There is an interesting and very modern thing that often happens when individuals join and rise within mighty and venerable institutions. They come to think of the institution as invulnerable—to think that there is nothing they can do to really damage it, that the big, strong, proud establishment they’re part of can take any amount of abuse, that it doesn’t require from its members an attitude of protectiveness because it’s so strong, and has lasted so long.
And so people become blithely damaging. It happened the past decade on Wall Street, where those who said they loved what the street stood for, what it symbolized in American life, took actions that in the end tore it down, tore it to pieces. They loved Wall Street and killed it. It happens with legislators in Washington who’ve grown to old and middle age in the most powerful country in the world, and who can’t get it through their heads that the actions they’ve taken, most obviously in the area of spending, not only might deeply damage America but actually do it in.
And it happened in the Catholic Church, where hundreds of priests and bishops thought they could do anything, any amount of damage to the church, and it would be fine. “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” That is Mathew 16:18, of course, Christ’s great promise to his church. Catholics in the pews have been repeating it a lot lately as they—we—absorb the latest round of scandal stories. “The old church will survive.” But we see more clearly than church leaders the damage the scandals have done.
It is damage that will last at least a generation. It is an actual catastrophe, a rolling catastrophe that became public first in the United States, now in Europe. It has lowered the standing, reputation and authority of the church. This will have implications down the road.
In both the U.S. and Europe, the scandal was dug up and made famous by the press. This has aroused resentment among church leaders, who this week accused journalists of spreading “gossip,” of going into “attack mode” and showing “bias.”
But this is not true, or to the degree it is true, it is irrelevant. All sorts of people have all sorts of motives, but the fact is that the press—the journalistic establishment in the U.S. and Europe—has been the best friend of the Catholic Church on this issue. Let me repeat that: The press has been the best friend of the Catholic Church on the scandals because it exposed the story and made the church face it. The press forced the church to admit, confront and attempt to redress what had happened. The press forced them to confess. The press forced the church to change the old regime and begin to come to terms with the abusers. The church shouldn’t be saying j’accuse but thank you.
Without this pressure—without the famous 2002 Boston Globe Spotlight series with its monumental detailing of the sex abuse scandals in just one state, Massachusetts—the church would most likely have continued to do what it has done for half a century, which is look away, hush up, pay off and transfer.
In fact, the press came late to the story. The mainstream media almost had to be dragged to it. It was there waiting to be told at least by the 1990s, but broadcast news shows and big newspapers weren’t keen to go after it. It would take months or years to report and consume huge amounts of labor, time and money—endless digging through court records, locating victims and victimizers, getting people who don’t want to talk to talk. And after all that, the payoff could be predicted: You’d get slammed by the church as biased, criticized by sincerely disbelieving churchgoers, and maybe get a boycott from a few million Catholics. No one wanted that.
An irony: Non-Catholic members of the media were, in my observation, the least likely to want to go after the story, because they didn’t want to look like they were Catholic-bashing. An irony within the irony: some journalists didn’t think to go after the story because they really didn’t much like the Catholic Church. Because of this bias, they didn’t see the story as a story. They thought this was how the church always operated. It didn’t register with them that it was a scandal. They didn’t know it was news.
It was the Boston Globe that broke the dam, winning a justly deserved Pulitzer for public service.
Some blame the scandals on Pope Benedict XVI. But Joseph Ratzinger is the man who, weeks before his accession to the papacy five years ago, spoke blisteringly on Good Friday of the “filth” in the church. Days later on the streets of Rome, the Italian newspaper La Stampa reported, Cardinal Ratzinger bumped into a curial monsignor who chided him for his sharp words. The cardinal replied, “You weren’t born yesterday, you understand what I’m talking about, you know what it means. We priests. We priests!” The most reliable commentary on Pope Benedict’s role in the scandals came from John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter, who argues that once Benedict came to fully understand the scope of the crisis, in 2003, he made the church’s first real progress toward coming to grips with it.
As for his predecessor, John Paul the Great, about whom I wrote an admiring book which recounts some of the scandals—I spent a grim 2003 going through the depositions of Massachusetts clergy—one fact seems to me pre-eminent. For Pope John Paul II, the scandals would have been unimaginable—literally not imaginable. He had come of age in an era and place (Poland in the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s) of heroic priests. They were great men; they suffered. He had seen how the Nazis and later the communists had attempted to undermine the church and tear people away from it, sometimes through slander. They did this because the great force arrayed against them was the Catholic Church. John Paul, his mind, psyche and soul having been forged in that world, might well have seen the church’s recent accusers as spreaders of slander. Because priests don’t act like that, it’s not imaginable. And he’d seen it before, only now it wasn’t Nazism or communism attempting to kill the church with lies, but modernity and its soulless media.
Only they weren’t lies.
There are three great groups of victims in this story. The first and most obvious, the children who were abused, who trusted, were preyed upon and bear the burden through life. The second group is the good priests and good nuns, the great leaders of the church in the day to day, who save the poor, teach the immigrant, and, literally, save lives. They have been stigmatized when they deserve to be lionized. And the third group is the Catholics in the pews—the heroic Catholics of America and now Europe, the hardy souls who in spite of what has been done to their church are still there, still making parish life possible, who hold high the flag, their faith unshaken. No one thanks those Catholics, sees their heroism, respects their patience and fidelity. The world thinks they’re stupid. They are not stupid, and with their prayers they keep the world going, and the old church too.