The birth control bishops

Rather than spend energy fighting contraception legislation, Catholic bishops should clean up their own backyard.

Carolyn Mahoney
Rep Carolyn Maloney rightfully pointed out the conspicuous lack of female voices in a hearing on contraception [GALLO/GETTY]

San Francisco, CA – Forget child abuse. The Catholic Bishops would rather spend their time, money, and resources on birth control and women’s sex lives. The main debate over the past few weeks in the United States has been about birth control. And guess who’s dominating it? The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), the country’s official organisation of the Catholic hierarchy.

The bishops are up in arms over the Obama administration’s rule that would have required health insurance plans, including Catholic-affiliated hospitals and universities, to offer free contraception. Once the bishops took to the airwaves to criticise the decision, the administration modified its policy so that insurance companies, not Catholic hospitals or universities, pay for contraception. But that didn’t appease the bishops – or Republican extremists. 

On February 16, House Republicans thought it was necessary, with all the economic problems the US is facing, to hold a hearing on the contraception rule. The panel was comprised of five men – five religious men who without any kind of health background (watch this video, towards the end).

Before walking out of the hearing, Democratic Representative Carolyn Maloney of New York said: “What I want to know is: where are the women?”

The next day, MSNBC‘s Morning Joe asked that very question. Ironically enough, Morning Joe’s discussion about the all-male hearing on birth control was comprised of men. You really can’t make this up

This issue isn’t going away anytime soon. According to Reuters, the bishops’ conference plans to “battle” the administration on the contraception issue by running TV and radio ads, and asking pastors of every evangelical denomination across the country to read their congregations a letter protesting the mandate as an assault on religious liberty.

Scandals of their own

But shouldn’t Catholic bishops be dealing with child sex abuse? Why do they have any credibility left after covering-up widespread child abuse scandals that continue to this day?

These are the questions I keep asking myself as I see and hear these men speak with such authority on birth control on every major US media outlet. If only these men cared as much about the children whose innocence has been shattered by paedophilia and the adults who are struggling to come to terms with the abuse they endured as children.

Catholic bishops in the US want every single act of sexual intercourse to lead to the conception and birth of a child, but once that child is born, they are on their own, especially if their priest abuses them. 

Why isn’t this issue being raised? Am I going too far here? I called SNAP: Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests to find out. What do survivors think when they see these men on Capitol Hill and national TV spewing their patriarchal views?

“There is a lot of anger, frustration, and pain,” says Barbara Dorris, outreach director for SNAP. “Seeing these men on TV talking about birth control doesn’t surprise me, but it saddens me.”

Dorris’ priest abused her as a child, but she repressed the memories for years. In 1991, she caught a priest molesting a child in the St Louis, Missouri, parish where she still lives and taught gym class at the time. “Shortly thereafter, my memories came back,” she says. “I got him out of my parish, but the bishop moved him to another parish. He got caught four times, but he’s in another parish and still has access to kids.”

Dorris says the cover-ups are still happening across the country, yet we rarely hear about them in the national dialogue. “It’s one thing that there are abusers. Bishops have gotten away with moving these predators from place to place, allowing them to start fresh. They are far more dangerous than the predators.”

Barbara Blaine, who founded SNAP 14 years before the scandal received international headlines, was repeatedly molested by a Catholic priest at the parish she attended in Toledo, Ohio.

She says the bishops who are trying to control women’s reproduction are the same men who continue to cover-up for priests who are sexually violating and raping vulnerable children today. “We have to question their moral authority when they are still covering up for child molesters,” she says.

Little justice for the wronged

She points out that Bishop Robert Finn, leader of the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City, Missouri, is the only high-ranking Catholic who has ever been indicted for enabling and covering up child abuse. In October 2011, Bishop Finn was charged last year with one misdemeanour involving a priest accused of taking pornographic photos of girls. The charge carries a maximum penalty of one year in jail and a $1,000 fine. On February 15, attorneys representing Bishop Finn filed motions seeking a dismissal of the criminal charge.

On February 21, SNAP held a protest in front of St Peter in Chains Cathedral in Cincinnati, Ohio, to expose Father Robert Poandl for allegedly sexually abusing at least two boys nearly 30 years ago. In a separate incident, Ohio News Network reports that in 2010, Poandl was indicted in West Virginia after a 28-year-old man accused him of molestation. A judge threw out the case because the accuser failed to comply with a court order. Poandl was recently relieved of his duties in Savannah, Georgia, and was sent to Cincinnati.

“It is clear that he is a danger to kids,” said Judy Jones, associate director of SNAP, in an interview with CBS Atlanta 46. “He should not be put out there in these small parishes. We are urging anyone with knowledge or who has been harmed by Father Poandl to please contact police.”

It gets worse, and it’s not confined to the Catholic denomination. Darrell Gilyard, a Jacksonville, Florida, pastor who served three years in state prison after pleading guilty to molesting a teenage girl he was supposed to counsel and sending sexually explicit text messages to another, is once again preaching from the pulpit at Christ Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church. The Florida Times-Union reports that in 2004, Gilyard, a registered sex offender who is reportedly on probation until December 2014, admitted to fathering the child of a woman who had accused him of raping her during a 2004 counselling session, according to court records.

