This week an old giant returned to speak of what roils us. His words were welcome, heartening and necessary. But they were not, I think, sufficient.
In Rome John Paul II, our warrior-saint of a pope, addressed, finally, the sex scandals that continue to rock the American Catholic Church.
Now the pope is a great man. From almost the moment of his election to the papacy in 1978 he raised his staff—the silver crosier he carries in public, which bears at the top the crucified Christ—turned toward the east and, in effect, commanded the atheist Soviet Union to recede. And almost from that moment the Russian dictatorship began to recede like the great debris-filled wave it was. John Paul II is not only a warrior, of course; he is a mystic who believes the hand of the Mother of God literally guided the bullet away from his heart the day, 21 years ago, that he was shot. He is said to pray seven hours a day—alone, at mass, while doing work. He is a holy man.
In his Holy Thursday letter to the Catholic priests of the world, the pontiff spoke on the sex-abuse scandals that have engulfed the American church. His words were strong and direct. They were also brief, comprising only about 10% of his letter. Here in toto is what he said of the scandals:
At this time too [he refers to the new millennium] as priests we are personally and profoundly afflicted by the sins of some of our brothers who have betrayed the grace of Ordination in succumbing even to the most grievous forms of the mysterium iniquitatis at work in the world. Grave scandal is caused, with the result that a dark shadow of suspicion is cast over all the other fine priests who perform their ministry with honesty and integrity and often with heroic self-sacrifice. As the church shows her concern for the victims and strives to respond in truth and justice to each of these painful situations, all of us—conscious of human weakness, but trusting in the healing power of divine grace—are called to embrace the mysterium Crucis and to commit ourselves more fully to the search for holiness. We must beg God in his Providence to prompt a whole-hearted reawakening of those ideals of total self-giving to Christ which are the very foundation of the priestly ministry.”
So, the pontiff said that the priests who have abused and seduced teenage boys and adolescents had given in to the most grievous forms of “the mystery of evil.” He did not call the guilty priests only disturbed or in need of therapy; he said they had done evil and betrayed God’s gift to them, the gift of the priesthood.
One could not read the pope’s words and doubt his dismay. One could not read them without imagining too the anguish behind them. Surely they gave heart to the good priests and seminarians who need to know the pope is on their side; certainly the bad priests, and their protectors in the hierarchy, understood what the pope thinks of them and their actions.
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And yet, one must hope the pope’s letter was only a beginning, only a prologue to action more grave and definitive.
To those who have campaigned on the airwaves and in the newspapers of our country, reporting the cases of abuse, payoffs and coverups, and attempting to force the American church toward a new honesty, a new toughness; and to those who have called on Boston’s Cardinal Bernard Law to resign, to offer up his career as a sacrifice to demonstrate in a dramatic and unmistakable way that the leaders of the American church have been wrong in their coverups, regret them, feel shamed by the abuse of teenage boys and will begin to clean the church; to all of these people I suspect the pope’s letter seemed both necessary and, sadly, insufficient.
It was heartening that the pontiff broke his silence, heartening that he did not say that priests who prey are only sick, which is how the American cardinals have treated them in the past.
The pope did not say some things that many if not most—I think almost all—Catholics here yearn to hear. He did not speak of defrocking the abusers, of defrocking serial seducers of the young and their protectors. And he did not speak of the victims of abuse and their families, except to assert the church always intends to treat them justly and with sympathy.
But it has not always treated them justly, truthfully and with sympathy, not on our shores.
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Some have already said the pope’s statement seems to reflect a mindset in which the church in this drama is more victim than victimizer. I do not think that can fairly be inferred from his letter, but I’m afraid neither can this: a sense that the pope has fully absorbed that the scandal in the American church is not just a heartbreaker but a potential history-changer.
The most ardent American Catholics I know, and an imperfect and sinful lot they are, and I would know as I am one of them, but the most ardent Catholics I know, the ones who are the church—who take the sacraments, go to church, get ashes, go to confession, visit the Blessed Sacrament in the middle of a busy day, who give money to the local church to fix the roof and get new computers for the local Catholic school, who love the church, adhere to it as best they can and hold it high—are the most angry, shocked and disgusted by the scandals. They do not in this tragedy defend the leadership of the American church, as they have in the past. They are not complaining that a few cases of misbehavior are being blown up by a hostile press to attack the church, as they have in the past. Instead they send each other e-mail attachments containing new reports of abuse, and they welcome calls from prominent Catholics such as Bill Buckley and Bill Bennett to clean out the stables.
For the first time in my lifetime ardent Catholics, or perhaps I should say orthodox Catholics, no longer trust their cardinals and bishops to do what’s right. They have pinned their hopes on the Vatican, and on the old warrior saint, JPII. They want him to hold up his silver crosier with the crucified Christ on the top and demand that priests who seduce teenage boys—or who sexually abuse, molest or seduce anyone—be thrown from the church, and that their protectors, excusers and enablers be thrown from it too.
