“Vows of Silence: The Abuse of Power in the Papacy of John Paul II,” by Jason Berry and Gerald Renner. Free Press (New York, 2004). 353 pp., $26.00.
“Vows of Silence: The Abuse of Power in the Papacy of John Paul II” tells the stories of two figures in the church sexual abuse scandal: Dominican Father Thomas Doyle, an American canon lawyer who served in the Vatican’s U.S. Embassy, and Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, the Mexican-born founder of an international religious order, the Legionaries of Christ.
Father Doyle’s name often appears in the current reporting about the sexual abuse scandal. A 1985 document that explained the scope of abuse and how the bishops needed to address it was written by Father Doyle along with the late Father Michael Peterson, founder of the St. Luke Institute, and F. Ray Mouton, an attorney.
The report addressed canonical, clinical and legal ramifications of abuse. The trio anticipated that a representative of a bishops’ subcommittee would present it at the bishops’ June meeting that year. He didn’t, but, as the scandal became public, analysts often pointed to that document as an indication that bishops were aware of the problem long before they addressed it.
Father Maciel’s story would seem out of place in the same volume with Father Doyle’s were it not for the fact that nine men have claimed that they were abused by Father Maciel while they were Legionaries of Christ seminarians and have taken their claims to the Holy See. The priest has vehemently denied the accusations.
From the perspective of authors Jason Berry and Gerald Renner, Father Maciel’s story is that of the rise of a worldwide religious community — critics term it a sect — rife with militant clericalism and focused upon serving and attracting wealthy Catholics who embrace a pre-Second Vatican Council ecclesiology.
Abuse is the common ground in the life stories of these two men — Father Doyle, now an Air Force chaplain, because of his desire to bring healing to victims, and Father Maciel because the allegations remain credible even though the alleged victims have been unable to have their case judged by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
This book has an “All the President’s Men” tone as the authors attempt to prove that Pope John Paul II, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and other prominent members of the Curia were aware of the depth and breadth of clergy sexual abuse in general — and the accusations against Father Maciel in particular — but would not investigate and take action. Via stories from Father Maciel’s accusers, which Legionaries’ historians reluctantly verify, readers learn that Father Maciel was removed as head of the order from 1956 to 1958.
Berry and Renner are professional writers, and it appears they did their homework as they note the sources of their information. What is lacking, through no fault of theirs, are the views of Father Maciel, Cardinal Ratzinger and other key figures in the story as they declined to be interviewed. Like the authors, readers will certainly be left wondering what the pope and the Curia officials knew, and why they acted, or did not act, in the manner they did.
This book gives readers a view of a church that is more a political entity than many of us imagined. It shows how the church works and doesn’t work when handling sensitive matters. Like previous texts about clergy sexual abuse, “Vows of Silence” includes the alleged victims’ stories. The accounts are new, but they are as painful to read as those reported elsewhere.
This book also introduces two other sets of victims of the abuse scandal. These victims include the clergy and laity whose credibility was destroyed because they dared to raise questions and investigate the preponderance of abuse. They also include the U.S. bishops whose attempts to deal with abusive priests are sometimes hampered by Vatican officials who view the American Catholic faithful and their leadership with skepticism and contempt.
Berry and Renner’s reporting is an important contribution to the knowledge about clergy sexual abuse of children. “Vows of Silence” is also an eye-opening account of how the church functions — as structure and as “people of God.”
Olszewski is editor and general manager of the Northwest Indiana Catholic, newspaper of the Diocese of Gary, Ind.
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