Skip to main content
Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Mortal Sins: Sex, Crime, and the Era of Catholic Scandal

Michael D'Antonio

St. Martin's Griffin



On a hot summer morning in 1984, the Vatican's ambassador to Washington arrived at his daily staff meeting—he called it "la congressa"—with an armful of files and letters. A trim, broad-shouldered sixty-two-year-old who played tennis several times a week, Cardinal Pio Laghi understood the importance of La Bella Figura (the beautiful figure). His tanned face practically glowed against his black jacket and white Roman collar, and he rarely showed signs of wilting in the Potomac swelter. His aides, who also dressed in priestly black, sometimes joked that the man had been born without sweat glands.
As Laghi took his place at the conference table he deftly separated the items he had brought and began distributing them like a card dealer working through a deck. With each envelope or folder the ambassador, who was born in Emiglia-Romagna, offered a bit of direction in slightly accented English. Letters from American bishops, archbishops, and cardinals were to be given immediate attention. The same priority applied to communiqués from Rome, which came each day via sealed, diplomatic pouch. But staffers were free to handle other matters, like requests from laypeople and ordinary priests, as they saw fit.
Pope John Paul II's envoy, or nuncio, in America leaned on his aides to help him with a heavy portfolio. Besides minding the Holy See's relations with the most powerful nation in the world, Laghi had to keep an eye on Catholics in America, who were by far Rome's greatest source of both donations and headaches. On this morning the workload included a letter from Monsignor Henri Larroque of Lafayette, Louisiana, which noted a multimillion-dollar payment he had approved to settle lawsuits filed by the parents of several boys who had been sexually assaulted by a local priest named Gilbert Gauthe.
At la congressa, Laghi held the letter from Lafayette and fixed his gaze on his church law specialist, a thirty-nine-year-old American named Fr. Thomas Doyle. Laghi said that he had a sensitive problem that needed special attention. He explained the issue in brief and handed Doyle the letter from Frey with instructions to draft a reply and start a file on the case. No one said much about the crimes, the priest, or his victims. Everyone, including Doyle, just assumed he would handle the matter with efficiency and discretion. They then turned their attention to the next item on Laghi's agenda.
The calm and deliberate way that Laghi dealt with something as disturbing as the case of a pedophile priest reflected the self-confidence of a man who had risen to the top of a profession that required equanimity above all else. Tapped to be the Vatican's first full-fledged ambassador to America in 1984, when Washington normalized relations with the Holy See, Laghi had previously served in the Middle East and in Argentina at a time when the military terrorized civilians with kidnappings and murders. As thousands were "disappeared," to use the local term, the Pope's man in Buenos Aires played tennis with the generals. He didn't speak against them publicly until he was about to leave for America. Critics would see cowardice in Laghi's silence. Supporters would say he had kept open important channels of communication.
When Laghi arrived in Washington, the Reagan administration greeted him as a wise practitioner of realpolitik and a reliable ally, even if the Church occasionally edged toward Marx in its critique of capitalism and its concern for the world's poor. Among diplomats, his dual role as a religious figure and emissary of a foreign state made Laghi a unique presence. Officials who saw his clerical collar automatically gave him the benefit of the doubt. Everyday Catholics considered his status as the Pope's man in America and assumed, correctly, he had a direct line to the Holy Father.
Insiders at the nunciature, which occupied an imposing and austere building on Washington's Embassy Row, marveled at how Laghi used his special status to advance Pope John Paul II's conservative agenda for the Church and to give the Vatican an outsized role in world affairs. This was especially true when William Casey, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, visited to sip cappuccino and exchange secret information. Special access to Casey and other top officials helped the tiny Vatican state punch well above its weight class in world affairs. In Latin America, for example, the institutional Church was widely viewed as a conduit to American power even where individual priests and bishops opposed U.S. policies.
With America as an ally, John Paul II—the skiing, hiking survivor of war and state repression—would become the most powerful political force in the history of the modern papacy. His popularity increased after he was nearly killed in an attempted assassination in 1981. (The gunman, Mehmet Ali Agca, was a Turk who may have been backed by the Soviet Union.) The Pope's popularity could be seen in the huge throngs that turned out for his many public appearances around the world. Wherever he went, he attracted record crowds.
