Last month the Catholic Herald published a major investigation into the handling – at several different levels of ecclesiastical governance – of an allegation of clerical sexual abuse.
A young woman, Susanna (not her real name), alleges that the chaplain at Aquinas College in Nashville, Tennessee, Fr Kevin McGoldrick, sexually assaulted her in the rectory where he lived while serving as chaplain to the campus on which the college was situated. She alleges that the incident took place in August 2017.
When Susanna made a report 18 months later, Nashville Diocese decided her allegations had not the appearance of a crime, either civil or canonical. The diocese never opened a formal investigation.
The diocese did tell the Dominican Congregation of St Cecilia – the “Nashville Dominicans” as they are known – about “imprudent” and “unprofessional” conduct alleged against Fr McGoldrick. The Nashville Dominicans decided to let McGoldrick finish out his contract – up at the end of the 2019 school year. They apparently made no further inquiries at the time they heard from the diocese, and never alerted students, parents or alumni of the schools they operate on their campus – a primary school, an all-girls secondary school and Aquinas College – until last month, when the Catholic Herald published its investigation.
In July 2019, Susanna took her allegations to the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, which is Fr McGoldrick’s place of incardination (his “home diocese”). Philadelphia did investigate. In January of this year, the archdiocese found Susanna’s allegation credible, and suspended McGoldrick. The priest then decided to petition Pope Francis for dispensation from the obligations of Holy Orders (“voluntary laicisation”).
Why the Diocese of Nashville never investigated and why the Archdiocese of Philadelphia allowed Fr McGoldrick quietly to seek voluntary laicisation are outstanding questions.
The Diocese of Nashville issued a statement following publication of the Herald’s investigation, which said: “Out of pastoral concern, we are choosing to continue to honour [the victim’s] request for anonymity, although we are under no obligation to do so.”
If there are other abuse survivors in the diocese considering reporting their abuse, one wonders how encouraging they will find such pastoral solicitude.
Nashville diocese later quietly amended their statement, dropping the part about being under no obligation to respect Susanna’s anonymity.
The recently enacted reform law, Vos estis lux mundi, seems made to facilitate investigation of just the sort of facts the Herald’s reporting has brought to light. But so long as Church leaders understand “safeguarding” to mean carrying out the bare minimum requirements of law, bishops may stay out of too much ecclesiastical trouble.
The persistence of such attitudes will certainly get the Church more Susannas.
At present, Churchmen appear largely free to interpret the laws by which they abide. It is likewise apparent that higher authority in the Church is reluctant to use the laws made for good order and better government. Under such circumstances, real cultural change is not a realistic possibility.
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