This week a group of Catholic nuns and priests joined forces to form Catholic Whistleblowers; their goal is to hold the church accountable for the ongoing child sex abuse scandal. Most of the founding members have themselves blown the whistle about abuse in the church. Brooke visits one of them, Sister Sally Butler, to talk about the role of truth-telling, transparency and honor among the faithful.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It’s probably a truism, or it ought to be, that the darkest secrets are harbored in the most entrenched, most opaque institutions. For at least a dozen years, the Catholic Church has been rocked by revelations of child sexual abuse by priests. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has since signed onto something called the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, and every year since 2004, US bishops have done an internal audit of the number of abuse cases. This year, the number of allegations and victims they found dropped to a new low. A new group isn’t finding that heartening. Calling themselves Catholic Whistleblowers, they’re priests and nuns, most of whom have themselves blown the whistle on sexual abuse within the Church, some for decades. It started out as a kind of support group to temper the isolation they felt. But this week, they moved into public activism.
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Sister Sally Butler is one of the founding whistleblowers. So I went to where she's been working and practicing her faith for 45 years, a housing project in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.
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Butler's order, the Dominican Sisters, were given the option of wearing the habit or not, and she never has. She said it would have proved a barrier where she works. She's a stunningly vigorous 82 years old, doesn’t look it, even though she gets around in a motorized wheelchair.
SR. SALLY BUTLER: Hello.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Hello!
WOMAN: Good morning.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Good morning.
SR. SALLY BUTLER: So you found your way.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yes -
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I started by asking when she got on the path to whistleblowing, and she started at the beginning.
SR. SALLY BUTLER: In 1968, in this neighborhood there were riots and a great deal of disturbance, but anyway, we were very excited to come. And we worked as a pastoral team with three priests who were located in the church across the street, in the heart of the housing projects. We became very good friends with the priests. We thought it was an ideal situation. In the course of a few years in the sixties and seventies, I met a woman named Ramona, who was quite ill and asked me if anything happened to her if I could take her little boy, Carlos. His mother died, I believe, in ‘75 and I did take him and I put him in the rectory. And he became officially a foster child of one of the priests, but he was mine. And that’s the way it’s been ever since. And I’m so lucky to have him.
Fast forward to 1993. I was walking in the projects and saw a woman's apartment. I hadn’t seen her in a while, so I dropped in. And she told me that Carlos and her two little boys and many others had been sexually molested by all three priests. It was –impossible, we thought, but we found it to be all too true.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you didn't find out about this until 20 years after you basically were his guardian.
SR. SALLY BUTLER: That's right. We still were hoping and believing naively that if we brought this to the bishop, who was then Bishop Daily, that he would take care of it. I was sure that the men would be removed.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: They were still there.
SR. SALLY BUTLER: They were still in Brooklyn. So from ’93 to ‘95 we tried to get to see Bishop Daily, but we never did. I've never met him, to this day [LAUGHS]. We did see his chancellor, I think he’s called, Otto Garcia. And we discovered that he and his lawyers not at all alarmed or surprised.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: They asked about the statute of limitation.
SR. SALLY BUTLER: All they cared about, the dates. And that was a, a shock to us. We - couldn't believe it. We went back again with that woman Francis, who’s the mother of the two little boys because she wanted to have her say. And she screamed at Garcia in Spanish about her two little ones because one of them, Jerry, in trying to stop the abuse when he was a little boy, he tried to start a fire in the church. The priest swept down on him and his brother put them in Lincoln Hall, which was like a reform school, and she never got her kids back.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Wow, that’s incredible.
SR. SALLY BUTLER: Mm-hmm, that's the power. The suffering was - unbelievable. After ’95, we really were stymied, until 2002, when everything blew up in Boston. And there was an awfully good article by Dan Wakin in the Times. So I just wrote him a letter. I think he found it hard to believe, but he did follow up. And he had many interviews with us, but he finally did publish an article in March of 2002, so I guess that's when we all, including Carlos, became whistleblowers.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How’s Carlos?
SR. SALLY BUTLER: Thank you for asking. We speak every night. He’s in the position now that he’s sort of watching out for me. He's 52. I run everything past him before I do anything, And when this came up, I realized he was a little bit frightened because anything like this stirs up flashbacks and panic attacks. It's as if he's a child again, being molested again. He's right back in it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Did he ever attempt suicide?
SR. SALLY BUTLER: Many times, yes. There were several around 2002 because the repressed memories came back, and he couldn't han – he didn’t know what was happening to him. His wife didn't know. It doesn't go away, it doesn't. And the bishops would like to dismiss the whole thing by saying they provided therapy. Well, Carlos has a good therapist. That’ll have to be life-long And with good therapy and with medication, it’s still awful! He'll go for days without sleep. Sometimes agoraphobia takes over and he can't go out of the house, so he can’t hold a job. So they’re living in real poverty but they're very happy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: He doesn’t have kids.
SR. SALLY BUTLER: Oh yes. They’re married 30 years. He married an extraordinary woman, not a Catholic, fortunately, so she just thinks they’re all cuckoo [LAUGHS]. She’s very down to earth. She handles the job, but instead of complaining, she brags because she has a house to go home to that her husband has kept clean. He's cooked. He's got the kids doing their homework. She's very proud of him, as I am.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What does it mean to be a whistleblower in the Church?
