On the eve of the U.S. Catholic bishops’ summit on sex abuse, Detroit Cardinal Adam Maida is admitting his own poor judgment and the church’s tragic reliance on flawed advice from insiders and therapists that have contributed to the crisis.
If anyone could have envisioned the seriousness of the situation, it should have been Maida, who was the first bishop to conduct a national briefing for his colleagues on the legal implications of abusive clergy.
That was 18 years ago.
“The question is: Why has it taken us so long? I know we’ve lost our credibility on this,” Maida told the Free Press in an hour-long interview last week.
For months, Maida allowed his staffers to take the flak for him while he made only a few public appearances in carefully controlled settings.
But last week, Maida cleared his schedule to prepare for the bishops’ 3-day meeting in Dallas, which starts Thursday. First, he met with more than a dozen reporters to answer questions. Then on Sunday, he departed from his prepared text and apologized awkwardly to 500 Catholics after mass at a parish in Plymouth. He also had an apology read aloud in other parishes in the six-county Archdiocese of Detroit.
A man who stands near the pinnacle of the church as a papal favorite and a savvy legal fixer, Maida also has been working feverishly behind the scenes to help his fellow bishops turn the corner on the crisis.
“My phone has been ringing off the hook,” Maida said, as bishops seek his legal advice and lobby for amendments to a 17-page proposal for combating abuse that will be debated in Dallas.
The cardinal acknowledged that it has taken multimillion-dollar legal settlements, embarrassing revelations about clergy misbehavior and many victims’ tragic stories about the long-term impact of abuse to sway the bishops toward placing children’s safety above the welfare of priests.
“For a long time, the victims weren’t uppermost in our consciousness,” Maida said.
In fact, they were almost invisible to bishops, most of whom assumed they had relatively few cases of abuse in their home dioceses, Maida said.
“There are more victims than any of us realized,” he said.
Since widespread abuse by priests in the Boston area was revealed in January, many bishops have reviewed their files and were shocked at what they found.
Some bishops, including Maida, have met with victims.
“And, when you listen to their stories, if you’re human, you have to cry,” he said. “Now, we know we’ve got to reach out to victims.”
That clear vision wasn’t in Maida’s head when he conducted his briefing for about 100 bishops in 1984.
The bishops looked to Maida because he is both a civil and church lawyer, so respected by the Vatican that he helped to write large sections of the current code of canon law that governs every Catholic parish in the world.
“In ’84, some of these first cases were being discussed at our November meeting in Washington. The bishops wanted to know more about this, so I discussed some of the general legal principles,” Maida said. “I told them that this can be a sickness and about the fact that it can be a crime.”
For years, bishops treated sex abuse of minors primarily as a legal, therapeutic and spiritual matter, the cardinal said. Cases needed to be weighed and, if a priest was guilty, they needed to be settled — as quickly and quietly as possible. Abusive priests needed treatment.
“We thought we understood the problem, but we really had taken our eyes off the ball,” Maida said. “For a while, we put our credibility in treatment.”
Therapists at residential centers around the country worked with the wayward priests and later indicated that many could be reassigned safely.
Bishops sometimes gave the cases little scrutiny.
On the day he left Green Bay, Wis., for Michigan in April 1990, Maida said, he signed off on a letter returning one accused priest to parish work and asserting that the charges made by a boy’s parents weren’t solid enough. It took three more years before the family settled a civil lawsuit with the Diocese of Green Bay and the abusive priest was ousted.
When asked about the case, Maida frowned.
How carefully did he check out the abuse claim before clearing the priest for parish work?
Maida paused before admitting that he didn’t even recall the case.
“Honest to goodness, if the priest walked into the room today, I wouldn’t even know him,” Maida said.
In those days, bishops paid less attention to signing off on abuse cases than they do today, he said.
These are difficult admissions for a prince of the church, as cardinals commonly are called.
This is a man so proud of his religious heritage that he crisscrossed the country for years, drumming up $60 million to build a state-of-the-art Catholic visitors center in Washington, D.C., named for Pope John Paul II. As Maida unveiled the gleaming edifice last year with President George W. Bush, he was the toast of hundreds of deep-pocket Catholic donors.
In contrast, at St. Kenneth in Plymouth on Sunday, Maida’s public apology came at the end of the parish’s high-spirited, 35th-anniversary mass and made families fidget nervously in the pews.
At one point, apparently trying to ease the tension, the cardinal pointed at the four priests who had helped say the mass with him.
“There have been no allegations against any one of these priests,” Maida exclaimed.
The congregation applauded, but hesitantly.
Ordinary Catholics are overwhelmingly disappointed in their leaders right now, said Frank Newport, editor-in-chief of the Gallup Poll in Princeton, N.J.
“We’ve asked Catholics about this in March, late April and again in late May and between 70 and 75 percent of Catholics across all three polls are saying their church has done a bad job handling this,” Newport said.
Most Catholics aren’t convinced that their leaders are committed to rooting out abuse.
“We asked Catholics: What do you think the church’s primary motivation is? And we had three quarters of Catholics who said the church seems more interested in protecting its own image than in getting at the real truth,” Newport said.
Maida said he is well aware his followers’ trust has been strained.
Now, with three years to go before retirement at age 75, Maida said he may be facing some of the toughest negotiations in a long career of difficult arbitration for the church.
As the bishops approach Dallas, some want the strictest possible punishment to be meted out — a one-strike-and-out policy for all abusive priests, past and present. Others, including Maida, want that kind of policy as a deterrent for future abusers, but want more flexibility in weighing past cases.
Several Vatican officials already have published harsh critiques of the U.S. bishops’ plan to turn over church records to law-enforcement officials.
“There’s going to be a lot of very tough negotiation ahead,” Maida said. “But, in the end, I think we will do what we need to do.”