Bishop John D'Arcy: a Legacy of 'Tough Love'

The former Boston auxiliary recalls his attempts to stop the sex-abuse scandal before it happened.

Bishop John D'Arcy
Bishop John D'Arcy (photo: Courtesy of Catholic Charities, Fort Wayne, Ind.)

Editor's Note: Bishop John D'Arcy, bishop emeritus of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Ind., died Feb. 3 at the age of 80. In this January 2012 article, Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond recounted Bishop D'Arcy's prescient call for stronger measures to prevent clergy sexual abuse in the 1970s and 1980s, while he was serving the Archdiocese of Boston as a priest and subsequently as an auxiliary bishop.

Originally published 01-04-2012

BOSTON — Ten years ago, Bishop John D’Arcy of the Fort Wayne-South Bend (Ind.) Diocese got an urgent call from lawyers representing the Boston Archdiocese, where he had previously served as an auxiliary bishop from 1975-1985. He learned that The Boston Globe would soon publish the personnel files of the alleged serial predator Father John Geoghan and that a plaintiff’s attorney had obtained a 1984 letter he wrote opposing the priest’s assignment to a local parish.

“I didn’t remember that I wrote the letter at first,” recalled Bishop D’Arcy, during a telephone interview last week while visiting his family in Boston. Ordained in Boston more than half a century ago, he retired as the shepherd of the Fort Wayne-South Bend Diocese in 2009 at the age of 77.

Yet despite that initial lack of recall, Bishop D’Arcy would emerge as an uncommon hero as the clergy-abuse scandal unfolded in the media. While the published personnel files of the Boston Archdiocese exposed a legacy of episcopal negligence, Bishop D’Arcy’s repeated efforts to raise the alarm would lead the National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Young People to describe him as a “voice in the wilderness.”

Asked to discuss the reason why he spoke up when others remained silent, Bishop D’Arcy insisted that he should not be singled out for special credit. Rather, he viewed the 10th anniversary of the Boston crisis as an opportunity to reflect on both the vital role of the Catholic bishop and the ongoing importance of screening candidates for seminary.

The safeguarding of the Catholic priesthood remains his primary concern, and bishops must act as loving shepherds and prudent gatekeepers for their seminary. They should know every seminarian under their jurisdiction and ensure solid formation. Standards for admission should be high, despite the vocations crisis.

“It is important to have a healthy and beautiful sense of the priesthood — a shepherd after the heart of Christ. I learned that from my parents, and that knowledge was strengthened in the seminary when I saw some problems,” he said.

Raised by Catholic parents who emigrated from Ireland, John D’Arcy and his three sisters developed a deep respect for the priesthood.

His younger sister, St. Joseph Sister Anne D’Arcy, describes the family home as “closely connected to the Church. Priests and missionaries often visited us. My parents were happy when their only son entered the priesthood.”

In 1949, he entered the archdiocesan seminary and then studied in Rome, receiving his doctorate in spiritual theology in 1968. But he received a shock when he returned to Boston to serve as the spiritual director and professor of spiritual theology at St. John’s Seminary.

“At the time, I was still learning what it means to be a spiritual director. But I soon realized that one of my jobs was to get people out of the seminary — while helping the good men become holy priests,” he recalled.

“We had some who should not have been there. At this time, the Vietnam War was raging, so some men were there for the wrong reasons. I was known by some of the seminarians as ‘D’Arcy the hatchet man.’ I was focused on whether their vocation was authentic.”

He continued to direct the Office of Spiritual Development, organizing retreats and spiritual missions, even after he was made an auxiliary bishop in 1975, and then a regional bishop supervising appointments for 100 parishes in the northern part of the archdiocese. Throughout, he maintained a steady focus on the quality of pastors under his jurisdiction.

“If there was a pastor harming the faith, and if I found out that a parish had poor leadership, I would do my best with the personnel board to make a change. The parish is the heart of the diocese.”

He had no control over the appointment of pastoral associates, however. So when he was informed that Father John Geoghan would be sent to St. Julia’s in Weston, he went to the top. “Father Geoghan has a history of homosexual involvement with young boys,” he stated in his letter to Cardinal Bernard Law.

