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What I’ve Learned: The Outsider
A Jesuit talks about the ways the Catholic Church is like Xerox and why women now are more important than priests By Mary Clare Glover
Comments () | Published August 23, 2010
Not many people can say they’ve been fired by the pope. But that’s what many claim happened to Father Tom Reese, now a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Woodstock Theological Center.

Reese had been editor of America, a magazine published by the Jesuits, since 1998. A Jesuit priest with a PhD in political science, he transformed the magazine into a forum for discussion of issues facing the Catholic Church. America published essays on such topics as gay priests and condom use. Shortly after Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected pope in 2005, Reese resigned. He won’t speak publicly about why, but Jesuit officials acknowledge that pressure for his ouster had been coming from the Vatican for years.

Reese describes himself as an incrementalist who wants to hear both sides of a debate: “I think the problems come when church and society don’t constantly change. I’m in favor of trying to make small changes. I’m in favor of open discussion. But I’m not in favor of ad hominem attacks on bishops or the pope.”

When Reese decided to become a Jesuit priest in 1962, Catholic Masses in the United States were still said in Latin. Over the last 48 years, he’s watched the Church try to adapt to and survive in modern America.

A contributor to the Washington Post’s On Faith blog and the author of three books about church hierarchy and politics, Reese writes often about the social issues that American Catholics discuss around their dinner tables.

In his office at Georgetown, he talked about the future of Catholicism and the role of religion in people’s lives.

Let’s talk about the sexual-abuse scandals that have plagued the Catholic Church.


Nobody in the Church understood this problem before 1985, when the first major court case occurred in Lafayette, Louisiana. So the first reaction of the Church was denial. The second reaction was “We’ve got to take care of our brother priest.” And since the bishops were trained as priests, they dealt with it like a priest would: “Are you sorry for what you’ve done? And you’ll never do it again? Okay, good—and God bless you.” Then they gave them another chance.

They treated the priest like a brother and forgot that the children were their brothers and sisters and daughters and sons. It was the classic mistake of dealing with the person in front of you and forgetting everybody else.

The biggest mistake the bishops made was not meeting with the victims. All you have to do is listen to the stories of the people who have been abused. I’ve done it, and it tears your guts apart. You say to yourself, “We’ve got to make sure this never happens again.”

Some of the most devastating stories involved bishops who moved these abusive priests to different churches.


Some bishops learned faster than others. Cardinal James Hickey got it quickly, so you hear about very few cases in Washington.

A layman hired by Hickey to deal with social justice told me this story: His first week on the job, he attended a meeting discussing an abusive priest. A committee examined the case and said, “You can’t return this guy to ministry.” At the meeting, every priest around the table said, “But he’s such a nice guy. We’ve got to give him another chance.” As he was listening to this, the layman said to himself, “This is my first and last week on the job.” At the end of the meeting, Hickey smiled and said, “It’s a good thing the Church isn’t a democracy—we’re not returning this guy to ministry.”

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Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 08/23/2010 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles