Last night I read a longform article in the English edition of the Madrid-based newspaper El País about a Spanish-born Jesuit priest named Alfonso Pedrajas. After Pedrajas died in 2009, he left behind a diary that filled 383 printed pages, comprised of 350 entries chronicling his life and career as a priest. El País compared his diary to “a map charting a long and sinuous road,” explaining that “the priest’s diary follows his life from 1960, the year when he entered the Jesuit order as a novice, to 2008, the year he stopped writing after succumbing to exhaustion and illness.”
In his diary, Pedrajas acknowledged that he was a serial sexual predator. El País reported that it was filled with statements such as, “My biggest personal failure: without a doubt, the pederasty.” In one entry, he even estimated how many he had abused, writing, “I hurt so many people (85?). Too many.” The priest served much of his career working as an educator in Latin American schools, particularly Colegio Juan XXIII, in Cochabamba, Bolivia. As a teacher and school administrator he had regular access to and authority over young boys, many of whom came from poor families and for whom education offered the only chance to escape extreme poverty. Pedrajas leveraged his power over his victims to keep them silent, exploiting their fear of the consequences of being sent home.
The article says that before he died, Pedrajas (who was in a relationship with another man for the final four years of his life) begged his partner to get his computer, “Whatever it takes.” After Pedrajas’s death, his partner obtained the computer and discovered the diary. He downloaded the diary onto a DVD and sent it to Pedrajas’s brother in Madrid. A family member printed out the diary in its entirety, put the pages into a binder and stored it in an attic. In December 2021, a nephew of Pedrajas discovered the diary and, upon reading it and discovering that his uncle was a pedophile, became determined to seek justice for the victims. After several discouraging attempts to bring these crimes to his uncle’s superiors, the administrators of the school in Cochabamba, and Spanish prosecutors (who dismissed the case due to the statute of limitations), he turned the diary over to the press.
The story in El País provides a comprehensive overview of Pedrajas’s diary, as well as other details El País obtained through the course of their investigation. They spoke with his partner (who asked that they not use his name), several of his victims (who described the nature of his crimes, which he omits from his diary), and others close to the case. What the El País story exposes is the complex portrait of a man who never should have been a priest, who should have been held accountable for his crimes, and whose actions destroyed the lives of dozens of vulnerable young people.
This is a story we’ve heard countless times. What makes Pedrajas unique is that his diary offers a glimpse into the mind of a priest-abuser over a long period of time. The article describes moments where the priest expressed guilt for his actions, including one entry where he begged God to stop him from abusing others. At other times, he justifies his behavior. According to one of his victims, Pedrajas told him as he assaulted him, “God wills it.” The diary recounts numerous incidents where he confessed his crimes to other priests, many of whom were “bound by the seal” not to reveal the predator in their midst. Pedrajas also provides the names of several priest-confidants, such as José Arroyo (who had also assisted Pope Francis in his Jesuit formation) and the Bolivian theologian Óscar Uzín (described by Pedrajas as living “a full gay life” who had “stopped believing in God”). Another priest he mentions in his diary is Luis Tó González, who was later convicted of sexual abuse.
The story of Alfonso Pedrajas’s life cannot be considered an aberration. His is not simply a Jesuit problem or a Bolivian problem or a Spanish problem. His story does provide a unique window into the mind of a priest-abuser but the number of priests like him is staggering and examples are everywhere. The number of priests and bishops (and secretaries and staff members and prosecutors and police officers) who know about priests like Pedrajas but remain silent is likely more staggering still. Many predators have been exposed, some will be exposed in the future, and others will be lost to history.
Human language is inadequate to address the magnitude of the horror, hypocrisy, and evil that saturates the long history of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy and the toleration, complicity, and cover-up of these crimes at every level of the Church. How can we keep the faith in a Church like this? Why do we stay?
Brian Devlin, a survivor of abuse by the late Cardinal Keith O’Brien, wrestles with this as well. The former priest from Scotland, whose memoir Cardinal Sin was featured yesterday in a review by Sara Scarlett Willson, asks a pivotal question in his book:
“Why do low standards of behaviour, cruelty and abuse continue to happen with such regularity in the Catholic Church and, when they do, why does it matter to people so much? It’s not as though the Church has a monopoly on malfeasance. Many institutions harbour and nestle bad and sometimes illegal behaviour. But the level of hurt and pain in the Catholic Church is notably enduring and felt deeply.”
Certainly, many survivors of abuse and those who love them walk away from the Church. Who can blame them? My heart aches when Catholic apologists try to argue against the motives of those who leave the Church because of abuse, especially when it centers on questions of salvation and damnation. What right do we Catholics have to convince someone to return to the Church when the Church is responsible for turning their lives into hell?