Global politics, conducted by secret cable and during visits from the director of the CIA, made the Vatican embassy a plum posting for American priests with designs on power. When he was chosen to serve at the embassy Thomas Doyle moved onto the career fast track. Just thirty-seven at the time, Doyle held a bushel full of advanced degrees in everything from political science to administration. Doyle's appointment to the embassy staff signaled that he had both the right background and the proper conservative religious views (at least as far as he stated any) to eventually be named a bishop, archbishop, or even a cardinal.
Athletically built with dark hair and blue eyes, Doyle was also the kind of masculine and energetic fellow who represented the ideal priest as traditionalists imagined him. An amateur pilot, he thought nothing of renting a plane for an afternoon so he could track migrating whales in the Atlantic. His other hobbies revolved around firearms. A lifelong member of the National Rifle Association, Doyle collected all sorts of guns and enjoyed keeping them in proper condition with regular cleaning and oiling. Whenever he got the chance, he went out and shot targets for fun and relaxation.
Of course the aggressive streak that made Doyle a fan of the right to bear arms also made him skeptical in ways that could have given the hierarchy pause. Though a company man, he sometimes cringed at the royalist fervor shown by Catholics who treated the Pope as a kind of god-king and he was put off by the hypocrisy he saw in bishops who called on others for charity but lived in mansions and rode in limousines. Inside the nunciature, Doyle liked to joke about the dreary "Soviet-style furnishings" and the matching mood of lockstep obedience. However, he had made his peace with the institution because it was committed to saving individual souls from hell and the world from communism and he couldn't think of two more worthy missions.
The elements of service that came with a priest's life felt natural to Doyle and so far he had fit into it fairly well. After he was ordained in 1970 he worked in a parish in a Chicago suburb where he spent a lot of time trying to calm the anxieties of people who feared they "were going to get zapped by God" because they used birth control or harbored "impure" thoughts. Doyle quietly counseled them to follow their own consciences. This impulse to privately encourage people to think for themselves clashed with Doyle's respect of papal power and authority, but he didn't give this contradiction much thought. He believed—no, he knew—that almost every priest harbored inconsistent and even irreconcilable beliefs and they all just lived with the discomfort.
After his posting in Chicago and further education, Doyle landed at the embassy where he shared the serious sense of purpose everyone brought to work that seemed vastly more important than the duties of mere parish priests. His main job was vetting men who were being considered for promotion to bishop or archbishop. The Pope controlled this process and, like a president who can extend his influence by packing the Supreme Court, John Paul II was packing the American church with conservatives. In the process, he bypassed the favorites of the national bishops' conference and relied instead on references from personal allies, including archbishops Bernard Law of Boston and John O'Connor of New York, and Bishop Anthony Bevilacqua of Pittsburgh. To the frustration of the more diverse conference of bishops, these bulldog traditionalists told Doyle whom to advance and whom to hold back.
The politicking that accompanied promotions made Doyle's everyday job a bit of a strain. He welcomed the occasional break from routine, like the letter from the bishop of Lafayette. Doyle wasn't entirely shocked by the case. In his years as a priest Doyle had learned that ordination didn't make anyone perfect. Clergy still got into all sorts of trouble. Alcoholism was common among priests, and many fell short of their vows to remain celibate. He had even heard rumors about priests and bishops with girlfriends, boyfriends, and children. In trusting him to handle such a sensitive matter, Laghi acknowledged that Doyle was a team player who would protect the Church. Doyle promptly wrote a reply to Frey confirming that the embassy had received his report. He then created a file for the case and waited to see what would happen next.
* * *
The world might never have heard much about Bishop Frey, Gilbert Gauthe, or Tom Doyle if all of the parents who complained about the priest's crimes had accepted payment and agreed to stay silent. But one couple did not go along. Glenn and Faye Gastal wanted the world to know that Fr. Gauthe had sexually assaulted their son and used threats to keep him quiet about it. The attacks, which took place in a church, a parish house, and other settings, included rape and began when the boy was just seven. He was so frightened and confused that he kept it secret.
