Sensational Headlines Continue: Catholic Church Flounders
by Eileen Flynn


The shocking news that imprisoned former priest John Geoghan was killed by another inmate was a wake-up call to the Catholic bishops of the United States. What could be angrier, more vicious, or express outrage more forcefully than the act of killing a notorious prisoner convicted of the sexual molestation of a minor? In Geoghan's case, the number of people who accused him of abuse was approximately 150; his actual conviction was for one count of sexual abuse of a ten-year-old boy. At the time of his death, two other cases against him were pending, and his conviction was on appeal.

John Geoghan was buried on August 28, 2003. Much as they want to lay the dreadful sexual abuse scandal to rest, the Catholic bishops of the United States have more daunting work to do before they will realize this objective.

By all indications, the bishops are trying to distance themselves from the sordid crisis that has enveloped the church for the past twenty months. Every time they think they might be in the clear, something terrible happens. Remember the June headlines about Bishop Thomas O'Brien of Phoenix and his involvement in a deadly hit and run? Or the resignation of outspoken Governor Frank Keating as head of the National Review Board after a concerted effort by Cardinal Roger Mahoney and other bishops to undermine Keating’s leadership of the lay panel charged with enforcing the bishops’ own policies? As much as the bishops want the headlines to go away, they continue to haunt them.

Could these haunting headlines carry any trace of a silver lining? Maybe, just maybe. The intensity and harrowing nature of the stories provide a reminder of how pervasive is the disgust of Catholics and all people over the misconduct of priests and the equivocating of bishops. There is a strong conservative faction in the Catholic Church that is trying to minimize what has happened, blame the media for sensational coverage, and purge gay priests. This faction wants to avoid the full complexity of the scandal and promote its own homophobic agenda. If the bishops go the route the conservatives are mapping out, we will never get beyond the sleaze in which the barque of Peter is sinking.

The answer lies in opening up the windows and letting the sunshine in. As suggested recently by 160 priests in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, reexamine the requirement that priests be celibate, with openness to the possibility that celibacy for priests become optional. Examination of whether or not celibacy attracts psychosexually dysfunctional men who hide behind the cover of the pretense of sexual abstinence must be carried out.

Whatever they do about celibacy, bishops should turn over the control of diocesan finances to lay finance boards; it is the people's money. Until they do this, there will be suspicions about the way they are handling church funds. One of the clearest lessons of the sex abuse scandal is that bishops and cardinals misappropriated church funds. They behaved with money as though they did not have to answer to anyone. The laity should control church funds, and bishops should go to lay leaders to get approval for appropriations.

The bishops need to talk with theologians who would be pleased to take them step by step through the maze of Catholic sexual ethics and point out the inadequacies in the system that has resulted in bishops being able to rail against every sexual sin except the molestation of children. The bishops’ blind spot, which prevented them from realizing how terrible the sex abuse of children is and that abusers must be kept from contact with children, must be acknowledged and repented. No more stalling.

John Geoghan's death was tragic. His killing will not be the last headline and probably won't be the most sensational. Catholic bishops need to quit their obsession with spin control and get busy implementing the radical changes needed by the Catholic Church. If they don’t start fixing what is broken in the structure of the church, people are going to start to think that it is the bishops themselves who are the biggest problem.
Eileen P. Flynn, Ph. D., is a professor at Saint Peter's College, Jersey City, and author of Catholics at a Crossroads: Coverup, Crisis, and Cure (Paraview Press, 2003). Contact Dr. Flynn at

© 2003 Eileen Flynn


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