Journalist Michael D’Antonio

The Pulitzer Prize winner unpacks his new text on the sexual abuse cover-ups by the Catholic Church.

A Pulitzer Prize winner (as part of a Newsday on Long Island team), Michael D'Antonio has written hundreds of magazine articles and published more than a dozen books. He's also written and sold original stories for film that were produced and aired by Showtime. D'Antonio has worked as a reporter and features writer in New England, DC and New York and covered the U.S. Congress, presidential campaigns and national political conventions. He's also been a research associate at the DC-based Center for Policy Research and lectured at several universities. His latest text, Mortal Sins, examines the issue of sexual abuse and cover-ups in the Catholic Church.


Tavis: In a comprehensive text called “Mortal Sins: Sex, Crime, and the Era of Catholic Scandal,” Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Michael D’Antonio documents how abuse and cover-up led to what’s been called the most severe crisis the church has faced since the reformation.

Part detective story, part legal brief, this nonfiction text weaves together the stories of lawyers, journalists, clergy, and laity who work to expose abusive priests and the superiors who covered up their crimes. Michael D’Antonio, it’s an honor to have you on this program.

Michael D’Antonio: Thank you.

Tavis: Let me start our conversation at what might be an unorthodox place. I’ve always wondered why this happened to the Catholic Church, because one has to believe that there is no other faith tradition where boys or girls are being molested or maltreated, disrespected.

I just find that hard to believe. I know too many other faith traditions where people are misbehaving, and yet all of the attention – I’m not excusing this – but why the Catholic Church? Why did they get caught?

D’Antonio: Well there are a couple of things at work here. I think one is that it’s so massive. This is an institution that has 1.2 billion members. In the United States alone, it’s worth more than IBM. So when you think about, in part, lawyers seeking claims, they’re going to go after the biggest target.

This is a very, very big target. It also has a tradition of hierarchical rule, so it’s all top-down. One of the things that I really have noticed is that if you’re in an independent congregation, a Protestant church, evangelical church, usually there’s a lay board that’s in control.

If a parent came to that board with a complaint, a parent on the board is going to respond. In this case, I think there was all sorts of closing of ranks. The priests support each other, and it’s a problem of a clerical culture that’s unique to Catholicism, I think.

Tavis: Do I take your point to mean then that part of this horrific scandal has to do with the hierarchy, with the way the institution itself is structured?

D’Antonio: Oh, it’s power.

Tavis: Yeah.

D’Antonio: This is a story of power and the abuse of power, and it extends into the political realm, it extends into the legal realm. There are a lot of questions about why there haven’t been prosecutions of bishops who covered up, because as with many crimes, there’s the original crime and then there’s the cover-up, and that’s what makes people feel so betrayed.

If you come to your pastor with this kind of problem and they mobilize to shut you down and shame you and ostracize you, and that goes all the way up to the cardinal in your big city, it’s devastating.

I think that’s really the crux of the matter here. It’s power and the abuse of power and corruption.

Tavis: I’m not naïve, because I do believe, as I suspect you probably do, that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, as we know all too well. Yet I’m not sure that I altogether buy the notion that just because an institution is hierarchical that what automatically follows is that people are going to misbehave from the top down or from the bottom up.

What I’m getting to is beyond hierarchy, how much of this has to do with the kinds of people in these positions?

D’Antonio: This is fascinating, because in the 1960s, the pope asked for a report on the mental condition of priests, and the report that they got back said that too many of them are seeking this isolated, celibate life as a refuge for their problems.

If you have a difficulty, your wiring is off or somehow you are interested in children, you might flee to this life that says we’re going to keep you restricted; we’re going to control your sexuality from outside.

The officials of the church want to deny that this pledge of celibacy is part of the dynamic, but another report issued within the church in the 1970s confirmed that it’s this celibate sexual climate that is a big element of this. Then a third book came out in 1990 documenting the same thing.

There’s just a life that’s detached, I think, from a lot of the normal controls and contact with other adults in a healthier dynamic that is part of it.

Tavis: See, here again, and I love the way you’ve gone about writing this. It has a novelesque sort of quality to it –

D’Antonio: Thanks.

Tavis: – which makes it easy to read. But I want to push back again on this notion of celibacy, because one can choose a life of celibacy and the choice in and of itself not at some point make you go insane –

D’Antonio: Oh, yes.

