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Contrasting a Nun's View With a Journalist's:

A Review of Two Recent Books on The The Catholic Church Clergy Abuse Debacle


Friday, Mar. 26, 2004

In 2002, a major metropolitan newspaper--the Boston Globe--finally revealed to the public the Catholic Church's pattern of allowing clergy to sexually abuse thousands of children. Two years later, two intriguing, and diametrically different books have been published on the debacle. Both are worth the read.

One is Karol Jackowski's The Silence We Keep: A Nun's View of the Catholic Priest Scandal. To my knowledge, it is the first rumination on the scandal by anyone in a religious order.

The other is David France's Our Fathers: The Secret Life of the Catholic Church in an Age of Scandal. France is a former Newsweek editor and reporter, and his book is intended to be a report -- a gathering of relevant facts, presented in chronological order from as early as 1953, to as recently as 2003.

A Nun's Perspective on the Church's Scandal

Karol Jackowski is a nun who comes to the issue from a spiritual and historical perspective -- one that serves her well as she not only describes the problem, but also diagnoses it, and prescribes a solution.

Jackowski is a nun with the Sisters for Christian Community and a full-time writer. She has published previous popular books, including Ten Fun Things to Do Before You Die and even some cookbooks. Before the Church's clergy abuse problems surfaced, Jackowski was perfectly happy writing and illustrating lighthearted books that brought joy to people. But the scandal changed her horizons, as it has for so many.

The result is a heartfelt, readable, and deeply engaging meditation on how the priesthood has landed where it has: in deep trouble. But it is also more than this, for Jackowski offers a view of the priesthood from its earliest years to the present, providing a troubling historical vista against which to judge today's suffering.

The book's moral judgment is clear: The priesthood has led itself to this terrible end, and the priesthood is fully responsible. Jackowski writes unflinchingly:

In looking at priesthood from the beginning, I saw that the Catholic Church has consistently cultivated a priestly culture of privilege and permissiveness, with greater and lesser degrees of depravity and notoriety. Even with the beginnings of enforced celibacy . . . . we find numerous, well-documented accounts of monks and monasteries with a wide reputation for molesting boys and seminarians, even engaging in bestiality.

The horrible truth, according to Jackowski, is that the Church has been struggling for centuries with the problem of childhood sexual abuse, and that the priesthood never has succeeded in taming the monster. Why? As Jackowski's title suggests, keeping silent has been a major reason.

With her book, Jackowski intends to break the silence of the thousands of nuns and priests who have led lives of service, but whose silence about clergy abuse makes them complicit in the terrible suffering of the children at the hands of their co-clergy. The result of breaking the silence, Jackowski believes, will be the end of the Church as we know it--a second Pentecost--which is to say, the death and rebirth of the Church in a better form, one that is accountable to laypersons and especially children.

The Silence We Keep will be of interest to the Catholic, or the spiritual reader. But it also should be of interest to the secular reader, or the general reader. That is because its message hearkens back to one of the fundamental tenets in American law and history: those who rule from a monarchy--and there is no purer monarchy in the world than the Roman Catholic Church -- inevitably will abuse their power and subjugate those beneath them.

For centuries, priests have treated children as dispensable means to an end, according to Jackowski. To stop their victimization, she argues persuasively, the interior nature of the priesthood must be irrevocably altered.

It is a harsh judgment, to be sure. But Jackowski's measured and deeply reasonable prose also makes it a very convincing one.

A Factual Account That Neglects the Bigger Picture

At nearly 600 pages, David France's Our Fathers is almost triple the length of Jackowski's meditation, and its mission is clearly different.

Though impressive, France's book is not quite as satisfying as Jackowski's. It lacks the sort of big picture analysis that makes Jackowski's so engaging. The book's greatest flaw is the decision to present facts in chronological order -- and without overarching analysis.

France covers victims, priests, bishops, parents, and others, from their own perspectives. Each entry covers approximately two to three pages. France is obviously an uncommonly skilled interviewer, because he has captured the internal machinations of everyone from the perpetrators to the victims to the bishops --offering a rich tableau that includes each participant's feelings.

But strict adherence to chronology deprives the book of the power it might otherwise have had. Some speakers reappear, but there appears to be no internal logic as to when they do, other than brute chronology. The result is that the book feels a bit undigested -- lacking themes, organization, or commentary that might give some coherence to its many threads.

It would have been helpful had France at least gathered separate stories together in discrete chapters, so one could follow a story at a time. Individual chapters could have been presented in chronological order, but the book itself would not have felt, as it does, like a mere collection of events and commentary arranged along a timeline.

Most of us have been reading the onslaught of news stories since 2002 and had our fill of the reportorial style. It is time for vision and analysis, which is why Jackowski's book is refreshing and France's is less satisfying.

Still, Our Fathers is a valuable treasure trove of information, almost a reference book for those interested in the Church, and the scandal.

These Two Valuable Books Should Be Required Reading for Legislators

For those who want to come to understand how this society let thousands of children be heinously sexually abused by men they trusted for decades--and that should be every American--The Silence We Keep and Our Fathers provide important building blocks toward a final judgment of this sad era.

Legislators, especially, should take heed. At least 11,000 -- and more likely, tens of thousands of -- children have been abused within a single institution for decades. That fact tells legislators that there is something fundamentally wrong with the criminal justice and child welfare system.

Legislators need to understand what went wrong for children, and to take responsibility for the law's enabling role. As I have discussed in previous columns for this site, that means many things -- including refusing the Church's "compromise" of self-policing, enacting more liberal statutes of limitations for childhood sexual abuse victims, and enforcing the law equally against all.

Marci A. Hamilton, a FindLaw columnist, is the Paul R. Verkuil Chair in Public Law at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University. An archive of her church/state columns appears on this website. Her email address is

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