Mea Maxima: Voices Unheard, 11

y kendall
9 min readMay 17, 2022

Antigone and Antigonish, Two Tragedies

So I’m watching Betrayal and halfway in. Some of the Canadian victims are seeking out Jeff Anderson, an American lawyer in Minnesota with specific expertise in Catholic abuse cases. He supplies the name “Maciel” as an example of the long-term venality of Church responses to abuse. Maciel? What?!

Remember him? Marcial Maciel Degollado, Mea Maxima’s “Devil in Disguise”; the buddy to Pope John Paul and Jeb Bush; the one to whom Benny One-Six gave a pass? Remember, I mentioned his having children out of wedlock? Well, according to Anderson’s research, Maciel not only broke his vow of chastity fathering children out of wedlock, but then abused one of his own sons for around ten years, starting when the boy was seven.

Betrayal begins to feel more and more like old-home week when I recognize Father Doyle, with a Medieval mass chant I’ve studied playing in the background. The story of the deaf victims becomes more than a suggestion, but actually appears as part of a montage of press coverage of abuse cases around the world.

And the pain. One victim, now an adult, says he wondered, during the abuse, if he could scream and would he be heard if he did. Would he be heard?

Everything good in me was taken out and it was, just like, put in a blender. How do you exist after that?

I will say this: American bishops are more polished liars than Canadian ones. The new Antigonish bishop, Brian Dunn was clearly an unpracticed liar, but he was game to try. His lame irrationality that even though the Vatican appoints diocesan priests, and even though they move them hither and yon to new victim pools every time their misdeeds are uncovered, somehow the Vatican shouldn’t be held responsible for priestly misconduct, was sad in its pathetic incompetence. I could almost hear the bubbles as he drowned in the water that was way over his head.


St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City: part of an odyssey of magnificent church architecture and music I made in Fall of 2012 when I moved from Houston to New York, ready to start my Columbia University MFA in nonfiction writing. Timothy Cardinal Dolan, the celebrant of the Mass I attended at St. Patrick’s, seemed warm and kindly, his homily thoughtful and rhetorically skillful, combining a matter-of-fact graciousness with apparent sincerity. I was impressed.

But that was before.

As I later remembered the same qualities in the videos shown of Father Murphy, retrospect haunted me. Dolan appears in Mea Maxima as an archbishop and as one of the Catholic authorities who was informed of the abuses. He managed settlements in excess of $26 million to victims, all the while defending the Church. Appearing on 60 Minutes in 2011, he called the acts of abusive priests “hideous” and “nauseating,” yet he felt that the response of the Church was “good.”

Cardinal Timothy Dolan
Cardinal Timothy Dolan

I’d love to believe that he had no idea of the depth of the problem, but there are 26 million reasons I’m convinced otherwise: those and the continual uncovering of more cases accompanied by evidence of Vatican awareness and complicity in coverups. Additionally, according to Church documents published by the Pulitzer Prize-winning Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, after having obtained Vatican approval, Dolan supervised the transfer of more than twice that amount ($57 million!) into a cemetery trust fund, which would remove this money from the archdiocese’s accounts, thus saving the money “from any legal claim or liability.”

It appears that removing that money also allowed the Archdiocese of Milwaukee to both keep the money for themselves, while keeping the money away from possible claimants by declaring bankruptcy. In the wake of these clever-clever activities, Dolan was promoted to Cardinal.

This bankruptcy strategy may have worked against those victims satisfied with financial recompense, but many simply wanted truth, they wanted access to documents chronicling the Church’s role in this tragic scenario. This move to hold the Church accountable remains one of the ongoing goals of SNAP, a dedicated organization in place for more than twenty years and currently reporting over 12,000 members.

Eventually, documents numbering in excess of 50,000 were uncovered in a Wisconsin bankruptcy court. These documents were released to attorneys under seal in mid-2012. Pope Benedict resigned in February of 2013, slipping out of the line of fire before a tranche of six thousand documents — including letters between abusive priests and church administration, and letters between victims and their parents to the priests and the Church — was made public on July 1, 2013.

Excerpted in the July 20, 2013 Journal Sentinel, one letter from Dolan to CDF chief Ratzinger initially seems to shine a more positive light on then-Archbishop Dolan’s outrage at the behavior of a fellow priest:

Father Becker has admitted that a number of these acts of sexual assault occurred . . .. While he attempts to present a defense based on cooperation and need for sustenance, in interviews with him, there is little display of repentance. His sorrow is not over what effect his immoral and abusive behaviors had on others, so much as it is remorse that he has lost a sense of status . . ..

Dolan seems offended that the priest shows no remorse. And perhaps he was. But looking at the entire letter reveals the contradictory timbres of Dolan’s voice:

In accord with the norms of Sacramentorum sanctiatis tutela, I am re-submitting for your consideration the case of a priest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, Reverend Franklyn Becker has been accused of multiple acts of sexual abuse of minors. The summary of these allegations was previously forwarded. Father Becker has admitted that a number of these acts of sexual assault occurred.

We have been asked by Archbishop Amato of the Congregation [aka “Inquisition”] to approach Father Becker with a request that he seek voluntary laicization as a sign of repentance. Although our Vicar for Clergy had previously made this request of him, he was approached once again. As you can see from the enclosed letter, he is refusing once again to take the requested action.

While he attempts to present a defense based on cooperation and need for sustenance, in interviews with him, there is little display of repentance. His sorrow is not over what effect his immoral and abusive behaviors had on others, so much as it is remorse that he has lost a sense of status. The sustenance issues he raises are irrelevant.

The Archdiocese understands its obligation to provide support if he is unable even though he may be dismissed. We are prepared to provide that support until such time as he is eligible for our pension which will be in less than three years.