Tavis: – and start doing things that you otherwise know you got no business doing. So I come back to what was happening inside the church, to your brilliant point, that allowed them to choose people, to allow people to be placed in these positions, who, according to this report, were seeking refuge from their own bad wiring.

D’Antonio: Well, there was a real desperate need for priests.

Tavis: Okay.

D’Antonio: Part of what happened was in the 1960s, and there’s a complaint from the church itself that oh, the ’60s are to blame for this, that many men and women left the religious life because they saw that they could do good works outside the church, and maybe they wanted more from life than they’re allowed inside.

So there was a numbers problem, and I also think that the tragedy of this is that this goes back more than a thousand years. Some of the original writings within the Catholic Church dealt with the abuse of young people.

They talked about it within the confines of the confession. So this sadly is a thing that goes on in our world, a sheltered environment where you might have excessive power and protection enables you, and I think this is what so many victims are furious about, is the enabling.

There have been 500 priests put in jail for this. There have been several thousand deemed credibly accused by the church itself, $3 billion paid in settlements, and it’s still going on today.

On this day, 6,000 pages of documents were released in Milwaukee, and some of it’s pretty incriminating stuff. So it’s a big, big problem.

Tavis: Tell me more about this shortage of priests, because I’ve read about this myself.

D’Antonio: Yeah.

Tavis: So there was, at this particular point in time, a shortage of priests. How does the Catholic Church go about – I don’t want to – you pick the right word. Is it recruiting? How do you find priests?

D’Antonio: Well, you’re supposed to be called.

Tavis: Right.

D’Antonio: Now, we talk about people being called to the ministry, and I think that actually, there’s a healthier, more positive process going on now. It used to be that generationally, families would produce – well, this boy’s going to be a priest, and they’d be in Catholic education and a lot of emphasis would be put on telling bright young men this is your future.

Today, the good news is that they’re generally older, and they are I think more mature, more experienced in life. They’re not trained as high school students, they’re trained as full-grown men, and with more rigor.

I think that it is a better system that we have, in part because this problem was discovered and pursued.

Tavis: When you say that this has been going on for over a thousand years, I take your point that it’s not like in 1985 for the very first time ever a priest molested a child. I take your point.

But it does beg the question then as to what happened. Why was there this explosion in the ’80s, or did we just catch on to this? What happened that brought this to our attention in the ’80s.

D’Antonio: I’m going to give you some credit.

Tavis: Okay.

D’Antonio: Part of it was the media, talk television, and literally Oprah Winfrey. Somebody who was willing to talk about sex and family and problems and crimes against children in a way that it wasn’t talked about before.

I think that that encouraged victims’ families to step forward. They pursued attorneys who are also ready. It’s funny; it happened on both ends of the Mississippi – a case in Minneapolis and a case in Louisiana.

In both cases, very ornery lawyers inspired by the civil rights movement got in there and fought, and they said this is a human rights issue. This is the safety and welfare of children.

So I think the time was right, our society was moving in the right direction. The other thing that I credit is a collision between American ideals of equality and the fact that this is a monarchy.

I think our society matured to the point where the monarchical top-down rule wasn’t going to be all-powerful.

Tavis: I’m quoting from the book on page eight: “As one priest observed during a public appearance of Pope Benedict in Austria, he is like a man who comes upon a burning house and focuses his attention on the pretty flowers in the front garden.”

“He’s like a man who comes upon a burning house and focuses his attention on the pretty flowers in the front garden.” That’s the way that this particular priest observed the way that Pope Benedict was handling, or not handling, these cases of sexual abuse. That is a strong indictment of the pope.

D’Antonio: Well, it is, and actually one of the documents that came out today talks about how frustrated Timothy Dolan, who’s now the cardinal in New York, was when he was in Milwaukee, because he could not get the Vatican to move against these men.

Some of them would have accusations that would run 10 years delayed for resolution. There were priests who abused, in one case, 200 children, students at a school for the deaf. He died before he was kicked out of the priesthood.

So the frustration that American church leaders had with Rome dragging its feet was enormous, and I think this Pope Benedict, who was the first to resign in 600 years, he resigned because I think he was worn out by this. I just don’t think he could stand another day of this crisis going on.

Tavis: I’m not naïve in asking this, but what are the reasons, given your research, that the church in Rome dragged its feet? Was it embarrassment, was it not wanting to pay out the money? Clearly, the church isn’t broke.

D’Antonio: No.

Tavis: But is it legal, is it political, is it economic, is it cultural, is it spiritual, is it – why were they dragging their feet?

