If confession is good for the soul, then another group of bishops may be in better shape now than they were last week. Except for one thing: they didn’t want to confess. Thus, instead of healing their souls, the most recent court-ordered document dump detailing how bishops protected priests who raped and abused children will feel to them like torture.

Once upon a time, the victims of priestly sexual abuse simply wanted their pain to stop, so the bishop would remove the priest from that parish. Later, victims pressed for compensation to cover counseling and therapy, as well as punitive financial compensation. Now, the battle has shifted from financial to something that scares the bishops to death: confession. Not a statement saying “we admit that what happened in the past was wrong” and expressing sorrow, but opening up the files that show the wrongness, with all the gory details.

Meet the latest bringer of nightmares to the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, David Rudofski:

The Joliet Diocese readily admitted that David Rudofski was sexually abused during his first confession at St. Mary Catholic Church in Mokena. It offered him an in-person apology from the bishop and more than six times his annual salary in the hope of putting a quick, quiet end to yet another ugly incident involving a priest.

But Rudofski wanted more than money.

The south suburban electrician wanted the diocese to truly pay for its repeated and, oftentimes, willful mishandling of sexual abuse cases involving clergy — and he insisted on a currency far more precious to the church than money. He demanded that the diocese settle its debt by turning over the secret archives it maintained on abusive priests and making them available for public consumption.

And earlier this week, after a seven year battle, he got 7000 records released. “Money, he says, was not an issue. At one point he filed a settlement offer requesting no monetary award, only the unlocking of the priests’ files. That offer was rejected by the diocese.”

Back in 2004, the head of the USCCB at that time, Bishop Wilton Gregory, received two major reports on the handling of priests who raped the children in their care, and declared that all of this is in the past:

Just after the release on Friday of two long-awaited studies on the sexual abuse of children by more than 4,000 priests, the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops declared with emphatic finality in a news conference that the bishops had faced the problem, come clean and swept the church of abusers.

”I assure you that known offenders are not in ministry,” the leader, Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Ill., said as he punched out his words. ”The terrible history recorded here today is history.”

Uh, no. It’s not over-and-done-with. Abuse continues, and because the bishops continue to try to fight the disclosure of their sins, the pain of past abuse continues to fester. Here in Kansas City, Bishop Robert Finn was convicted last September of failing to report his knowledge of a priest who had child pornography on his computer.

And he’s still the bishop here.

If you want a picture of the pain caused by the legal battles like these, read Thomas Doyle’s devastating account of the battles in Los Angeles, where Cardinal Mahoney fought disclosure even after agreeing to it as part of a settlement. Victims continued to be lied to by their church. Family members suffered, as did the lawyers with whom they worked:

They worked far above and beyond what was required for what they earned. Some were so disgusted with the never-ending antics of the church in court and at the mediation table that they left the practice of law when it was all over. A number who had at one time been practicing Catholics lost all respect and trust in the institutional church. One lawyer spoke up at a gathering after the settlement and said, “I don’t believe in God anymore.” This man had not only represented victims in Los Angeles and elsewhere for years, but he had provided for many the emotional and spiritual support so essential after their experiences with the church. He told me once that he had to make 70 cross-country plane trips to Los Angeles for the case.

And then there are the parishes served by these priests, and the unknown numbers of victims who have not come forward. In Joliet, those numbers are staggering:

“There are over 91 separate places were [sic; should be "where"] these sexual predators served in the Diocese of Joliet. According to our experts, that is at least 75% of the parishes the Joliet Diocese had a sexual predator priest serving in,” said Terry Johnson, Rudofski’s attorney.

[snip]

The Diocese of Joliet currently lists 34 priests with credible sex abuse allegations against them, made by more than 100 victims. Some say there are many more.

“According to our experts who reviewed this, there are probably somewhere between 600 to 1,000 victims who need help and have not come forward. Some of the victims of the priests from the Joliet Diocese have committed suicide so these are real issues,” said Johnson.

75%. That’s three out of every four parishes in the diocese, which were served by priests who abused children sexually, and violated the trust placed in them by everyone else.

How would you like to be the next priest to come to one of those parishes? The terrible history recorded in the files released in Joliet may be in the past, but it continues to gnaw at the church today.

The bishop who comes off worst in the Joliet saga is Joseph Imesch, who isn’t exactly happy to have this all come out:

Reached at his home in New Lenox, retired Bishop Joseph Imesch, 81, said he didn’t want to discuss details of the revelations in the documents.

“I’m not going to rehash all of this. I know what I did; I know what I should have done,” he said, expressing frustration with the way news reports portrayed his conduct.

When a reporter informed him that a Tribune story was being prepared to report on the newly released documents, Imesch said, “Sure. Sex and the priests, let’s blast it all over the place. Never let it go.”

On that, I agree with the bishop, though not with the snark that he no doubt expressed.

But the bishop who is perhaps most nervous about all this is Imesch’s successor in Joliet — J. Peter Sartain, who came to Joliet in 2006 as bishop, went to Seattle to be their new archbishop, and who serves currently as the Secretary of the USCCB.

In 2011, also in Joliet, a priest attempted to commit suicide prior to meeting with police, over charges of child abuse. A Chicago Tribune account at the time noted that while bishop in Joliet, Sartain ignored repeated complaints and concerns from family members, parishioners, and supervisors about Alejandro Flores, both while Flores was a seminarian and later a priest:

A Tribune examination found that at least three supervisors said they saw Flores alone with either one or both of the woman’s sons several times before his June 2009 ordination, including once while the younger boy changed clothes in Flores’ presence and was overheard calling him “Daddy,” according to police reports, court records and interviews.Parishioners say they complained and that Flores ignored warnings that such contact wasn’t appropriate.

The newspaper also learned Flores was sent for psychological evaluation and treatment at least twice, including three months before his ordination when he admitted viewing pornography on a parish computer, records show. Authorities said diocese officials later told them the images appeared to show young males engaged in sex acts.

Police said the diocese didn’t report the questionable images, and that the computer’s hard drive had disappeared when they sought it months later.

One priest who had supervised Flores was so frustrated that the seminarian was ordained despite repeated warnings that he wrote to Sartain asking why his complaints fell on deaf ears.

“Why have I not heard anything from you as my bishop?” the Rev. William Conway asked in the confidential letter obtained by the Tribune.

“Why was my input ignored…?” he wrote.

That’s a very good question.

This wasn’t decades ago. This was recent, and the bishop who failed to intervene continues to avoid any consequences. He’s on the committee that is patrolling the work of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, to see to it that they are not drifting too far from theological orthodoxy, for example. He’s been a leading voice against marriage equality, and is on the inside of a lot of the work by the USCCB. He may not be in Joliet anymore, but he’s a part of what the church there has gone through and continues to go through, because of his failures to act.

This isn’t about priests anymore. It’s about bishops, archbishops, and cardinals. And the only thing that will curb their conduct is putting it on public display for all the world to see. See “Law, Bernard, Cardinal Archbishop Emeritus of Boston.”

Today is the 29th anniversary of Cardinal Law’s installation as Archbishop of Boston, and I can’t think of a nicer way to commemorate the occasion than to thank David Rudofski for his efforts to get these records released.

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Photo by Sreejithk2000 and used under GNU Free Documentation License