The theology of priest personnel files in the Roman Catholic Church is oddly similar to its theology of sex. Even though the creation and maintenance of priest files are natural and good in order to administer the church, church officials blush and bristle in acknowledging they exist.
The files have all sorts of names from Diocese to Diocese and Religious Order to Religious Order: 489 files, sub secreto files, personal files, and Hell files. But what doesn’t change is the detail contained in the files that the Hierarchy wants to abstain from discussing or showing to federal prosecutors, sex crimes detectives, and survivors of rape and sodomy who have settled righteous claims.
That is why the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision not to consider the Diocese of Bridgeport’s appeal to keep the documents sealed is so historically important.
Priest personnel files are important for several reasons:
First, they detail every contact the diocese or religious order has with the priest or religious. Whether it is the first contact with the vocations director, a complaint from the pastor who again caught a child in the cleric’s room, a complaint from a nurse on the pediatric ward, or a letter of praise from a Grandma McDonough, every piece of correspondence is preserved.
Second, church archivists and historians consistently teach that the past is prologue to the future. If a Priest or Religious or lay volunteer sexually abuses a child, there exists a criminal psychic infirmity in that person’s very nature – a zebra cannot change its stripes. Father Gerald Fitzgerald, S.P. told the Popes and Bishops in the 1940s, 1950s and 60s that these vipers cannot be placed back in ministry. As a result, Popes Pius XII, John XXIII, and Paul VI allowed Father Fitzgerald to create worldwide treatment centers for priest offenders.
Third, priest personnel records contain the materials and evidence demonstrating what the Hierarchy knew and when they were aware of the priest’s or religious’ pedophilic and ephebophilic behaviors. One study by Robert Camargo and John Loftus reviewed 1,322 clerics treated at the Southdown Institute. Another study by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice found that 4,392 priests were credibly accused of sexually abusing children in the U.S. Not surprisingly, only 3,250 of those 4,392 have been disclosed. Where are the remaining 1,142? It’s in the files …
Fourth, Reverend Canice Connors, OFM told the Milwaukee Journal and reported to the Bishops at the 1993 annual meeting, “The Catholic Church in North America possesses the greatest data bank of evaluation and treatment of non-incarcerated pedophiles on the continent. That data should be analyzed scientifically and shared with others studying the problem.” The study, which was 86% completed, had it funding pulled and the data and preliminary conclusions were never disseminated.
The Hierarchy at the Dallas 2002 meeting hollowly proclaimed a new age of transparency in order to protect children. By the Hierarchy’s actions and inactions, this transparency apparently does not include the most crucial historical documents: priest personnel files. As we follow the news and see new priests and bishops arrested, I have to conclude the Hierarchy has lost control of the institution. Thus the sad time has come for every Archdiocese, Diocese, and Religious Order in litigation to turn over all their personnel files (past and present) for public review.
Since there is nothing to hide behind and there is little else more important than the safety and protection of children, it is time for the Hierarchy to follow the directives of the U.S. Supreme Court and turn over priest personnel files to prosecutors, detectives and survivors. Like sex, the Hierarchy has the priest personnel files issue all backwards: The real scandal and destruction to the church’s reputation is secretly hiding the facts and not analyzing the causes and prevention of clerical sexual abuse for future generations.