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Tainted Saint: Mother Teresa Defended Pedophile Priest 

Wednesday, Jan 11 2012
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Illustration by Robert Hunt.

The death of journalist and polemicist Christopher Hitchens last month gave those familiar with his work a chance to revisit one of his more controversial subjects: the Albanian nun Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu, better known to the world as Mother Teresa. In his 1997 book, The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice, Hitchens argued that the "Saint of Calcutta," who founded and headed the international Missionaries of Charity order, enjoyed undeserved esteem.

Despite her humanitarian reputation and 1979 Nobel Peace Prize, Mother Teresa had set up a worldwide system of "homes for the dying" that routinely failed to provide adequate care to patients, Hitchens argued — an appraisal shared by The Lancet, a respected medical journal. Mother Teresa also associated with, and took large sums of money from, disreputable figures such as American savings-and-loan swindler Charles Keating and the dictatorial Duvalier family of Haiti.

Notwithstanding these black marks on an otherwise sterling reputation, Mother Teresa — who died in 1997 and is now on the fast track to a formal proclamation of sainthood by the Vatican — was never known to have been touched by the scandal that would rock the Roman Catholic Church in the decade after her death: the systematic protection of child-molesting priests by church officials.

Yet documents obtained by SF Weekly suggest that Mother Teresa knew one of her favorite priests was removed from ministry for sexually abusing a Bay Area boy in 1993, and that she nevertheless urged his bosses to return him to work as soon as possible. The priest resumed active ministry, as well as his predatory habits. Eight additional complaints were lodged against him in the coming years by various families, leading to his eventual arrest on sex-abuse charges in 2005.

The priest was Donald McGuire, a former Jesuit who has been convicted of molesting boys in federal and state courts and is serving a 25-year federal prison sentence. McGuire, now 81 years old, taught at the University of San Francisco in the late 1970s, and held frequent spiritual retreats for families in San Francisco and Walnut Creek throughout the 1980s and 1990s. He also ministered extensively to the Missionaries of Charity during that time.

In a 1994 letter to McGuire's Jesuit superior in Chicago, it appears that Mother Teresa acknowledged she had learned of the "sad events which took [McGuire] from his priestly ministry these past seven months," and that McGuire "admitted imprudence in his behavior," but she wished to see him put back on the job. The letter was written after McGuire had been sent to a psychiatric hospital following an abuse complaint to the Jesuits by a family in Walnut Creek.

"I understand how grave is the scandal touching the priesthood in the U.S.A. and how careful we must be to guard the purity and reputation of that priesthood," the letter states. "I must say, however, that I have confidence and trust in Fr. McGuire and wish to see his vital ministry resume as soon as possible."

The one-page letter comes from thousands of pages of church records that have been shared with plaintiffs' attorneys in ongoing litigation against the Jesuits involving McGuire. (The documents were also shared with prosecutors who worked on his criminal cases.) It is printed on Missionaries of Charity letterhead but is unsigned, and thus cannot be verified absolutely as having been written by Mother Teresa. Officials in the Missionaries of Charity and the Jesuits did not respond to requests for comment on its provenance.

Yet statements throughout the letter point to Mother Teresa as the author. The writer speaks of "my communities throughout the world" and refers by name to Mother Teresa's four top deputies, calling them "my four assistants." Rev. Joseph Fessio, a Jesuit and former University of San Francisco professor who knew Mother Teresa, said the reference to her assistants is an "authentic" aspect of the letter.

The letter could have an impact on the near-complete process of canonizing Mother Teresa. In 2003 she was beatified by Pope John Paul II, the penultimate step to full sainthood.

"What we see here is the same thing we see over and over in regard to the [priest pedophilia] scandal — the complete lack of empathy for, or interest in, possible victims of these accused priests," said Anne Rice, the bestselling author of novels including Interview with the Vampire and a former Catholic who has been outspoken in her criticism of the church's handling of the sex-abuse scandal. "In this letter the concern is for the reputation of the priesthood. This is as disappointing as it is shocking."

Other documents that have emerged in the criminal and civil cases involving McGuire could affect the sainthood prospects of another deceased religious leader eyed by the Vatican for sainthood. Among the newly uncovered church records are letters by Rev. John Hardon, a Jesuit who also worked extensively with Mother Teresa and died in 2000. He collaborated with then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, on the Catechism of the Catholic Church, a landmark summation of contemporary church doctrine. In 2005, the Vatican opened a formal inquiry into whether Hardon should be made a saint.

But statements by Hardon in his letters could complicate that process. The documents reveal McGuire admitted to Hardon that he was taking showers with the teenage boy from Walnut Creek whose complaint led to McGuire's psychiatric treatment. He also acknowledged soliciting body massages from the boy and letting him read pornography in the room they shared on trips together.

Despite these admissions, Hardon concluded that his fellow Jesuit's actions were "objectively defensible," albeit "highly imprudent," and told McGuire's bosses that he "should be prudently allowed to engage in priestly ministry."

The postulators, or Vatican-appointed researchers and advocates for sainthood, assigned to investigate Mother Teresa and Hardon did not respond to repeated requestsfor comment.

While it is unclear exactly what impact the new documents will have on the evaluation of both figures for sainthood, the evidence of involvement by two prominent and internationally respected Catholics in the McGuire sex-abuse scandal is likely to cause consternation among critics of the church's handling of predator priests. The situation is aggravated since McGuire went on to abuse more children after suggestions to return him to ministry were heeded.

About The Author

Peter Jamison

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