Priest Abuse Scandal: Bishops Knew Back in the 1950’s

Rev. Gerald Fitzgerald, founder of the Catholic order Servants of the Paraclete, dedicated his life and his priestly ministry to stopping the sexual abuse of children at the hands of Catholic priests. He did so by writing numerous letters to at least 12 Catholic bishops and one pope warning them of the dangers of sexually abusive priests. Fitzgerald even attempted to buy a Caribbean island where he would send the problem priests. The letters, unsealed a few years ago but now becoming public, show Fitzgerald as a priest who consistently warned bishops about the danger of transferring sexually abusive priests. In some letters, he called for their removal from the priesthood.
These revelations contradict the Catholic bishops consistent defense over the years that they didn’t know the nature or the extent of the problem. Fitzgerald had been working with priest abusers since the 1940’s and had spoken with Pope Paul VI in 1962 about the issue. Some of the most notorious priests were sent to Fitzgerald’s retreat in Jemez Springs New Mexico for treatment and counseling. The strongly worded letters mince no words in depicting the priests as “vipers” and “devils”. In a 1957 letter to a bishop in New Mexico, Fitzgerald wrote, “These men, Your Excellency, are devils, and the wrath of God is upon them, and if I were a bishop I would tremble when I failed to report them to Rome for involuntary layization (sic).”
Fr. Fitzgerald’s prescient warnings went unheeded until the scandal broke wide open in 2002 after the Boston Globe uncovered years of conspiracy and coverup by the Archdiocese of Boston. Fitzgerald died in 1969 and his successors changed the tone and manner in which priests with sexual abuse problems were treated. Often, the change resulted in the priests being returned to ministry in different dioceses. Fitzgerald himself was the object of scorn from some bishops who considered his methods and warnings bizarre and alarmist.
The Catholic bishops of the United States can no longer pretend they didn’t know about the issue. Nor can they feign ignorance of the magnitude of the abuse. As early as the 1940’s they received warnings from Fr. Fitzgerald. In the 1980’s Fr. Tom Doyle took up the mantle and warned the entire group of bishops assembled for their annual meeting. Just like Fitzgerald, Doyle was dismissed and ostracized by the bishops.