I really didn’t want to write this post, but the worldwide clergy sex abuse scandal doesn’t show any signs of going away. In the Sunday bulletin at my local parish, there was a blurb about charges made against a priest who was an associate at the parish less than a decade ago, asking anyone who had any information about this former priest to contact the Archdiocese. *sigh*
The much-famed Fr. Longenecker has gotten a lot of attention with a blog post titled The Myth of Pedophile Priests, but I find his arguments somewhat uncompelling. Every Catholic is going to come up with his or her own response. This is mine.
The funniest Easter joke I know is about Jesus coming out of the grave, seeing his shadow and giving us 6 more weeks of winter. It was told to me by a priest– a family friend, when I was about 8. He’d come to functions of parish families; I remember seeing him at big Christmas and Easter parties growing up. He was a young, energetic, likable priest; so affable that the Archbishop named him the first chaplain of a new high school in 1992. He’s got a brick with his name carved in it in their Student Commons, named as one of the early donors to the school. He’s also no longer a priest. I was too young to understand all the details, but I remember being told that he had a sickness where he liked boys and girls too much, so he had to move away where he could try to get better.
In grade school and in high school, I wasn’t a very good student—particularly in classes that didn’t come easily. I had a lot of zeroes in my eighth-grade math class from homework that I never did, and a number of bad test grades because I never studied (or practiced… i.e. homework). The math teacher took pity on me—rather than fail me in math class, she said that I could interview a priest about the priesthood and what it meant to pursue a vocation. Yeah, when I was younger, a lot of people thought I’d be a priest. My dad set up an appointment with the Archdiocese vocations director and my mom helped me craft a list of questions I could ask him. I wrote a 5-page paper and passed math with a “C”. The Archdiocese vocations director in the 90’s was a young and cool priest. He wore Air Jordans (the Jordan 6 with the red “jumpman” logo on the sole and tongue) under his vestments, so when he genuflected before ascending the sanctuary steps, you could see the big red logo on his feet. He’d later be my high school’s chaplain, my parish’s assistant pastor, and when I went to college, he was in residence at the St. Lawrence Center, where he’d sometimes say the Sunday 9:00 PM Mass that all the cool Catholic students attended. He was the first priest I knew to have an email address—an AOL address that I still remember, though it’s long out of service. At a high school retreat when I was a junior or senior, I remember him telling us boys in a breakout session about how he dealt with sexual temptations as a priest by, ahem, using his hand. Eew! The same hand that he held up in blessings and the same hand by which he gave us communion. He’s no longer a priest either. In details that I garnered from news reports, I pieced together that he was in a gay relationship with a fellow priest who dumped him, so he rebounded with a high school boy. I may have some of those details wrong. I lost interest in the details after a while. This was in 1998 or 1999, back before the sex abuse scandal got the widespread coverage it would get just a few years later. These days, he sells fertilizer to farmers down in one of the desolate stretches of Kansas and checks in with the Sex Offender registry.
The media would get a hold of this sex abuse story in 2002—led by the Boston Globe, whose investigations and tough, evenhanded writing would win it a Pulitzer for their journalism. The Globe still maintains the story on their website that discusses the problem and Boston’s recovery. I had kind of forgotten that the Globe was the leader in the reporting until I read a column by Peggy Noonan that ran in the Wall Street Journal a few weeks ago. Noonan praised the press for bringing the story to light, and then praised the Church for stepping up to handle the scandal once they understood the scope of the problem. She makes the point that John Paul II bungled the affair because he couldn’t fathom how priests could fail en masse like that; the priests that he grew up with were the Polish heroes of the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s—truly heroic men whose dedication to serving the Lord and the Church meant that they risked life and limb to bring souls to Christ. That so many priests could be scoundrels was beyond his wildest imagination. It wasn’t until Pope Benedict XVI would take the papacy that the Church could begin to turn around the battleship.
