One Parent’s Demand for Justice

A father's challenge to the head of the US Bishops over the sex abuse scandal continues to resonate


When I met David Spotanski at a conference on leadership in the Catholic Church in 2007, my first impression of the Belleville, Ill., native was that he was like so many of the Midwesterners whom I’ve known and worked with over the years: friendly, approachable, and not in the habit of taking himself too seriously. The fact that, as a layman, Spotanski also happened to be the chancellor for the Belleville diocese — just outside of St. Louis — for all matters except canonical issues requiring a priest seemed a little unusual. But after a number of conversations over the course of the gathering it became clear to me that if this married father of three was indicative of the sort of leadership in the Catholic Church’s future, the Church was in very capable hands.

I wasn’t prepared, however, for the information Spotanski decided to share with me at the end of our meeting. Before returning home, he left me with a 10-page photocopied document that contained what was easily the most personal, honest and moving commentary I had yet to read on the sex abuse scandal. It was blunt, unsparing and deeply challenging language from someone who worked for the Church, clearly loved his Catholic faith and was deeply concerned that the Church’s leadership wasn’t able to comprehend how badly its credibility had been damaged.

But what made his letter so unique was that he had hand delivered and read it aloud privately to his boss, Bishop Wilton Gregory. At the time, Gregory was not only the bishop of Belleville but also had just taken over as the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in which he was forced to deal with the horrible scandal that had begun erupting across the country.

A Father’s Perspective

In the letter, Spotanski — 39 at the time he wrote it — spoke movingly as a husband and father. “I may work in your chancery,” he told his bishop/boss “but I am, above all else, Sharon’s husband and Erin, Jonathan and James’ dad.” He continued, “The truth is our bishops are not doing all they can to stop the sexual abuse of minors by their brother priests; they’re each doing all they care to…. For a Church that can be so outspoken and uncompromising about the splinters in the eyes of our culture, She has apparently for decades concealed a plank in Her own eye from which one could hew an ark.” As if his words weren’t sufficient, Spotanski also attached a recent photo of his three young children to his letter.

In addition to such pointed and impassioned criticism, Spotanski’s memo to the USCCB president also included constructive ideas for how the bishops could substantively change policy about the protection of minors in the future. Spotanski’s suggestions included the need to craft a national policy on sex abuse that needed to be enforced by an independent body and led by a parent who’d be the church version of a “director of homeland security.” The debate and voting on any policy changes needed to be in full view of the press and televised, he said, and Bishops found to have violated the trust that is placed in them as shepherds of their flocks by leaving criminal abusers in ministry must be reviewed for fitness as leaders.

Taken to Heart

To Bishop Gregory’s credit, he clearly took Spotanski’s message to heart. Many of the policy changes enacted by the USCCB that year reflected the ideas laid out in that memo. In the days and years that followed, Spotanski shared the document with those he came in contact with in both church and media circles and it quietly fell into the hands of many of the people charged with enacting change.

Despite numerous requests to publish it (from me at Busted Halo as well as a number of major metropolitan daily papers) Spotanski opted not to. But with the recent revelations of abuse across Europe and the defensive responses from certain quarters he felt that it was time to speak out.

In an article in The St. Louis Beacon he revealed the contents of his candid letter to Bishop Gregory. Gregory, now the archbishop of Atlanta, corroborated Spotanski’s account in an interview for the article with St. Louis-based religion reporter Patricia Rice, commenting, “I learned from David… I think he is a great man with a great heart. He spoke to me on two different levels: as someone on my staff that I depended on but also as a father.” The piece’s author also went on record for the first time regarding an encounter with Bishop Gregory from April 2002. After the summit in Rome in which Bishop Gregory and all the American cardinals met with Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (the future Pope Benedict XVI) to discuss the scandal, Gregory — referring to Spotanski’s memo — commented “I’ve listened to Dave.”

Spotanski’s real reason for releasing the letter is his concern for the future of the church. The fact that Busted Halo speaks to a younger audience that he hopes might take part in that future is why he approached us to publish his 2002 letter as well. We urge you not only to read the original text of his moving correspondence with Archbishop Gregory (attached here as a PDF) but also to read our exclusive interview with Spotanski below in which he discusses his current thoughts on the seemingly never-ending story of sex abuse in the Church.

BH: What do you hope can come from revealing this now?

DS:I recently read an article written by a bishop for whom I have a world of respect. The gist of the column was that all the way back to the time of the disciples, except for Jesus Himself the leaders of the Church have been deeply, miserably flawed individuals who, by the sheer imperfect nature of their humanity, have repeatedly done harm to the Church. The very valid point this bishop was trying to make was that it’s not the hierarchy’s Church, it’s Christ’s, and it’s Christ in Whom we place our faith.

When I read the article, though, I worried that some people would interpret it as though he was saying, “Look, we’ve been upfront with you for centuries. We’ve told you all that since the Church began the leadership has been ‘sinful,’ ‘stupid,’ ‘stubborn,’ ‘hardheaded,’ and ‘ignorant,’ all the way back to Judas turning Jesus over, Peter denying Him three times, and the others abandoning Him. Yet somehow you all never made the connection, and now you’re telling us you’re somehow surprised and upset that we bishops were a little negligent and some of you got abused? Well, that’s not our fault.”

Of course, that’s not what he meant, although if you read his article with a certain preconceived mindset, you could make that case. When the story was written about my involvement in 2002, most accepted it for what it was — a demonstration of how Church can and must work if we’re to get past this, about how a bishop and his advisors worked together to craft a sensitive response to an scandal of epic proportion. Some, though, chose to read the story as “it took a layman to get through to them,” which was neither the intent nor the truth. I’m grateful for this opportunity to clarify that.

I also think it’s important on occasion to remind ourselves that the only affiliation that’s required to speak up in this Church is baptism. From that moment forward we are full-fledged members with a God-given right and a God-driven obligation to help fix what’s wrong in our Church and in the world.

It’s unsettling to consider that no American under the age of 25 remembers an untainted Catholic Church. It’s naïve of us to think that won’t make our young people assess their lifelong commitment to Catholicism over another faith or none at all a thousand times more closely than people my age and older did. Instead of walking away, though, I hope they’re energized to work for the changes necessary to make this an institution in which they will be proud to raise their young families. It will ultimately fall to the people in their twenties and thirties now to decide if we’ve done enough, and if we’ve done it in time. I don’t want to stand before God someday knowing there was something more I should have said or done.

BH: Why did you wait eight years to release this letter?

DS: It was less a matter of releasing it than of publicly acknowledging it on my own terms. Early on I gave copies to a few people — friends, family, colleagues in my own diocese and others, and even members of the USCCB staff and the National Review Board — some for feedback, others because I sensed they shared my passion for fixing this once and for all. If it resonated with them, they would often pass it on to others, including in some cases members of the media who would then contact me and ask if they could write about both the text and the remarkable bishop who encouraged that kind of candor. Because the document was so profoundly personal and involved my young children, I’d always ask them not to. To their credit, every single reporter honored that request. There just never seemed to be a reason to put it out there that didn’t seem self-serving. I certainly never imagined it would still be relevant eight years after the fact, or that the arc of events and errors in Europe today would so closely mirror those of the Church in the United States in 2002.

Not long after the most recent international revelations began, interest from the media picked up, particularly as they tried to localize a story taking place an ocean away. If there’s any lesson we in the Church should have learned by now, but still seem to struggle with, it’s that disclosure is always better than discovery.