A church and its misplaced priorities

July 3, 2021 10:00 am

An Iowa attorney general’s report on sexual abuse by priests coincides with U.S. Catholic bishops move toward denying communion to some U.S. politicians. (Creative Commons photo via Pxhere)

Talk about lousy timing.

The biggest religion story in Iowa last week was a jaw-dropper. Attorney General Tom Miller announced he has concluded a three-year investigation of sexual abuse allegations against priests in the four Roman Catholic dioceses in our state.

Miller’s staff examined church records, some dating to the 1930s, that involved about 100 priests. His office also received and looked into 50 allegations against 36 priests, many of whom were the subject of earlier complaints.

Most of the cases involved priests who are now deceased or retired. But three of the allegations involved priests who are still active in the church’s ministry.

“Sexual abuse took place over decades,” Miller’s report said. “The complaints, the victims, the duration of the abuse were overwhelming.”

He continued: “The cover-up was extensive. The image and reputation of the church were put ahead of the enormous harm to young people.”

Here we are, 20 years since the biggest scandal in the history of the U.S. Catholic Church became widely known. Yet, we are still learning about newly reported cases of abuse, and we are learning these were covered up by the bishops and archbishops who are the pope’s eyes and ears in America.

Instead of worrying about these horrible sins by these supposed men of God, instead of focusing on the lasting harm these crimes have caused to generations of children and teenagers, and to the church itself, the U.S. Catholic hierarchy seems to be worrying, instead, about something pretty inconsequential:

Should the best-known Catholic lay person in the U.S., President Joe Biden, be able to receive communion because of his position on abortion?

Talk about misplaced priorities. Talk about lousy timing.

Members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops voted 168-55 earlier this month to begin drafting a document to address many bishops’ concerns about prominent Catholic politicians receiving communion while opposing the church’s position that all abortions should be illegal.

Biden has said he opposes abortion personally but supports the right of pregnant women to obtain legal abortions if they choose.

No one is questioning the authority of the bishops. Those pushing to exclude Biden and other pro-choice Democrats from receiving communion certainly have the right to decide who does, and doesn’t, qualify for communion in the dioceses they oversee.

Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, is blunt about Biden: “Our new president has pledged to pursue certain policies that would advance moral evils.”

To be clear, however, many Americans, Catholics and non-Catholics, have been sickened by the shameful conduct of church leaders in the United States — and in Rome, too — who have turned a blind eye toward the moral evils represented by the likes of two Iowans, Father Jerome Coyle and Father George McFadden.

When Coyle admitted in 1986 that he had sexually abused about 50 Iowa boys, the church did not report him to law enforcement for prosecution for his crimes. Instead, the church continued its longtime practice — moving him quietly to a different community, where no one would suspect anything nefarious about the new priest in town. First it was to a treatment center in New Mexico, then to a care center in Fort Dodge across from a Catholic school and, finally, to another state where his past likely will not catch up to him.

McFadden’s story was similar to Coyle’s — assignment to a parish with unsuspecting boys and parents who had been taught to respect and trust the priest. The church finally concluded — after too many years and too many victims— that McFadden had sexually abused at least 48 boys. He was removed from the priesthood but was not handed over to law enforcement.

Coyle’s and McFadden’s victims had parents who were probably more concerned about their children’s safety and well-being and were less concerned whether the president of the United States is worthy of receiving communion.

Miller’s scrutiny of the abuse problem in Iowa has answered many questions and kept the public spotlight on the dioceses to ensure they do not backslide.

Nationally, one of the questions involves another Catholic political leader, former Attorney General William Barr. These questions go to the U.S. bishops’ silence as the federal government, with Barr’s approval, executed more federal prison inmates during the Trump administration than during any administration in the past 120 years.

Amid all of the discussion and debate over communion, one Anglican priest, the Rev. Daniel Brereton of Mississauga, Ontario, offered his take on the U.S. bishops’ conflict with Biden:

“I don’t understand withholding communion,” he said in a social media post. “It’s not a prize for the best performance. It isn’t a gold star for top marks.

“It’s grace, and we’re not the ones giving it. But what if someone ‘unworthy’ receives it. Uh, that would be ‘everybody.’”

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Randy Evans
Randy Evans

Randy Evans is executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, a 43-year-old nonprofit education and advocacy organization that works for improved government transparency and citizen accountability. He can be reached at [email protected].