Frances Murphy’s hearing might be failing but at 96 years of age her memory and sense of humour certainly are not. My father’s youngest sister represents the last living thread with this generation from that side of my family. They were the ones who raised the baby-boom crop of Dougherty cousins that I am part of. When I visit Aunt Fran she always manages to relate at least one story that I have never heard before.
A little over a month ago on my annual swing through Kansas City, Missouri, she shared one of her mother’s stories. It seems that around 1904 or 1905 my grandmother, Gertrude O’Neill, had come home from New York City in some distress. The accidental drowning of her fiance coupled with her grueling schedule as a member of a musical theatre company on Broadway had resulted in an emotional breakdown and the loss of her singing voice.
Confronted with these dramatic turns in her life, my Aunt Fran related that her mother-to-be sought the advice of her religious confessor. Informing him that in this dark hour she was considering becoming a nun, her confessor laconically replied, “Gertie, you have been on the stage too long.” This pithy but honest remark from a trusted priest paved the way for my generation.
Truth often seems to be harder to come by these days. My cousin Monsignor Robert Murphy, the Vicar General of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-Saint Joseph, happened to come by while I was visiting his mother. The past year had represented his year of considerable distress. Cousin Bob told me that he had had to spend a total of eight hours before two grand juries and many more hours of questioning by police over the past 14 months.
It seems that Robert Finn, the bishop of his diocese, had chosen not to report an instance of suspected child abuse. A priest under him had been discovered to have child pornography on his computer and his suspicious activities had been detailed by a parochial school principal in a report to the bishop. Reverend Shawn Ratigan, the priest in question, has since pleaded guilty to various child pornography charges.
As reported in an Associated Press article by Bill Draper carried in the Globe and Mail a couple of weeks ago, “instead of turning them (the photos) over to police, Bishop Finn sent Rev. Ratigan to live in a convent … with orders to stay away from children and not take any pictures of them.”
When Ratigan violated these orders, my cousin “turned over the photos to police in May 2011 – against Bishop Finn’s wishes, according to court documents.” As a result, Bishop Robert Finn “became the highest-ranking U.S. church official to be convicted of a crime related to the child sexual abuse scandal.” Finn’s “conviction comes four years after the church paid $10 million to settle 47 pending sexual abuse claims against the diocese and 12 of its priests.”
Last week, the Archdiocese of Melbourne, Australia, revealed over 600 cases of child sexual abuse involving its clergy. Some experts there suggest the real numbers of victims likely will be in the thousands. While certainly not restricted to churches or North America, the current child sexual abuse scandal demands church action.
Pope Benedict XVI apologized in 2008 for the suffering caused to victims of abuse by Australian clergy. Speaking to a crowd of some several thousand at his summer retreat at Castel Gandolfo, Italy, last month on the occasion of the feast marking the martyrdom of John the Baptist, the Pope told of a prophet who “out of love for the truth, would not compromise with the powerful.”
In another Catholic News Service release, the vision of Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, an eminent biblical scholar and former archbishop of Milan, was shared in a final interview just before his death last month. In part it reads, “Our culture has become old; our churches and religious houses are big and empty, and the church’s bureaucratic apparatus grows, our rites and our dress are pompous. Do such things express what we are today? … the church must recognize its errors and follow a radical path of change, beginning with the pope and bishops. The pedophilia scandals compel us to take up a path of conversion.”
Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.