As the scandal has escalated, the language used to describe it has become more shaded, more full of euphemism. Any scandal involving sex in the modern world will become in time an ideological/political scandal, and the little dishonesties of ideological discourse have worked their way into this drama. And as usual they haven’t made things any clearer. But here are some things that appear to be true of the overwhelming majority of the known cases: they involve not rape but seduction; they involve not a sole sin, mistake or indiscretion but a series of seductions by priests who are serial seducers; the seductions do not involve priests in pursuit of sexual relations with women or girls but of priests in pursuit of sexual relations with boys and young men; and most of the victims have been young male teenagers, not little boys.
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How did this happen? How did we reach this pass? Perhaps great books will be written in answer to these questions. I think of the simple wisdom of an Irish Catholic grandfather in his 70s who has 11 children and 35 grandchildren and who always seems to be silently praying. He is a low-key leader who has led his family by example, and who is unkind about no one.
I asked him a few months ago if the church was having this trouble 50 years ago. He said no. I asked why. He said, “Because 50 years ago the church had a bigger pool from which to pick its priests.”
It’s true. Half a century ago in the American church the pool from which young seminarians were chosen was wide and deep, fed by belief, love, tradition and large families. But in the decades since, the world has changed, and the pool from which the church picked her priests became narrower, shallower. So much that had fed the pool dried up. America went on a toot—and I would know as I was at the party, as perhaps you were, though I must say the very best people I know seem not to have been. But America went wild in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s, and the priesthood got fairly strange too.
Fifty years ago hale and eager young men entered the priesthood out of devotion and gave their celibacy and chastity to God as a gift, to join in His sufferings and deepen their commitment to serving others—to serving, that is, a family of strangers in a place called a parish. There were scandals here and there and problems; some priests left to marry, or for other reasons. But mostly it worked.
But in the past 30 years or so, many young men who were less clear-minded, who were ultimately less devoted, put themselves forth for the priesthood. And the church took them. Some, perhaps many, were sexually ambivalent, or confused, or burdened. Certainly some of them saw themselves as homosexual in their orientation, and some perhaps hoped the church’s very limits and strictures might help them, might protect them from their own desires. And some no doubt became priests in part in hopes they would find comfort surrounded by those who shared their burden.
In any case some of them rose, gained power, prestige and local respect, and became sexual bullies—predators who preyed on 12- and 14-year-old boys in their ambit. And they got away with it. And one priest saw another get away with it, and he tried to get away with it too.
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The church turned a blind eye, not institutionally but in case after case, instance after instance, until it might as well have been institutional policy. And for a long time the church got away with it.
Why? Part of the answer is that so many of the serial seducer priests preyed on the powerless. They moved on adolescent boys in families in turmoil, teenage boys in families that had no connections, no status, no one to look out for them. They preyed on families without fathers. In fact, in some of the grimmer cases they were asked in by overwhelmed mothers who were trying to hold to the church in a rocky and dangerous world. The mothers wanted their sons to know a man they could look up to.
One wonders if those who run the American church fear that if they remove all the sex-abuser priests the church, which has a shortage of priests as it is, simply won’t be able to operate anymore. Local churches would close; schools would be understaffed. And this is perhaps the central reason—not the only reason but the biggest one—the cardinals have reassigned abusive priests, and sent serial seducers for psychotherapy, sending them back to parish work when they’d been “cured.”
But the pragmatism of the cardinals and bishops has resulted in scandal for the church—a scandal that will take at least a generation to heal. Now it has resulted in tragedy for the hundreds and perhaps thousands of innocent victims. And now it has resulted in shame and embarrassment for the faithful, striving and suffering priests who have done right, and not wrong, through the years. For they have been tarred by this, and badly.
People who call themselves pragmatic are often the least practical of people. The cardinals thought they were pragmatic.
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The other day, like a fool, I thought to myself these words: The church needs a savior. This was followed by the thought: But the church has one. He is its meaning, its purpose, its light. He threw the abusers and predators out of the temple in a great rage; he said “Suffer the little children to come unto me” and gave the innocent His love. He hangs, crucified, on the top of the crosier carried by the pope.
If the Catholic Church throws out the evil priests, its Savior will no doubt see to it that good priests come forward to take their place. That Savior is after all the God of miracles.
Some cardinals have no doubt chosen to keep the sex-abuse stories quiet in order to protect the assets of the church. And in truth the church has assets that deserve protection—great cathedrals, great works of art, schools in which poor children and immigrant children are given a good education and where all are welcome no matter their faith. And local churches with high heating bills where new Americans and old Americans gather, work together, know each other.
The church does so much good! So much of what it is should be protected.
But not, of course, at the price of betraying what the church stands for. The Catholics I know, and I know all kinds, left, right and center, would rather see the cathedrals sold for condominiums than see the decay continue.
Which is where the old pope—the mover of mountains, defeater of tyrannies, killer of communism, holder to the faith whose most special gift has been his power to show the powerless of the world, the peasants, the workers with grim hands, that he was their protector, that he loved them in the name of the church—comes in.
The powerless need his protection now. They need that old crosier held up again, to tell the dirty wave to recede.
Which is why so many of us are hoping that what we heard this week will not be remembered by history as “the pope’s statement” but as “the pope’s first statement—the one that led to a great shaking of the rafters in 2002.”