I think it was in the early 1980’s that I met a fellow Jesuit at a conference on liberation theology and philosophy. As I recall, we were discussing a book I had written, Following Christ in a Consumer Society. He liked its political and cultural analysis, but found my emphasis on the vows, especially chastity, outdated. Come on; it’s the 1980’s. It doesn’t bother me if a priest sleeps around now and then. I told him he ought to get out of the priesthood. In fact, although my memory may be more courageous than the reality, I remember saying, You’re a menace. We parted amicably, I guess, and he eventually did leave the Jesuits, but my anger over this incident lingered with me a long time. It recently surged again.
In addition to sorrow for the victims, shame for the priesthood and sadness for the church, I have felt a growing anger over the child abuse scandal that has erupted in the early months of 2002. Much can be said about anger and what it means psychologically, emotionally or morally, but I think it sometimes appropriate. After all, it seems quite clear that Jesus was angry at times, especially in the holy precincts of the Temple and about the misbehavior of religious leaders.
It is one thing to fall into sin, seek forgiveness and make amends. It is another to struggle with a pattern of sin over months and seek help. It is yet another to justify the sin and enthrone it as ideology. In a case of child abuse or the seduction of youth, it is not only a sexual sin and a psychological disorder; it is an issue of justice for the victim and judgment before the law. To abuse or seduce and then defend either as desirable is reprehensible. Yet this is what seems to have been tolerated in at least one recent and notorious case.
If documented accounts from Boston and New York newspapers are to be believed, as early as the 1970’s, a Boston priest, against whom sexual complaints had already been made, was spouting public defenses of pedophilia and fostering the North American Man-Boy Love Association. He publicly rejected the church’s teaching on homosexual genital acts. He was also quoted, in a letter found among chancery documents handed over to the police, as proclaiming that kids are not traumatized by sex with adults, but by the surrounding commotion.
Judging from his public pronouncements alone, the man was a menace. But instead of being discharged, he held the leadership of the archdiocese’s ministry to alienated youth, of all things. Apparently, after intermittent complaints and treatments, he was foisted off on another diocese as a priest in good standing, and then offered to New York in 1997 to work at a guest house for students and clergy. He was proposed for this job by some in the Boston chancery, which had among its files on the priest an assessment from two years earlier stating, The priest has a great deal of psychological pathology.
Some smell in all this a disgusting corruption. I still hope that this estimate is wildly wrong. Cowardly negligence might be a better description. Was anybody around to challenge this priest, other than his victims? One would at least think that a bishop would have any priest defrocked who publicly endorsed a sexual ideology that is at its heart an ugly distortion of sexual ethics. Much less would he justify personal betrayal of sexual integrity as a celibate. This at a time when our bishops call our lay people, often at the price of considerable hardship requiring uncommon virtue, to a life of sexual holiness. This especially when faithful Catholics in failed marriages waitsometimes yearsfor an annulment and readmission to Communion.
Anger, of course, need not be directed only at such priests and their superiors. Our media, for example, inevitably obfuscate the wrongs that have been done. Their cascade of cases, some fully reported over a decade ago only to be dragged out again as if we were going through a pandemic. Everything is jumbled together as if a priest’s sexual aggression against a 17-year-old (whether a homosexual moral offense or a heterosexual moral offenseboth illegal and both a breach of celibacy) were somehow equivalent to the activities of serial predators, pathological child abusers and psychopaths.
Perhaps the most shameless example of the media hodgepodge is the major coverage given an accusation of sex abuse made against a cardinal. Embedded deep in the articles and stories, if it is present at all, is the fact that the sole accuser describes herself as paranoid-schizophrenic, desperately in need of the money associated with payoffs, without any recollection of what actually happened. The cardinal, by a single accusation, has now been registered in the litany of shame. If recantations are made, how large will the headlines be, and how many will remember?
Anger has to do with the abuse of truth. For if truth is not honored, whether by our politicians, our police, our newspapers or our princes of the church, why trust them? Perhaps the anger is intensified because all of the above groups seem quite inclined to sympathy for their own kind and harsh judgment for the misdeeds of others. Why believe them?
In the midst of a skepticism that undercuts faith and hope, naming the truth is the only place to begin. All priests should be thankful that any clerical evil be unmasked for what it is. For only truth makes possible love. And truth alone yields forgiveness.
Note: Since this column was written, The New York Times reported in a 12-line article (April 12, page A-23) that all charges against the accused cardinal were dropped.