Speaking about the church’s sex-abuse scandal at a September conference on the “Catholic Imagination” at Loyola University in Chicago, the essayist Richard Rodriguez said a very brave thing. “What do we know about these priests? We know nothing about the burden of these fallen priests,” Rodriguez said, according to articles in the National Catholic Reporter. “We don’t know their stories. What do they think they were doing?…. We have no idea who they were, or what they suffered…. Our imaginations have gone dull.”
Evidently Rodriguez’s remarks were prompted to some extent by the 2016 death of his friend, the Notre Dame theologian Virgilio Elizondo. Elizondo had been accused of abusing a minor, and appears to have committed suicide. He had denied the charges.
Rodriguez was criticized by some for showing concern and even sympathy for priests most people regard as monsters deserving nothing but condemnation and social oblivion. Such priests, and the bishops who hid their crimes, remain exhibit Number 1 in the case against a corrupt, hopelessly patriarchal, and arrogant institution. Who, after all, wants to be seen expressing interest in such people, let alone offering them comfort? Doesn’t doing so just retraumatize victims?
The wishes, well-being, and confidentiality of victims need to be placed first and foremost. But does that mean we have nothing to learn from the offending priests about the causes and consequences of the crisis? Criticism of Rodriguez seems misplaced to me. It took real courage for Jason Berry to break the sexual-abuse story in Louisiana in 1985. Early on, Thomas Doyle, OP, showed the same fearless determination in demanding that the hierarchy stop turning a blind eye to the victims and the crisis. In 2002, the Boston Globe took risks in exposing the grotesque failure of Cardinal Bernard Law and the Boston archdiocese. But at this late date, simply damning the church is too easy, especially in light of the well-documented steps the church has since taken to protect children. Rodriguez makes an important point. Is it possible to understand the sexual abuse if the stories of priest-abusers are regarded as untouchable and irrelevant? Will such ignorance help us prevent future abuse? Don’t journalists have an obligation to pursue such stories, no matter how unpalatable?