vatican put in place new measures that enabled the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (led by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Benedict XVI) to deal more swiftly and decisively with clerical abusers. Those procedures are fully operational, and Benedict is determined to make them work – and to change any remaining sectors of the church that resist dealing with the church’s “filth.” Recent reporting on Catholic sexual-abuse problems, however, has frequently been factually inaccurate and irresponsible.
It is charged that the church threatens whistle-blowers with excommunication; that is not true..."
Apparently, ongoing episodes like the pederast cover-ups of, and the possible personal homosexual misconduct by the current Archbishop of St. Paul-Minneapolis, and cases like this one in New Jersey count as the Bishops' "house cleaning." Then there's this from the (albeit quite left-wing) National Catholic Reporter, which was among the first (of any) media outfit in the U.S. to expose Maciel:
The yearly audit of U.S. Catholic dioceses' compliance with national measures to report and prevent clergy sexual abuse found a decline in the number of reported cases of abuse from July 2012 to June 2013 but also cited concerns about the limited scope of the auditors' abilities...During the finding period -- July 1, 2012, through June 30, 2013 -- 857 survivors of clergy sexual abuse reported 936 allegations of abuse in 191 dioceses, the audit reports, a decline from the 921 survivors who reported abuse in the previous audit period...In the recent report, 472 allegations were deemed by the audit "unable to be proven"; 223 had an investigation ongoing; 136 were deemed "substantiated"; 78 "unsubstantiated"; and 27 had not yet been investigated. Abuse allegations were dated from the 1920s to the present...The bishops' conference is mandated to conduct the audit under their "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People," adopted in 2002 following explosive press coverage of clergy sexual abuse cases. Bishops, while strongly encouraged to participate, cannot be required to do so as national conferences are not granted oversight authority of individual bishops by the Vatican or the church's canon law...The reports do not mention the two clergy sexual abuse cases that garnered the most attention in the last year: In St. Paul, Minn., where an archdiocesan chancellor resigned in April 2013 saying allegations went unreported in the diocese; and in Newark, N.J., where an archdiocesan priest was arrested in May 2013 for maintaining contact with children despite a court agreement not to do so....(emphasis mine)Sounds like a Swiffer mop being used to "clean" a clogged sewer.
Indeed, Pope Benedict displayed that determination (unlike his sainted predecessor, for the most part), but did he continue to badmouth the media for raising the "unfair" stink? Weigel (who even wrote the preface to the English edition of Light of the World) sure does, including his protracted defense of the Legion's founder, Maciel. The innate fallacy of Weigel's "reasoning" is comparing the negative publicity between the Catholic Church and non-religious entities like public schools and the Boy Scouts.
That inane comparison between the levels of (sacred versus secular) organizational bad-publicity, based on sex abuse claims, was seemingly pioneered by Catholic author Dave Pierre, who launched this diatribe against the WJAR-TV investigation from last November. Pierre's sentiment about the Channel 10 series was snidely echoed by liturgical doyenne Father John Zuhlsdorf. But these individuals are both pretty extreme clericalists, and hardly hide the fact. Pierre thunders away:
...while WJAR reporter Katie Davis proudly proclaimed the papers as "detailing sexual abuse by Rhode Island Roman Catholic priests," what is most noteworthy about the documents is the large number of bogus accusations and outright attempts of fraud against the Church, none of which was mentioned by Davis.
Media credence and mental illness
The documents contain a number of claims which are clearly untrue and even preposterous:
◾an "obviously troubled individual" made "numerous calls" to the diocese claiming that a priest who had never been accused of anything was "a pedophile and had killed a young boy and buried him on the church property" (doc);...
...◾a woman under intense mental health treatment for nearly two decades came forward to make a claim of abuse of "unwanted and unsolicited hugging and kissing" by a priest back in the 1960s (doc);
Davis apparently embraced all of the allegations she read without expressing even an ounce of skepticism.
And days after airing her original story about the documents, Davis then presented a bizarre claim from a man in his 60s who did not report his allegation of abuse until 2013, nearly 48 years after he said it took place.
...The man also went on to claim, "People have asked me, would you rather have had that happen or gotten bitten by a shark? I'd rather have been bitten by a shark."
Think about that last one. Who on earth would ever ask such a odd question? Yet Davis enthusiastically embraced the man's claims without a hint of skepticism or even an attempt to fact check his claim.
And what of the priest whom this man accused of abusing him nearly a half a century ago? Well, we don't know, as he died a quarter century ago, in 1988, and is thus unable to defend himself or his reputation, a matter of little concern to Davis.
The ultimate counter-narrative story
The prevalence of false accusations against Catholic priests are much, much more common than the public has been led to believe. As we have recorded in the past, some abuse claims against priests are so blatantly bogus that one wonders what rational person would ever believe them.
But don't expect anytime soon a media story on false accusations against priests, as few in the journalistic community are ever brave enough to buck the trend and pursue a counter-narrative story...