The truth came out when Gauthe suddenly left town and parents of other victims began to talk about how the priest had manipulated dozens of boys into close relationships that quickly became violently abusive. (As one attorney would later describe it, Gauthe had engaged boys in "every sexual act you can imagine two males doing.") With his parents' reassurances and encouragement, Glenn and Faye Gastal's then nine-year-old son Scott spoke in detail about what had been done to him. A small boy with a soft voice, Scott described how Gauthe befriended him and made him feel appreciated as an altar boy. Like others, Scott often stayed overnight in the priest's house on weekends. It was there that Gauthe engaged him in play and then manipulated and coerced him into oral and anal sex. More rapes occurred in the ensuring year. Scott was most affected by the memory of Gauthe ejaculating in his mouth and forcing his erect penis into his rectum. Once he was injured so severely that he reported the bleeding to his parents, hours after the assault, and had to be treated at a hospital.
Scott was seven when he was first raped by Gauthe and the assaults continued for about a year as he remained one of the priest's altar boys. In this time he became a withdrawn and depressed boy who no longer liked to be hugged or kissed by his parents. Indeed, with every crime committed against his body, he suffered the profound psychological trauma that comes with being painfully and violently sexualized by a grown man who was supposed to take care of him. The humiliation, terror, and confusion Scott suffered wounded him much more deeply than the physical assaults. They would also have more lasting effects, influencing how he felt about himself and others. Sex, relationships, faith, and family would all become layered with pain for many years to come.
As parents, the Gastals understood the shame, guilt, and fear Gauthe had instilled in their child and worried that other boys might be harmed in the future if the public didn't know about what had happened. They chose a Cajun lawyer named J. Minos Simon to raise the alarm.
Theatrically gifted and relentlessly aggressive, sixty-two-year-old Simon fancied white suits and broad-brimmed hats and enjoyed hunting alligators with a handgun. As a child he had lived on the edge of a Louisiana swamp in a house without indoor plumbing, and he didn't speak much English outside of school. Simon went to college after serving in the U.S. Marine Corps and then graduated from the law school at Louisiana State University.
After he passed the Louisiana bar, Simon found he was shut out of a local legal establishment that was inclined toward quiet deals that benefited the powerful and preserved the status quo. Left to practice on his own, he became famous with a suit against the governor that went all the way to the United States Supreme Court. There he won a ruling that limited the state's power to investigate labor unions. Confident in the extreme, Simon was a hero to fellow Cajuns like the Gastals and a nightmare for opposing counsel. He was so uncompromising and unpredictable that his letterhead was enough to jangle the nerves of anyone he targeted with a lawsuit. When Bishop Frey received notice that the Gastals wouldn't accept a settlement and Simon was suing the diocese on their behalf, he immediately dashed off another report to Washington.
On the day when Frey's update arrived at the embassy, Tom Doyle took it to Pio Laghi but saw that his boss didn't quite grasp the seriousness of the matter. In the ambassador's experience, no one actually sued the Catholic Church and problems like Gauthe's crimes were resolved in private. Doyle, who understood the limits of Catholic power in America, tried to explain how the case could become a big scandal.
"You don't understand," he said. "In America this can happen."
Laghi still didn't seem to catch on. Too busy for a civics lesson, he told Doyle to contact the Lafayette Diocese, learn what he could, and report back.
Doyle's first call to Lafayette was answered by a monsignor named Henri Alexandre Larroque, who was so matter-of-fact about the ghastly facts that Doyle wondered if there was something wrong with the man. In the days that followed he noted, with some shock, that besides the Gastal civil suit the Lafayette diocese was implicated in a criminal case that would be brought against Fr. Gauthe by local prosecutors who believed he had assaulted several boys. (Among them were some who had settled unlitigated complaints against the diocese.) Neither Doyle nor anyone he consulted could recall a case in which a Catholic priest had been charged in criminal court with abusing many different children. For the Church the big danger in all this lay in the scandal that might emerge as lawyers used the legal process called "discovery" to pry documents out of diocesan files and to compel testimony, under oath, from priests, even bishops.
