Mud in Your Eye

The sex-abuse scandal as seen from the pews

I have spent a fair amount of time over the past ten years, both in print and at cocktail and dinner parties, defending unfashionable ideas such as hierarchy, the celibate male priesthood, restrictions on abortion, sacramental religion, and the virtues exemplified by professional ice hockey. At the moment, my brief for ice hockey seems the most secure.

Like many other Catholics, I hesitate to open the paper in the morning. Each day seems to bring some new revelation about the pervasiveness of pedophilia among Catholic priests and the hierarchy’s bungling, even venal handling of such cases. Yes, a measure of sensationalism is driving these stories. Most of the cases now being exposed are twenty years old, or even older. Compensation paid to victims is routinely mischaracterized as "hush money." The competing claims of civil and criminal law are rarely well explained, while the adversarial nature of the legal system makes it difficult to take the statements of either side at face value. Those who try to explain the changing attitudes toward the treatment of pedophiles over the last forty years only end up sounding like apologists for the unspeakable. Still, in the end the church has proved to be its critics’ best ally.

For example, amid the unending stream of stories coming out of Boston, the bishop of Palm Beach, Florida, Anthony J. O’Connell, resigned for sexually abusing a thirteen-year-old student when rector of a Missouri junior seminary in the early 1970s. The case was as lurid as it was revealing of the Kafkaesque dimension of sexual abuse among the clergy. O’Connell’s victim told of how he had gone to the future bishop seeking help after being abused by two other priests—only to have O’Connell become his third abuser. Incredibly, O’Connell himself had been appointed bishop of Palm Beach after the previous prelate had to resign after admitting to the molestation of boys.

I was barely able to drag myself off to Mass after reading about O’Connell. It was the fourth Sunday of Lent, and the Gospel reading told of how Jesus gave sight to the blind man by using his spit to make the mud he applies to the man’s eyes (John 9:1–41). It is an enigmatic passage in some ways, with the interrogations of the Pharisees about working on the Sabbath and Jesus’ elliptical, even cryptic retorts ("I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind"). The blind, it turns out, are those who can’t see what is right in front of them.

I expected the homilist to say something about the pedophile scandal. That morning’s further revelations about O’Connell seemed to demand a statement to the beleaguered "faithful."

It was not to be. Not a word was spoken explicitly about what must have been on the minds of every adult in that church. Instead, we were offered a little pep talk. Our pastor was concerned that Catholics could be too hard on themselves, especially during Lent. We should try to remember our virtues as well as our sins, he urged us. We were much better than our failings. If we get too "down" on ourselves, repentance and reconciliation become impossible. We mustn’t forget that the good we do far exceeds our moral failures and shortcomings.

Now Catholics have many fine qualities, but in my experience being too hard on ourselves is no longer one of them. Like the rest of American culture, we’ve managed to leave guilt behind. Or at least hand it over to the psychotherapists. The homilist, in my opinion, had badly misdiagnosed the cultural problem. I suspect the reason for that was that his sermon was not really about the fretful scrupulosity of the sinners in the pews. Expressing a high tolerance for other peoples’ sins is a way of lowering the bar for one’s own behavior. Clearly, this curious reading of John 9:1–41 was an oblique response to the pedophile scandal and a plaintive defense of the priesthood. In a way, I suppose, our priest was practicing what he was preaching: he wasn’t about to be too hard on the sins of a "few" fellow priests.

Stories are now appearing in the media about how the pedophile scandal, especially because of the enormous financial penalties involved, will result in the laity demanding a more responsive church leadership, including changes in the rules governing who can become a priest. Some have even predicted the end of hierarchy itself. Change is needed—the clerical old boys’ club needs to be broken up. But I don’t think hierarchy or celibacy per se are the causes of this scandal. Cowardice, hypocrisy, and arrogance are. Although the laity can shape the local, day-to-day reality of church life, priests themselves will have to stand up to their bishops before any real reformation occurs. If the sermon I heard is any indication, it will take more than the mud of these pedophile stories to open the eyes of the hierarchy and many of our priests. Frankly, even ice hockey is in better institutional shape.

 


Related: The Whole Story, by the Editors

Published in the 2002-04-05 issue: 

Paul Baumann is Commonweal’s senior writer.

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