Misjudgments threaten would-be saints' reputations

For well over a decade, the poisonous influence of the sex-abuse scandal has been spreading through the universal Church, shaking the faith and undermining the hierarchy in one country after another. Now the toxic influence of the scandal has seeped into yet another aspect of Catholic life, tarnishing the memory of potential saints. 

In a story published Jan. 11, carrying the suitably sensational title “Tainted Saint,” the San Francisco Weekly suggested that the scandal might damage the reputation of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 2003. 

In making that argument, the Weekly stretches the available evidence beyond the breaking point. At worst, Blessed Mother Teresa was guilty of misjudging a priest: a mistake that many others made regarding the same manipulative cleric.  

Unfortunately the same chain of evidence raises more serious questions about another beloved Catholic figure who is now a candidate for beatification: Jesuit Father John Hardon. 

Blessed Teresa’s trust

The Weekly story involves the case of Donald McGuire, which is among the most appalling in the annals of clerical abuse. As a Jesuit priest, he was a popular speaker, retreat director and spiritual adviser, renowned for his vigorous orthodoxy. For 30 years his shining reputation concealed the string of abuse allegations that trailed behind him.  

Finally, when the sex-abuse scandal broke open across the United States, those accusations caught up with him. Charged and convicted on several different counts, McGuire was dismissed from the Jesuit order in 2007 and laicized in 2008. He is now serving a 25-year federal prison term that, in light of his age (81) and ill health, is almost certainly a life sentence. 

Back in 1994, before all of the most damning evidence came to light, Mother Teresa had been among McGuire’s defenders. He had preached retreats for her Missionaries of Charity; she had been impressed with his wisdom and fervor.  

When she heard he had been suspended because of accusations that he had molested a teenage boy, she evidently assumed that the charge was false. In a letter to McGuire’s Jesuit provincial, Mother Teresa wrote, “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. I must say, however, that I have confidence and trust in Father McGuire and wish to see his vital ministry resume as soon as possible.” 

To place that letter in the context, keep in mind that Mother Teresa was writing long before the sex-abuse scandal had reached its zenith, at a time when it was still unthinkable that bishops and religious superiors would have ignored clear evidence of abuse. Moreover, she seems to have heard about the charges only from McGuire himself and from Father John Hardon, who was convinced that McGuire was innocent. She no doubt assumed that the hearsay evidence mentioned by these two priests was the only evidence available.  

Thus Mother Teresa was told that McGuire had been charged with abuse, but was assured by two priests she trusted that the charges were false. She believed that he was innocent, and she said so. 

That is the sum total of the evidence against Mother Teresa. If Mother Teresa was taken in by McGuire’s display of piety, that fact may duly be entered in the debit column against her account.  

But with her credits piled so high, a small withdrawal will make very little difference to her overall standing. Mother Teresa is generally regarded as a saint — not just by the Catholic Church, but by the more cynical secular world. The Weekly story, despite its breathless presentation, will not alter that judgment. 

Known for piety

If Mother Teresa was conned by McGuire, she had plenty of company. Over the years, hundreds of pious Catholics had come to believe implicitly in the renowned priest’s virtue. Yet during all that time, McGuire’s Jesuit superiors had evidence that would have put those pious Catholics on their guard — and saved many young men from trauma. 

The first complaints that McGuire was making improper advances on teenage boys arose in the 1970s, when he was teaching at Loyola Academy in Chicago. Soon he was reassigned to the University of San Francisco, where superiors recorded his “highly questionable acts.” By 1990, he had set himself up as a roving retreat director, often bringing a teenage boy along as his companion. This pattern of behavior was to continue, off and on, for 20 years. 

Catholic parents were generally delighted to have their sons spend time in the company of a priest they held in high esteem, and McGuire evidently had a knack for finding boys whose family circumstances made them anxious for the approval of a revered adult male.  

Priest’s evaluation

In 1991, Jesuit superiors had their first explicit reports that McGuire was engaged in sexual activities with a young companion. His provincial ordered him to stop traveling with teenagers, but the rule was not enforced. In 1993, after a fresh complaint, McGuire’s provincial sent him to St. John Vianney Center in Pennsylvania for psychological evaluation. It was at this point that Father Hardon entered onto the scene. 

Father H
Father Hardon was a catechism author, popular speaker. OSV archive

Like McGuire, Father Hardon was a Jesuit. (Father Hardon was of the Detroit province; McGuire the neighboring Chicago province. The two have since been combined.) If McGuire was a minor star in the eyes of orthodox Catholics, Father Hardon was a major luminary. The author of many books — most notably The Catholic Catechism, a project he undertook at the suggestion of Pope Paul VI and completed in 1975 — Father Hardon was also an accomplished speaker and retreat director. Known for his unswerving orthodoxy, he was also famous for scrupulous exactitude and attention to detail. Father Hardon died in 2000 at the age of 86. A cause for his beatification was opened in St. Louis by then-Archbishop Raymond Burke in 2005. 