In late summer the press in Louisiana began reporting on the Gauthe cases. Doyle found himself dumbfounded by the way that Frey and Larroque handled things. Every time he spoke with them they minimized the extent of the problem and downplayed the risk faced by the Church. Worse was the almost flippant way Larocque spoke about the kids.
"By the way, what are you doing for the boys?" asked Doyle before ending one of his chats with Larroque. As Doyle would recall it, Larroque's response was succinct, if disappointing.
"As far as I know, nothing."
* * *
If Tom Doyle was taken aback by Larroque's casual attitude and his lack of interest in Gauthe's victims, he was alarmed by what he learned from Michael Peterson about the overall problem of pedophilia and the priesthood. Fr. Peterson, who ran a small mental health treatment center for clergy, was both a priest and a psychiatrist. These roles made him the obvious man for Doyle to consult about Gauthe. Conveniently, his clinic was located in a Washington suburb ten miles away from the Vatican embassy. Named the St. Luke Institute, Peterson's clergy treatment center was one of several that operated quietly across the country. By offering care only to ordained men, these clinics assured patients of their privacy and helped the Church to keep secret the extent of its problems with troubled priests. Few outside the circle of clergy and therapists even knew such institutions existed.
During their very first conversation Peterson told Doyle that in the past, priests and bishops with sexual problems were routinely diagnosed with depression, alcoholism, or some other, less stigmatizing problem. In therapy some of these men would eventually refer to sexual misconduct, but Peterson suspected that far more kept these behaviors secret. They preferred to say they were alcoholics, or even drug addicts. Anything to avoid being labeled a sexual deviant. Nevertheless he was seeing an increasing number of priests referred by their bishops after they had been directly accused of some sort of sexual impropriety or crime that could not be readily denied. As a priest, Peterson believed these men had betrayed their victims in profound ways. As a physician he was compelled by the challenge of finding a way to bring their behavior under control.
Peterson had first become interested in the persistent quality of sexual compulsions during a psychiatry residency when he met an exhibitionist who just couldn't stop exposing himself in public. To Peterson, the man's compulsion seemed to mirror many aspects of alcohol and drug addiction, which also seemed to overwhelm the human will. With this realization, he began to treat patients with sexual compulsions with many of the same techniques therapists used with clients who were dependent on drink or drugs. He adapted the "steps" of Alcoholics Anonymous, which begin with an individual's acknowledgment of his powerlessness, gathered patients for group meetings, and offered them intensive psychotherapy.
In the six years since Peterson had founded St. Luke, addiction had become the subject of intense public and professional interest. A host of problems that had once been considered character flaws or simply bad habits were being redefined as disorders and people were addressing them with the same regimen that had long been deployed against drug and alcohol abuse. Food addiction, sex addiction, and even shopping addiction were creeping into the vernacular and turning up in popular magazines and on television shows.
At the St. Luke center, Peterson encouraged sex offenders to accept responsibility for what they had done but he couldn't help but notice that the atmosphere inside the closed world of priests—he called it the "clerical culture"—contributed significantly to their problems. With elevation a man gained a superior spiritual and practical status. Among the ordained this status created an all-for-one, one-for-all attitude similar to the code that is found among the officers in many police departments. Outside this subculture the Constitutional separation of church and state, as well as a general deference granted by everyone from cops to kindergarten teachers, protected priests from suspicion and accountability. In short, a priest could get away with a lot more than the average man.
Not surprisingly, the culture of sexual secrecy and the almost unattainable requirement of total celibacy made the priesthood attractive to some men who already had psychological or sexual difficulties and considered it a kind of shelter. Church officials knew this for certain long before the modern abuse crisis began. In 1969 Pope Paul VI consulted directly with Dutch psychiatrist Anna Terruwe, who had found a high rate of immaturity among Catholic priests and estimated that as many as 25 percent suffered from serious psychiatric illness. Terruwe and her American colleague Conrad Baars subsequently reported that "Priests in general—and some to an extreme degree—possess an insufficiently developed or distorted emotional life." Addressing America's bishops in 1971, Baars warned that some men joined the priesthood to "make amends for past sexual sins."