In fairness though, the Vatican administration of His Holiness John Paul II did take some action. Bernard Law, the Cardinal Archbishop of Boston is now the rector of St. Mary Major in Rome. John Allen Jr. wrote an excellent piece about Card. Law for a story of how one of America’s most powerful clerics makes his time as a parish priest in a foreign land these days; when I read it in 2008, it left me with a very humble understanding of how this chief conspirator performs his penance with grace. Yet, shipping His Eminence to Rome isn’t exactly the punishment that some were wanting for Law, who appears to be the poster-bishop for shuffling predator priests around Boston rather than taking any serious measures to correct the abuse.
Strictly speaking, I think that it’s wrong to say that the Church hides the facts about sexual abuse. A sex abuse problem appears to be bigger than anyone understood at any time; Timothy Dolan, the Archbishop of New York, certainly seems correct when he says “Nobody, nowhere, no time, no way, no how knew the extent, depth, or horror of this scourge, nor how to adequately address it”. Yes, it’s hard to deny that the bishops bungled their handling of the situation. But it doesn’t appear to be by any malevolence on the part of the shepherds—just mishandling.
Statistics show that the abuse problem peaked in the 70’s and 80’s, while bishops were using 1950’s tactics to handle it— giving priests a “fresh start” in a new parish might have been a good tactic when problems were isolated and the psychology of pedophilia and pederasty were poorly understood, but when you have a large number of offenders, “fresh starts” look like nothing more than rearranging chairs. That said, if someone is committing crimes, it is unarguable that the offenders should have been turned over to the police. It’s really a wonder that there aren’t more priests in jail over this.
I wonder if the dwindling numbers of priests in the years after Vatican II put the bishops up against the wall: if a bishop knew of widespread abuse problems in his diocese, what’s he going to do? Fire every priest? The moral-high-ground answer is “yes”, but how realistic is that? Back when I was managing restaurants, I had a bad cook. He’d come in late, was sometimes high at work, he messed up orders—when it finally became obvious that I had to fire him, I had to do so at the end of his shift, because we were already a little short-staffed for that night. I’m sure the bishops had the same problem, expect more widespread and more serious.
I also think that it speaks to a misunderstanding people have about the Church. If you have a bad priest—or even worse, a bad bishop—you can’t really fire them. You can take them out of ministry, you can make it against Church law for them to offer Mass or the sacraments, you can send them to a hermitage, but you can’t really fire a priest. In ordination, their hands are bound and their souls indelibly marked—they are a priest forever, in the line of Melchizedek. Even those two priests I talked about in the beginning of this post—are sacramentally priests, though they are suspended a divinis. The theology can’t be undone. I could confess to them in a case of emergency, and could give me my last rites if I was dying and no other priest was available. Likewise for bishops—while His Eminence Cardinal Law is no longer the Archbishop of Boston, he’s still a bishop—and retains the “power” to confirm and ordain, though his station in life is just like a parish pastor. (Yes, I’m understating his role as “parish pastor”. He’s a Prince of the Church and the rector of a major basilica—St. Mary Major is one of the most important churches on earth. But in the day-to-day duties of his work, it’s comparable to what Fr. Tom Dolezal does at Holy Trinity in Lenexa). The Church can’t un-priest its priests; sacraments can be soiled and tarnished, but they can’t be undone.
My high school buddies used to tell a lewd joke about priests. Its punchline was about what kind of penance Father gives—a candy bar and a Coke. Oh, we thought we were so funny! A little bit of knowledge makes a lot of sophomoric jokes. That same joke would disgust me today.
Now I understand things a little differently than I understand them as a teenager. For one thing, I understand more clearly that Satan is REAL, and that he prowls the world seeking the ruin of souls. And I understand that when a person tries to live a holy life, the devil attacks them all the harder—hell has no greater trophies than the souls of people who tried to live holy lives. I can’t think of any other explanation. The priest who used to be the vocations director said as much in court during his sentencing: “The devil works overtime. I was weak. I am weak today”, he said. Of course, it’s only half the issue to blame Satan. Satan only tempts. Priests make their own decisions.