And how are children being protected from Gilyard? They’re being sent to a separate building and service. Praise the Lord and welcome to Sunday mass. Now please send your child across the street because our preacher is a convicted paedophile. The New Black Panther Party is holding demonstrations outside of the church calling on Gilyard to step down.

So if convicted paedophiles are still preaching and cover-ups are still happening, how often are children being abused? When survivors are ready to seek help, they often turn to Barbara Dorris. I was shocked to learn that she receives eight to nine calls a day from adults who were abused as children.

“To this day, they think they’re the only one,” she says. “They ask: ‘What can I do? I’m terrified he’s still out there. What can we do to make sure nobody else gets hurt?’ That’s the most common question. That’s a huge fear for a survivor. They feel responsible and guilty. ‘If only I’d told sooner, nobody else would have gotten hurt.'”

No change

I then called Terry McKiernan, president of Bishop Accountability, an organisation that documents the abuse crisis in the Catholic Church, to find out if priests are still abusing children on a regular basis. What I wanted to know: Has anything changed since this the scandal erupted in 2002?

“Over the course of our conversation, a priest is abusing a child. I’m afraid things really haven’t changed all that much. What has changed is that reporters are keeping an eye on them,” he says. “The bishops like to take credit, but they are being forced into making those changes. They wouldn’t have done a thing except their position has become untenable.”

I asked McKiernan about Reverend William E Lori, the Bishop of Bridgeport, Connecticut, and spokesman for the USCCB, who, at the all-male hearing on Capitol Hill on February 15, compared the provision requiring healthcare plans to cover contraception to a kosher delicatessen being forced to serve pork. As if there was a social and governmental benefit in ensuring women have access to slaughtered pigs.

McKiernan says Reverend Lori is an “example of the new crop of bishops who talk a good game, but really haven’t followed through with their promises to be transparent about child abuse in the Catholic Church”.

Reverend Lori came in with the job of cleaning up the mess of Retired New York Cardinal and former Bridgeport Bishop Edward Eagan. During Eagan’s time in Bridgeport, from 1988 to 2000, dozens of people accused priests of abuse, but rather turn these cases over to law enforcement, he dealt with them internally, endangering even more children in the process.

“He’s [Reverend Lori] not an egregious character, but he’s just doing damage control. He’s not really following through on the promises of transparency,” says McKiernan.

Speaking of damage control, over the course of my research, I ran across an analysis of a May 2011 USCCB 143-page $1.8m report [PDF] analysing the extent of the sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church titled: “The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2010”. The report was compiled by the research team at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York.

“It is important to note that, although the research was carried out by the John Jay College, the UCCSB had the final say on whether or not to authorise publication of the report,” writes Miranda Celeste Hale, an English professor at North Idaho College, who writes about politics and the negative effects of childhood religious indoctrination.

Hale spent her spring break reading and analysing what she calls a worthless and dangerous report, which blames the cultural revolution of the 1960s for the abuse.

Hale says one of the most egregious aspects of the report was that the researchers arbitrarily redefined paedophilia as sexual abuse of victims that were ten years old or younger at the time, despite the fact that the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) sets the cut-off age at 13.

Redefining paedophilia allowed the researchers to claim that 22 per cent of sexual abuse victims were age ten and under, while the majority of victims were pubescent or post-pubescent, but Hale points out, if the researchers had used the DSM’s definition, that percentage would jump from 22 per cent to 73 per cent.

“The redefinition of paedophilia was really shocking,” she says. “Normally, a high percentage of priests would have been considered paedophiles and suddenly it’s fewer priests. No media outlet bothered to mention that or the fact that the report was funded almost solely by Catholic affiliated organisations.”

Hale believes the report is a “major setback in the movement towards church accountability”. She writes: “No, we must not shut up. We must not allow the Church to dominate the discourse. Speak out in whatever ways you can. On its own, what you or I say or write may not have any effect on the Church or the discourse surrounding this issue. Taken as a whole, though, our words provide a clear indication that there are many of us who will neither blindly accept the Church’s domination of the conversation nor quietly sit by while they evade justice time and time again.”

Focusing on the real issues

The media have a responsibility to explore these issues. Stop giving the USCCB a wide open platform.

Why, in a country that prides itself on the separation of church and state, does the USCCB have so much influence in Washington DC, regardless of the party in power? According to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, the USCCB spent $26.6m on advocacy and “political activities” in 2009. Where does this tax-exempt group get their funding? Why are they given a pass on paedophilia?  Why did they redefine paedophilia?

Why are they so eager go after birth control when priests are still molesting children? I tried asking the USCCB this very question, but they didn’t respond to my interview requests. Why isn’t the hypocrisy being exposed? Raise these questions and demand answers. Do it for the survivors.

Rose Aguilar is the host of Your Call, a daily call-in radio show on KALW in San Francisco. She’s the author of Red Highways: A Liberal’s Journey into the Heartland.

Follow her on Twitter @roseaguilar

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly placed the diocese of Bridgeport in the state of Massachusetts. We apologise for the error.