Some in the Church recognize this. A recent New York Times article on the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors (PCPM) and their new offices near the Pantheon in downtown Rome, explains that the Commission’s secretary Fr. Andrew Small hopes to convert “a run-down 16th-century chapel with stained-glass windows next to their offices upstairs, envisioning a nondenominational chapel so that victims who had lost their faith could reclaim a measure of spirituality, and ‘not necessarily through the church that hurt them so much.’”
And yet there are many survivors of clerical abuse, like Brian Devlin, who maintain their Catholic faith and remain part of the Church, even if their relationship with Catholicism has been transformed and their approach to the faith is not aligned with conventional notions of the “orthodox” ideal. In the opening paragraphs of his prologue, he writes, “I don’t have it in me to hate the Church. Criticise it, dissent from its more lurid teachings, certainly. Catholicism is a defining part of who I am. It is as much a part of me as my childhood is. It has helped to shape me.”
Many pious Catholics will wince at his admission of dissent from the Magisterium on certain issues, as well as the fact that he does not practice the faith conventionally. Still, given what Devlin and countless other survivors have endured at the hands of our “shepherds” and “pastors,” while somehow seeing beyond the filth and continuing to fix their gaze on Jesus Christ, I think they may have much more to teach us about certain things than we have to teach them.
Last year, Jeannie Gaffigan and I spoke with Juan Carlos Cruz, a Chilean survivor of clerical abuse and a member of the PCPM. For him, his faith was something that neither his abuser nor the Catholics who accused and tried to discredit him would ever be able to take away. He told us, “I’ve stayed Catholic. I said they’re not going to win because, for me, my faith is incredibly important. First they didn’t want me to be Catholic because I was gay, so I’m not worthy. Then I can’t be Catholic because I speak against bishops or do this or do that. That’s not what they want me to say. But I said, no, they’re not going to win.”
Cruz continued, “For me, my relationship with God and anyone’s relationship with God is absolutely personal. Mary has been critical in my life and always paving the way for me and leading me in the worst moments. I’ve turned to them. Now, I’ve been angry as well, but in general I’ve turned to them, and that’s really important. And the reason I feel I’m here, it’s — my faith.”
Many have pointed to his encounter with Juan Carlos Cruz as the point when Pope Francis began to truly understand the scope and devastating impact of the abuse crisis in the Catholic Church. And some have credited Cruz’s receptivity to Francis’s apology with saving this papacy. The hierarchy has lost our trust, and the only way they will ever rebuild it is through listening to and working with and believing survivors of abuse.
Cruz went on to discuss the devastating consequences for survivors who have not been heard and believed, saying, “They have not found justice. They’ve died. Others cannot deal with it and have committed suicide. It breaks my heart when I’m giving a talk somewhere and parents of someone who has been abused are there and they say, our child, he or she committed suicide because they couldn’t. And so we’re here to try to understand what was going through his or her mind, right?” Cruz brings up an important point. We must also listen to the voices of those who tragically did not survive — such as those who have taken their own lives, including the estimated 50 victims of abuse who died by suicide in the Australian city of Ballarat alone.
Cruz continued, wondering aloud how priests could do such things to those in their care, saying, “That brings me to tears, and it’s so shocking. I just don’t understand how people who have given their lives to help others and be sort of the doctors of the soul have become assassins of the soul and have let their mission go because of corruption, sexual whatever, misconduct and money and power. To me, that is baffling. I mean, I just can’t understand it.”
Cruz acknowledged that other survivors do not share his experience with the faith. He said, “Other survivors don’t want anything to do with the Church. And you can understand them because they’ve been abused in the Church, they’ve been lied to, they’ve been treated like criminals, so you can understand. Then there’s all these survivors that have died waiting for justice because this is not a phenomenon that happened now.” Indeed, the recent revelations of the scope of abuse by priests only reveal what’s happened in recent decades. But the problem goes back centuries.
We can only guess how common abuse has been throughout Church history because so much went unrecorded or was swept under the rug. The records that do exist suggest that there was serious corruption just under the surface. In a 2005 article in America, Colt Anderson reflects on Saint Peter Damian’s condemnation of the 11th century Church, where it was common for priests to have “concubines, or live-in prostitutes, who were completely at the mercy of their clerical patrons. Some bishops used their authority over the clergy to compel priests into acts of sodomy, as well.”
In a 2019 article for the Washington Post, author Karen Liebreich discusses how in 1646 the Piarist Fathers, a religious order founded by Spanish priest and canonized saint Joseph Calasanz, were temporarily suppressed. Although the popular narrative was that the suppression was due to the order’s support for Galileo, Lieberich’s research suggests that it was likely due to the sexual abuse of students by priests at a school run by the order in Rome. The priest at the center of the controversy, Father Stefano Cherubini, was first publicly accused of abuse in 1629 and rose to becomes superior of the order in 1643, pushing aside the elderly Calasanz.
