The key book on priest sex abuse
by William Cleary
Betrayal: the Crisis in the Catholic Church
by the Investigative Staff of the Boston Globe
Little, Brown, 274 pp. $23.95
Catholic book review readers: your punishment for all the times you indulged in the sin of denial is to read this book. You will suffer. Its vicious and violent stories will satisfy even the worst masochistic needs. But it may cure your illness.
I honestly couldn't take it, line by line, and didn't need to. Most of it had appeared in the Globe – to which I am seriously addicted. And you don't need to read it either, not if you already are aware of the catastrophe happening in the church, or not if you have a queasy stomach. I began with gusto. It was like watching pro football, ugly but what a spectacle! Soon it turned into pro-wrestling, that sick, pathetic scene put on by half-demented celebrity gladiators, watched by what seem to be mostly would-be deviants. I couldn't take it.
No, you don't need to read it all either – although it's all real, not created just to sell ads or beer. It's the real world of the US Catholic rectory, a milieu of illusion and unwitting violence. In my view the world is here encountering stories of historically unique human pathos, tragedies unimaginable by an Aeschylus or a Sophocles. And the new tragic flaw: the power grab of a spiritualized celibacy. More about that later.
The book was put together from news stories by Globe reporters and published by Little, Brown; and Andrew Greeley calls it "a horrible book. . . but thank God for it." The Paperback Book Club is issuing it as well, at a low price. So, no excuses if you deserve the punishment. Read it and weep.
Weep for the precious world that is no more: the Roman Catholic Church as we knew it. An historical, not mythical, revelation. An authentic, holy priesthood. A billion satisfied believers. God's ultimately Chosen People, the very Nation of the only God. A great ship that perhaps even God Himself couldn't sink. But, alas, with six bulkheads compromised (said the ship's designer), it is doomed: "It's just a matter of time."
The ordinary media doesn't cover the crises much anymore assuming that almost no one cares. After all, how much pus do you have to see to recognize a mortal infection, how much putrefaction inhale before you believe the thing is sick unto death? Repulsive story follows repulsive story. The cancer has metastasized. It's everywhere, in virtually every US state, and abroad. Long ago poor Oedipus, in shame, rips out his own eyes, in one parish four altar boys commit suicide; his disgrace was sex with his mother, theirs sex with a priest, and comparable. The chapters march on: Father Geoghan, The Cover-up, The Predators, The Victims, The Explosion, His Eminence and on and on, a march of doom. Some people have heard enough of it. Don't read the book if you can avoid it.
But don't think you are really witnessing the whole catastrophe unless, in addition to the ordinary news and magazines, you follow the headlines at poynter.org, the alphabetical lists at surviversfirst.org, and the Spotlight site of the Boston Globe. Even then, most of the sorrow and disgrace will necessarily escape you as the great Titanic fills with salt water and sinks by inches. No one but God witnesses the whole of any tragedy.
But how does God relate to the events that comprise Betrayal? I have a few thoughts. I was a priest and left to marry. Laying eyes on my first, newborn son – when I was 44 – caused a startling response in me besides the tears that rolled down my face. I would die for him, I knew instantly. I would give him without a moment's hesitation an arm, a kidney, all the rest of my life if need be. The Life Force itself seemed to thrust upward in my soul: I will never forget it.
Of course not every parent receives that exact gift but when I check it out with others, they have confessed to something like it. Couples without children participate wonderfully too in our hearts' bonding to kids, and often bond too. It is here that the greatest reverence conceivable is born and experienced, awe at its most awesome, the divine at its most distinct.
Life in a celibate priests' rectory is another world entirely. The book portrays it well. The nun at the rectory door just scowled at the Father Goeghan as he brought in a boy to be raped. Shanley, discovered by another priest to be performing oral sex on a terrified youngster, is simply told "Come on, it's time for everyone to go home." A tortured mother writing "brokenhearted about all this" to the sanctimonious Cardinal Law, is begged by him to be silent and all will be well, but nothing is done. More rapes pile up, 200 of them. "God doesn't like me any more," said one destroyed young boy to his appalled mother. She couldn't see the horrific scar on his soul, but he well may carry it all the rest of his life.
The rectory is often part of a different world entirely where children are concerned. Why? That Life Force experience is absent, so that deepest compassion is absent, that bonding is usually absent. Alas, the priests are, many of them, deprived of the grace built into ordinary life. Their world is, often, utterly without children really being in it. Massachusetts Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly, reading his first Spotlight report, said: "I found myself yelling out loud, "My God, this is about children!'" He shouted it because he understood what parents know: nothing could be more outrageous than the abuse of children. Another Catholic district attorney, Kevin Burke, said the same: "I don't think the cardinal and the rest of the hierarchy ever got that they were dealing with kids here. I don't think they even see that today." What they don't get is what kids are: something most sacred. Priests live in another world.
That world – where celibacy is holiness -- must be overthrown and destroyed, and the time is now. We will never have more evidence of its terminal pathology. Betrayal is just Book One of an inevitable set of horrible books. But the series will end only if the system ends. Are we the church? Let's end that system.
