First Friday devotion: Child abusers, their victims and Pope Francis

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Art Baselice on the sidewalk in front of the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul in Philadelphia. Photo by Len Lazarick,

By Len Lazarick

In an old Catholic observance, First Fridays of the month were set aside for special devotions to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. For the last 10 years, Art Baselice, an ex-cop, First Fridays of the month have been set aside for another devotion.

From noon to 1 p.m., as he plans to do this Friday, he stands outside the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul in Philadelphia with a poster that says “Victim of Catholic Clergy Sex Abuse.” The poster has a picture of his late son Arthur and the Franciscan priest and brother that abused him.

I met Art by chance June 5 after visiting the cathedral while in Philadelphia for the conference of Investigative Reporters and Editors.

You might have seen this block of 18th Street during Pope Francis’s visit to Philadelphia. He said Mass at the Cathedral on Saturday, and stopped by it in the pope-mobile on his way to the huge Mass on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway Sunday.

There were no crowds when I met Baselice. He was alone and wary. His is a lonely crusade.

Lonely crusade

Baselice wants the church he grew up with in South Philly to do more to correct and punish the sex abuse by priests and religious that helped lead to the death of his son Arthur from a heroin overdose. That addiction began years earlier, financed by the high school principal that abused him at Archbishop Ryan High School, according to a lengthy article in Philadelphia magazine.

Ironically, that man, Father Charles Newman is one of those rare priests involved in the sex abuse scandal actually serving prison time. But his conviction was not for underage sex abuse — the statute of limitations had expired, as it has in most of these cases — but for the embezzlement of almost $1 million. Father Charles used some of it to fuel the drug addiction in Arthur he helped instigate to control the youth.

I thought of Art several times this past week.

First, at the strange remarks of Pope Francis to the bishops in Washington’s Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle.

Said the pope: “I am also conscious of the courage with which you have faced difficult moments in the recent history of the Church in this country without fear of self-criticism and at the cost of mortification and great sacrifice. Nor have you been afraid to divest whatever is unessential in order to regain the authority and trust which is demanded of ministers of Christ and rightly expected by the faithful. I realize how much the pain of recent years has weighed upon you and I have supported your generous commitment to bring healing to victims – in the knowledge that in healing we too are healed – and to work to ensure that such crimes will never be repeated.”

The bishops gave this a long round of applause. Representatives of victims groups were appalled.

I thought of Art too after the pope’s brief private meeting with abuse victims at St. Charles Seminary on Sunday, which was far less equivocal.  “I pledge to you that we will follow the path of truth wherever it may lead,” Francis said in Spanish. “Clergy and bishops will be held accountable when they abuse or fail to protect children.”

“God weeps” over what was done to the youngsters, he told the bishops right afterward.

Pope said many good things


Pope Francis in Philadelphia. Photo by US Papal Visit with Flickr Creative Commons License

Pope Francis in Philadelphia. Photo by US Papal Visit with Flickr Creative Commons License

The pope said many good things while he was here in the United States. I watched at least a dozen hours of coverage of his visit after I was told that my newly issued papal press credential wouldn’t grant me access to any of the venues at which he would appear because there was already too many media. It was a historic event, but I doubt I would have gushed about this haloed celebrity or said the many silly things I heard the reporters and anchors say, both Catholic and non. And what’s with all the baby kissing?

I was glad to see the pontiff here, and proud he was a Jesuit, after nine years of Jesuit education myself, including three years as a Jesuit seminarian. Three hundred students from Jesuit high schools across the country were headquartered at my high school, St. Joe’s Prep, a mile north of the Philadelphia cathedral to see the pope.

The movie on Boston’s abuse scandal

I thought of Art Baselice again Wednesday night as I watched the Washington premiere of “Spotlight,” a new movie documenting the reporting at the Boston Globe in 2002 that blew up the massive clergy abuse scandal in Boston.

It is a powerful movie that does a good job of dramatizing the painstaking, tedious, error-prone task of investigative journalism, which is why it was being showcased at the first Investigative Journalism Film Festival.

The movie was particularly evocative for me since I went to Boston College, and the cardinal’s residence was next door to my future wife’s dorm room. There are several little BC touches in the movie, and it turns out director Tom McCarthy went to BC himself. You may remember McCarthy as the unethical star reporter in the final season of The Wire.

This may explain how the festival organizers got Wire-creator David Simon to lead a discussion of the movie with the entire Boston Globe Spotlight team, including top editor Marty Baron, now editor of the Washington Post.

It was a celebratory evening, celebrating both dogged journalism that won a Pulitzer Prize and honest film making “based on actual events.” The audience applauded both the movie, and the real reporters and editors it was based on.

But the movie made me sad, sad for the victims, sad for the church, and sad for the bishops and priests who covered up the abuse.

Art’s different take on the pope

Art told me Thursday he looks forward to seeing the movie. And he was not disappointed at what the pope had to say; it was what he expected.

“It was a subliminal message that had two components. It told the people what they wanted to hear.” And “he subliminally congratulated the abusers and the people who covered up for them.”

“The pope is nothing more than a geopolitical strategist. This pope came here for damage control … I knew he was going to do this. He had to enable the abusers.”

“The church is not the victim. They are the victimizers,” Art said. “They’re not courageous; they’re cowards.”

“Philadelphia is a boil waiting to get lanced,” he said. When the full truth comes out about the Philadelphia clergy, “it’s going to make Boston look insignificant.”

There have already been two long grand jury investigations of the church, and their lengthy reports make Art’s statements look tame. A monsignor involved already sits in prison.

Resisting changes in abuse law

Despite all its protestations, in state legislatures across the country, including Maryland and Pennsylvania, the church continues to resist extending the statute of limitations on crimes of child abuse and extending the time that victims can file civil lawsuits.

Perhaps it is no surprise that Art carries on his First Friday protests outside the cathedral. He doesn’t go inside any church anymore.

I still do, as heretical as some of my views may be. I sing in the choir. I’ve filled out the forms that everyone involved in any ministry of the church in the Baltimore Archdiocese must do to show they are not a child abuser.

In 17 years of Catholic education, I had never seen or experienced or even heard of any child abuse. Maybe my cousin the monsignor, head of the church tribunal in another diocese had, or my two aunts in the Sisters of Mercy. I was appalled to learn that my scripture professor in the Jesuit novitiate was accused of abusing five of his nieces, and was sent to treatment, then shipped off far away.

The church has said a lot, but it has not done enough. The financial settlements that have bankrupted some dioceses are not enough. The pope’s words are not enough. It’s deeds, not words, that count.

As Jesus says in a parable describing the last judgment, “in so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:40)