Some people have asked me to comment on Michael D’Antonio’s book Mortal Sins: Sex, Crime, and the Era of Catholic Scandal.
D’Antonio is a Pulitzer Prize winner, so the book is well written and carries the reader along. He narrates the process in which the extent of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church was revealed over the past generation. He organizes his material by focusing on key agents, especially Richard Sipe, Tom Doyle, and Jeff Anderson (all of whom I know).
Tom Doyle and Jeff Anderson are both recovering alcoholics, which they have made public. In Doyle’s case, I think I was the despair he felt at the hierarchy’s attitude that led him to a drinking habit.
Anderson had deeper problems, including cocaine use and adultery. I thought the book went too far in detailing these problems, to the embarrassment of his children. But Sipe explained to me that AA demands brutal honesty about failings, and Anderson also talked publicly about his sins so no one could blackmail him. That is, no one could say, “Go easy on this priest, or we will reveal that you did XYZ.” Anderson had already told the papers that he had done ABCDEF and so on all the way through XYZ. Still….
Everyone who has dealt with the sexual abuse crisis has paid a price. The fires of hell singe even those who are trying to put them out. Joseph Epstein said he had stopped reading about the Holocaust when he noticed that those who studied it too closely tended to commit suicide. I have had endless nightmares; others have had their marriages wrecked, or have been driven to drink. The collateral damage has been heavy for the rescue workers.
D’Antonio gives a good overview, and it is less painful to read than my book, Sacrilege. Some of my friends, including psychiatrists, told me that they couldn’t read my book; it was too explicit about the abuse.
D’Antonio is substantially factually accurate, as far as I know. A few minor quibbles. He said that the First Vatican Council gave the pope the gift of infallibility – that is not exactly what happened. He also said that the pope governs the church through encyclicals. Encyclicals are teaching documents; government is done through motu proprios, apostolic constitutions, and such like.
D’Antonio also follows the party line that clerical homosexuals are no more likely to abuse minors than clerical heterosexuals. I have my doubts about this claim. In the general population it may be true, but I suspect that the type of homosexual attracted to the clergy is more likely to abuse than a heterosexual is.
D’Antonio also doesn’t address some of the deeper theological problems that contributed to the abuse – the misunderstanding and over-stress on obedience and the suspicion of emotions, especially anger, in the spiritual life. Conrad Baars diagnosed the latter.
But the book is a good introduction and overview, and I hope that people who can’t read the more painful accounts will read this one.