In Mortal Sins: Sex, Crime, and the Era of Catholic Scandal, reporter D’Antonio limns the revelations of endemic sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, which may have led to the Pope’s resignation.
How did your coverage of this story begin?
After gathering some initial background, I flew to Minneapolis-St. Paul to meet with Jeffrey Anderson, the lawyer who devised most of the legal strategies victims have used to win disclosure of church documents, and win both settlements and civil trials. Jeff, who may be the man most feared by the church hierarchy, agreed to cooperate fully and began providing me access to both the vital documents in his cases and his clients.
In what way does this differ from other stories you’ve done?
This is the most complex story I’ve ever told. It is full of compelling characters and incidents that occurred across the country and around the world. It also involves an institution that maintains its own distinct culture, which is cloaked in both secrecy and mystery. Demystifying it and then selecting the essential parts of the story was a big challenge.
What was the hardest aspect of covering it?
I had a difficult time accepting that the stories of abuse and cover-up, which were larger and more varied that I expected, were actually true. It is shocking to learn that a church that claims such devotion to goodness and morality behaved with such consistent dishonesty. Remarkably, I was not uncomfortable hearing the stories of individual victims. Their suffering was heart-rending but also easy to empathize with.
Did different countries handle revelations of endemic abuse differently, and why?
Because the American courts provide victims with the power to file suits and compel the discovery of information, the Church here has dealt with the crisis more broadly, and for a longer time, than in any other country. However, America’s bishops have not been open and empathetic in their actions. Often they have fought victims with counter-suits and delaying tactics at great expense to the church itself. I would say that in Ireland the institutional church, working with the government, had a more immediately effective response. There, the Catholic authorities seem to have accepted responsibility more readily, cooperated more fully with civil authorities, and chose to compensate victims more systematically.
To what extent did the scandal contribute to Pope Benedict’s resignation?
If the Pope did indeed resign because he was exhausted, then he was exhausted by this crisis. He has been at the center of it since the mid-1980s when he headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and later as Pope. No one bears more responsibility for the institutional cover-ups and failures and I believe this fact weighed heavily in his decision.
To what extent do you believe that celibacy contributes to abuse?
I believe celibacy, which is achieved as a lifetime practice by very few priests, is one of the core factors in the abuse scandal. First, I think the discipline attracts men who are troubled sexually and hope that the structure will somehow resolve their problems. Second, it sets up a system of mutual blackmail in which priests transgress, confess to fellow priests, and then worry about having divulged their secrets. Soon everyone “has something” on everyone else and it becomes very difficult to respond to complaints of abuse.
Are there countries with significant Catholic populations where the shoe has yet to drop?
Cases have arisen on every continent and in places as distant and remote as Iceland and the southernmost point of Argentina. However I suspect that in many lesser-developed places, where access to a reliable court system is difficult, many more victims have yet to come forward. How and when those claims will be made is impossible to say, however I think it is inevitable that they will.