Mortal Sins

Sex, Crime, and the Era of Catholic Scandal

By Michael D'Antonio

Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press. 400 pp. $26.99

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Reviewed by Joseph A. Slobodzian


A year and a day have passed since a Philadelphia Common Pleas Court jury found Msgr. William J. Lynn guilty of child endangerment in the priest sex-abuse trial involving the Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

Lynn, 62, for 12 years the archdiocesan official in charge of investigating complaints against priests and recommending action to the archbishop, is serving three to six years in prison.

The prosecution and conviction of Lynn was a landmark for Philadelphia Catholics and Lynn's church: he was the first church official convicted and sent to prison for the sexual abuse of children by priests he oversaw.

Of course, the Catholic church sex-abuse scandal predated the Philadelphia prosecution by almost 30 years. For those who want to understand what happened and why, Michael D'Antonio's Mortal Sins: Sex, Crime, and the Era of Catholic Scandal is a comprehensive examination of the scandal and the role of church culture.

It's also, finally, a very sad story of opportunities not just missed but cast away by a bureaucracy that refused to admit - or deal with - the depravity it nurtured.

It's sad because, in the beginning, those warning of the danger and urging action were true believers: ordained priests who saw a mortal threat to the world's oldest Christian church. They were rebuffed, and in some cases punished, for their warnings.

Today, the cost of that response is hundreds of millions of dollars paid to victims sexually abused by priests and the disillusionment and alienation of parishioners.

D'Antonio tells the story through the lives of people involved from the start in trying to deal with the burgeoning scandal inside the church.

First, and arguably foremost, is the Rev. Thomas Doyle, a bright, young Dominican priest and canon lawyer considered on the fast-track to becoming a bishop, or even cardinal.

Assigned to the Vatican Embassy in Washington, Doyle in the summer of 1984 was directed by the papal ambassador, Archbishop Pio Laghi, to look into a case noted in a letter from a monsignor in Lafayette, La., detailing a multimillion dollar payment made to the parents of several boys who were sexually assaulted by local priest Gilbert Gauthe.

One couple, however, refused to accept a settlement and wanted to go to court to let the world know what Gauthe had done to their son and others.

Doyle, who testified for prosecutors at Lynn's trial in Philadelphia, reported to Laghi what he had learned about the Gauthe case and the danger posed by the parents who would not settle.

For the church, Doyle warned, this could become a big scandal: "You don't understand - in America this can happen."

The archbishop still didn't appreciate Doyle's warning but asked Doyle to investigate further. D'Antonio details Doyle's investigation and how it leads to the Rev. Michael Peterson, a Catholic priest and psychiatrist working at a mental-health facility for priests near Washington.

Peterson tells Doyle about the extent of pedophilia among Catholic priests and how the church has covered the problem by referring priests for treatment of less-stigmatizing problems such as depression, alcoholism, or substance abuse.

Doyle, Peterson, and Louisiana lawyer F. Raymond Mouton, who represented Gauthe in the criminal case against the priest, later collaborated on a report about the problem of pedophilia in the church that recommended ways to address the problem.

D'Antonio shows how Doyle sent the report to every Catholic bishop in the United States and was encouraged to present it to the conference of bishops in 1985.

At the last moment, D'Antonio writes, Doyle is told his report will not be presented at the conference, and he begins to notice a cold shoulder from bishops and church bureaucrats who had encouraged him in the beginning.

The book also details the efforts of church reformers such as Barbara Blaine, a sexual-abuse victim who started a support group for those abused by priests, and lawyers such as the indefatigable Jeffrey Anderson, who became the legal expert sought out by victims of pedophile priests suing the church.

Mortal Sins follows the trail of litigation from 1984 through the present and documents how church officials consistently fought pleas to address the problem of sexually abusive priests and the children they victimized.

Certainly, the church has learned some lessons. Now, complaints of sexual abuse are referred to civil authorities and investigated by the church.

D'Antonio, however, is not optimistic about what he calls the church's "scandal without end." He notes that even as his book neared publication, the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles, under court order, released more than 12,000 pages of documents that showed Cardinal Roger Mahony's direct involvement in efforts to shield priest child-abusers from prosecution.

Joseph A. Slobodzian reports on the criminal courts for The Inquirer. He and staff writer John P. Martin covered the 2011 trial of Msgr. William J. Lynn.