Sins of fathers stain the church

SNAP press conference

SNAP national director David Clohessy is embraced by Carmen Severino during a press conference held to discuss documents just released by the Archdiocese of Chicago detailing sex abuse by priests. (Antonio Perez, Chicago Tribune / January 21, 2014)

The story may feel old.

For years now, it's been the stuff of documentaries, books and TV shows.

The Catholic priests who preyed sexually on children. The other priests who didn't do enough to stop it. The decades in which the Catholic hierarchy acted as if the church's ugly open secret could be washed away by hope, prayer, evasion, psychotherapy and silence.

What's new in this old story is the thousands of pages of documents, released Tuesday, pertaining to how the Archdiocese of Chicago handled its offending priests.

There are archdiocesan memos, jotted notes, depositions.

Many of the memos are typewritten, reflecting the era they record, and while in the big sense they don't say much that we don't already know, the details make the familiar newly disturbing.

Memo by memo, we see church officials trying to figure out what to do with the sexual offenders in their midst, and for decades rarely doing much.

One of the documents is a 1991 draft of a message from Cardinal Joseph Bernardin to the Rev. Bob Mayer, removing him as pastor of St. Odilo Parish in Berwyn, after repeated "sexual impropriety."

The cardinal reprimands Mayer for refusing, despite previous warnings, "to modify your behavior in such a way that the risk to yourself and to the Church would be eliminated."

He doesn't mention the risk to children.

"This decision, Bob, grieves me deeply," he says.

Bob, Bill, Marion, Joe, Mark.

In the memos, the sexual offenders are often referred to by first name. These documents make it vividly clear that the offenders are friends and colleagues of the same men who are supposed to discipline them.

Of the documents I read on Tuesday — which is far from all of them — the one that struck me most wasn't written by an archdiocesan official, however. It was a handwritten letter dated July 20, 1986.

Dear Cardinal Bernardin,

We are faced with a very unpleasant and potentially dangerous situation at Our Lady of the Snows Parish. Rumors have been running rampant about the sexual activities of our pastor, Father Holihan, and little boys. As reasonable adults of normal intelligence, two neighborhood women and I dismissed these rumors as idle gossip and never repeated the nonsense.

Recently, however, this nonsense struck closer to home.

Imagine her, this woman of the neighborhood, who understands the tyranny of gossip but knows there comes a time when a decent person can't stay quiet.

Imagine her nerves as she sits down to write.

How carefully she picks her words — she's writing the cardinal! — to explain how her closest friend's son came home upset after serving a Mass and said he had witnessed Father Daniel Mark Holihan unzipping the other altar boy's pants and fondling his genitals.