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Book review

‘Mortal Sins’ by Michael D’Antonio

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When Jorge Mario Bergoglio became Pope Francis last month, nearly every Vatican insider, observer, and commentator remarked that he had inherited leadership of a church that was troubled and in upheaval. For nearly three decades, the Catholic hierarchy had struggled with the challenges of a catastrophic sexual abuse scandal, a profound crisis of faith, and a lingering public-relations disaster.

Michael D’Antonio’s “Mortal Sins,’’ perhaps the most comprehensive history of the wrongdoing to date, will only fuel those dilemmas. This is a devastating chronicle not only of sexual abuse but also of abuse of power — or, rather, of the inclination of those in power to avert their eyes from abuse.

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Every page ripples with lurid tales of dysfunction, corruption, exploitation — and, ultimately, of heartbreak, both inside and outside the church. The calamity is that this scandal, spanning cases coast to coast and spilling across the globe, seems so repetitive — so utterly familiar — with revelations prompting revelations until the reader, like the church, can barely tolerate the next episode.

All this threatened the spiritual authority of the institution and endangered its solvency ($3 billion in civil suits so far, with more to come) even as it marked its victims, (mis)shaped their outlooks, and in many cases wrecked their faith — and their lives. No more dreary or depressing book will likely be published this season.

For “Mortal Sins,’’ produced from documents, interviews, legal records, and secondary sources, serves as a broad indictment of both the rape of children and the damage done to a great religion, with D’Antonio arguing that the church, with its culture of secrecy, proved irresistibly appealing to men with psychological problems, with deep immaturity, and with the inability to care for themselves as adults. The result was criminal abuse, a conspiracy of silence and coverup, and spiritual betrayal.

D’Antonio, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former Newsday reporter, argues that at the heart of this crisis was the church’s inclination to treat these episodes as sins rather than crimes, and as a result the official response all too often was to seek healing rather than investigation and punishment.

“This thought was consistent with Catholic theology, which emphasized the commonality of sin and forgiveness for all, and considered the salvation of the soul the Church’s main purpose,’’ he maintains. “It also reflected past practices in many jurisdictions where police and prosecutors had allowed the Church to handle complaints against priests internally.’’

Through it all the church, and eventually the courts, were roiled by difficult questions — about the cause and effect of sexual abuse, about the reliability of memory, about classic issues of crime and punishment, accusation and proof, forgiveness and redemption.

But D’Antonio argues that the church — in this case more preoccupied with power than glory — was peculiarly vulnerable as this scandal unfolded, which it did with astonishing force.

“Historically, the Church was rife with intrigue, power plays, and even mysterious deaths,’’ he writes. “Those inclined to assume that the hierarchy kept innumerable sordid secrets could point to this record and wonder how anyone could believe anything uttered by a pope or a bishop.’’

Two popes, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and a brood of bishops come under special criticism, not so much for turning the other cheek but instead for turning their eyes away. John Paul II seldom addressed the issue and, in D’Antonio’s view, “seemed most concerned about the welfare of the Church’’ rather than that of the victims.

Benedict fares little better in these pages; he was, in D’Antonio’s estimation, “well informed about extreme cases but did not respond to them with any urgency.’’

Unlike the church leaders he excoriates, D’Antonio’s focus is on victims — scores of them and their cases are examined — and on the activists who supported them and the lawyers who took their cases. The book’s forward momentum, which begins in the mid-1980s with a few cases in Louisiana and Minnesota and later mushrooms, is fueled by three who fought to expose the problem: the Rev. Thomas Doyle, who became one part whistleblower and one part investigator; Jeffrey Anderson, a lawyer who emerged as what D’Antonio calls the church’s “main antagonist’’ ; and Barbara Blaine, an architect of an influential support group whom D’Antonio describes as a “social worker/attorney/activist/victim/Catholic.’’

In addition, The Boston Globe’s Spotlight Team, singled out by the Pulitzer Prize committee for its coveted public-service citation, plays more than a cameo role. “[T]hey felt a calling to their profession similar to a religious impulse,’’ D’Antonio writes, adding that Walter Robinson, Michael Rezendes, Sacha Pfeiffer, and Matthew Carroll “still believed it was their job to check the power of important institutions.’’ (In fact, it is a reflection of the book’s scope that we don’t even get to the efforts of the Spotlight Team, which pushed the issue center stage, until the second half.)

This was demanding, emotionally draining, courageous work, especially in a city whose culture had been molded in part by the church, especially in an atmosphere where church officials insisted the press overlooked the contribution the good works, and there were many, that the church performed in Boston. “By all means we call down God’s power on the media,’’ Cardinal Bernard Law said, “particularly the Globe.’’

Ultimately D’Antonio paints the issue as a crisis of authority — and moral authority.

“In almost every case the victims were from extremely devout families and they revered the Church,’’ he writes. “Many were lonely and isolated. Offenders poured their time, money and energy into building trust with these youngsters and their families.’’

D’Antonio’s book is being marketed as a kind of exposé. Maybe it is. But mostly it is a tragedy.

David M. Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, can be reached at dshriban@post-gazette.com.
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