One way to sometimes stop people from doing wrong is to punish them for doing wrong. History, psychology and common sense all suggest this approach often works.
But tragically, Catholic officials virtually never use this approach when shocking revelations of clergy sex abuse and cover-up surface.
It’s an approach that St. Paul-Minneapolis Catholic officials might consider as they try to save themselves and their archdiocese from a rapidly expanding scandal that has put dozens of accused clerics in the news over the last few months and several other church staff who reportedly kept quiet about or hid their alleged sexual misbehavior.
When we say “Catholic officials,” we are largely referring to Auxiliary Bishop Lee Piché, who is now in charge of the Twin Cities archdiocese. Archbishop John Nienstedt has stepped aside while an allegation of child sexual abuse against him is investigated.
When it comes to wrongdoers who merit punishment, the St. Paul-Minneapolis church hierarchy has lots of choices.
There’s Fr. Kevin McDonough. Instead of calling police about suspicions of child sex crimes, Fr. McDonough asked a priest who had lots of pornography to turn over his computer to a church staffer. Fr. McDonough should be punished for simply not calling the police.
There’s Fr. Jonathan Shelley. After being asked to turn over his computer, Fr. Shelley reportedly destroyed it. He should be punished for insubordination.
There’s Fr. Peter Laird, until recently Niensedt’s vicar general. Fr. Laird told a concerned colleague to put computer discs with Fr. Shelley’s pornography back in the chancery basement. Fr. Laird should be punished for not heeding his colleague’s warnings that some of the images were child pornography and for not calling police.
Police asked church officials for a report on Fr. Shelley’s porn that the archdiocese’s investigator compiled but were rebuffed. Those church officials should be punished for refusing to help law enforcement.
There’s Tom Wieser, Nienstedt’s lawyer. In court, Wieser blasted whistleblower Jennifer Haselberger, calling her “disgruntled,” “imprudent” and “unsophisticated.” He should be punished. (Church officials can defend themselves without attacking others.)
There’s Jim Accurso, the archdiocese’s chief public relations man. Accurso said he thinks a proven and suspended predator priest, Fr. Robert Kapoun, is being supervised. But days earlier, Fr. Kapoun publicly admitted that he “rarely sees anyone from the archdiocese.” Accurso should be punished for being deceptive.
There’s Greta Sawyer, the so-called “victims’ advocate” for the archdiocese. She recorded an interview with someone Fr. Curtis Wehmeyer allegedly abused before the police had talked to the young man, according to Minnesota Public Radio. Sawyer should be punished for potentially interfering with a police investigation.
Sawyer also put a young woman who reported being molested by a priest in the same room with that priest, Fr. Michael Keating, along with Archbishop Harry Flynn, Fr. McDonough and a lawyer, Andrew Eisenzimmer, who “lobbed questions as though it were a game of pinball,” the woman said. Sawyer should be punished for that, too.
There are several archdiocesan officials who in recent years approved the filing of court papers seeking tens of thousands of dollars from two abuse victims who sued but lost on technicalities. Those officials should be punished for such mean-spirited maneuvers.
There’s now-retired Archbishop Flynn, Archbishop Nienstedt’s predecessor. Archbishop Flynn was in charge in 2004 when the disturbing photos were found on Fr. Shelley’s laptop. Even though an investigator the archdiocese hired said some of the images were “borderline” illegal, neither Archbishop Flynn nor his staff contacted the police. The archdiocesan leadership should punish Archbishop Flynn.
Sound implausible? Last year, the sitting Los Angeles archbishop did precisely this to his predecessor, Cardinal Roger Mahony, after Cardinal Mahony’s complicity in child sex cases surfaced through litigation.
Some might pejoratively call these measures punitive. We disagree. These moves are primarily about prevention, not punishment. If deliberate wrongdoing isn’t punished, it’s basically encouraged. And it will be repeated.
There is, however, a difference between punishing and scapegoating. The Twin Cities church hierarchy should denounce, demote, discipline and perhaps even set the defrocking process in motion for some of its clergy and take action against some of its lay employees. But any such action will ring hollow and seem hypocritical unless Archbishop Nienstedt is also punished for his role in all of this.
A fish rots from the head down. Ultimately, Archbishop Nienstedt and Bishop Piché are themselves responsible for continuing, or perhaps even deepening, the well-established but hurtful patterns of secrecy and self-preservation that have long been the hallmarks of the Catholic hierarchy’s handling of sexual misconduct by its own.
[Kristine Ward is the chair of the National Survivor Advocates Coalition. David Clohessy is the director of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.]