News & Views from 465 California Street

Harboring Pedophile Priests

Clint Reilly

The sexual abuse of children is so vilified in our society that the mere possession of child pornography by an adult is grounds for an automatic jail sentence.

One well known local writer, Ken Kelley, died in jail after kiddie porn was found on his computer. Radio talk show host Bernie Ward is serving time for sending illicit sex pictures of underage children over the Internet.

Nevertheless, thousands of priest child abusers all over the world – in the U.S., Ireland, Germany, the Philippines and elsewhere – were allowed by both ecclesiastical and civilian authorities to roam like predators molesting innocent children.

Buried stories continue to be uncovered like mass graves at a holocaust site. Now, like Watergate slowly winding its way into the Oval Office and engulfing Richard Nixon, two new stories implicate Pope Benedict himself.

First, there is a sickening account in the New York Times of serial abuse by a Wisconsin priest who went unpunished for decades. He continued to molest children while being transferred periodically by higher ups who were aware of his history. Pope Benedict is linked to the chain of leniency.

Second, Europe has just been rocked by new revelations that Archbishop Ratzinger – now Pope Benedict – allegedly did not oust a known child molester when he led the Munich Diocese as a younger prelate.

Last week, Cardinal William Levada, former Archbishop of San Francisco, who was appointed by Benedict to succeed him as Prefect for the Doctrine of the Faith – the second or third most powerful job in the Roman Catholic Church – was compelled to stand up to defend Benedict’s record and honor. I know Cardinal Levada well.

Cardinal Levada is a good man. He is genuinely angry at priests who have used the cloth to cloak their secret lives of crime. Unlike some other bishops, he has turned them over to the cops.

Above all, he is a great priest himself who is not only profoundly saddened by the irreparable harm done to innocent victims but also for the collateral damage caused to the reputation of the church.

As a young man, I studied to be a priest before leaving the seminary after college. For nine years, I lived in an all-male seminary environment that produced many extraordinary priests but also failed to cull out the rogue abusers among them.

In fact, some of the priests who later became child abusers were fellow students while I was at the seminary decades ago or attended before or after me. I actually remember some of them as teenagers.

I never witnessed inappropriate sexual behavior by any priest or student during my nine years.

But I was not surprised to learn many years later that particular students I remembered had become serial abusers as priests.

As young men living in a celibate environment without contact with women, there was literally no sex education at all in the curriculum. We were extremely naïve. For me at least, pedophilia was beyond my comprehension.

It was wrong that church leaders did not anticipate that mandating celibacy creates an even greater responsibility for the institution to dismiss questionable prospects for the priesthood.

But the seminary itself had no mechanism to find and remove students with unclear sexual identities or pathological sexual proclivities. Today, that negligence seems criminal – which is precisely what it is.

I strongly believe that most priests live inspiring and exemplary lives while honoring their vows of celibacy.

But some don’t. And the Church has been negligent by not turning over law breaking priests for prosecution by civil authorities.

Whether or not the Church should end celibacy for priests is beyond my pay grade. But going forward, the Catholic Church must put in place safeguards to monitor illicit or illegal behavior by priests.

There must be zero tolerance for graduating suspect personalities from Catholic seminaries or for not turning over pedophile priests to law enforcement.

Harboring criminals is a felony.

Comments (22)

  • Great column today Clint. You talked about an institution that was familiar to you, in fact, part of your upbringing. You then outlined circumstances where problems could arise or go undetected. Finally, you offered possible solutions on how to improve the situation yet ultimately left the reader to draw their own conclusions.

    Posted by: Cliff W. | April 13th, 2010 at 9:36 am

  • Clint

    Great article in today’s paper about a very sad and troubling aspect of our church. You covered all the bases very well.
    When the scandal broke a few years ago I was shocked at some of the names that surfaced because I did not know they were ever ordained. Obviously
    the screening process left a lot to be desired.
    Saddest of all is that it makes it so difficult for the many good priests who have dedicated their lives to helping others.
    Hopefully reforms in the Church will end this problem and get the Church back on track.
    Keep up the good work.

    Tom M.

    Posted by: Tom M. | April 13th, 2010 at 9:36 am

  • Dear Mr. Reilly,

    I highly respect you as a commentator however, you are making the same mistake many, many do.

    I am not a clinical psychologist, just a teacher with some good horse sense. Adults who use their position of authority, be they priests, teachers or coaches, seek out children because they enjoy taking advantage of innocence – violating trusting, naive souls. It has nothing (or very little) to do with being denied the sacraments of marriage and a regular sex life. It goes far beyond sexual gratification. I am dismayed that the general feeling is this only happens because they’re not married. These are preying, parasitic predators who may have gravitated to those positions, in part, because of access to young children. Please inform yourself as to the true nature and motivation for sexual abuse so you can inform your readers correctly.


