Knocking out pedophile priests

Posted: Jun 07, 2002 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON--Some 40 years ago in Hobart, Australia, a rapist on the run from the police sought refuge in the house of his parish priest. Father Rogers let him in. The man asked for sanctuary. Father Rogers' ministry began with a well-placed punch that knocked the man cold. Rogers then called the police and held the man until they arrived. Upon hearing this story (I heard it from my wife, who grew up in Hobart and remembers the sensation the incident caused), one can only imagine in what different shape American Catholicism would be if just one bishop had done the same to just one priest seeking counseling and sanctuary for his molestation of children. Apparently not. No left hook. No calling the police. On the contrary: decades of settled lawsuits, of bought silence. An ad hoc committee has just proposed to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that dioceses be required to report accusations of sexual abuse to the appropriate secular authorities. This is a step forward. But the very fact that it needs to be recommended is scandalous. When Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law was deposed regarding his shuttling sex-abusing priests from one parish to another, he said: ``I viewed this as a psychological pathology, as an illness'' and as ``a gravely sinful act.'' Illness, perhaps. Sin, certainly. But where is the realization of the crime, the violation of the norms and laws of the larger society? Indeed, where is the realization of the larger society? This is the most startling aspect of this scandal. Not that there are priestly sex offenders. Sex offenders occur in small numbers in any community. And they are far more likely to occur in a community self-selected by the stringency of celibacy. In an age of radical individuality and sexual liberation, celibacy is guaranteed to attract a disproportionate number of souls with tortured and confused sexuality. No, the surprise is not that it happened. The surprise is that when it did happen--when the first child was abused by a priest--his superiors could see only the need for therapy and ministry. How could they not have called the cops? Of course they were acting in order to protect the institution. But they were not just acting on the instinct of self-protection. They were acting under the illusion of isolation. Cardinal Law's wanton disregard for the fundamental requirements of social order--that crimes be reported and that the citizenry assist in their prosecution--could only occur in an institution so supremely insulated that it appropriates for itself almost extraterritorial status. It is as if within the kingdom of the church, the norms of the larger society do not apply. This is shocking. It violates the most elementary notions of civil society. Civil society grants the church autonomy in ritual, belief, and practice--up to the limits of criminality. This is the basic accommodation that any religious community must make within a liberal democracy. Cardinal Law's invocation of the language of social work, of therapy and confession, makes you wonder: What is his conception of citizenship? Indeed, Law is legally a citizen not just of the United States but of the Vatican. He said he was not aware of this until just a few weeks ago. But aware or not, he has been acting for years like a holder of foreign citizenship. (Indeed, there has even been talk about whether any of the princes of the American church might enjoy diplomatic immunity if hauled into court by civil authorities.) This scandal has been characterized as a crisis within the church. That is the lesser issue. The church, which has faced greater internal rifts over the centuries, will undoubtedly heal itself. The major crisis lies not within but without. It is between church and state. It is rooted in the sense of separation, of extrajudicial status, that the American Catholic Church has arrogated for itself for decades when faced with allegations of sexual criminality. The very talk about whether a child-molesting priest should be defrocked for one strike or more is beside the point. What America wants to know is not how the Catholic leadership will discipline its clergy. That is its own business. Separation of church and state dictates that churches deal with ecclesiastical offences--whether sins or heresies or deviations of any kind--by their own rules and strictures. How the church treats sin is not a concern for non-Catholics. Of absolute concern for non-Catholics, however, is how the church treats crime--whether it reports criminality occurring within its gates for adjudication and punishment by secular authorities. That is the test. It is a test not of faith but of citizenship. Father Rogers passed that test. The American church failed it.