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Essay: “U.S. Roman Catholic Hierarchy” by Richard Baldwin Cook




By Richard Baldwin Cook

Bishop Roger Mahony: Don’t Ever Call Me Again


Roger Cardinal Mahony: Pick Your Safe Haven

In the fall of 1981, I called up Roger Mahony, then Roman Catholic Bishop of Stockton, California. The call was a courtesy, to introduce myself as the successor to the Rev. Chris Hartmire, who had created the National Farm Worker Ministry (NFWM) twelve years before. Throughout the 1970’s the NFWM supported hard-working, combative Protestant and Catholic staffers, who helped mobilize congregations across the US, to support the consumer boycotts of the United Farm Workers Union.

Mahony took my call and after no more than about 45 seconds, interrupted to say, “Never call me again” and hung up.

Roger . . . Roger . . . Roger. What’s the matter?

This surprising, blunt encounter was unexpected. Roger Mahony had been the first chairman of the Agricultural Labor Relations Board, created in 1975 by the California legislature and brought into administrative being by Governor Jerry Brown.

Had Mahony changed? Had there been some friction or difficulty between the NFWM and Mahony that I was not aware of? After thinking things over for a few days, I decided that Mahony was simply delivering a message from the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. Mahony’s message was: from now on there was to be no contact between the Catholic hierarchy and the NFWM. Mahony intended for the UFW to look to the Roman Catholic Church – no longer to any Protestant group – for its religious support.

If that was Mahony’s message, I would not be his messenger boy. I told no one of this conversation. Message undelivered.

Thirteen years later, I was no longer with the NFWM and Roger Mahony was no longer a Bishop in Stockton. He was Cardinal Archbishop of Los Angeles and I was practicing law in New Orleans and in the middle of an emergency with some clients.

After their proceedings in immigration court had concluded, I had become pro bono counsel for nine Chinese women. These young women were among the several dozen passenger-survivors of the skow Golden Venture that had run aground off Rockaway Beach in Queens, NY on June 6, 1993. My clients had been ordered deported from the US and were awaiting removal to China.

The women were terrified and desperate. They faced the prospect of years of imprisonment, for having left China illegally and also for embarrassing the Chinese government for its policy of enforced sterilization and forced abortion of women who might run afoul of China’s rigorously enforced “one child” policy.

What to do?


With the help of my NFWM predecessor, Chris Hartmire and his contacts in southern California, I was able to reach into the chancery of the Archbishop. Mahony, in turn, reached people in the Vatican, who promptly got back to me with the message: you can pick any one of seven countries and send your clients there; the US government’s immigration service – La MIGRA – will cooperate.

Forty-eight hours before they were to be deported to China, I called my clients in the federal lockup in Bakersfield, CA and asked them to select the country where they wanted to live. They made their selection and flew to their refuge, at US government expense. A few days later, I flew to the capital city of my clients’ safe haven, where they were granted legal residency.

These women, who just days before were no more than the discarded refuse of the punitive immigration system of the United States, were greeted in their new country, by the appropriate Catholic representatives, who followed up efficiently. Housing and business opportunities were found for them, some of whom later arranged for family members from China to join them. Before long, several brand new Chinese restaurants were open for business in the capitol.

Don’t Ever Call Me Again vs. Pick Your Safe Haven are the twin aspects of hierarchical religion. Can you have one and not the other? Can you enjoy the blessings of effective good works on a global scale without suffering from the harshness of an imposed conformity?

There is a lot to be said for a centuries old, top-down religious movement that is hot-wired into governments around the world. I doubt if any other religious organization could have pulled off what the Roman Catholic Church did for my clients. Thanks to the Catholic hierarchy, they were able to avoid imprisonment and forced sterilizations and begin their lives anew.

But the malevolent aspects of top-down Catholic religion are pervasive and can be catastrophic to any one who is not part of the clerical caste. The cruelty inflicted upon anyone, who is caught up in the explicitly secret maneuvers of agents – who act only in the interests of the hierarch and never contrary to those interests – is apparent across the globe, most obviously today, in the ongoing failure of the Catholic hierarchy to deal honestly with abusive priests, who take advantage of their clerical status, so as also to take sexual advantage of communicants and children.

The gears that once crushed and burned flesh in Medieval times, are the same gears, controlled from above, that exploit the flesh and crush the spirit of abuse victims today.

Secrecy and intolerance is the hallmark of the hermetic, dogmatic system, that does not abide decisions made outside of itself. Formal, grudging obedience to the prosecutor’s summons or the judicial decree ranks lower than loyal service to the hierarchy. The only dishonest statement the hierarchy will censure, is a statement, which is deemed a contravention of the will of the hierarchy.

