Illustration by Brian Stauffer
The conservative Catholic family lived on a quiet cul-de-sac in Walnut Creek and took pains to observe the traditions of a church racked by social change. Their lives appeared driven by the famous motivational phrase of Saint Ignatius, "Ad majorem Dei gloriam" — for the greater glory of God. It was the same motto that ostensibly guided the Jesuit priest, Donald McGuire, to whom they turned for spiritual guidance.
Then, in 1993, they learned that McGuire had done unthinkable things with their 16-year-old son, Charles, who traveled with him as his personal assistant. The boy and the priest had allegedly looked at pornographic magazines, masturbated, and taken showers together. The family took this devastating news to an esteemed San Francisco priest, Joseph Fessio, who, like McGuire, had once been a teacher at the University of San Francisco.
Fessio runs the Ignatius Press, a Catholic publishing house based in the Sunset District that is the primary English-language publisher of the pope's writings. He and McGuire shared a reputation for doctrinal orthodoxy. McGuire, for his part, was a cleric of worldwide renown, functioning as adviser and confessor to Mother Teresa. While family members considered reporting the abuse to secular authorities, Fessio urged them to stay quiet until he could confer with Jesuit higher-ups.
Confronted with the allegations, McGuire, a famously manipulative man known both for his charm and periodic rages, denied Charles's accusations or made excuses. His Jesuit bosses in Chicago, where McGuire was technically based, ordered him to undergo a residential treatment program at a psychiatric hospital for priests. In about seven months, McGuire was released and returned to active ministry. He continued to prey on other children for the next nine years.
McGuire, who was officially defrocked by the church in 2008, is serving a federal prison sentence stemming from his acts of child molestation. In 2009, SF Weekly published a story revealing his extensive ties to families and institutions in the Bay Area. But not until last month did newly released court documents in a lawsuit against the Jesuits reveal the full extent to which his colleagues and bosses were aware of his highly questionable relationships with teenage boys.
Despite this knowledge, fellow priests did not report McGuire's behavior outside the Church. In California, that silence may, at times, have amounted to a violation of state law, which requires professionals who work with children to immediately report suspected child abuse to police or child welfare workers.
"It boggles the mind how you could have something so well documented and nobody could act on it," says Mark, a second Walnut Creek man who asserts he was molested by McGuire and is part of the lawsuit filed in Illinois against the Jesuits' Chicago Province. He joins three others — Charles, George, and Dominick — in the ranks of alleged victims who were abused by McGuire in the Bay Area or reported their abuse to local clergy. Only Mark and Dominick have taken legal action against the church. (SF Weekly is identifying three of the men by pseudonyms because they are victims of childhood sexual abuse whose names have never been made public. The fourth victim has already been identified in federal court proceedings by his real first name, Dominick, though his last name has not been disclosed.)
The trail of quiet complicity leads from San Francisco to unexpectedly high levels. Among the revelations in the documents is that John Hardon, a now-deceased Jesuit priest who is being formally considered for sainthood by the Vatican, advocated on McGuire's behalf after he was caught allegedly molesting one Bay Area boy, and sought to downplay the significance of McGuire's sexual abuse. Records suggest Hardon's involvement might have led to McGuire's premature emergence from psychiatric treatment and resumption of ministerial duties.
Some of McGuire's colleagues maintain they acted appropriately and according to guidelines accepted in church culture at the time. "As soon as I knew of any allegation, I reported it to the proper [church] authorities. I didn't report it to the police, but I don't think I should have reported it to the police," Fessio says. "I think it's the proper way to do things. There are a lot of false allegations going around. It can destroy a man's life and reputation."
McGuire's case sounds many of the same themes as other priestly abuse scandals that have convulsed the Catholic church over the past decade. Yet experts say he stands out, both in the harm he did to families and the extremely detailed paper trail left behind. The latter factor can be attributed largely to McGuire's identity as a Jesuit.
Founded by the soldier turned saint Ignatius of Loyola in 1534, the Society of Jesus, as it is officially called, is organized under a rigid, quasimilitaristic order. Its administrators record their actions and conversations with the diligence of government bureaucrats. As a result, phone conversations, correspondence, and general reflections on McGuire were often preserved in written form, though the Jesuits initially denied they had the information when a criminal investigation of his actions began in 2003.
What those documents portray is a criminal career marked not only by the destruction of many young lives but by a particularly twisted modus operandi. McGuire seemed to revel in the elaborate torment of his victims, perverting the sacraments into vehicles of abuse and turning vulnerable boys against their parents. One of his more notorious practices was to coax admissions of masturbation out of his victims under seal of confession — and then massage their genitals as part of the process of penance.
"If I had to make a Top Five list [of predator priests], Donald McGuire would be number one," says Patrick Wall, a former Benedictine monk who performs investigations on behalf of abuse victims suing the Catholic Church. "He truly is the Hannibal Lecter of the clerical world. He did more psychological and physical damage to children than anyone else. And what makes it worse is that the Jesuits knew about it, and did nothing."