Today, he still cannot recall how he learned of Father Geoghan’s history.

But even back in the ’70s, Bishop D’Arcy was concerned about the practice of approving seminary candidates with same-sex attraction. He spearheaded a committee of New England bishops that issued a document opposing the practice, but each bishop was still free to act on the document’s conclusions — or ignore them.

During a time when the impact of clergy sexual abuse was poorly understood or ignored, Bishop D’Arcy also grasped its devastating, long-term consequences — whether victims were coerced or manipulated into accepting the advances of adult predators.

“Young people are open to priests, and, when assaulted in this way, their souls are often irreparably damaged,” he stated in one of several letters cited in the National Review Board’s 2004 “Report on the Crisis in the Catholic Church in the United States.”

That same report asserted that “Bishop D’Arcy appeared to be a voice in the wilderness, and shortly after he raised troubling questions about a number of priests he was asked to leave Boston and was installed as bishop of the Diocese of South Bend-Fort Wayne [sic].” Bishop D’Arcy rejected this assertion during his interview with the Register.

After he took charge of the diocese, Bishop D’Arcy acted on his understanding of a bishop’s role as a loving but tough-minded shepherd.

“The bishop has to be involved in the selection of candidates for the priesthood, and he has to work closely with his psychological screener and make sure they understand the Church’s mission and teaching,” he said.

One salutary lesson he absorbed from the abuse crisis was that bishops mistakenly ceded their judgment to others.

“That episcopal human judgment — not infallible, but enlightened by grace — was put aside. In the past, I have been advised that certain priests could be returned to ministry, and I rejected that counsel. I knew it was outrageous.”

While grappling with a vocations crisis in his own diocese, Bishop D’Arcy recalls now that he rejected about half of the men who sought admission to the seminary. “Pope Benedict XVI is one of the heroes who emphasized that it was more important to have good priests than many priests,” he said.

John Cavadini, who recently stepped down as the chairman of the Theology Department at the University of Notre Dame, notes that Bishop D’Arcy — a friend, mentor and collaborator — “often said that quality attracts quality. He didn’t look for people to say, ‘Wow, you got a lot of vocations.’ I admired his resolve,” said Cavadini.

Indeed, during his 2004 ad limina visit to Rome, Bishop D’Arcy discussed his approach with then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

“I told him that we had turned down a lot of candidates for the priesthood — at one point, our numbers were down to seven or eight. I said that I viewed our approach as an act of faith and believed God would reward the diocese with vocations in the future.

“Cardinal Ratzinger responded, ‘Of course, that’s salvation history: One man sows; another reaps.’ When I left the diocese, the number of seminarians was up to 17, and now it’s at 26.”

But those careful policies have been matched with a powerful awareness that a bishop must truly know and care for his seminarians and priests.

“The Greek word episkopein means to oversee. There are different models of management. The danger is keeping your distance from the crucial decisions, because that means keeping your distance from people,” he said.

And finally, bishops must be prepared to make difficult, even unpopular choices. In a recent article that reflected on the qualities needed in a bishop, he recalled his own struggles to learn from past mistakes. In one instance, he ordained a man despite some qualms. On another occasion, after receiving a disturbing report, he barred a candidate from ordination, though the event was just five days away.

“I should have done more,” he insisted, affirming that his great love and respect for the priesthood continues to stir his moral reflections on the past.

That said, his priestly vocation continues to inspire and sustain him in retirement. “I was saying my prayers today and giving thanks for the grace of the priesthood — 55 years next month,” he said.

Sister Anne D’Arcy, for her part, is unsurprised by the attention her brother has received in the wake of the crisis.

“The thing about John is that he is not afraid to do the hard thing. If he feels it’s for the good of the Church, he will speak out,” she said.

“He opened his homily at the funeral Masses for both our mother and our father with this quote from St. John of the Cross: ‘In the evening of life, you will be measured on love,’” she noted. “Sometimes that means tough love.”

Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.