Baars, who emigrated to America after being freed from a Nazi concentration camp, was a pioneer in the study of emotional deprivation. In America, he found that many Catholics were emotionally deprived because they believed that feelings "were potentially harmful to one's life in and with Christ." Clergy were especially susceptible to this belief, according to Baars. "More often than not, a priest comes from a ‘fine Catholic home,' a strict one with little emotional love." In seminary these men, who already suffered from a "maturity gap," were trained to function without an emotional life. "The consequences of this system," he concluded, "have been largely disastrous."
As he explained what he had learned from working with more than a thousand priests, Baars opened up a topic that was rarely considered in a direct way. Talk of alcoholism or loneliness among priests was common, but here was an expert who said that institutional Catholic culture, and the process for selecting and training clergy, produced a corps of men who were ill equipped to care for themselves, let alone serve others. The picture was bleak, especially since it was drawn by a specialist who was a committed Catholic who supported celibacy.
After Baars made his report the American bishops were so concerned about the priesthood that they commissioned their own study, which was completed in 1972. In The Catholic Priest in the United States: Psychological Investigations Eugene Kennedy and Victor Heckler noted that a large proportion of priests "do not relate deeply or closely to other people" and use the institution and their status as "cover-ups for psychological inadequacy." Their report described priests whose "growth had been arrested" and who "function at a pre-adolescent or adolescent level of psychosexual growth."
The phrasing used by Kennedy and Heckler echoed the terms used by experts who tried to explain why any adult man would seek sex with children. As Peterson explained to Doyle, many pedophile priests seemed, to him, to be like children themselves, except they enjoyed an adult status that gave them power and influence. Laypeople, who believed that men were called to priesthood by God, gave clergy the benefit of the doubt and generally assumed that they were extremely good and trustworthy people. Children who were victimized by priests stayed silent out of fear, respect for the collar, or because they had absorbed the shame-bound Catholic sexual sensibility.
The informal conspiracy of silence that protected pedophile priests was reinforced by more widespread ignorance and denial about sexual abuse. As recently as 1965, an authoritative medical guide suggested that most incidents of sexual abuse were extraordinary events for the perpetrators who rarely committed another offense. Among mental health professionals it was generally assumed that people who reported being abused as kids had confused dreams or fantasies with reality.
The modern notion that pedophilia was a rare occurrence was first challenged in 1953 when Alfred Kinsey reported that 25 percent of the women he surveyed said they had experienced sexual abuse in childhood. At first Kinsey's report didn't do much to change public perceptions. In the ensuing decades, however, feminist writers drew attention to the sexual abuse of children as they also addressed violence against women. In the same time new laws required doctors, teachers, and others to report signs of abuse and authorities saw a surge in referrals to police and child welfare agencies. In 1971 the American Humane Association noted 9,000 cases of sexual abuse of children in New York City. This report helped move professional opinion toward the gradual realization that the problem was far more common than previously believed.
Although experts, activists, and lawmakers began to change the ways the professions and public officials regarded child sexual abuse, the mass media played the lead role in shaping public perception about its traumatic effects. In 1976 the TV movie Sybil introduced millions of viewers to a character whose sexual trauma broke her psyche into a host of personalities. With Sally Field in the title role and Joanne Woodward cast as her psychiatrist, Sybil was a "based-on-a-true-story" work that would provoke enormous controversy and charges that it was a fabrication. However, the subject matter and Fields's performance opened a national dialogue on the effects of child abuse. Similar themes subsequently appeared in a flurry of books and films, including The Color Purple, by Alice Walker, which won the 1983 Pulitzer Prize. A year later the ABC network broadcast the film Something About Amelia, which revolved around incest.