    Claudia P.

    Posted by: Claudia P. | April 13th, 2010 at 9:37 am

  • Your last sentence: “Harboring criminals is a felony”.


    What about people who cross our borders and enter this country illegally?

    Posted by: Keith C. | April 13th, 2010 at 9:38 am

  • Read your column this morning. Glad you put your thoughts down on paper. …

    I was particularly drawn to this paragraph: “It was wrong that church leaders did not anticipate that mandating celibacy creates an even greater responsibility for the institution to dismiss questionable prospects for the priesthood.”

    While I did not leave the seminary after college because of the celibacy issue — I just didn’t feel called to the priesthood — it seems clearly that celibacy is a [the?] critical issue not only for a mandate to the Catholic clergy, but also one that is central to basic human development, physically and psychologically. I was once in the audience for a talk by John Paul II when he mentioned that the celibate life was the highest calling to which a person could respond. I looked at my wife and said to her, “That’s bullshit!” While I respected the man and his office, I did not at all respect his uninformed opinion that his way of dedicating himself to God was somehow better than that which I had chosen. …

    In the current debate, the Pope is the perfect reflection of that portion of the hierarchy who have lived rarefied, insulated lives that have nearly no connection or understanding of what ordinary people experience—and that includes the priests who have been forced to live unnaturally-sexless lives, many of them struggling fiercely their whole lives to live up to a “rule” imposed on them by a traditionally sexually-repressed Church. …

    However, I agree with your statement: “I strongly believe that most priests live inspiring and exemplary lives while honoring their vows of celibacy…” and, if I could add, while honoring the humanity of all people, young and old, with whom they work.

    Posted by: Anonymous | April 13th, 2010 at 9:40 am

  • Clint, I appreciate and agree with your views. However, I wished you had something to say about celibacy other than it being above your pay grade. I don’t believe you don’t have a well considered view on the matter.
    John G

    Posted by: John G. | April 13th, 2010 at 9:40 am

  • You, as well as many other commentators, fail to acknowledge that many priests have been accused falsely. I know of two cases; one fought back; and the other was dead after someone came forward. I think some people see the witch-hunt atmosphere and come forward to make money. A priest accused is just like any other person: presumed innocent until proved guilty.

    E. A

    Posted by: E.A. | April 13th, 2010 at 9:41 am

  • Dear Clint,
    Love your column…read it faithfully and
    carefully. Think your ideas generous,
    concise, thoughtful and smart. Keep it
    up. One of nicest things about the Tribune.

    Keep it up.

    Posted by: MLS | April 13th, 2010 at 9:42 am

  • Greatly appreciated your column. You might to consider forwarding it to the O’sservatore Romano and your local Diocese. I have been badgering the San Jose Mercury to confront the Vatican’s historical complicity in the child sexual abuse issue including the history of protecting pedophile priests and the resulting continuing child endangerment and abuse, and was gratified to see that on the same day your column was published they, for whatever reasons, wrote an editorial on the subject. The letter I sent them today, reflective of less frustration and anger than a previous one, is as follows:

    ” I am a lifelong Catholic who appreciates your editorial suggesting that Catholics need to raise their voices and confront the Vatican on its defense of its hierarchy, including the Pope, and its policies which previously served to protect child molesting priests and enabled the ongoing abuse and betrayal of children around the world. Many of the involved hierarchy remain in positions of power, privilege and authority while continuing to arrogantly defend one another and their own historical complicity. Catholics everywhere should loudly call for their resignations and dismissals and, where laws permit, accountability by the justice system, while demanding they be replaced by priests and nuns with genuine moral and spiritual integrity who have consistently demanded that children be protected and offenders held accountable.”

    Again, appreciation for your column.

    - Steve B

    Posted by: Steve B. | April 13th, 2010 at 9:42 am

  • The registered sex offender living in a gated community is pretty funny.

    Shirley S

    Posted by: Shirley S. | April 13th, 2010 at 9:43 am

  • Your column is great, but why don’t you ask or say WHERE ARE THE POLICE, WHERE ARE THE PARENTS????????????? ie., the Wisconsin police knew about the situatiion, why didn’t they act and throw the “priest” in jail???????? is there some sacred rule they can’t proscute priests, ministers, etc.????????????????????, . AS YOU KNOW THE POPE IS THERE FOR LIFE — GOOD OR BAD— HE CAN’T RESIGN, AND THEY CAN’T KICK HIM OUT. If some of these pedophile priests thought they could be thrown in jail, have to sign up as sexual offenders, maybe they would have got help, or something.

    I’m Catholic and I love my faith.

