Top Roman Catholic official's transcript shows 'who cares'

Published: 8/10/2009 12:04 AM

"Thou shall not speak in code" isn't one of the Ten Commandments.

So for decades, when top Roman Catholic officials of the Chicago Archdiocese used the word "sabbatical" to describe a forced hiatus by a pedophile priests, they were not really doing anything immoral.

Or so they must have told themselves.

That much is obvious from the deposition of now-retired Bishop Raymond Goedert, at one time the second-in-command of the Chicago Archdiocese.

The 1980s pecking order had Bishop Goedert directly below then-Archbishop Cardinal Joseph Bernardin.

In the deposition released last month, Bishop Goedert was grilled by attorneys for some of the dozens of altar boys and other Catholic innocents who were assaulted by priests years ago.

The transcript of Goedert's deposition doesn't reveal much that we didn't already know or suspect. But coming directly from the mouth of a high-ranking churchman, it is a jarring confirmation of the priest protection racket that was run by officials of the Chicago Archdiocese all the way to the top.

The intent, of course, was to protect brother priests from public scorn, but most importantly, to protect the good name and sanctity of Chicago's most-practiced faith.

It ended up costing tens of millions of dollars, thousands of devotees; sullying the reputation of the church, and most significantly, robbing countless young Catholic practitioners of normal adulthoods.

But "who cares" was the undercurrent running through Bishop Goedert's deposition. In the early 1990s, if Catholic donors in the Chicago pews were dazzled by Father so-and-so's commitment to meditation and retreat, and then calling it a "sabbatical" was the perfect method operandi.

The memos clearly show a church hierarchy concerned with the steadiness and treatment of the accused priests - even the worst offenders.

"I know this has been a painful period in your life," is what Goedert wrote to one notorious pedophile priest who ended up in prison.

Goedert's salutation, "fraternally yours," epitomized the black curtain relationship between bad priests and their bosses.

Today, those who prefer to forget the past, say that leaders of the Archdiocese who protected abusive priests were operating in different times; the social standards in the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s were not the same as today; church policies were different; civil laws didn't require the reporting of abuse.

In the confessional, those are called rationalizations. Back in the day, they were called cop-outs.

In my reading of the Good Book, they are simply called intolerable.

But even if all of those excuses were true, I have never been able to understand the moral ruler used by Catholic leaders in Chicago and elsewhere during the Sex Abuse Dark Ages. Why wasn't the protection of children the automatic measure?

As victims, their attorneys and their advocate organizations observe, the Goedert memos don't mention the children.

Many notable Chicago Roman Catholic Church leaders were dirtied up in the Goedert memos. Some of them are still in positions of respect and authority.

I wonder if they ever think of those who were abused and abandoned. What they allowed to happen to some of the children of their flock? What they did and didn't do, including the reporting of crimes?

The posture, practices and procedures of the Archdiocese changed only because they had to. The deviousness was so blatant for so many years and the deceit was so widespread that the cover-ups simply collapsed under their own weight.

After reading the Goedert file, the most disturbing realization involves the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin who was personally cleared of sexual abuse allegations and was considered a leader in church reform efforts when he died.

In the file are letters from Cardinal Bernardin to several priests who had been accused of sexually molesting young Catholics.

Bernardin uses the code word "sabbatical" to refer to the five months of paid time off awarded to suspected pedophiles. He describes how the pastor will return to his parish position after the sabbatical.

"May I take this opportunity to thank you for your fine work," he writes to one horrendous violator who was later imprisoned. "As you look forward to this important transition in your priesthood, please know that you have my support and prayers."

Transition in your priesthood.

Such wordplay and manipulation of reality was the normal.

Cardinal Bernardin saw life as a "seamless garment" where human existence was wrapped in purity and blessedness from conception to death.

I wish he was still alive so I could ask him where the seam was ripped and why so many young lives were left hanging on a thread.

• Chuck Goudie, whose column appears each Monday, is the chief investigative reporter at ABC 7 News in Chicago. The views in this column are his own and not those of WLS-TV. He can be reached by e-mail at and followed at