The Catholic Vision cannot be added to anything else. That Vision pretends to encompass all of reality and even to extend beyond reality to encompass the cosmic fate of the living and the dead.

The hierarchy’s response to the priestly sexual abuse of communicants and children demonstrates the supremacy of the Catholic Vision from the perspective of the Roman Catholic hierarchy. Until the Second Vatican Council, the official Catholic Church view of sexual activity was that the higher calling is to non-participation. The hierarchy today is taking deliberate, considered action to return the Church to its pre-Vatican II posture.

The highest human calling, instructs the hierarchy, is to virginity and to celibacy. Sexual expression, as defined by the hierarchy, is always for procreation, never for enjoyment. Consequently, the hierarchy has proven itself incapable of effectively acknowledging child molestations by priests as serious crime, subject to sanction in the criminal court. lnstead, conduct which would send you and me to prison, is viewed by the Roman Catholic hierarchy as a lamentable assertion of sexual desire, a lapse on the part of the individual priest to live up to his personal commitment to the celibate ideal. The hierarchy will correct the lapse – prompted by worldly temptations – by protecting its priest from the consequences that flow in the wake of serious criminal misconduct. The hierarchy does not willingly give up its own to be judged by the criminal law of civil society.

In the sanctified light of hierarchical pronouncements, a priest who succumbs to the sexual wiles of women or who molests or rapes children is a member of the highest, most honorable caste, but has failed to maintain an adherence to the highest calling. Under the rubric of the higher calling, the victim is the wayward priest. In order to correct this lapse into all-too-human behavior, concerns of secrecy about what actually happened precede any consideration of the devastating emotional consequences to the actual victim. The priestly-abuser is not to be turned over to the prosecutor but rather, is to be transferred to a second, third, or fourth apostolate or mission, with the new set of communicants deliberately kept ignorant about the true reason for the transfer(s).

According to Nicholas Cafardi, writing in Commonweal, “. . . the sexual-abuse crisis has been exacerbated because of secret laws.” Cafardi continues, “In 1922, the Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office published the instruction ‘On the Method of Proceeding in Cases of Solicitation,’ which was approved by Pius XI and signed by Merry del Val, Cardinal Secretary of the Holy Office. The Vatican’s Polyglot Press printed the document, but it was never officially promulgated in a useful way. In fact, the first page of the instruction says it is to be ‘diligently kept in the secret archives of the [diocesan] curia for internal use, and is not to be published or commented on in any canonical commentary.’ While the instruction is addressed to ‘All Patriarchs, Archbishops, Bishops, and Other Local Ordinaries, including of the Oriental Rites,’ it was evidently not circulated to them. Instead, the text was available by request to bishops who needed to know its contents to deal with such crimes.” Cafardi reported that the 1922 instructions were reissued again in 1962, and once again ordered not to be published or otherwise made public. Cafardi concluded that “no legal system or system of governance can be effective when its highest value is secrecy.” (The Scandal of Secrecy Canon Law & the Sexual-abuse Crisis, 07/21/2010 Nicholas P. Cafardi, Commonweal, 07/21/2010)


Pope Benedict XVI, while Archbishop of Munich, took to heart the Vatican mandate to protect an ordained serial abuser of young boys from being publicly identified or prosecuted. On January 15, 1980, Archbishop Ratzinger conducted a meeting, which approved the transfer of Father Peter Hullermann into the archdiocese. As reported in the New York Times, the decision to permit Father Hullerman access to children in Munich diocese was made even though Hullermann was known to have “molested multiple boys in his previous job.” A memo of the Jan 25 1980 meeting also indicated that Archbishop Ratzinger was “kept informed about the priest’s assignment.” Father Hullermann went on to molest boys in his new assignment. (Memo to Pope Described Transfer of Pedophile Priest, New York Times, March 25, 2010.)

Vatican apologists were quick to come to the defense of Archbishop Ratzinger, when his misconduct in Munich became widely known after he became Pope Benedict XVI in 2005. The Vatican press office blamed Mormons, and a Catholic-hating media for what were characterized as malicious attacks on the blameless head of the hierarchy. The official media apologists employed by the Vatican, of course concealed the memo – just as the Munich Archdiocese had – of the then-Archbishop’s complicity in blocking the prosecution of the child rapist, whom then-Archbishop Ratzinger had brought into the Archdiocese.

