Few Catholic intellectuals had as much sway in the era of a theocon White House than the late Father Richard John Neuhaus; and few were as dismissive of very serious allegations of sexual abuse as this defender of clerical power and orthodoxy. Neuhaus called it a "moral certainty," for example, that child-abuser and Vatican favorite, Father Marcial Maciel, was innocent of all abuse charges made against him; and Neuhaus only shifted when his theological and political ally, Pope Benedict XVI, finally acknowledged (after years of protetcing Maciel) that the evidence was overwhelming. The American journalist, Jason Berry, who did more than anyone to expose the extent of the corruption and abuse at the top of the American hierarchy, had an email exchange with Neuhaus where Neuhaus, after smearing, as was his wont, a serious and deep account of the abuse as "scurrilous" nonetheless conceded to Berry that

On Fr. Maciel, I now recognize that I went too far in trying to defend him. I can only plead that it was a good faith effort to put the best construction on a particular circumstance when many priests were victims of reckless, unsubstantiated, or false charges. As I have written in the magazine, it defies belief that Benedict would deal with him as he did if he did not believe that Fr. Maciel had done something very wrong, and, with no indication to the contrary, it is reasonable to believe that the wrong had to do with the well-known charges of abuse.

The full correspondence between both men is after the jump. Since Berry has consented to have it published and since Neuhaius is now dead, there is no violation of anyone's privacy and an interesting insight into how priests with power defend one another before ever worrying about the victims of sexual abuse.

Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, Editor in Chief
First Things
156 Fifth Ave, Suite 400
New York NY 10010

December 30, 2007

Dear Father Neuhaus:

You have dismissed Sacrilege, Leon C. Podles's new book on the clergy sex abuse crisis, as a "rambling essay of more than five hundred pages on a potpourri of items picked up from the public media and the blogosphere...Even righteous anger does not justify the author's suspension of caution and charity in attributing motives."

That is a cavalier response to a well-reported book that warrants serious attention. It is one thing to duly engage the research, and take a critical stance on an author's conclusion. But to distort the research, and deride a book for relying on thin sourcing -- as if the large forensic record that undergirds Sacrilege did not exist -- is intellectually dishonest. Podles's 90 pages of detailed footnotes hardly rely on blogs and are anything but a potpourri. Among other things, the book examines how bishops relied on chuch-run treatment centers in making their decisions to reassign priests who had abused youngsters. Those practices have been a huge factor in this long painful passage for the church. Were the facilities "safe houses?" That is not a rhetorical question no r an easy one to answer. The bishops' practices in this regard were explored by a grand jury investigation in Philadelphia that ended up highly critical of Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua. Another cardinal, Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, justified his reassignments of several priests who went on to abuse more youths by saying he had poor advice from therapeutic professionals. One might ask if these cardinals were well-served by those professionals, or if they erred by ceding a measure of their authority to those facilities, failing to rely on common sense. In New Mexico, a religious order that  specialized in treating pedophiles, Servants of the Paraclete, was forced to close its primary facility following litigation over shoddy treatment standards -- notably, allowing pedophile priests to do weekend parish work, where they abused new victims. In his handling of these matters, P odles takes the reader into realms of a crisis that few journalists have explored and does so with a solid anchor in documents. His findings at least deserve a fair-minded discussion.

T.S. Eliot in his essay "The Function of Criticism" says that a critic must have a highly developed sense of fact -- that he must know the material about which he writes. You scoff at that standard, sir, in writing about the church's crisis of clergy child molesters and those officials who have sheltered and recycled them. You all but excuse bishops and church officials who concealed sexual predators; you seem unwilling to take an honest look at what they have done and why they did so. Instead, you blame the messengers. Taking a scornful tone at the media, plaintiff attorneys, victims, and authors who cover these matters and reach conclusions that do not satisfy you cannot change the facts behind the crisis.