Given the scope of his abusive actions, and the ongoing potential for criminal action against him in the state of California, I concur with the judgement of Archbishop Amato that the matter should be referred to the Holy Father for a dismissio ex officio e statu clericali una cum dispensatione ab omnibus oneribus sacerdotalibus.

With sentiments of esteem, I am,

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Most Reverend Timothy M. Dolan

Archbishop of Milwaukee

This letter of November 2003 shows that the Church is willing to give financial support to this admitted abuser and a pension for the time he spent abusing his flock. Despite this, he won’t volunteer to resign, as requested. I especially like (and by that I mean, hate) the part where Dolan says “given the scope of his abusive actions and the ongoing potential for criminal action against him in the State of California . . .” No mention of victims, just a perturbed, “he’s done all this stuff, plus California may prosecute him (Becker had been arrested in May 2003), so we need to cut him loose with a dismissio ex officio e statu clericali una cum dispensatione ab omnibus oneribus sacerdotalibus from the Pope.”

I’m no Latin scholar, but I see “dismissal” and “clerical status,” plus “priestly (sacerdotalibus).” However, since the Devil is in the details (as it is apparently in some part of the Church), I looked it up: “Dismissal out of clerical status along with dispensing of all priestly duties without official trial.”

According to the Office of Media Relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the request that the pope dismiss Becker ex officio, means that Dolan has found that the evidence of Becker’s actions is indisputable or admitted, so there should be no official canon law trial; the pope should simply dismiss him from the priesthood, and from all duties and responsibilities thereto. It is a condition from which there can be no appeal, rather like a presidential pardon. But unlike presidential pardons, which are public, ex officio dismissals can be kept somewhat sub rosa.

Bear in mind we’re not talking excommunication: whistleblowing about abuses can get you excommunicated, but raping children only gets you defrocked and that’s only if the cops are on the way. I didn’t really understand this reasoning until I learned that the last thing a man hears before he becomes a priest is “tu es sacerdos in aeternum,” which means “you are holy for all eternity.” I can just about begin to see why the Church would hesitate to reverse eternity. Once you admit that eternity is not eternal you might well begin to question other absolutes — like papal infallibility.

In an act that mitigates, if only slightly, Dolan’s suspect acts, the documents reveal that he did ask that one priest, Fr. John Wagner, be removed from the priesthood; this was in 2005, although complaints had been coming in since the 1980s. Sigh.

Not only had Wagner admitted the behaviors, but they were continuing. After nearly a year, the Vatican’s CDF chief Angelo Amato finally responded. Good news, amirite? Not.

Amato asked for more information. Apparently, the complaints, the confessions, and the communiques from the Archbishop were insufficient. But after all, you wouldn’t want the Inquisition folks to rush to judgment, would you?

But Vatican officialdom isn’t the only bureaucracy at fault. It took Dolan two years to supply the requested information, after which he finally got the go-ahead to begin the process. Good news, now? Not.

The process was a long one, but it finally ended, finding against yet another pedophile priest. Good news at last, time to pop the champagne corks? Not.

Benny One-Six didn’t laicize Wagner until 2012, and it seems that this move, which again is not excommunication, included a deal to support Wagner for a few years until he could begin to collect social security payments. He’d probably even get a pension.

Let’s recap:

  • Complaints since 1982 — Delay
  • Transfers, therapy, 1983–2005 — Delay
  • Confession of abuse, 1986 — Delay
  • Removed from ministry (but not priesthood), 1992 — Delay
  • Archbishop takes action, 2005 — Delay
  • CDF requests more info, 2006 — Delay
  • Archbishop info submitted, process started and completed, 2008 — Delay
  • Pope laicizes, 2012

Commenting on the 2015 conviction of a Minnesota priest and resignation of both his archbishop and bishop, SNAP leader Frank Meuers said that not only the perpetrators of abuse, but those covering up should be defrocked; I think he’s right, but I think the likelihood of that happening is exactly nil.

Just look at the case of Keith Cardinal O’Brien, highest ranking Catholic in the U.K. It looks as if he hasn’t abused any children, which makes for a change, but over the years he’s been having sex with various other priests, presumably consensual, but there’s that pesky celibacy thing and the anti-gay thing (he called homosexuality “moral degradation”).

For his punishment, the Church let him resign from public duties as a Cardinal, but he’ll still have the title and his retirement pay. He’ll be free to wear his prized red hat in his private retirement home which, according to the Edinburgh News, cost a Scottish archdiocese £208,750 (over $230,000). After all, a Church spokesperson chides, we will take care of him just as we would any other priest.

But back to the Dolan letter. Notice there is no mention of sin. And Dolan signs himself “sincerely yours in Christ.” Indeed? Suffer the little children . . .? I know it’s a standard salutation, but it still burns me up. It seems clear that had Father Becker agreed to resign his post, he would never have been defrocked, regardless of how many minors he abused, but he wouldn’t take the hint, so Dolan finally started playing hardball, not — it seems to me — because of the abuse of children, but because Becker continued to embarrass the Church with his presence. His recalcitrance forced the Church to take action.

With an ex officio dismissal, which is quite rare, Becker would receive none of the money the Church was willing to pay had he just gone quietly. Bear in mind that the dismissal was only granted in 2003; the complaints about this priest had started in 1970. Becker had had eleven positions after that point. After 1980 when Becker admitted that “with my orientation, the frequent presence of teenage boys . . . was tantalizing to say the least,” he was awarded five more parish positions in California. This was around the same time Fr. Gauthe seemed about to meet his destiny in Louisiana.



y kendall

A Stanford-trained musicologist who recently took a career swerve after 20 yrs in TX. With a Columbia MFA in nonfiction, she moved back home to TN. @gykendall1