The legal liability of the Pope and the Vatican hierarchy may be about to change. Dramatically. On Sept 13, 2011, petitioners filed a complaint before the International Criminal Court in the Hague, seeking the prosecution of Pope Benedict XVI and other Vatican officials. The complaint alleges that the defendants, in covering up for the abusers, committed “crimes against humanity” by abetting the rape and sexual assault of children by priests. (Abuse Victims Ask Court to Prosecute the Vatican, New York Times, Sept 13, 2011.) In London, the High Court has recently reversed an earlier ruling and held that plaintiffs can hold the Catholic Church liable for abuses committed by priests. (Landmark Sexual Abuse Case in UK Makes Catholic Church Accountable for Priest Misconduct, The Christian Post, Nov 8, 2011.)

Notions that might be relevant to the conduct of the priest-abuser, such as sexual predation, emotional immaturity, serial abuse – none of this is particularly relevant to a hierarchy, which draws its leadership from the protected celibate caste. Members of the caste, who fail (occasionally) to uphold the demands of celibacy are to be admonished, possibly sequestered for a time, and then restored to priestly life – with full access to multiple future victims. This has been the approach in the distant past, in the recent past, and is the approach today.

Since at least the fourth century, the developing Catholic hierarchy was aware of priestly sexual abuses of parishioners, especially children and women, many of whom were the concubines of priests, monks and bishops. (See Sex, Priests and Secret Codes: The Catholic Church’s 2000-year Paper Trail of Sexual Abuse, by Doyle, Sipe and Wall [Los Angeles: Volt Press 2005], page 5; hereafter, cited as “Doyle”.)
With the criminal conduct of the priest-abuser enveloped in intentional secrecy, nothing happens, because nothing is supposed to happen. Because of secret proceedings it is “impossible for the church to deal with sexual abuse in an open and responsible manner . . . “ (Doyle, p. 5)

Not only is the hierarchy complicit in shielding the priestly abuser, the hierarchy actually rewards low level clerics, who overtly facilitate the abuse by protecting the abuser. A quick route to episcopal rank is for a chancery insider to protect the presiding bishop from outside criticism about the church’s inaction in dealing with rampant abuse of children.


Consider, the background of  retiring Bishop John B. McCormack, of New Hampshire, as reported in 2003:

“Bishop John B. McCormack admitted in depositions he shielded scores of accused priests to avoid scandal, despite being urged by an assistant to tell parishioners about abusers, reports said Thursday.

“McCormack, who now heads the Diocese of Manchester, N.H., had served for a decade as secretary of ministerial personnel in the Archdiocese of Boston, handling abuse complaints for Cardinal Bernard F. Law, who resigned as archbishop last month as a result of the clergy sex-abuse scandal.

“From 1981 to 1988, McCormack was also a licensed social worker in Massachusetts and in that position was required under state law to report suspected child abuse.

“However, according to the deposition, he said he was acting as a priest and not as a social worker when he learned of abuse allegations and did not feel obligated to report the abuse to authorities. ( Bishop-Admits-Shielding-Abusive-Priests)

The hierarchy in the US has paid 2.6 billion dollars since 1950 to settle victims’ claims (Letters: Catholic bishops warned in ’50s of Abusive Priests, Rachel Zoll, of the Associated Press, USA Today, 3/31/2009). Nevertheless, secrecy, administrative paralysis and repeated failures to protect children from predatory priests remain the hallmarks of the hierarchy’s responses when abuse allegations do come to light. Recently, criminal indictments have been brought against chancery insiders in Philadelphia and Kansas City, Mo, including the presiding bishop of the Kansas City-Saint Joseph diocese, Robert Finn. Bishop Finn has pleaded not guilty to a charge that he “was a mandated reporter and had reasonable cause to suspect a child may be subjected to abuse.” (Bishop Finn indicted by a Kansas City Grand Jury, National Catholic Register, Oct 14, 2011.


Because the one fixed rule of hierarchical discipline is obedience, hierarchical religion has come to rely explicitly upon coercion within and dishonesty without to have its way in the world. As a member of a parish council in Baltimore, I received a letter from Archbishop Edwin O’Brien, commending our Council for its decision to support a one hundred million dollar campaign the archdiocese had recently announced it would conduct throughout the parishes.

In his letter to us, Archbishop O’Brien was lying. The parish council had explicitly refrained from supporting the campaign, and the Archbishop knew this because he had received a letter from the Council stating as much.
What was important to Archbishop O’Brien was a pretense of unanimity. He now has a document in his files, which show that a given parish supported an initiative of the hierarchy. It made no difference if the document was his own creation and a sham, so long as the posture of approval could be maintained.

An imposed conformity within is the method of operation of a hierarchy, which is restrained by no internal checks and balances and which conducts its business by employing secretive, hermetic procedures.


