Bishops get it right

Maggie Gallagher

6/18/2002 12:00:00 AM - Maggie Gallagher
You cannot please everyone. A few days after the U.S. Bishops Conference, a few voices in the victims movement are still protesting. But this time, on child sex abuse, the bishops got it right. No priest who has sexually abused a child or minor teen will serve in active ministry. But some priests who sinned (and committed crimes) many years ago may remain under the protection of the church.

Priests such as the Rev. Thomas DeVita, who (according to The New York Times) abused a teen-age altar boy in Long Island back in 1978. Confessed, repented, sought treatment, and went on to be a real priest. In New Buffalo, Mich., where Father DeVita rebuilt a failing parish church and school into a vital Catholic community, parishioners are aghast at the sentence that now befalls him. "You think people would get over it by now," said one parishioner. Get over it. Act like it never happened. That is some people's idea of forgiveness. Not Father DeVita's. He says he hopes his removal will be a "lesson to future priests to never compromise on their blessed calling. The cloud over the church these last six months can now pass on and the sun can shine again."

The Catholic Church is ancient, and does not always fit well into the latest ideas of a disposable, market-based, not to mention a fundamentally Protestant, society. The priesthood is not a job; it is a transforming vocation. Once ordained, a priest cannot be fired for bad conduct any more than -- in the Catholic vision -- a marriage can be ended simply for bad behavior. An adulterous spouse is still your spouse. A priest is always a priest -- even defrocked. The bishops do not have the power to strip from him his ability to perform the sacraments. But surely a priest who still owes allegiance to the church (having surrendered family, marriage and money for its sake) is far more likely to obey a bishop's command to cease wearing the collar, or saying Mass, than an aging priest thrown onto the street -- and (incidentally) most likely onto the taxpayers' dime.

If my son (God forbid) abused a child, I would turn him in without hesitation. When he emerged from jail, I would do what I could to see that he never had a chance to harm another child. But no matter how ashamed, would I refuse to help him? If he were struggling to do and be good, would I watch him starve? Of course not. It is not a mother's job to perpetually punish her children.

The Catholic Church is not an instrument of punishment. Victims upset that justice has not been done in this world had best turn their attention to civil authorities, whose job it is. Yet most men, clerics or no, who abuse children get off with shockingly light sentences -- a few years at most for pedophiles. And as for adults who sexually use teen-agers? Many prosecutors decline to prosecute at all.

In leaving his parish and his collar and his privileges behind, Father DeVita is being true to his calling in a way that may perhaps inspire us all. I, for one, will think of Father DeVita the next time something the church asks of me seems difficult to bear. "I think I feel a sense of complete freedom now," says Father DeVita. He calls it a gift of the Holy Spirit. "Because I said yes to something I never wanted. I said yes not in anger, not in bitterness, not in hatred, but in faith."