Mystique around priesthood evaporating
by William Cleary
(Author William Cleary is accessible at www.clearyworks.com)
It's a tough time to be a priest, or even to have been a priest. Recently I saw a Washington Post story that names a friend of mine – out of the priesthood for 20 years – as accused of child sexual and physical abuse in the late 60's. I know him well: he has to be personally innocent but he's lumped in with others. My phone could ring next: I was at the same place a dozen years before him.
The mystique around priesthood is no more. But not just the priesthood and its mystique are collapsing. So is the good name of the Roman Catholic Church. The four marks of the true church, remember: one, holy, catholic and apostolic? Obviously it's getting hard to prove that second one anymore.
We need not review the ugly details disclosed by the abuse reports on February 27 for all the world to see, but according to the statistics, at least 4% of all US priests are credibly accused of sexual crimes. If we knew that 4% of cars going by a school hit a child, what would we do first? We certainly would stop the traffic. I wonder: should we stop ordinations awhile? Should we close the seminaries and take stock? Should we completely re-configure how we get our leaders, perhaps returning to St. Paul who wanted only proven leaders to lead? These are thought we need to think.
We need to start with the facts. We got some on April 27, but experts like the former Vatican Embassy canonist Father Thomas Doyle say that can't be very accurate: lots is still hidden simply because people take decades to face up to sexual abuse by a priest. For many, he says, they will never speak of it, it was unspeakable – like the very death of sacredness itself, an unforgettable defilement of everything sublime in life.
Still the rest of us have to face the truth, and that's where the new book by David France book comes in: Our Fathers. It is God's blessing that a gifted writer and reporter has taken up the priest abuse scandals and given us the whole catastrophe, bones and all. Someone might call the story is too detailed, or too grim, or too horrifying. Mary Gordon spoke of feeling "atrocity fatigue" in her New York Times review of it: we almost can't take any more.
Avoid the book then if your stomach isn't strong. To read it you need a strong gut for scandalous and heart-breaking child abuse stories, for a clergy deep into delusion and hypocrisy, for a church system in tragic collapse, for the crushing of thousands peripherally involved: parents, innocent priests, the faithful. Read it for penance perhaps. Books about torture, about catastrophes, about genocide: it's like that. Painstakingly re-imagined, filled with exact facts and flash-backs to theological history, captivating in its all-narrative style, Our Fathers is still too awful for ordinary readers. Even God should not have to know what's in it.
This is like no other book I've encountered. In an astonishing 34 pages of fine print in the back is the technical documentation, the painstaking work of a dedicated historian, giving chapter and verse of sources: personal interviews, court documents, news sources and even scholarly books whose contents were mined for background information. Each scholarly paragraph here corresponds to a journal-entry section in the main body of the book. Everything is footnoted, with quoted dialogue throughout taken from audio or video tapes, or judiciously imagined.
Our private perspective of the ongoing collapse of the American church – like our remembrance of the twin tower disaster – may consist of scattered horrific images in the hope-to-forget-it section of our brain, but if we really want to know what happened on 9/11, we need the remembrance of each floor of the Twin Towers and their exact contents, of each desperate final phone call, of each name in fact – and what their last minutes of life must have been like. Similarly in the clergy abuse disaster, it sobers us and steadies our anger to learn how each child was targeted, approached, terrified, and finally defiled, especially where the drama ended in the child's often lifelong trauma of personal guilt.
Our church overseers, our bishops, saw it all happening and did nothing: yet not one of them has yet been jailed for that. Some lay leaders suggest that any bishop who attempted to simply silence a victim, or who knowingly passed an offending priest on to another location should resign. We do not yet know all those names just yet, but we shall, say the activists. Remember, pedophilia is not some kind of odd misbehavior by a self-indulgent old man, or lonely young man: but a whole continuum of mental and moral disorder all the way to unspeakable crimes and dementia – while pretending normalcy. Can we trust any system that in our lifetime produced a documented 4,500 sex offenders, poor fellows?
And poor fellows they are, and so are we poor hurt and abused people. Still we have that astonishing message of Jesus of Nazareth: forgiveness is always possible even if rehabilitation is not. In fact, every sinner's forgiveness depends on rising to this challenge.
As hard as this is to imagine, I made myself imagine such a prayer of mercy, and now, whenever feeling judgmental, I make myself say it. If it helps, you're welcome to it. Here is how one such prayer might go.
"Holy Forgiving God, merciful and eternally wise, send your healing spirit into the tortured souls of offending people everywhere, especially to the deserts where our anguished religious leaders walk on hoping for an oasis ahead. Provide that place of respite for them where they can at last forgive themselves as you in your sweet understanding love allow for our worst choices even in the midst of our essential human goodness. It is our souls that are at stake here too: we must forgive in order to be forgiven our own self indulgences and temporary meanness. Bring us all -- especially our offending clergy -- back to a healed and humbled lifestyle where, with wise Mary and large hearted Jesus, we can all dance together, healthier and wiser now, humbler too, and safer than ever in your care. Amen. "
Our Fathers: The Secret Life of the Catholic Church in an Age of Scandal
by David France
Broadway Books: New York, 2004 $26.95 660 pp.