Archbishop Edwin O’Brien, recently appointed to a Vatican post but still the administrator of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, is a leader among the bishops as head of the oldest diocese in the United States. Archbishop O’Brien does not hesitate to reduce to writing a fabrication about an individual parish council’s imaginary support for his fundraising campaign (88% to the Chancery 12% to be divided among over a hundred parishes). But Archbishop O’Brien has not troubled himself to editorialize about on going court proceedings in a neighboring archdiocese, Philadelphia, where priests and at least one chancery official face trial for their alleged roles in a criminal conspiracy to sexually abuse minors and cover up the abuse.

Further away, but still in the US, my Archbishop has not commented upon the recent multi-million dollar settlement between the Jesuit Order and plaintiffs in the Northwest, which has caused the bankruptcy of the Northwest Jesuit province and the subsequent admission by Jesuit officials that dozens of Jesuit priests and brothers coerced sex from hundreds of Indian and Alaskan native children.

Focus on the numbers for a moment – dozens of Jesuit priests and brothers, as admitted by their Order, coerced, tricked, trapped children into sexual encounters. These men, under orders as members of a military-style hierarchy, theoretically under 24/7 supervision as priests and brothers, abused dozens of kids. Their conduct has stunted dozens of young lives, betrayed the vows they themselves took and bankrupted a large part of their Order.

Does anyone believe that no one among the Jesuits’ supervisors, colleagues and confessors – no one had any idea what these men were doing to the children? The code of silence in the face of global sexual predation by priests has transformed the Roman Catholic hierarchy into a pantomime of a religious community. Jose Ortega y Gasset, 85 years ago, referred to non-reflective Catholicism as “. . . un comodín que justifica la ignavia.” – a contrivance that justifies its own carelessness. (Espiritu de la Letra, 1927, 1967,, p. 90) In our day, careless thinking, with its lapses into dishonesty, masks the failure of the hierarchy to offer a credible response, when the criminal misdeeds of members of the clerical caste finally do come to light.

CARDINAL DONALD WUERL / WASHINGTON D.C. / Photo: evangelicalcatholicism.

For the hierarchy, actual dishonesty has come to mean commendable obedience. The Cardinal of Washington, Donald W. Wuerl has lied about his communications with a professor at Fordham University. Why? The Cardinal intends to uphold the prior pronouncements of the hierarchy, that the professor, Sister Elizabeth Johnson has written a book, which does not properly expound Catholic doctrine. After her condemnation, Professor Johnson failed to demonstrate the required obedience to the pronouncement of the hierarchy. Because Sister Elizabeth declined to acknowledge her book’s alleged shortcomings, Cardinal Wuerl responded by the attempted destruction of the Sister’s reputation, designating her as willful, arrogant and therefore rebellious. It matters not to the Cardinal that he must contrive to create a false record of communications between himself and Sister Elizabeth. It matters greatly that the Cardinal document Sister Elizabeth’s refusal to meet with the hierarchy to discuss her book. The fact that Professor Johnson had actually been willing to meet simply is not relevant, since the only issue of concern to the hierarchy is obedience, not truthfulness. (See: Johnson: Cardinal’s claim she refused contact ‘blatantly false’ National Catholic Reporter, Oct 31, 2011)

For the hierarchy, it is of no moment if a bishop lies in the interests of humiliating a nun. For the hierarchy it is of no moment if a bishop lies in order to pretend to protect the faithful from the horrific consequences of the criminal behavior of a priest-pedophile.

For the hierarchy, the only wrong-doing that is recognized is a failure of obedience. Roger Cardinal Mahony, rising steadily in the hierarchy in the 1970’s and ’80s, found an opportunity, as Bishop in Stockton, CA, to tell me never to contact him on behalf of an inter-denominational Christian agency, working to protect immigrant farm workers from employer abuse. But Mahony found no such opportunity, either in Stockton or later as Archbishop of Los Angeles, to protect the children of his diocese from sexually predatory priests:

“As bishop in Stockton, Mahony transferred the Rev. Oliver O’Grady to a new parish after the priest admitted during a therapy session to sexually molesting a young child. Mahony made the transfer despite a psychiatric evaluation that indicated the priest was sexually immature and might not be fit for the priesthood.

“O’Grady continued to molest children at his new post, according to lawsuits, and served seven years in prison before being deported to his native Ireland, where he was arrested late last year on child pornography charges. To date, the Stockton diocese has paid nearly $21 million to O’Grady’s alleged victims. . . . in 2004 Mahony defended his decision, as reported by The Associated Press, saying that Stockton police ‘could not find any victim and they were not recommending any further steps be taken.’