There are almost too many fallacies and distortions in Pierre's analysis of bogusness to know where to begin. For one, stigmatizing mental illness and rendering sex abuse claims "bogus" on that premise -- on behalf of protecting the priesthood, and the One, True Faith -- carries an enormous burden. Besides the lack of charity on its face, just consider how the highly conservative Catholic publishing house, Sophia Institute Press, published The Catholic Guide to Depression in 2012, which was cowritten by a Catholic psychiatrist and a priest. While endorsing modern conventional psychiatry, the book was an all-time bestseller for the publishing house (Sophia Press's market primarily being some of the most devout, practicing Catholics -- surely many clericalist priest defenders "under intense mental health treatment" among them).
As I linked above, many Catholic seminaries now employ mental health personnel full time -- surely for reasons that have nothing to do with monitoring against the deviant sexual behavior that Pierre claims simply doesn't exist among todays clergy or seminarians. Not to mention, the all-time great priest-psychologist and former E.W.T.N. personality, Fr. Benedict Groeschel, who is well known for running a treatment center for Catholic clergy. If mental problems are an automatic disqualifier of one's credibility, as Pierre seemingly postulates, then what now for the rest of the Holy Church?
And most of all, those who were molested usually develop mental illnesses (especially PTSD, which often carries with it repressed memories of the trauma) or major substance disorders as a result. Even Pierre has admitted that SOME priestly malfeasance has occurred at one time or another, which notably includes some true molestation victims. And surely, Pierre wouldn't deny that any priest who gets falsely accused of sexual impropriety (as he claims, ipso facto, to be the case for most or all accusations now) are deeply psychologically wounded as a result of THAT stigma. I wonder if the depressive symptoms that result would cause them to distort certain realities of their distant pasts...
Of course, "we don't know" for certain who's accused, and who's actually guilty. But what we DO KNOW is that Bishops Mulvee, Tobin, and Evans have all concealed multiple allegations, including those deemed credible enough for the state authorities to examine, ignoring Church procedures practiced in most other parts of the U.S. of publicizing accusations that contain credibility. That's the ultimate thrust of this matter. Notice as well how Pierre avoids any mention of Brendan Smyth (highlighted in Katie Davis's reports), and the Bishops' avoidance of discussing that ultra-sordid matter. Who lacks credibility on this one, I wonder?
As for WJAR reporter Katie Davis: I spoke to her after the airings of the first two or three segments. I can attest, first hand, that she's actually quite discerning about what she reports. When I made reference to well-circulated allegations from the past involving another local church figure, including by some active local clergy, she quickly rebuffed the claims as being "unprovable rumors."
Media hype or not, how many accused priests have ever been shown -- in the Church's own juridical system -- to be innocent? Not a whole lot. A priest carries with him both authority and mystique -- and plenty of simple-minded, hypocritical, infantilized, and emotionally stunted people remaining in the pews (though by no means most or all) who believe that he grew virtual, invisible angel wings (and a halo) upon his ordination. Of course, it's priests that get you into Heaven, not yourself and your own practice of virtue! But despite the modes of some Catholic culture (operating as if the priest can 'walk on water'), there is absolutely NOTHING inherent in the Church's current teachings that renders ANY one priest (or bishop) either sinless, and/or beyond criticism for his wrongdoings.
Certain laypeople, led by Dave Pierre and The Catholic League's Bill Donohue -- who's being sued in court for libeling a priest's accuser -- will seemingly say just about anything not only to get credibly accused priests and their deceptive bishops off the hook, but also cast dispersions upon, and incite hatred against most alleged abuse victims.
THEY ARE ACTING IN DISOBEDIENCE TO THE POPES. The secular media is simply doing the dirty work that the Catholic media should have done (and wasn't "brave enough" for), and no doubt still cannot handle to a large extent.
Let us be most mindful of these victims. But also pray and be hopeful that The Vatican, under Pope Francis, holds these bishops accountable for what they fail to do...
Blogger's Update, Sept. 19: I neglected to mention that there are but a few Our Lady of Mercy parishioners who know about the Smyth case. STILL, it's NOT old news, to most people, when a member of the hierarchy, attached to your own home parish, sees fit to keep secret the most heinous of crimes that took place, the fact that victims have killed themselves, the fact that Smyth may have murdered little children and left them around O.L.M.'s cemeteries (refer to articles linked above), the fact that more rape victims of Smyth's locally have not come forward, the fact that the bloody international media has filmed from your damn church's doorstep??? OLD NEWS??? Well let's suppose for a moment that this is "old news." I'll tell you, it may not be long until further matters of interest and sensation, of more recent vintage, will come to light. Anyone who thinks it will be any other way might want to ask the legal experts, in the community, what the anti-S.L.A.P.P. statute represents. I know, everyone who has a beef with some parish, some priest, or Catholicism as a whole, must always refer to those now-"irrelevant" scandals. Sometimes, some people pick and choose which scandals are most relevant to them, I guess.