We all make our own decisions.
The Church has had a long trouble with sexual temptations. Go do a little research on the Renaissance popes, with their sexual romps in St. Peter’s Basilica, and how Pope Urban VIII is the great-great-great grandson of Pope Alexander VI. I read a brief story how today’s priestly clerical dress morphed out of rules mandated in the 16th Century as a way to keep priests out of bars and brothels.
There is an old prayer to St. Michael that Catholics used to pray after every Mass. The story goes that Pope Leo XIII had a vision after one particular Mass in 1886 where he saw a vision of a great battle between the devil and the Catholic Church. The vision terrified him so much that he locked himself in his office for a time; when he came out, he had penned a prayer invoking St. Michael the Archangel’s protection. His Holiness directed that copies be made of the prayer and sent to every bishop on earth, to be prayed by every Catholic after every Mass. The prayer read:
Saint Michael the Archangel,
defend us in battle;
be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil.
May God rebuke him, we humbly pray:
and do thou, O Prince of the heavenly host,
by the power of God,
thrust into hell Satan and all the evil spirits
who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls.
We Catholics were faithful in saying this prayer for about 80 years; right up until the Church turmoil of the 1960’s when the practice was discontinued (or more accurately, made optional. And thus: effectively discontinued).
Is there any question that the devil is attacking the Catholic Church? He has corrupted our priests so much that even the good and innocent clergy feel the need to apologize for the trespasses of their guilty brother priests. The whole Church is backpedaling under the weight of the sin it created for itself. People my age are afraid to have their children baptized Catholic, for fear that they’re just marking their kids as targets. Others leave the Church for rival denominations. Others abandon their faith altogether.
The way to beat Satan is the same formula that the Church has used since Christ Himself: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Penance. And maybe jailtime. Even the Jews of Jesus’ era needed Caesar to try certain crimes (see: Pontius Pilate), so it’s appropriate to turn over pedophiles and pederasts to the cops. But we cannot discount prayer! And it’s not just the tempted or guilty priests who have to pray, fast and give alms—innocent priests and laypeople can do it too—it wasn’t all that long ago that Catholics prayed the St. Michael Prayer to protect the Church from the devil after every Mass. What is stopping you from praying it still for the benefit of the Church? What is stopping you from praying it still for the benefit of your family? What is stopping you from praying it still for your own protection?
I know, I know. You don’t want to be one of those people after Mass who stop to kneel and pray for a few minutes after Mass, only to miss out on gladhanding with Father by the parish gift shop. And the time after Mass isn’t usually conducive to praying anyway, what with all the people clapping along with the drum solo in the recessional song and the general chatter of the congregation that seems to follow every Mass. When I stay after Mass to pray, I usually run the risk of missing out on the best after-Church donuts and getting stuck choosing between the half-smooshed jelly donut and slumming it with a bagel (also known as the consolation-donut). So I usually pray the St. Michael Prayer after receiving Holy Communion, along with the Anima Christi and the Angelus. It helps me focus on connecting with Our Lord and His mission for us, rather than spending the minutes people-watching.
I’m not the kind of person who looks for coincidences to prove his point. Too often, such reasoning leads to a logical fallacy called “Post hoc, ergo propter hoc”, or “After this, thus because of this”. It means that because a certain situation happened after some particular event, the event must have caused the situation (example: I clapped my hands before it rained, thus my hand clapping caused the rain). But I have to admit that I’m inclined to draw this conclusion: about the time Catholics quit pleading for St. Michael’s protection in the battle against the wickedness and snares of the devil, the Church fell victim to Satan’s corruption.
The problem with sex abusing priests is a serious one facing the Church. I take some comfort that the program that the US Bishops have created to prevent abuse, report abuse and correct abuse is considered one of the best programs of any bishops’ conference in the worldwide Church– and is now serving as a model for dioceses in every corner of the globe. But that is only small comfort.
St. Michael, defend us in battle.