D’Antonio: I think cultural is the best word you hit on. Cardinals, when they are elevated, take an oath to protect the church from scandal. This is a thing that goes back thousands – or more than a thousand years, and their view of scandal is not the crime that’s committed, it’s the publicity around it.

They also have this concept of hiding the truth as a matter of conscience, where they feel that to protect the church, you can lead others astray. This is very much part of the culture, and I think that the shame that they felt, it’s very human.

Part of the tragedy here is that the church could lead us to a better place where this is concerned. I was with a pastor last night who works with churches who are overwhelmed by scandal, and what she said is, “Wouldn’t it be something if it was the church that called attention to the need to protect children and turn it around and led us in this direction by talking about the human problems that need to be talked about.”

Tavis: Speaking of Benedict, any chance that Pope Francis might do just that?

D’Antonio: I have a lot of hope for him. This is a man who’s refused the trappings of office. He doesn’t want the ermine stole and the red slippers, and he doesn’t want to be treated like a demigod on Earth.

He also comes from Latin America, and if you travel there within the church, you know that a great many priests have families in Latin America, and he no doubt knows that they function well as pastors.

I’m more hopeful with him in St. Peter’s chair than I’ve been in 30 years, so I have a sense of optimism about him.

Tavis: There was a period for all of us baseball fans; we know all too well that there was a period where steroid use was rampant in baseball. Again, I’m not naïve in saying this, but I want to believe that based upon the crackdown, based upon the new rules, based upon the embarrassment, I want to believe that we got to a period, maybe just a few years ago, but we finally got to a period where that kind of rampant steroid use in baseball ended, and baseball is able to close the – no pun intended – close the book on that and move on to an era where baseball once again is a clean sport.

Not so sure about cycling just yet, (laughter) but I want to believe that about baseball. I only raise that as an example, as a comparison, because I’m wondering if there is a date, a year that is to come or one that we’ve already passed where you think that this era of the worst of this scandal is over, and that the church gets it now, and from this particular point forward – there’s always going to be somebody who acts a fool, but by and large, the thing is behind us. Are we there yet? Are we approaching that, or is it too soon to know?

D’Antonio: It’s a little too soon to know, because there’s this dynamic with children who are abused where they often don’t come forward until they’re adults. I think what I want to see is radical truth.

This is the fascinating concept that some of the people who fought for justice – and in the book, there are people who had their own demons. They struggled with drugs; they struggled with alcohol, a lot of shame and depression.

Tavis: There are some unlikely heroes in this book.

D’Antonio: They’re very unlikely people, including a priest who found himself on the edge of suicide, because he just couldn’t stand what was happening inside his church.

If we see radical truth, if we see this pope stand up and admit to all of this and open the documents and say, “Come on in and help us,” I think they need help. They need all of our help. If that starts to happen, I think this era ends.

Tavis: The era ends. What does it do – and I’ve got my own take on this, but you’re the expert here – what does it do for the standing of the Catholic Church long-term if they took that approach?

D’Antonio: I think they’d become relevant in a lot of places where they’re not relevant today. I visit Ireland in the book, and if you went to Ireland in the 1990s, you couldn’t get into a church on Sunday morning.

If you were a minute late, it was packed. Today, they’re more than half empty. The decline of the Catholic Church as a moral institution, as a beacon for people of faith and of morality, is undeniable.

So in fact now I feel for the good priests, because people see someone in a collar, and they’re automatically skeptical.

Tavis: I’m glad you went there, because I wanted to ask you about that. Back to my baseball analogy.

D’Antonio: Yeah.

Tavis: The overwhelming majority of folk playing baseball were not substance-abusing.

D’Antonio: They’re athletes.

Tavis: Yeah, they’re athletes.

D’Antonio: They’re clean athletes, yeah.

Tavis: Exactly, there are a lot of clean athletes that weren’t using the clear every day, but there were obviously a lot of high-profile people who were, and they give everybody else a bad name.

So how much of this is unfair to the “Catholic Church” that as significant as the numbers are, it doesn’t come anywhere near the majority of priests.

D’Antonio: No, no, and the church is the people.

Tavis: Right.

D’Antonio: The church is not the bishops and the cardinals, and the highest number I’ve ever seen in a diocese for the number of priests accused was around 12 or 13 percent. That’s shockingly high.

I hope that the real number is closer to 5 or 6. I do think that they have been shaken by this, and I do think that they are moving to put procedures in place to make sure that these men don’t get this power and authority.

