The house of disillusion

Posted: May 15, 2002 12:00 AM
The news of clerical sin has become so commonplace, journalistic interest attaches now to the absence of sin. A story in The New York Times is headlined, "Scandal Wrenches Church but Not Its Teen-agers." The dateline is Dedham, Mass., and the story tells of prayer night at St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church, where 80 teen-agers were "huddled together on the floor of the candlelit parish center basement." Their youth minister reminded them that they were two weeks away from Pentecost, and one week from Mother's Day. "Jesus," he told them, "is always with you."

Father Chris Hickey, a priest at St. Mary's, told the reporter that he was "devastated by the revelations about priests abusing young parishioners. 'I broke down in January, thinking about the betrayal of trust.'" Man bites dog in Dedham, Mass. A priest tending to the spiritual needs of teen-agers, rather than sexually abusing them.

Even though it is nowhere alleged that disclosures of sinful activity by priests impugn the integrity of the entire ministry, that nevertheless is the passing legacy of the current scandals. One priest reports to a friend that he will not hear the confession of a teen-ager, save when someone else is nearby to attest that there was no mischief attempted. That can sound paranoid, but one can excuse excesses of caution by the innocent to guard against what seems corporate taint.

Such has happened before in the history of the Catholic Church. A reader recalls a sentence in "Admiral of the Ocean Sea" by Samuel Eliot Morison in respect of priestly chastity. "In an era when grandees, bishops and princes of the Church openly paraded their mistresses and procured honors and titles for their bastards, nobody criticized Columbus for not marrying the mother of his second son."

Thirty years after Columbus discovered America, Martin Luther was preaching the inadvisability of obligatory celibacy. "These things are matters of choice and must not be forbidden by any one, and if they are forbidden, the forbidding is wrong, since it is contrary to God's ordinance. In the things that are free, such as being married or remaining single, you should take this attitude: If you can keep to it without burdensomeness, then keep it; but it must not be made a general law." Three years later, the man who became Pastor Luther was married.

Is there any sin so grave that a Christian could not conceivably commit it? It might seem that the abuse of a child is the maximum sin, but such would not be acknowledged as such by the prosecution in Arusha, Tanzania, where three Roman Catholic priests, one Seventh-day Adventist pastor and one Anglican bishop are being tried for -- no less -- complicity in genocide. They are Rwandan citizens, and it is alleged that, by varying acts, they cooperated with what became, in 1994's civil war, the murder of 500,000 Tutsis by the rival Hutu tribe.

Two of the defendants, Pastor Ntakirutimana and his son, a medical doctor, are defended by Ramsey Clark, former attorney general of the United States, whose search for infamous clients may at last have been achieved. The Catholic defendants were complained about to Rome, which, it is reported, was until recently only listlessly concerned. "There has been a clear turnabout in the Catholic Church," a prosecutor now reports. "In the last few months they have done everything to facilitate our work."

But what can Rome, or the Seventh-day Adventists, or the Anglican Church, or the Catholic bishops do to stop Rwandans from engaging in genocide, or American priests from abusing children? What can be done at the civil level is obvious: cooperate with agencies that detect, overcome such obstacles as Ramsey Clarks can put in the way, and put the criminals in jail, or hang them as in Nuremberg.

But the terrible, wilting casualties multiply by 100 the pain of the deceased and the mutilated, the pain of the demoralized. Because indifference to the commandments of the religion of the priests, American and Rwandan, is indifference to the primal commandments of civilized and humane life. What has been done, and is now everywhere explored, is the violation of the word of God by professional practitioners of the word of God. The cynicism engendered is awful in implication, and the scandals can wrench the faith even of the teen-agers at St. Mary's in Dedham, except as they hew to the demands of their faith, which counsel that hope cannot be abandoned, nor spurned.