Twenty years ago when my 12-year old son showed interest in being a priest, I sat down and wrote him a letter (find it at www.clearyworks/books.) in which I told him how important I had found the path of married life. Mostly I explained how, for me, the realest of revelations had been the gift of sexual love, how the Holy Mystery had created life – how that precious mystery was so personally present in the whole melodrama of attraction, courtship, being in love, marriage, pro-creativity, and communal life. And I concluded that to offer to give all that up – promise lifelong celibacy – was some kind of vague sin against yourself, and couldn't be endorsed by the real God. After reading Betrayal I see how obsolete is my letter today. Or, rather, it's still true but incomplete.
What has happened to the Catholic priesthood since I left is gothic. It was always a bit strange, but now it is grotesque. Celibacy, self-abusive as it was for some of us, once worked for the Church. It helped. Now – with new contributing changes in our culture – it has become an undigestible evil to the Church. Singleness, okay; gayness, okay; holiness-celibacy, no. That's my opinion.
Not incidentally, the book records on page 94 an account of Cardinal Law's clever sacrilege in the Thomas Blanchette story, when he responds to the boy's report of abuse, laying his hand on his head: "I bind you by the power of the confessional never to speak about this to anyone." Was ever a sacrament more defiled? Like Jesus, Law institutes sacraments. It sounds in fact just like many of the abuser priests, using Hail Marys and Latin words to silence the struggling victim. Anything to produce silence. In fact there is a strange sympathy for deviancy in many of the sacrilegious cardinal's decisions, but for all that, his obvious religious crimes are already worse than deviance. His sublime immovability – refusing to resign – is just another sign of rigor mortis in the corpse of celibate spirituality.
The book's jacket is designed like a holy book, chaste, solemn, a discreet little cross above the title as if it were a breviary. The title "Betrayal" – stark and cruel – stands in large caps across a dark crimson front. It dramatizes visually what has happened historically: the holy has been violated, disgraced, betrayed. I mean first the holiness of children by hundreds and hundreds raped and violated – often in the name of God, sometimes reciting prayers with the rapist. Then the holiness of everything else sacred: the trusting lovingness that produces children in the first place, the eager honesty of ordinary believers, the deep good will of parents, the willingness to trust of all good Catholics: betrayed. Finally, and least importantly, the holy places we build in which to meet and remember, the holy individuals we dress in sacred cloaks and solemn aromas so they can ritualize history and the Gospel for us all: they have been betrayed too.
But it's not really betrayal when you haven't been honest with each other from the beginning. It's an even worse crime than that: blindness, deliberate and sustained, that arrogance Jesus hated the most. "Blind guides!" he screamed to their faces. "You lay heavy burdens on people's backs and will not lift a finger to help them." Can't you hear him? Does he lower his voice as he goes on? "You should be tied to a great stone and thrown into the depths of the sea."
"Better for you," he adds, "if you had never been born!"
Jesus did not really inveigh against sexual offenses. It was the evil hearts of the leadership he could not bide. We may find the crimes of Fathers Porter, Goeghan, Birmingham, Shanley, Frost, Kos, and almost 200 others execrable, but the undigestible evil is in the mind of a cardinal who so loves his honorific role that he turns his head away and lets the system grind on and defile victim after victim after innocent victim. There's the corruption. Corruptio optimi pessima: that dictum says it. The putrefaction of the best is the very worst. It was the smell at Ground Zero that was the worst about 9/11, a fact unmentionable. But that's exactly what's true of 3/4 of the American hierarchy – if you believe the Dallas Times study of bishops. More than 75% of them knowingly moved predators to new parishes. Unmentionable? Almost, but factual. Revelatory. The hierarchy that built the pyramids could not have been more deluded.
We used to fret about the priest shortage. Now we must face the likelihood that soon there will be no priests at all because no one will want to be one. And no parents will want a son to be one. "Priests' morale plummets," wrote a Boston pastor in the Globe just this September, "as more and more of us are afraid even to shake hands or touch a parishioner for fear of being accused." It's a destroyed profession.
Or perhaps before that, some gumptious bishop, caught by the outrageous insanity of it all, will ordain himself a flock of new priests from the qualified well-coupled men and women in his area. Or might it suddenly dawn on lots of people that no one needs a bishop to "ordain" him or her from above? An intelligent God would never commit the grace-channels to any such human group. Rather it is everything in nature that are the grace-channels, above all love, that miraculous blaze beneath everything. There's revelation.
And so Betrayal records how the great ship is taking in water through a below-surface gash in its hull and, in my view, is on its way to Davey Jones' Locker – where we will, a hundred years from now, examine its pretentious lines and appointments through a misty haze of green search lights, wondering how we all could have so loved her, been awed by her, so inspired and misled by her. At this moment the bellboys and waiters are still moving among the diners on her decks as if nothing is happening, but some of us felt that portentous shock when we hit that damned little iceberg and are getting ready for a swim. Some, in fact, have already taken to the water and have even gotten used to the temperature of it – and back-stroking away from the awesome and doomed phenomenon weep for the sheer sorrow of it all: it promised to be so different.
To our new island refuge homes we will take our memories and convictions which we, yes, learned on board: that our Parenting God is good and can be trusted, and so can our own minds and consciences, how God is near and inhabits every erg and inch of reality, how the world has no real borders and is all meant to be one catholic family, how we can commune with all our departed back perhaps a million years, drawing strength and solidarity from all; and how, in God's astonishing plan, a fearless and poetic little carpenter genius, with words of compassion and faith, can stop history in its tracks and start the world over. Perhaps with his words and example we too can start the world over wherever we land. #