The real violation here is in that relationship. This is a man who has the title “father,” and it’s very close to a family relationship. The betrayal of the victim is very close to betrayal within the family, and that’s a profoundly traumatic thing.

Tavis: I am not Catholic, but if I were, how do I read this book? I don’t mean read it like pick it up and open it up and read. What’s the take-away for me, how do I read this?

D’Antonio: I think if you want to know the truth about your own institution and you understand that the institution is not the church, and you have a Christian mind-set, if you believe in the message of Christ, you may see here both an example of people gone astray, but also be inspired, ironically, by some of the people who are fighting the church, by their Christian example. There’s some courage here, there’s some truth-telling that is remarkable.

Tavis: So I may celebrate certain individuals, their courage, their conviction, their commitment, their character, I might celebrate certain individuals when I read this text, but how do I put this book down as a Catholic, how do I put this down and not leave my church?

D’Antonio: That’s a challenge to your faith. One of the more influential people in Los Angeles who has his name on the new cathedral for the donations that he made had lunch with me a while ago, and I was kind of afraid when he said, “What are you working on?”

Because he was a devout Catholic. I told him, and he looked at me and he said, “Michael, go get ’em.” I think that there are many Catholics who will be so dismayed by this scandal and by the message in the book that it will shake them, but they own this church.

It is theirs. It is not owned by the people in Rome. They are not the church. So if you have faith and you want to fight for your church, the fight’s laid out for you here.

Tavis: I take your point that the church is not owned by the folk in Rome, and yet it is. You get my point philosophically.

D’Antonio: Well, institutionally, yeah.

Tavis: Institutionally, it is.

D’Antonio: Yeah.

Tavis: So what agency, then, does an everyday Catholic, or what agency do everyday Catholics have in controlling their church, in changing their church?

D’Antonio: Oh, I think that this is a great calling for someone, because no bishop has really been held accountable. There’s on in Kansas City, I believe, who’s been convicted related to his covering up.

Now it was only a misdemeanor charge, because the crime in that state did not fall under a felony. He is still the bishop. How is that so? How have the people not massed at the cathedral and demanded that this man be ousted?

There is a real role for lay people to play, if they can wake up and do it. Otherwise, I think they do run the risk of their church falling into irrelevancy.

Tavis: I hear your point. Can you actually imagine, though, Michael, that in our lifetimes or in any lifetime that the Catholic Church could, in fact, be rendered irrelevant, or is that just hyperbole.

D’Antonio: Oh, that’s a little hyperbole in the west. It’s definitely not – I think in the west, it has this power.

Tavis: It’s the fastest-growing church in Africa, in Latin America.

D’Antonio: Right, but in Africa and Latin America, it is growing. What’s fascinating for me to consider is that as developing countries acquire legal systems that are more like ours, where people have access to attorneys, as the information age sweeps over those countries, will they have the same problem?

I’m aware of abuse cases in virtually every country in the world, and I’m not sure that this isn’t going to follow the church. So you eventually run out of places where you can dump troublesome priests and practice this extraction.

There is an extraction of resources that takes place as they build these great institutions, so the end of the book, I guess, has yet to be written.

Tavis: Speaking of the end of the book, this is the end of the conversation, and I saved perhaps the most important question till last, which is what of the victims? What of the victims?

D’Antonio: Well, some who you meet in the book are very inspiring. They have turned their victimization into victory, and they’ve been empowered by their experience. They achieve settlements, they become advocates, they put their lives back together.

Sadly, there’s one really tragic figure who I think stands in for others. He was one of the first to come forward. I met him recently in what is essentially the middle of a forest in Alabama, because he’s afraid to let himself be part of society.

This is a wound that can literally wreck your life, and so when people say oh, they’re hungry for money, they’re just complaining, unless you’ve met them and seen their suffering, you don’t have any sense of what they’re going through.

So it runs the gamut. Some people do inspire us with their recoveries, but they fight every day. It’s one day at a time for all of them.

Tavis: Yeah. I think of the song, “Come, Ye Disconsolate,” “That Earth has no sorry that heaven cannot heal.” I hope that’s the case for these victims.

The book is called “Mortal Sins: Sex, Crime, and the Era of Catholic Scandal,” written by the winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Michael D’Antonio. Michael, thanks for your work.

D’Antonio: Thank you.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Good night from L.A., thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.

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Last modified: July 12, 2013 at 11:47 pm