“Once in Los Angeles, Mahony did not contact police or warn parishioners after the Rev. Michael Baker told him at a retreat in 1986 that he had molested two young boys. In a deposition taken last year, Mahony said he didn’t alert anyone because the priest told him the children were illegal immigrants who had returned to Mexico.” (“Cardinal Roger Mahony’s Legacy” Los Angeles, AP, Feb 26, 2011)

Donald Wuerl is rewarded for his dishonesty, which is held to be a commendable mark of faithfulness to the hierarchy. Archbishop O’Brien is rewarded for his dishonesty, which likewise is held to be a commendable mark of faithfulness to the hierarchy.

Catholicism is misconceived as an all encompassing vision, which is never conceded to be something added to something else. The hierarchy, embracing the Vision, cannot in our day bring itself to submit even to obey the criminal statutes of civil society.
Catholicism is misconceived when the hierarchy pretends to subsume all values under its categories. This is medieval Catholicism, which relied on the essential aid of a complicit and well armed civil authority to kill and prosecute its way to prominence.

Modern Catholicism offers much in the way of solace and hope to its communicants. It offers somewhat less in the way of concrete uplift to the poor and excluded. It offers nothing to honest dialogue in a civil society so long as its official representatives, such as Donald Wuerl and Edwin O’Brien do not hesitate to prevaricate and thereby compromise their own integrity.

How can the Catholic hierarchy leave behind Roger Cardinal Mahony’s Don’t Ever Call Me Again and settle comfortably into Roger Cardinal Mahony’s Pick Your Safe Haven?

I am not sure the hierarchy can pull this off, but here are a few suggestions, which address the public posture of the hierarchy in civil society.

1. In public bishops must avoid subtlety and excuse-making in their pronouncements and stick to honest statements. Truth is the summit only from which clarity of thought and transparency of conduct is possible, as Francis Bacon said. But Bacon added that this is “a hill not to be commanded” by anyone. (Essay No 1, “Of Truth” as rewritten, 1625) Humility in public is a good deal more appealing than intransigent arrogance.

2. Bishops may impose conformity of conduct upon communicants, not upon members of the public.

Example: the Roman Catholic Church teaches that both contraception and abortion are offensive to God, because both are destructive of life. Does the hierarchy truly believe this? Or, is this merely a posture, intended merely to mouth doctrines, which the hierarchy knows cannot be imposed upon the faithful without driving the faithful away?

In the United States today the Catholic Church does not punish Catholic men or women who practice contraception. Nor does the Catholic Church punish women who obtain abortions, and certainly not the men or other family members of such women, who may be said to cooperate with these women as procurers of abortions. Nor does the Church insist that affluent Catholic women open their accounts as proof that they have not – ever – sought an abortion. Yet the church advocates that the accounts of non-governmental organizations be open to state inspectors as proof that no woman, poor and non-Catholic as she may be, has received obstetrical services that are legal but fly in the face of Catholic doctrine.

Instead of practicing straightforward adherence to its doctrines by its communicants, the Church mobilizes the right wing of its communicants (not the majority of communicants, by any means) to reach for political levers so as to impose restrictions on poor non-Catholic women – women who have not signed up to live in obedience to doctrines articulated for them by a Catholic bishop.
The Catholic Vision, encompassing as it does the whole of reality and beyond, may well be the sublimest of all visions to communicants. It is not sublime to non-communicants. It is an imposition.

3. The public face of the hierarchy must be shown to the poor, the neglected, the deprived, those with little hope, but for concrete kindnesses offered to them.

In Mexico, women who suffer miscarriages are prosecuted and imprisoned for years as procurers of abortion. The Vatican and the hierarchy of the US have yet to denounce this inhumane cruelty – and will never do so, because the Mexican hierarchy is in fact part of the global hierarchy whose single rule is obedience to itself.

The U.S. hierarchy does credibly well when it smiles upon the immigrant, the stranger, the sojourner, who often appear in our society as “undocumented” or as “illegal” persons.

The hierarchy does credibly less well when it smiles upon the wealthy, the powerful, the influential and lobbies the prosecutor to punish the non-communicant for failing to act in conformity with Catholic dogma.

The hierarchy loses its credibility altogether when it mobilizes the resources of the unconsulted faithful and with their resources, applauds politicians and judges who undermine the dignity of women by seeking to deprive them of legal obstetrical and gynecological care. Attempts by the hierarchy to transform medical procedures into criminal activity is offensive to human dignity. The offense to dignity is transformed into hypocrisy, when the hierarchy seeks not to conform the conduct of communicants to its dictates but seeks to apply is dictates to non-communicant members of the public.

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