    Posted by: Joanne D. | April 13th, 2010 at 10:17 am

  • Could you please explain to us, if Cardinal Levada is a good man, why couldn’t he say something about the Pope Benedict not taking action against the pedophile priests? Thanks, Ray

    Posted by: Ray | April 13th, 2010 at 10:28 am

  • Clint,

    I was hoping you would address this subject. Ever since reading Maureen Dowd’s column in the Sunday New York Times I have been stricken with a deep sadness.

    I wrote a piece for a blog of which I am a contributing writer entitled “A Catholic’s 40 Year Struggle”. The blog post has generated over 200 comments and still going. Most are discussing whether to remain a Catholic or not. It is a crisis of enormous proportion for many of us, particularly those of us who are cradle Catholics for whom this is not simply our religion, but our culture.

    This latest relevalation which goes all the way up to the Pope is THE turning point for the Vatican. The pace of change in the Vatican is “glacial” and while we know the Vatican’s idea of a year is a century, this issue requires lightning speed if the insitution is to survive and be relevant to many.

    Pope Benedict, unlike the previous, is of course hugely flawed when it comes to even basic Public Relations. I have heard commentary that it is ironic because then Cardinal Ratzinger actually opened up the Vatican to reform around this issue. See NPR link here:
    However his handling of the issue now is deplorable and likely unsalvagable.

    I hope he resigns.

    Posted by: melinda maginn | April 13th, 2010 at 12:10 pm

  • Great article!
    I’m fortunate to be a product of Catholic high school and university. If anything the scandal in the Church motivates me to support my pastor and to work even harder to assist others within my parish.
    I can’t see doing anything else at this time –while I believe the people ARE the Church we have no power to change the hierarchy . We have to let them go their own way while we go ours.
    I am puzzled that Church officials placed the desire to avoid scandal above protecting children from abuse. They must not read the Bible.
    It’s interesting that in the cases of Frs. Maciel and Kiesle, the heirarchy went for years protecting them while they abused boys and intervened only when they showed interest in females. So apparently heterosexuality is considered to be the ultimate perversion. In Latin the expression is “horror feminae”and this appearrs to permeate the heirarchy.
    Possibly the exodus of priests to get married during the 60′s and 70′s as well as straight men leaving seminaries during that time left a vacuum that was filled by men with sexual issues. Married clegy will not cure pedophilia but more room in seminaries might be opened up if marriage is allowed and good men are attracted to the priesthood.
    Ray Mac.

    Posted by: Ray Mac | April 13th, 2010 at 12:26 pm

  • I take great exception to your phrase….” the seminary itself had no mechanism to find and remove students with unclear sexual identities” and further, “Today, that negligence seems criminal”.

    This is the kind of bigoted and thoughtless phrasing that makes it seem that homosexuality is both criminal and the cause of pedophilia. Priests also molested little girls and young women. Not all homosexual priests molest. The cause of pedophilia is sociopathy, not homosexuality.

    Are you saying a homosexual priest who is celibate should not be a priest because he’s homosexual and should have been weeded out for that reason alone?

    This level of ignorance, bigotry and social harmfulness is why the Catholic Church has become more a blight than a help in the world.

    FYI–I am a heterosexual married woman and still mightily offended by the perpetuation of this ignorant meme of equating pedophilia with homosexuality.

    Please educate yourself.


    Posted by: Laurel | April 13th, 2010 at 2:45 pm

  • I just read todays article and I hope you don’t mind if I make a few comments.

    Having sued the SF Diocese for clergy abuse, I believe I have some credibility with this issue. I am a practicing Catholic who loves his Church. Yet, there is a fundamental problem here. I am not talking about changing Catholic doctrine such as women priests, abortion, celibacy etc. I am simply waiting, hoping, and wishing the Church would simply come out and admit what is going on. Our Church has been the butt of many jokes, as it should be when you look at how this story has developed. Yet, we wonder why so many young people leave the Church and become disillusioned.

    In suing the Church, I set out to improve it. I was not going to tolerate excuses such as “we need time” “we don’t know what to do” “this is vey complex.” Meanwhile, I lived with the term alleged next to my name until the Church finally admitted guilt two weeks before my trial. We then proceeeded to court in order to determine the damages. Yet, what if I had taken their settlement offers? Then the whole thing would been swept away, ignored, disputed etc. Aren’t you shocked that the Vatican just released a statement stating Bishops should report these incidents to the authorities? How is that not a given? Isn’t that part of morality? How could anyone not report this problem? What about a convicted molester who wants to be released from the priesthood but they need more time (8 years) to act on it. There is no way you can explain this.

