Madison author: Sex abuse costs changed everything for Catholic Church
MADISON – When the Catholic sexual abuse scandals of the last 15 years entered American courtrooms, a kind of showdown was at play: canon law versus civil law. It got the attention of Jo Renee Formicola, a political science professor at Seton Hall University.
After 10 years of researching legal reports, church documents, newspaper accounts, and personal stories, the Madison resident penned her ninth book—”Clerical Sexual Abuse: How the Crisis Changed US Catholic Church-State Relations” (Palgrave Macmillan, $105), released last November.
“I didn’t want to write an angry book,” said Formicola, who specializes in church/state relations.
“I also didn’t set out to write a book that was going to come down on all clergymen,” she added. “I do teach with a lot of very kind, caring, compassionate priests, and I see what this issue has done to them.”
The result is an objective, behind-the-scenes account written for a mass audience. On the other hand, “Clerical Sexual Abuse,” lauded as “scrupulously fair” by the author’s peers, is published by an academic press and priced accordingly.
Readers of all stripes will gain deep knowledge of how huge and historic the long, sordid story is.
Between 2004 and 2013, the Church spent $2.7 billion in costs related to sexual abuse allegations, including settlements, therapy for victims, support for offenders, and attorneys’ fees, according to the 11th annual report of The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
“In the payment of settlements, many dioceses have had to declare bankruptcy. Once they do that, it means they have to open their books,” Formicola said. “This has never been done before – the Catholic church allowing the state to look at its financial records.”
Included in the $2.7 billion was a local $5 million settlement announced at a press conference in front of the Morris County Courthouse in February 2005, according to media reports. While not admitting to any wrongdoing, the Diocese of Paterson, agreed to pay the money in a lawsuit brought by 27 men who said they were abused by five priests and a deacon. Most had alleged abuse by former priest James T. Hanley, who had served at St. Joseph’s in Mendham, St. Christopher’s in Parsippany, and Our Lady of Good Counsel in Pompton Plains.
At least two priests in the Metuchen Diocese have been accused of sexual abuse, according to news reports. One, Michael Santillo, a former pastor at St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church in Perth Amboy, died in 2001 while serving a 10-year prison term at the Adult Diagnostic and Treatment Center in Avenel for molesting a 13-year-old altar boy in 1987. John Banko, a former pastor at St. Edward the Confessor in Milford, is serving a 33-year sentence at the Adult Diagnostic and Treatment Center for molesting two altar boys in the 1990s.
Recalibration of relations
But an even more fundamental and unprecedented shift has happened because of such cases and settlements. They have resulted, in Formicola’s parlance, in a “recalibration” of Catholic church/state relations in the U.S.
“The legal system has stepped forward to do what the church itself would not do. It has challenged the church and demanded information on priests’ medical and psychiatric records,” Formicola said. “Things that were held ecclesiastically as being outside the law and protected by privilege, are no longer protected by privilege.
“That makes a huge difference,” she explained, “because it means the Catholic church is now treated like any other corporate entity. If you’re going to investigate a corporation, they have to turn information over to you. Now certain things can be subpoenaed and there’s no question that it can be done and it will be done.”
The point is illustrated by the case of defrocked predator priest John J. Geoghan, murdered in prison in 2003. Over the course of his religious career, Formicola writes, Geoghan was accused of abusing some 130 and 150 children, as he was moved from parish to parish.
In 2002, he was sentenced in the indecent assault and battery on a 10-year-old boy, according to newspaper accounts. His conviction, and those of other priests, was instrumental in the resignation of Cardinal Bernard F. Law of the Archdiocese of Boston.
His was a bellwether case in another way, too, since The Boston Globe and the Boston Archdiocese had fought in court over opening Geoghan’s personnel records. The archdiocese, Formicola writes, asked for a seal of confidentiality on the basis of the separation of church and state rights. It lost, with the judge approving the release of 10,000 Church documents dealing with Geoghan’s lawsuit and another 84 also dealing with sex abuse.
Timothy Byrnes, author of “Catholic Bishops in American Politics” and political science professor at Colgate University, called Formicola’s account of the depressing record of clerical sex abuse in the U.S. “exhaustive.”
“She has also demonstrated just how hard public officials and victims’ advocates have had to work,” he said, “to get Church leaders to acknowledge these abuses as the despicable crimes that they are.”
Indeed, those who worked on the front lines of the issue have paid a price, according to Formicola, a past president of the New Jersey Political Science Association.
“Some of those doing the fighting and trying to get things changed within the church, just couldn’t handle it,” she said. “Some became alcoholic. Some lost their faith.”
Given the length and intensity of her research, the author said, she, too, was affected.
“I’ve been writing for 28 years, but this book took everything out of me when it was finished,” Formicola said. “It was so much more than a research exercise. It has to be when you read things that are reprehensible.
“I do understand my faith better,” she added. “What I don’t understand better are some of the people who are leaders in my faith.”
In the end, she said, the story is not, at its core, about the right of the church to protect its own. It’s not about the psychological complexities of denial, arrogance, deference, and enabling, either. It’s about a state doing what it must to protect the welfare of its children.
“Clerical Sexual Abuse” presents deep history and opens with an examination of the first American case that cracked open the issue here and resulted in the 1986 guilty plea of Father Gilbert Gauthe to 11 counts of child molestation in the Diocese of Lafayette in Louisiana. Gauthe served nine years of an 20-year sentence, was released, and incurred various penalties for future offenses in Texas.
Formicola also covers in her book how Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI dealt with the issue during their tenures.
Pope Francis I, she noted, inherited a difficult situation when he was elected pontiff in March 2013. At the time, the church already was being investigated by the United Nations Committee on the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The new pope created the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, led by Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston.
“I’m anticipating that, when their report comes out, there will probably be some major changes in canon law and the way priests are treated, and who gets into seminaries,” Formicola said. “It wouldn’t surprise me if some changes are unveiled when Pope Francis comes to the United States in the fall.”
What Formicola hopes most is that her book helps readers make up their own minds about how things were handled. People can only move forward from truth, she said, not from deceptions and half-truths.
“Clerical Sexual Abuse” is due out in paperback in Spring 2016.
Lorraine Ash: 973-428-6660; firstname.lastname@example.org
Here are some books written, or co-written, by Jo Renee Formicola of Madison:
• Clerical Sexual Abuse: How the Crisis Changed U. S. Catholic Church-State Relations (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014)
• The Politics of Values: Games Political Strategists Play (Rowman and Littlefield, 2008)
• Taking Religious Pluralism Seriously (Baylor University Press, 2005), chosen by The New York Times Review of Books as one of the top books on religion and government that year
• Faith-Based Initiatives and the Bush Administration: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Rowman and Littlefield, 2003)
• John Paul II: Prophetic Politician (Georgetown University Press, 2002)
• Religious Leaders and Faith-Based Politics: Ten Profiles (Rowman and Littlefield, 2001)
• The Politics of School Choice in the United States (Rowman and Littlefield, 1999)
• Everson Revisited: Religion, Education and Law at the Crossroads (Rowman and Littlefield, 1997)
• The Catholic Church and Human Rights (Garland Press, 1988)