scorecardresearch Skip to main content
Joan Vennochi

Pope’s ire aimed at wrong target

Pope Benedict XVI can’t wait to crack down on “radical feminist” nuns.

But will he ever really crack down on protectors of pedophile priests?

A Vatican-led investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious cites the nuns’ silence on abortion and same-sex marriage. How bad is that up against the silence of church officials, from parish priests to the Vatican, who ignored and concealed child sex crimes?

By ironic coincidence, news about the Vatican’s effort to rein in the conference — the largest and most influential group of Catholic nuns in the United States — broke the same day the Rev. Bradley M. Schaeffer resigned from the Boston College Board of Trustees after growing public criticism over the role he played in supervising a former Jesuit priest who allegedly molested dozens of children over a span of 40 years.


The juxtaposition of the two events exposes a familiar church mindset.

Perceived threats to his authority swiftly grab the pope’s attention. Accountability for long-ago threats to children is still something to dodge.

The Vatican launched an investigation of the nuns in 2008, concerned by what it views as the group’s increasingly liberal tilt. An American bishop is now charged with reeling them in, after the investigation revealed “serious doctrinal problems” relating to “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.” The nuns were also reprimanded for public statements that put them at odds with Catholic bishops during the 2010 debate over health care reform.

This follows Benedict’s recent condemnation of dissident priests. During a Holy Thursday Mass, the pope publicly rebuked a group of Austrian priests who challenged the church on priestly celibacy and the ban on female priests; disobedience would not be tolerated, he said.

What he does tolerate is a worldwide network of priests who enabled sexual abusers. Unlike dissidents, they are not called out in St. Peter’s Square and no one is put in charge of reeling them in. They are free, like Schaeffer, to end up on the boards of prominent Jesuit institutions — until public pressure forces them out.


As reported by the Globe’s Michael Rezendes, Schaeffer was the leader of the Jesuits in the Chicago area when an anguished father came to him in 1993 with concerns about an inappropriate relationship between Donald J. McGuire, then a Jesuit retreat leader, and the man’s young son. Schaeffer neither investigated the complaint nor contacted police. Instead, he sent McGuire for treatment of a sexual disorder. Afterwards, he acknowledged he knew the treatment did not cure McGuire.

Today, McGuire is serving 25 years in federal prison on child sex-abuse charges, while the Jesuits face a lawsuit for their failure to protect one of McGuire’s alleged victims. Meanwhile, Schaeffer landed on the BC Board of Trustees and became the head of a BC-affiliated study center for future Jesuit priests.

When first pressed by the Globe, Schaeffer declined to answer questions about his role in the McGuire matter. Instead, he issued a statement through the Jesuits’ Chicago Province, saying he was sorry that his actions had not been enough to stop McGuire “from engaging in these horrific crimes.” Officials at BC, meanwhile, said they planned to take no action against Schaeffer. They said the university had no knowledge of the McGuire case or of Schaeffer’s role in it when he was elected to the board in 2004.

That doesn’t wash with Anne Barrett Doyle of “These are the most powerful people in Boston,” she said of the BC trustees. “They knew or should have known that Schaeffer had supervised Father McGuire.”


Schaeffer stepped down after the Boston College independent school newspaper, The Heights, called for his resignation and a group of faculty members met with Boston College President William P. Leahy to make a similar argument.

He continues to serve in the study center and is still a board member at Georgetown University, Loyola University Chicago, and Brebeuf Jesuit, a prep school in Indianapolis.

Benedict has apologized for the clergy sexual-abuse scandal and launched ongoing investigations of widespread allegations. But he does not jettison all those who broke the church’s sacred covenant with children. There are too many and the chain of accountability leads directly to him. It’s much easier to condemn naughty nuns.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at Follow her on Twitter@Joan_Vennochi.