While the media prompted public discussions, the academic study of abuse became a kind of growth industry as psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, and others sought to gauge the size of the problem and understand its effect on individuals. University of New Hampshire sociologist David Finkelhor surveyed more than eight hundred students and found that 19 percent of females and 9 percent of males had experienced sexual abuse before age eighteen. Finkelhor's work was confirmed by others and by 1984 a subject that had once been taboo—sexual abuse—had become such a prominent issue that President Reagan noted it in his state of the union speech. "This year," he said, "we will intensify our drive against … horrible crimes like sexual abuse and family violence."
Just weeks after Reagan's speech, the press reported the shocking news that the staff at the McMartin preschool in Manhattan Beach, California, had been charged with more than two hundred counts of sexual abuse. Years of furor would pass before trials that produced no convictions. (Jurors who said they believed that some sort of abuse had occurred couldn't separate truthful statements made by children from fabrications created as adults coached them to reconstruct events.) But in the short term the case contributed to a sudden spike in public concern about child sex abuse. Between 1980 and 1990 officials would note a 300 percent rise in allegations. The overwhelming majority of these claims were judged to be well-founded.
No one who worked with children or in the mental health field failed to see the implications in changing attitudes about child abuse. At schools, day care centers, and other facilities staff rushed to create policies and procedures that would prevent a McMartin-like crisis. At St. Luke, Michael Peterson considered the number of pedophile priests he had begun to treat and the changing social landscape and knew that the Catholic Church faced almost certain disaster. Bishops were still handling complaints with apologies, promises that offenders would be disciplined, and transfers. Parishes receiving an accused priest weren't told why he had been reassigned, and feelings of shame typically guaranteed that victims and their families wouldn't tell. On occasions when parents hired lawyers, payments were made in exchange for secrecy agreements. Sometimes these pacts also required that the offending priest be kept away from parish duties, but often they returned to ministry.
Troubled clergy who wound up at St. Luke received round-the-clock attention in a private setting. Peterson once believed that pedophiles might be cured, or at least brought under control. This belief was consistent with the Christian concepts of forgiveness and redemption and conformed to the code that governed how ordained men—priests, bishops, cardinals, and even the popes—related to each other. As a matter of belief and practice, clergy expected extra privileges and consideration and protected the Church by closing ranks and keeping secrets. Indeed, upon their elevation bishops and cardinals usually took an oath to keep secret any information that might cause scandal.
An isolated set of problems in a small diocese like Lafayette would bring scandal to the Church, but as Doyle and Peterson considered the issue they realized that a much bigger crisis would arise if Catholic Church leaders didn't face the larger problem of sexually abusive priests squarely, and immediately.
In the fall of 1984 Doyle invited Peterson to visit the Vatican embassy for lunch so that he might spell things out for Laghi. He hoped that a little expert advice might move the ambassador to seek a shake-up in Lafayette and conduct a real review of the problem throughout the Church. When the moment arrived, however, Laghi was hosting some bishop friends from Latin America who drew almost all of his attention. As Doyle would recall, Peterson tried to get the ambassador's attention but with little success. Instead Laghi and his buddies gossiped in Spanish, English, and Italian about an endless number of topics, including how hard it was to find Latin American priests who would make good bishops. Too many of them had children.
Frustrated by Laghi's inattention, Doyle and Peterson were left to pray that bishops elsewhere handled things better than the crew in Lafayette, where Bishop Frey and his aides had covered up charges of abuse against a number of priests for many years and quietly placed known abusers into jobs where they would continue to have access to kids. As a clinician, Fr. Peterson believed that priests who were pedophiles would inevitably find and exploit new victims. Fr. Doyle, the canon lawyer and loyal church bureaucrat, worried about the potential for future scandal, lawsuits, and suffering. Of course neither of them could be at all certain of the true shape and size of the hidden crisis. Up to this point hardly anyone inside the Church bureaucracy would speak to them about the problem. Most of what they knew came from their own experience, scattered articles in the press, and confidential conversations with a most unexpected source: Gilbert Gauthe's lawyer.

Copyright © 2013 by Michael D'Antonio