In 1993, the California family that had lodged the latest accusation against McGuire — an accusation that McGuire stoutly denied — agreed to accept Father Hardon’s evaluation. Evidently Jesuit superiors also saw him as an ideal intermediary. Father Hardon was a friend of McGuire’s, and his ally in the theological battles that often rattled the Jesuit order. But the older Jesuit also had an impeccable reputation for honesty and for looking at facts without blinking. 

So, Father Hardon visited McGuire in Pennsylvania and spoke to him privately. In their long conversation, which Father Hardon later recorded in correspondence that has now been made public, McGuire admitted that he had showered with his teenage companions. He admitted that he had asked the boys to give him massages. He admitted using pornography with them. But he denied the more serious charges of engaging in actual sex acts. Father Hardon wrote that he accepted the veracity of McGuire’s denial: “I do not believe there was any conscious and deliberate sexual perversity.” 

Father Hardon concluded that McGuire’s behavior had been “highly imprudent.” But he accepted a series of rationalizations: That showering together had been necessary because McGuire, who suffered from chronic back and leg pain, needed assistance in the shower; that massages were done to relieve pressure on the priest’s sciatic nerve; that the pornographic magazines were there accidentally (McGuire denied buying them), and were no worse than Playboy or Penthouse. Father Hardon recommended that McGuire “should be prudently allowed to engage in priestly ministry.” And so he was, for another decade, during which time several more boys were molested. 

Lapse in prudence

How could Father Hardon have seen so much smoke and not recognized a fire? Was he one among the many good people taken in by a very manipulative personality? Remarkably enough, the father of the family that had asked for Father Hardon’s involvement in the case, and later accepted his verdict, is prepared to accept that conclusion: “That McGuire fooled Father Hardon and Mother Teresa like he did so many others is disappointing, but not a surprise,” he told the San Francisco Weekly. 

Others are not so charitable in their evaluations of Father Hardon’s judgment, and their skepticism is understandable. Once McGuire had admitted to some degree of misconduct, after earlier blanket denials, why was Father Hardon ready to accept his later denials of the more serious charges? A priest who takes teenage boys into the shower with him, or views pornography with them, is clearly a grave danger to young people. Even if there was no compelling evidence of rape, there were plenty of reasons — based on McGuire’s admissions alone — to suspect that rape may have occurred. 

Father Hardon had a deserved reputation as a hard-nosed realist, rigorous in his moral judgments. For such a man to look at the evidence in the McGuire case, and conclude that there was no immediate danger, seems at least a serious lapse of prudence. When first informed about Father Hardon’s role, Father Robert McDermott, the postulator for his cause for beatification, admitted to the San Francisco Weekly, “I don’t know why he didn’t take a harder line on this.” 

Father McDermott made that remark when he was originally contacted by the San Francisco Weekly for an earlier story on the McGuire case that appeared in May 2011. When the Weekly contacted the postulator again, after unearthing more extensive evidence of Father Hardon’s involvement of the more recent story, Father McDermott declined to comment. He has since issued a statement (see sidebar). 

Maybe there is an explanation for Father Hardon’s willingness to endorse his colleague’s return to active ministry. Maybe something is missing from the story as we now see it.  

Father Hardon can no longer defend himself, and the others involved in the case — McGuire and the Jesuit superiors who covered up evidence of his misconduct for years — are unreliable witnesses. 

Certainly it is true that the leaders of the Jesuit order were guilty of lapses far more serious than the oddly lax judgment of Father Hardon. At least six different Jesuit provincials were warned that McGuire was molesting teenage boys. His superiors had been told repeatedly that he was traveling with teenage boys, yet the travel continued. In 1998, a provincial wrote to a bishop that McGuire “had never been accused of improprieties with minors” — disregarding the multiple accusations in his personnel file. 

Perhaps Father Hardon’s opinion would have changed if he had known what the Jesuit provincials knew. But the available evidence sheds a very unflattering light on Father Hardon’s involvement. 

Philip Lawler is director of the Catholic Culture project (catholicculture.org).

Full disclosure: As already noted in public court records, one of McGuire's victims lived with Lawler's family for a year while attending a nearby school, and Lawler communicated concerns to McGuire's Jesuit superiors about plans for the boy to travel with McGuire after the school year. The boy ended up traveling with McGuire anyway, and was molested by him.