The Vatican's Perverted Sense of Justice: Pedophiles Stay in the Church, While Priests Who Ordain Women Are Excommunicated
What happens if a Catholic priest molests children?
Usually, he's protected by the Church hierarchy. Maybe he'll eventually have his parish or diocese taken away, or be switched to another one -- often after years of serial abuse. But there's a good chance he'll stay in the Church.
So what happens if a Catholic priest publicly supports ordaining women? Well, then he's excommunicated on the double.
"Nearly 5,000 Catholic priests [in the U.S.] have sexually abused over 12,000 Catholic children…but they were not excommunicated," says Father Roy Bourgeois, who faced the latter scenario after helping celebrate what the Vatican considers to be an illegitimate ordination mass in August 2008. Bourgeois, a Vietnam veteran with a Purple Heart who became a prominent peace activist, stood with the trailblazers of the female ordination movement in Lexington, Ky., to make Janice Sevre-Duszynska a Catholic priest.
For thumbing his nose at one of the most sacred tenets of the conservative hierarchy -- that only men are worthy of the priesthood -- Bourgeois was swiftly rebuked by the Vatican in a letter two months later, telling him he had 30 days to renounce his actions or face excommunication.
After his deadline passed without a definitive word, Bourgeois told Ms. Magazine that his heart wouldn't allow him to cave in to the Vatican. "Deeper than the hurt, the sadness, there's a peace that comes from knowing I followed my conscience in addressing this great injustice," he said.
Still, Bourgeois wanted to question the Pope: "Who are we as men to say that our call to the priesthood is valid, but yours as women is not?" Given that 64 percent of American Catholics in a 2005 AP/Ipsos poll agreed that women should be ordained, they might ask the pope the same thing. But the Vatican, despite parish closings across America and a 30 percent decline in priests between 1965 and 2000, doesn't seem ready for that question.
"The church believes that the intent of Jesus' founding of the priesthood is that it was reserved for men," explained Sister Mary Anne Walsh, spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. But, speaking for the group Roman Catholic Womenpriests, Bridget Mary Meehan, herself ordained in 2006 and subsequently excommunicated, disputes that teaching. "Jesus never ordained anyone," says Meehan. "And in the tradition, women were ordained deacons, priests and bishops for the first 1,200 years."
The Vatican's strong response to Bourgeois' action stands in stark contrast to its overwhelming failure to punish molesters. Even a homicidal priest, Father Gerald Robinson, who was convicted in 2006 of the satanicritualistic murder of a 71-year-old nun in an Ohio chapel (see "The Nun's Story," Summer 2006), has not been excommunicated. Though Robinson to date has spent more than two and a half years in prison and lost an appeal, he still remains a priest, albeit one quietly retired by his bishop.
Walsh's explanation: As heinous as the crime was, the Church doesn't excommunicate for murder.
The Vatican may soon have further explaining to do, this time in a U.S. courtroom. A federal appeals court ruled in late November that a lawsuit arising in Kentucky over the Vatican's negligence in dealing with sexual abuse could proceed -- the first time a court that high has recognized the Holy See's potential liability in this arena.
One of the key pieces of evidence in the lawsuit? A 1962 memo, approved by Pope John XXIII, directing Catholic bishops to keep silent about sex-abuse claims.
The full text of this article appears in the Winter issue of Ms., available on newsstands or by joining the Ms. community.