SR. SALLY BUTLER: I think it means standing up to power, no matter what the consequences. In my case, there haven't been terribly bad consequences, just a kind of isolation from some sisters. In the case of priests in active duty, it’s really hard because they can be transferred or they won’t be able to say mass or administer the sacraments, which is the heart of what they do. So I think they’re the real heroes in this.
These men have been at it in – inside the institution much longer than - I've never been really inside. Women aren't on the inside. But they were.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What’s the system of accountability that is currently in place?
SR. SALLY BUTLER: Well, on paper there is a charter to protect the children, that you’re probably aware of, from 2002? But, from what I'm picking up, it isn't observed, or it is observed according to the bishops’ whim. They don’t seem to answer to anyone but the Pope.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And what do you know of this new Pope?
SR. SALLY BUTLER: I'm reserving my opinion [LAUGHS]. I like what I see about his concern for the poor, of course. But I want his first priority to be this terrible horror against children, and I don't see that yet.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Have you ever thought of leaving the Church?
SR. SALLY BUTLER: The Church, no. The Church is mine. They should leave.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Are you feeling - more hopeful now? It sounds like people are taking notice.
SR. SALLY BUTLER: I, I am, yeah, particularly this past week. Other members of this group are not as hopeful. I noticed that at the press conference, Tom Doyle, the first whistleblower in the eighties, he worked for the Vatican and he was strictly Church all the way and discovered this mess in Louisiana in about 1981 and thought it was a local problem and realized it was the horror that it is. And he's been fighting ever since, and mostly alone. He does not have that much hope for change within the Church.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why not?
SR. SALLY BUTLER: He has seen so much lying that he almost expects lying. He hasn't seen - courage or honor or anything that shows concern for the children. And neither have I. I'm overwhelmed at how callous - these people are. But anyway, I am hopeful because I've been getting emails by the dozen from ordinary people saying thank you or wishing us well. So I think maybe it's time for small whistleblowers. For instance, there are many women who work in rectories or have worked in rectories, and they have been witness to crimes against children. But because they were maybe the sole support of their family, they couldn't take a chance on losing their jobs, and there would be reprisals. So what we want is a whistleblower protection policy.
And, you know, this is where the press comes in, all of you in the media because if you shine a light on this, then they’re not so quick to fire people.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What happened to those three priests that in the seventies did what they did to the boys in your parish?
SR. SALLY BUTLER: One of them died of AIDS, and this woman Francis, one of her sons has AIDS. The second one died, we’re not sure how. And the third one is living the life of ease in Florida.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Boca?
SR. SALLY BUTLER: Yep. Yes, yes, a very life with a pension and healthcare, none of which Carlos has. And he’s the one I want to see – I want to see justice someday.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You said that you really bumped up hard against the statute of limitations when you first raised the issue in connection with Carlos.
SR. SALLY BUTLER: Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is that still a problem?
SR. SALLY BUTLER: Oh yes, because I think it's as many as eight years we've been trying to change that situation in our state, in New York, and our main opponents are the New York bishops, along with the insurance companies. And bishops are spending a great deal of the people’s money on fighting us on this.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What are you seeking?
SR. SALLY BUTLER: A year of - a window of opportunity when people like Carlos can come forward with their claims.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: A year to come forward or starting that process, no matter how many years after the abuse took place?
SR. SALLY BUTLER: Yes, yes, and that’s what we’re all hoping for. But that means here in, in the projects it's going to be a real hard push to find the people who've been abused and then to get them to come forward because they’re facing two monolithic entities, the Catholic Church, which is a white institution and the people in the projects are not, and the second thing is the criminal justice system, which they don't want to get involved in. So I'm not happy with it, but it's the best we can do. And I'm not even sure that we get that through, but we’re working hard on it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what is next for your whistleblower group? How do you plan to proceed?
SR. SALLY BUTLER: I get a little anxious because I tend to want to organize this because these emails are coming in and there are terrible cases that have to be handled. So I don't want to lose anything or have anybody slip through the cracks, and neither does anyone else. But we’re going to have a conference call again tomorrow, and I think what's going to happen is slowly we’ll organize. I can see this growing the way SNAP grew. SNAP is the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. And they have – I guess you’d call them locals [LAUGHS] – all over the country, and now all over the world.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The difference is that this can - stop things, perhaps while they're happening, rather than come in afterwards?
SR. SALLY BUTLER: And I guess that's why it appeals to me, because it - it's proactive, and I’m just sick of waiting. That’s why I like these people.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Impatient?
SR. SALLY BUTLER: Very impatient, yes. [LAUGHS] But I mean, I’ve been waiting for 20 years. [LAUGHING]
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you so much.
SR. SALLY BUTLER: Well, you’ve been very easy to talk to. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sister Sally Butler is a founding member of Catholic Whistleblowers, and we spoke to her in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.
Coming up, scandal coverage Canadian style. Also, we boldly go, again, into a world where no one has gone before. Actually, I've been there a lot. This is On the Media.