As the foremost defender of Father Marcial Maciel, you dismissed as "scurrilous" the sex abuse allegations filed in Rome in 1998 by eight men from Mexico and Spain who as boys studied in Legion of Christ seminaries under Maciel. "Scurrilous" was an insult to those upstanding gentlemen who brought their charges in the Vatican tribunal system under Cardinal Ratzinger, not one of whom you bothered to interview. Among them is the Rev. Felix Alarcon, a Spaniard, and priest in good standing, just like you. The first rule of responsible commentary tracks the first law of journalism: get the facts, talk to both sides. Imagine what Father Alarcon might have told you. And yet, with "moral certainty" you denigrated all of the men who made those allegations. You derided Gerald Renner and me for our reporting in the Hartford Courant and the subsequent book, Vows of Silence. My late colleague, a fine, decent man and first-class reporter, and I were easily reachable by phone. We could have put you in touch with the men who brought the case in Rome. It was apparently more convenient for you to assume that they (and we) were dishonest, or to believe the Legionaries' charge that the whole thing was a conspiracy. I suppose the Vatican would now have to be included in that conspiracy, since the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 2006 banished Maciel from public ministry after an investigation by Msgr Charles Scicluna. A Vatican official told John Allen of National Catholic Reporter that Maciel had "more than twenty but less than 100" victims.

Orthodoxy does not confer a license to distort the valid research of those who find fault in church governance when the violation of children is at issue. You tip-toe around the moral accountability of bishops -- the core theme of Leon Podles's book, the central issue in a crisis of terrible human suffering. By debunking books like Sacrilege, and blaming "the public media" (is there a better, "private" media?) you perform a continuing disservice to your readers and the church. Podles's book deserves a serious review in First Things by someone without your manifest bias.

By scoffing at the research in Sacrilege you erase the victims. It's easy to take pot-shots at writers, Father. I wonder if you have reflected on the pain that your comments about Maciel caused those good men in Mexico and Spain whose bodies he sexually assaulted and whose minds he manipulated when they were boys in Rome. It took rare courage for them to go through a tribunal system at the Vatican, which had rebuffed them in the past. It took six years before Cardinal Ratzinger authorized an investigation and two more years before, as Pope Benedict XVI, he issued the decree that humiliated Maciel. "Scurrilous?" I wonder if you have the integrity to apologize to those men.

"Justice is that virtue which gives everyone his due." -- St. Augustine

Yours truly,
Jason Berry

February 6, 2008

Dear Mr. Berry,

Thank you for your letter of December 30, and please accept my apologies for not responding earlier.

For some reason your letter was placed in the correspondence file of the magazine rather than being directed to me. Thus I have only now read it.

Perhaps I was too hard on the Podles book. My objection to it is that in tone it is a rant, it tends to pander to the taste for sensationalism and even the prurient, and, perhaps most important, it makes judgments about motives to which the author can in no way be privy.

As for being too easy on the bishops, please see my essay on Philip Lawler’s new book, The Faithful Departed, on the FIRST THINGS website of last Friday, February 1. Lawler is relentless on the culpability of the bishops, as I believe I have been in my commentaries in the magazine.

On Fr. Maciel, I now recognize that I went too far in trying to defend him. I can only plead that it was a good faith effort to put the best construction on a particular circumstance when many priests were victims of reckless, unsubstantiated, or false charges. As I have written in the magazine, it defies belief that Benedict would deal with him as he did if he did not believe that Fr. Maciel had done something very wrong, and, with no indication to the contrary, it is reasonable to believe that the wrong had to do with the well-known charges of abuse.

Permit me a personal word. It is true that I was sharply critical of some of the things written by you and Gerald Renner, may he rest in peace. And not only with respect to Fr. Maciel. Were I to go back over some of the materials in question, I expect I would still be very critical.

With respect to whether the charges against Fr. Maciel were “scurrilous,” they were that in the sense of coarse and vulgar and ugly. But, as stated above, one is now compelled to believe that they were, in whole or in part, true.

All this having been said, however, and with respect to your work in particular, when the definitive story is told of the sex abuse crisis that began long before 2002, I believe that your writing will be recognized as a necessary and perhaps indispensable factor in bringing the Church to the recognition of the truth -- a recognition not yet complete -- about what happened and why. I will find occasion to make that acknowledgment public.

Justice is indeed the virtue that gives everyone his due.

Cordially,

(The Rev.) Richard John Neuhaus

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.