Michael D’Antonio has written a profoundly depressing and comprehensive history of the Catholic Church’s failure to recognize and prevent the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests. Mortal Sins — Sex, Crime, and the Era of Catholic Scandal, was published in 2014, over a year before the release of the recent movie Spotlight, which focuses on Boston’s clerical abuse scandals over many years. Spotlight is an excellent movie and does a tremendous job of showing how difficult it was to uncover the vast scope of the problem and to recognize the church hierarchy’s willful obstruction and tacit perpetuation of the problem.
While Spotlight was focused on the particularly sordid Boston experience and coverage provided by the Boston Globe, Mortal Sins follows the scandal trail all over the country and ultimately around the globe. Mortal Sins also gets into the nitty gritty of the legal actions that compelled the Catholic Church to accept responsibility for what had happened and to begin to take steps to prevent future atrocities. As a lawyer who had some acquaintance with this issue years ago, I found the legal discussions particularly interesting. While it would be nice to think that the church decided to do the right thing because that was its ethical obligation, in reality the church was often reluctant to do anything other than sweep the problem under the rug until it faced horrific public exposure and crippling financial losses. It is a good question whether the church would have taken any action at all, but for the financial ruin it faced. But for the legal actions, it is unclear when if ever the church would have stepped up to the plate on this issue.
How and why the abuse happened, as well as the campaign to stop it, makes for a compelling story. Fortunately Mortal Sins also focuses on the damage done to the individual victims. The pain, betrayal and hopelessness they endured should always be the centerpiece of this saga. Some victims were emotionally wrecked for life, while others seemed better able to move on with their lives. Many children never told anyone or, if they did try to tell, were punished for it. Even when children’s parents believed them and confronted the church hierarchy, they were frequently given the utterly false promise that the abusive priest would be kept away from children.
D’Antonio doesn’t shy away from looking at the structure of the priesthood and the types of candidates it attracted. While acknowledging that other religions have faced abuse issues, D’Antonio’s position is that the structure of the priesthood made it particularly attractive to troubled priests and that the church was programmed to look the other way, rather than fix the problem. Anytime you get in a situation where the primary focus is on helping and shielding the perpetrators to the detriment of their victims, you know something is rotten.
I highly recommend this book. While steps have been taken to stop sexual abuse of children by priests, this problem has not gone away. And, as Spotlight brutally reminded us, we all have a responsibility to confront the problem and protect our children.