Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston was on CNN last week talking about his feelings in the wake of the scandal over sexually abusive priests. He feels vulnerable, weak, pained. Another report says the cardinal hopes to ride out the storm the way Teddy Kennedy rode out Chappaquiddick.
But nobody cares about Law's feelings or his prospects for a personal comeback. That is the sort of inward-looking clerical thinking that produced the crisis in the first place. Catholics care about the church's complicity in sexual assaults on their children, sometimes repeated assaults that went on for years. And they are repelled and enraged by the protective clericalism that rallied around accused priests and did little or nothing for their victims.
The church commits its moral authority (correctly, in my view) to the protection of the most vulnerable among us, the not-yet-born. Yet it clearly failed to protect the vulnerable victims here. "If this isn't a pro-life issue, then there are no pro-life issues," said Eugene Kennedy, a prominent Catholic psychologist. An American priest in Rome added this: A bishop's "heart and soul and power should be unambiguously on the side on the abused."
The sad truth is that church officials treated sexual assaults as if they were administrative problems or celibacy violations to be covered up by offering hush money and shifting priests from parish to parish. It doesn't seem to have occurred to them that these are classic "sins of omission" in Catholic terms, and possible cover-up crimes in the eyes of the state. A Catholic bishop in France was recently convicted of such a cover-up. He drew a three-month suspended sentence.
This is Round Three of the debate over sexually abusive priests, with very little positive change, despite the explosions of scandal and promises of reform that hit the media in the mid-1980s and again in the early 1990s. The bishops have no coherent national policy to deal with clerical sex abuse.
The church has not even defined the crisis correctly. The "pedophile priest" problem is actually two problems blurred into one. True, pedophiles are rare. Most sexual victims of priests are teen-age boys, perhaps 95 percent, according to one estimate. A study of Chicago's 2,200 priests identified 40 sexual abusers, only one of whom was a pedophile. Abusers of teens are generally treatable. Pedophiles aren't. But the church is reluctant to mention the distinction, most likely because opening up the issue of sexually active gay priests is itself explosive, even apart from charges of abuse.
That distinction should be part of the debate and should inform any action the church takes. But it's hard to focus on this complex issue when stories of abuse keep pouring out. Here in New York last week, a local priest accused of raping an altar boy five years ago, and allegedly on leave, turned up in the city saying Mass and filling in occasionally as a teacher in a Catholic school. A suit accuses him of blackmailing the boy into more sexual encounters, yet he is still appears to be on active duty as a priest. In another report last week, a former altar boy who allegedly was abused more than a hundred times said the church promised to keep his abuser away from children, but the priest was later discovered doing youth work in Westchester County.
Amazingly, the bishop of Palm Beach, Fla., named to clean up the sex abuse scandal of his predecessor, turned out to be an abuser himself. The fact that he accepted this role of the reassuring reform bishop in 1999, only two years after his own molestation case was settled, is just mind-boggling. So is The Hartford Courant's recent report on New York's Cardinal Edward Egan. While Egan was bishop of Hartford from 1988 to 2001, the Courant said, he permitted suspected abusive priests to maintain contact with children and didn't investigate complaints against them.
The rage sweeping through the church over stories like these is likely to have a long and profound impact. Confidence in the integrity and basic honesty of church officials is suddenly gone. "We are witnessing the unraveling of the clerical culture," said the Rev. Donald Cozzens, a Cleveland priest and author of "The Changing Face of the Catholic Church." He means the assumption that church leadership is an elite corps, exempt from criminal proceedings, working in secrecy, with the expectation of silent deference from the lower clergy and ordinary Catholics who pay the bills.
Cozzens thinks the church is entering a long and painful meltdown of the old order, with priests gradually learning to speak respectfully but firmly to their bishops, and lay Catholics insisting on an accounting of how their money is spent and how their priests perform.
At a recent meeting in Boston with Cardinal Law, a group of Catholics vehemently kept insisting he resign. "It sounded like a call to revolution," said one woman who was there. Maybe it was.