    Yet, what kept me going was this. I hate to sound like an old cliche, but what would Jesus do? I mentioned this to our Bishop. This was a simple answer. He taught us compassion, accountability, and humility. For some reason the Church has ignored these lessons and I cannot understand why. It is not too much for us to expect and demand that they take responsibility for their actions, help those who have been hurt and move forward.

    I met with Cardinal (then Archbishop) Levada a few months after my trial. He mentioned that he understood where I was going and commented that he understood my parents and I were good Catholics and was hoping we would continue supporting the Church. Yet, your suggestion at the end for zero tolerance seems like it is a bit outdated. I mean can you really believe that you are making these suggestions at this stage in history (2010)

    As always, thanks for the thoughts and commentary.


    Posted by: J | April 13th, 2010 at 2:46 pm

  • You do not indicate that you have graduated from law school, taken the bar exam, or been admitted to the California State Bar.

    Therefore I would suggest that accusing the Church of harboring criminals within the meaning of Penal Code section 32 is beyond

    your pay grade. Such activity may be a felony or a misdemeanor, but the offender harbored must have committed a felony.

    Whether the Church should end celibacy for priests is within your pay grade, since you say you lived a celibate life while

    attending seminary. As I understand it this discipline is not claimed to to be essential to the priesthood. Indeed. most early

    apostles of the Church were married, and outside the Roman Catholic Church, marriage of ministers is very common.

    Yours truly,


    Posted by: S.A.S. | April 13th, 2010 at 2:47 pm

  • This column was much better than your misguided column deifying
    Nancy Pelosi.

    Posted by: Michael Farrah, Sr. | April 13th, 2010 at 4:16 pm

  • Mr. Reilly,

    While I’m not a  catholic, I’m somewhat familiar with the Church.  Like many, I’ve been interested in the scandal over child molestation by the priesthood and have not been surprised by the church’s efforts to suppress publicity, to keep the matter within the church and avoid turning molesters over to secular authorities.  The Church has a history of protecting itself above all else.  There have been suggestions from many people from within and without the church that its time to end celibacy for the clergy, allowing priests to marry and to give women a bigger role in running things.  I found it curious that that you feel that you should have no opinion as to celibacy for priests.  Why do you feel that that issue is above your “pay grade”?  It seems to me that celibacy has been an important factor in how the priesthood has gotten into trouble.  Should the celibacy decision be left entirely to the church government?  We are seeing how leaving the issue of child molestation to the church’s leaders has led to a major problem both for the church and its members.

    Sincerely,  John D

    Posted by: John D | April 14th, 2010 at 6:03 am

  • Dear Clint,

    Thanks for your column entitled “Harboring Pedophile Priests” in today’s Marin IJ.  It provided insights on at least a couple of levels that are missing to most of us: Cardinal Levada’s position with respect to the issue and your own experience in seminary and what has been missing in evaluating prospective candidates for the priesthood.

    Many things are being said and have been said about the pedophilia tragedy, which is what it is for so many people: the victims themselves, their families, the parish communities that trusted in abusive priests and their bishops and certainly for the majority of committed and innocent priests who can no longer even think about hugging a child without fear of repercussions.

    While I agree with everything you said, I would add something more. 

    You close your column with the statement, “Harboring criminals is a felony,” and it certainly is.  Coming from the Holy Roman Catholic Church, it is however much, much more.  This institution supposedly holds itself to a — we might even say the — higher authority; weighing in on issues of profound impact such as abortion, the death penalty and war itself.  The Church positions itself as “pro life,” while at the same time countenancing the abuse of innocent children.  It’s more than a felony, Clint, it’s a sin. In the words of the Church, a mortal sin of the highest order. It’s one thing to fear shame and prosecution in the civil courts of this or any other country, but where is the fear of what will be faced in the hereafter by those whose very role it is to clarify such matters to us mere parishioners? 

    Chris S

    Posted by: Chris S. | April 14th, 2010 at 6:18 am

  • Dear Clint, What a great service you are doing for us readers! We discuss your column at McDonald’s where we oldtimers have coffee after the a.m. Mass at St. Leander Parish. You have a great gift of putting things in perspective! The dreadful republican ways of framing the issues makes most of us sick! It is just a fabrication of truth and honesty! Keep up the good work you are doing…..we love Clint…….but also love Obama……….long time San Leandro resident, since 1951, when I was 20……let’s see that makes me 78.

    Posted by: J.D. | April 14th, 2010 at 6:34 am

  • Excellent article today…i would like to hear your point of view on the marriage issue. your pay grade is quite high btw…..

    PS have you read the book by Peggy Noonan on the prior Pope. It is excellent, even though he too failed to grasp this issue.

    Posted by: Kevin | April 14th, 2010 at 6:39 am

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