According to Liebrich, Calasanz was partly responsible for Cherubini’s rise, promoting him multiple times in a practice known as “promoveatur ut amoveatur, or promotion for avoidance.” She explained, “The rules of the Pious Schools were unequivocal about the sin involved, but in each case Calasanz’s first priority was protecting reputations: the order’s and the perpetrator’s.” She also notes that in 1948, Calasanz (who had been canonized in the 18th century) was named by Pope Pius XII as “Universal Patron of all the Christian popular schools in the world.”
I bring up this example because we must realize that we can’t simply look back at earlier times in the Church’s history and imagine that things were better or that priests were holier or that children and vulnerable people were safer in the past than they are today. Until recently, the damage done to the lives of people who suffered abuse were barely a consideration for the Church.
The reality of the situation is finally setting in for lay Catholics who have tried their best to raise their families in the faith and to observe the moral guidelines of the Church. Some of us, especially those of us who have not been personally affected by clerical abuse, may have been able to analyze the crisis from a safe distance, but not anymore. We can no longer frame this in ideological terms as a “liberal problem” or a “conservative problem” or a “homosexual problem” or “a few bad apples.” Abusers come from the SSPX, the FSSP, religious orders, charismatic communities, campus ministries, and dioceses. Grand jury reports from places like Pennsylvania and Maryland reveal the depths of depravity of many priest-abusers.
Sometimes I wonder if priests and bishops are desensitized by their experiences on the other side of the confessional screen. I heard a priest once offer an anecdote that after one year of hearing confessions, a newly-ordained priest will have “heard everything.” Perhaps this explains their seeming apathy, at least compared to the horrified and scandalized laity. Meanwhile, the Apostolic Penitentiary has existed for over 800 years, working in secrecy to absolve some of the most serious sins committed by priests. In recent decades, the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith has been given authority over the disciplining and absolving of priestly crimes as well. All of these crimes, with the recent exception of the abuse of minors, are kept confidential, protected by Pontifical Secret. The faithful have been shielded from this, and the institution’s policies are set up so that we will never know.
Many Catholics wonder what else has been kept hidden. Perhaps the only certainty is that much is still hidden. Looming around every corner is the exposure of a priest we trust or a bishop we admire.
My friend Mark Joseph Williams, who is also a survivor of abuse by a Catholic priest, puts in plain terms the pain that has been inflicted by our Church on countless people. He wrote last year in America, “The abused, arguably more than any group in our church, have suffered horrific pain because we were wronged by the church that we trusted and in which we grew up. The church we knew caused us so much hurt, unfathomable pain of mind, body and spirit.”
The crisis of credibility can’t simply be explained away or set aside with platitudes and theological anecdotes. The Magisterium and Canon Law do not provide a path to reversing the anger and disillusionment and disgust that so many Catholics (and former Catholics) feel towards the Church. There is no blueprint. But I think there is a way forward.
Mark Joseph Williams sees synodality as a path to healing in the Church. For survivors, the experience of abuse and the path forward is their individual, personal journey. Survivors can’t simply be lumped together as one group with similar challenges and struggles that can be fixed in similar ways. Each person must be heard and attended to. Each person must be met with love, empathy, and compassion. It is only then — when we resolve to simply accompany each other — that the journey can begin.
Mark writes, “As we journey—abused, broken, rich or poor, religious or lay, young and old—we will more fully realize the fruits of a synodal church if we listen to one another. I believe we can look to Simon of Cyrene, who carried our Lord’s cross, for inspiration. If we are bold and humble enough to help carry one another’s crosses as true servants of Christ, our Redeemer, then we will not only survive, we will succeed, regardless of any wound we bear in our shared pilgrimage.”
These words apply to all of us. All of us have wounds. Some of these were caused by the Church, others were inflicted by loved ones, and some have been caused by complete strangers. Some of us have given up on the Catholic Church, others question the faith, and some of us — perhaps irrationally or only by the grace of God — remain committed to our Catholic faith.
Juan Carlos Cruz, also believes that a top-down, institutional path will not succeed in healing this deep wound. It requires a true commitment to authentic accompaniment. He said, “I think that when we continue to look for answers from within only, we’re just not going to move ahead. So we have to really admit that we are the Church. We people who are in the pews, who are walking with Mary, who have this faith. We have a responsibility to walk with survivors.”
Yes, the synodal journey takes place with and under Peter, but the role of the clergy — priests, bishops, and even cardinals — is as fellow travelers listening to and accompanying the faithful. This process is not the time for Church authorities to scold or lecture or pass judgement on the faithful, it’s time to try to see what they see (and to understand why they see it). Can we walk together for a little while?
 Brian Devlin. Cardinal Sin (Kindle Locations 86-89). Columba Books. Kindle Edition.
 Ibid (Kindle Locations 67-69).
Image: Adobe Stock. By Serhii.