Journalist David France, whose work first appeared in Gay Community News and later in the New York Native, the Advocate and Out, covered the crisis in the Catholic Church as a senior editor at Newsweek. In his book Our Fathers: The Secret Life of the Catholic Church in an Age of Scandal (Broadway Book, New York, NY, 2004, 656pp, $26.95) he expands on his writing on the subject to create an expose' is as gripping as a first-rate page turner.
Gregg Shapiro: Were you aware that the timing of more allegations would coincide with the publication of your book?
David France: When the bishops first realized, back in 2002, that they had to do something affirmative to try to regain the initiative over all of this, they held a conference in Dallas and adopted several measures. One of them was this study, commissioned through an outside research facility (the John Jay College of Criminal Justice), so I knew that it was going to happen. The book was supposed to come out in December (of 2003), so the timing now is great. It's the only favor the bishops have given me, so far. Interestingly, the study covers the Catholic Church in America from 1950 to the present, and so does my book. The exact same ground, the exact same series of events. In my book, I conclude that the numbers are much higher than they are now talking about.
GS: An especially appealing aspect of the book is the style in which it is written—it reads like an intrigue novel, but, of course, the story is true.
DF: I made a couple of decisions that all played into this. My first thought was that none of the priests who did this, and none of the bishops who enabled them, went into the priesthood for those reasons. That something had happened to them and I wanted to find out what that was. So I decided that I had to locate everybody in this narrative from a period of innocence, original innocence, kind of an anti-Catholic concept or Catholicism on its head. Then I felt like I had to hear their voices really tightly and really closely. The first model that I chose was Truth and Reconciliation Commissions. The theory behind Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, like the commissions that went on in South Africa and Guatemala and Chile and Argentina, those places, was that an awful history had taken place. It involved people from all sides of the community and in order to get beyond that, people had to be able to speak their truths about what they think got them there. I wanted to let people to talk, without judging them. I got gay priests and guilty priests and angry priests and criminal priests and totally innocent priests, including the gay priests. I tried to understand the bishops, like Cardinal Law in Boston, who allowed this to happen and seemed to encourage this to
happen and seemed to take such an adversarial stance towards ordinary Catholics. The actual architecture for the book comes from Randy Shilts's And The Band Played On. I was a friend of Randy's. I edited Randy at the New York Native all those years ago. It's a brilliant structure that's never been used since, and I found out why. It's incredibly difficult to know that much. Randy was so brilliant and his instinct for reporting was dead-on. For me it was a lot of work to try to do that. That structure tells (the story in) vignettes and builds vignette upon vignette and it allowed me to understand the emotional journeys that the priests took into abuse, into the recognition of their abuse, into their efforts at penance. It was surprising to me because it made me kind of like some of these guys. I developed a kind of human respect for Cardinal Law, for example. I felt sorry for him. The tragedy of his life—the arc is so pure and dramatic.
GS: I'm glad you brought that up, because on page 220, you wrote that in 1992 'American Catholics still bought into the clerical system, which presumed that priests were somehow different and apart from ordinary humans.' And Law is certainly in that category. Do you think that in the dozen years that have passed since that time, that that attitude has changed or do people still hold them in such untouchable esteem?
DF: I think it has changed among the lay Catholic. I don't think it's changed among the old guard in the church. I think that Cardinal Law's struggle and the tragedy of that struggle is that he tried to shed himself of that. We see that in the closed discussions that he had at the end, when he was besieged and reviled by everybody in his archdiocese and by everybody in America, really. He was the face of the ogre priest. And he was meeting with this group of victims —nobody knew about these guys—who were saying to him, 'You've got to do to better. You've got to come out here and do something for us. You've got to save your church.' And I really believe that he tried, from recreating those scenes. But he couldn't shed this heavy carapace of the clerical robes, of the cardinal's mane. He was stuck with it.
GS: When in reality, he's just a man. Good or bad.
DF: Absolutely, and part of him knows that. It was like a radio signal coming in and out. You'd see a flash of recognition, and it was almost human. These guys who were counseling him, they had become his confessors in a way, and they thought they had a string on him and he kept falling away from them. Then finally, that last night when they met with him and they tried one last time and he stood up, knowing that he had to resign, and left the room.
GS: Do you think that there has been a change in the mind-set of the public, as well as those who were compelled to do things under religious duress, thereby becoming victims of sexual abuse, in regards to this matter?
DF: The priests who were ordained from 1960 to 1968 or 1969, and the people that they ministered through the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s—when most of this crime spree took place … since then I think that all of American culture and society has become less reverential for authority; even religious authority. The priesthood has changed dramatically. There are still the great old priests who tend to their parish in really admirable ways. Most of that teaching about the priest being transformed by ordination into God on earth, most of that teaching has gone by the wayside. That's not necessarily to say that they've stopped believing that or that it's been dropped from the theology of Catholicism. In fact, the priesthood itself has acknowledged that these guys are sexual beings, and that they have to be counseled as such, who are trying something really difficult with celibacy. They changed that rule in 1985. Before that, there was no discussion among the priests, or between the priests and their supervisors. I think we look at priests now as being more ordinary. It's not just because of the abuse crisis. I think it's just the way we deal now, in our culture, with most authority.
GS: As a reader, I found myself in a constant state of shock with each new revelation. One of the most shocking events occurred on page 424, with Gary Bergeron's elderly father's admission of being abused by a priest when he was a boy.
DF: I was there for a lot of this reporting. I was there when the dad said that. I was there when these things unfolded. It blew me away. I kept saying, 'I'm shocked.' And I kept thinking, 'How could I be shocked?' I mean, with all I've learned.
GS: Were there things that occurred in your research and writing that shocked you more than others?
DF: There was the case of Father Foley. Late in the crisis in Boston, the attorney finally convinced the archdiocese that they had to release not just the files on priests accused of molesting minors, but also the files on priests accused of any sexual impropriety. Dozens of names were produced. Not one of them involved a consensual sexual act. Most of them also involved minors who grew up into adults, but the abuse continued. Father Foley was the most shocking of those cases. He had had an affair with a woman who had had a lobotomy. From visit to visit, she had trouble recognizing him. He fathered two children with her. He was there, in her bed, when she overdosed on drugs, and left her in the bed to die, with her children in cribs in the apartment. And he was still a priest! In the Boston Archdiocese. Ten or 12 months ago, he was still there. It's shocking. (There are priests who) are infantilized adults. They are unsocialized. They are taught that the world exists in confined, theological patterns and when things don't fit in those patterns, they just disregard them. The world of theology, devoid of the secular world, is a dangerous place.
GS: As the author, how did writing and researching a story of this nature effect you and your own faith?
DF: I'm not a man of faith. I'm not at all religious and never have been. It's not that I had a bad experience with my church. My parents were Episcopalian. It just never clicked for me. I never got it. It's not that it gave me any more or less faith, but ironically I learned respect for faith. I think it's a book about faith. You mentioned Gary Bergeron. That guy had this soaring strength of, if not faith, then hope, or belief in himself. There was something about all that against all odds stuff that he goes through in the course of his life that taught me something about faith itself. Maybe in a generic or secular way, I think I learned about the human soul. If spiritual faith isn't connected to the human soul, then I think it becomes dangerous. I think I've tried to find the places where they were connected and those were the dramatic narratives that I tried to braid together in the book.