The founder of a Roman Catholic religious order that ran retreat centers for troubled priests warned American bishops in forceful letters dating back to 1952 that pedophiles should be removed from the priesthood because they could not be cured.
The Rev. Gerald M.C. Fitzgerald, founder of the order, Servants of the Paraclete, delivered the same advice in person to Vatican officials in Rome in 1962 and to Pope Paul VI a year later, according to the letters, which were unsealed by a judge in the course of litigation against the church.
The documents contradict the most consistent defense given by bishops about the sexual abuse scandal: That they were unaware until recently that offenders could not be rehabilitated and returned to the ministry.
Fitzgerald, who died in 1969, even made a $5,000 down payment on a Caribbean island where he planned to build an isolated retreat to sequester priests who were sexual predators. His letters show he was driven by a desire to save the church from scandal, and to save laypeople from being victimized. He wrote to dozens of bishops, saying that he had learned through experience that most of the abusers were unrepentant, manipulative and dangerous. He called them “vipers.”
“We are amazed,” Fitzgerald wrote to a bishop in 1957, “to find how often a man who would be behind bars if he were not a priest is entrusted with the cura animarum,” meaning, the care of souls.
His collected letters and his story were reported this week by The National Catholic Reporter, an independent weekly publication. Fitzgerald’s papers were unsealed by a judge in New Mexico in 2007 and are now becoming public in litigation, although some letters were public before now, said Helen Zukin, a lawyer with Kiesel, Boucher & Larson, a firm in Los Angeles. The letters were authenticated in depositions with Fitzgerald’s successors.
The scandal, which began in the 1980s and reached a peak in 2002, revealed that for decades bishops had taken priests with histories of sexual abuse and reassigned them to parishes and schools where they abused new victims.
It was not until 2002 that the American bishops, meeting in Dallas, wrote a charter requiring bishops to remove from ministry priests with credible accusations against them.