The head of a Roman Catholic order that specialized in the treatment of pedophile priests visited with the then-pope nearly 50 years ago and followed up with a letter recommending the removal of pedophile priests from ministry, according to a copy of the letter released Wednesday.
In the Aug. 27, 1963 letter, the head of the New Mexico-based Servants of the Holy Paraclete tells the pope he recommends removing pedophile priests from active ministry and strongly urges defrocking repeat offenders.
The letter shows that the Vatican knew, or should have known, about clergy abuse in the U.S. decades ago, said Anthony DeMarco, a plaintiff attorney in Los Angeles who provided the letter. The release comes as plaintiffs in Kentucky are attempting to sue the Vatican for negligence for allegedly failing to alert police or the public about priests who molested children.
Yet the problem was very well known to Rome well before the 1960s. The 1917 code of canon law criminalized sexual abuse of minors. Five years later, the Vatican penned a document outlining detailed procedures for handling such cases. In 1962, that document was updated and has been used in many of the lawsuits by victims against U.S. diocese and the Vatican itself.
The letter, written by the Rev. Gerald M.C. Fitzgerald, appears to have been drafted at the request of the pope and summarizes Fitzgerald's thoughts on problem priests after his Vatican visit.
A message left with the Paraclete order at one of their two existing facilities in Missouri was not returned. A number for the second facility was disconnected. The offices of the Vatican spokesman were closed late Wednesday.
Tod Tamberg, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, defended the church and said it was unlikely Paul VI ever saw the letter.
"The fact of the matter is, the prevailing ideas at the time about how to deal with abusive behavior were not adequate," Tamberg said. "Clearly, society and the church have evolved new understandings of what causes sexually abusive behavior and how to deal with it."
Fitzgerald opens the five-page letter by thanking the pope for an audience the day before and says he is summarizing his thoughts at the pope's request on the "problem of the problem priest" after 20 years working in to treat them.
He tells Paul VI that treatment for priests who have succumbed to "abnormal, homosexual tendencies" should include psychiatric, as well as spiritual, counseling — but goes on to warn about the dangers of leaving those individuals in ministry.
"Personally, I am not sanguine of the return of priests to active duty who have been addicted to abnormal practices, especially sins with the young," Fitzgerald wrote.
"Where there is indication of incorrigibility, because of the tremendous scandal given, I would most earnestly recommend total laicization," he wrote. "I say 'total' ... because when these men are taken before civil authority, the non-Catholic world definitely blames the discipline of celibacy for the perversion of these men."
The letter proves that Vatican officials knew about clergy abuse decades ago and should have done more to protect children, plaintiff attorney DeMarco said.
‘Not shuffle them around’
The church has come under fire for transferring priests accused of sexual abuse to other parishes, rather than reporting the abuse to civil authorities and removing them from ministry.
"It shows without a shadow of a doubt that ... how pervasive the problem was was communicated to the pope. He was able to share with him their knowledge of how pervasive this problems was, how destructive this problem was," DeMarco said.
"He says the solution is to take them out of the priesthood period, not shuffle them around, not pass them from diocese to diocese."
The letter was released in Los Angeles by attorneys who represented more than 500 victims of clergy abuse in their record-breaking $660 million settlement with the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in 2008.
Attorneys working on the Los Angeles cases found it among court papers related to clergy abuse cases filed in New Mexico in the late 1980s and early 1990s and fought to get it unsealed.
Thousands more pages of confidential priest personnel files from the Los Angeles cases were to be released as part of the 2007 settlement after a review by a retired judge overseeing the process. The review, however, has dragged on for nearly three years.
The letter released Wednesday is different from a 1957 letter made public last year in which Fitzgerald seeks help from the Bishop of Manchester, N.H. in finding a placement for a priest leaving the treatment program.
Attorneys also released a 250-page, redacted transcript of the 2007 deposition of the Rev. Joseph McNamara, who took over the Paraclete after Fitzgerald. In the deposition, McNamara answers questions about the 1963 letter.