On the heels of a small meeting to discuss the pressing need for better-trained priest-exorcists, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops convened in full splendor in Baltimore this week and elected New York’s arch-conservative Archbishop Timothy J. Dolan president. Dolan’s election was a victory for the most orthodox forces within the church. His overriding ethic was displayed this year when he had scathing words for Catholic hospitals and nuns who supported the health care reform bill in spite of the bishops’ opposition (on grounds that it would allow more access to abortion). “We’re pastors and teachers,” Dolan said of the bishops, “not just one set of teachers in the Catholic community, but the teachers.” The teachers. You can’t get much clearer than that.
In a sidebar accompanying its front-page article about Dolan’s election, The New York Times ran a typical, speak-no-evil-about-religion profile of the archbishop, who was described as a man “known to relish personal contact, whether one on one or in big crowds. He has made a dent in fulfilling his promise to visit every parish. After addressing fund-raising dinners, he likes to mingle for an hour or more, laughing at people’s jokes, often with a beer in hand.” Ah, whatta guy! He’ll have a beer with you as long as you’re not one of those uppity nuns with the temerity to think that their opinions should count for something too.
Here’s what wasn’t said about Dolan–who will now be the official voice of the Catholic Church before Congressional committees debating public policy issues–on the thrilling day of his election. If you can call an election by the unelected an election, that is.
* On Palm Sunday this year, Dolan read a statement after Mass in St. Patrick’s Cathedral comparing criticism of Pope Benedict’s role in covering up sex abuse allegations to unjust accusations against Jesus before his crucifixion. He said the progress the Catholic Church has made in the United States in dealing with sex abuse “could never have happened without the insistence and support of the very man now being daily crowned with thorns by groundless innuendo.” Even for a defender of everything the Vatican does, comparing the pope to the suffering Jesus does seem a bit, well, over-the-top.
* As bishop of St. Louis and archbishop of Milwaukee, before being elevated to archbishop of New York, Dolan was widely viewed by groups representing survivors of clergy sex abuse as one of those who participated in the long coverup of such cases. BishopAccountability.org reported in 2009–just before Dolan was promoted to the prestigious New York post–that in Milwaukee, he “did not forward to Wisconsin police direct admissions of guilt from clergy child rapists, even from clergy who were susequently criminally charged and convicted.” Furthermore, Dolan did not fire senior officers in the Milwaukee chancery who had surved under his disagraced predecessor, Bishop Rembert Weakland. (Weakland was force to resign after using $500,000 in church money to pay off a seminarian who said he was “date raped” by the bishop in a bar.”)
* Under Dolan’s administration, the Milwaukee Catholic Herald, the official archdiocesan newspaper, was permitted to publish a letter opposing a bill before the Wisconsin state legislature that would allow victims of sex abuse to file civil cases againt members of the clergy. The letter, published in February 2008 under the headline, “Time for Catholics to Fight Back,” compared victims seeking civil compensation to prostitutes. “Do they believe that anyone who provides sexual plesasure to another should be paid for the service?” the writer asked. “Isn’t that the definition of prostitution?” Peter Isely, Midwest Coordinator for the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, wrote Dolan at the time and asked, “Do we really need to explain to you and your editor why it’s not OK to allow a letter to be published that promotes the idea that children who are being raped are `prostitutes’ that `provide sexual pleasure’ as a `service?'”
Archbishop Dolan, now president of the official organization that purports to represent all American Catholics in public, holds retrograde views that will surely drive more American-born Catholics out of the church. As an atheist, I don’t care about that. What I do care about, though, is that because this man will be the official voice of the church, many politicans, as well as the media, will treat him as if he is the voice of all American Catholics. This, of course, is nonsense. He is the mouthpiece of a conservative majority of bishops appointed over a period of 30 years by two extremely conservative popes, determined to get rid of prelates who had supported the liberalizing forces of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.
Catholics can vote with their feet and leave the church. But what are the rest of us to do about politicians who quake in fear of a monolithic “Catholic vote” that no longer exists and who will treat this gladhanding servant of a right-wing Vatican as if he actually speaks for the diverse American Catholic electorate? Where is an exorcist when you need one?