This is my own poorly formed, and somewhat indirect, take on the Cardinal McCarrick story. I would like to know if I am way off base or on target, or somewhere in between. Insights, challenges, and comments welcome. My question in the title is intended to be an honest question.
A sentence caught my eye in Matthew Walther’s article, The Catholic Church is a cesspool:
When James tried to tell his parents about the things his “uncle” forced him to do, he was told that he must be lying.
I believe this sentence contains more than most Catholics want to think about or are willing to admit.
And it’s one of the saddest and most heartbreaking sentences in this whole sordid affair. And that sentence (as I have come to understand about other abuse stories) has repeated itself again and again in Catholic homes, between parents and their sons and their daughters, mostly their sons in these cases.
At every level the sex abuse scandal is horrible. Christ spoke of a small amount of leaven leavening the whole lump; in other words, a small amount of yeast spreads throughout the entire lump of dough. This is how sin works in one’s life. It is also how sin works in the Church. A little infection gets in and soon there is rot everywhere. A little smoke of Satan finds an open window or door and…
We are right to condemn Cardinal McCarrick for his wickedness. We are right to condemn the cardinals and bishops who have participated directly and indirectly in this grave scandal. We are even right to criticize the popes for being so blind and so slow to act. It is also right for us to condemn the priests who have done terrible things. But what about the laity? What about us?
When there is widespread sin, widespread covering up of that sin, and a corresponding widespread blindness or ignorance of that sin, one should expect a pervasive cultural willfulness underlying it all — a kind of unspoken subconscious “if you scratch my back I’ll scratch yours.” It is corruption, and it is often so subtle, that produces its own self-protecting blindness. We are all too quick to call out “good bishops” and “bad bishops.” Are we being honest? What has the laity gained by choosing to side with their priests and bishops over their own children until proven wrong? That, I believe, is a HUGE question of enormous implications.
Perhaps… perhaps there was a time for that kind of blind trust. But not for a very long time, if ever. I cannot blame Catholics for leaving the Church over this disgusting tragedy. It’s a steady and vile stench hanging over the Church, and it goes back a long ways. I don’t think they should, but I understand.
Have we not become a Church too easily given over to our precious self-images? Are we not a people wrapped up in supporting a kind of Catholic doppelgänger that has more to do with telling us what we want to believe about ourselves rather the truth? If we are to condemn bad bishops, shouldn’t we also condemn bad parents who are so in need of believing that the bishop is pleased with them that they will betray their own children. Do we need to condemn ourselves and the “Catholic” culture we have created? Perhaps I’m going too far, but I know something about the human heart because I know my own heart.
[As an aside: Someone very dear to me was repeatedly sexually abused by her father from age five until high school. Her mother was subconsciously but willfully complicit in the abuse. Once the abuse became public, her mother supported her father. Her grandmother said she was the one who enticed the abuser. She was only five when it started. Only five. He was the abuser, the adult, but the other adults were complicit. She was the child. He got away with it because he knew the world in which he lived would let him. He had power in that world and controlled it because he had willing accomplices because it was easier to not know than to open their eyes. They were all in good standing in their church community. They all saw themselves as good Christians who would never willing do or support evil. They all got what they wanted, expect the victim. Perhaps this makes me rather sensitive to cultures of complicity.]
The question is not primarily whether James’ parents knew about the cardinal, or that any parent knows about the abuse happening to their child by a priest. I believe most of them don’t actually, truly know, at least at first. (I want to believe that if any parents do find out they would actually do something about it. Perhaps I’m naive) The fundamental question is whether or not the parents (or any of us) are willing to believe. Another way of putting this is do they believe the truth of the gospel and of the Church’s teaching, or know why there is a crucifix above the altar. Do they fully embrace the Church’s teaching on sin? Can it be that many Catholics are so fundamentally unbelieving in the story of salvation that they would rather believe there are men walking around as sinless as Christ and impervious to temptation merely because they have been ordained? Do they suppose a clerical costume makes a man a sinless superhero? Can they read Christ’s condemnations of the religious leaders of His day and still not suppose our own religious leaders are just as likely to fall prey to sin and the devil? Sure, the millstone goes around the bishop’s neck, but too often the parents, and the culture they have helped to create, are complicit.
Keep in mind that even our saints do this. In her 2005 book John Paul The Great: Remembering a Spiritual Father, Peggy Noonan tried to explain why the pope didn’t take seriously enough the reports of sexual abuse by priests. In a 2014 article she reiterated the same argument. She writes:
[I]t would have been almost impossible for John Paul to understand the depth and breadth of the scandal because of his history. He had come of age under Nazism and Communism. They hated the church. Priests who fought them—John Paul was one—were heroic. Nazis and communists constantly attempted to undermine the church by falsely accusing its priests of mis- and malfeasance, including sexual impropriety. That was his context when John Paul was told of recent charges of child abuse. The idea they were true would have seemed impossible to him.
It would have been almost impossible for him to understand. It would have seemed impossible to him. I tend to agree with her assessment. It’s a plausible explanation that rings true. When St. JP2 looked at a priest he saw a hero. How could a hero abuse a child? But even if Noonan’s take is true, it still doesn’t get him off the hook. It just makes it easier to understand why he did what he did, and it’s a lot like why we tend to do what we do. He was blinded by his experiences and his desires. We are too.
I say this and yet Saint John Paul the Great is still a hero to me. But I also know he was a man.
Let’s be clear: The parents are in no way directly at fault for the abuse. Cardinal McCarrick is the one who abused. He is the one with the millstone around his neck. The bishops who knew the open secret of McCarrick probably also have millstones around their necks. And there are probably many others. The issue I’m trying to understand (and I know I’m doing a poor job of it) is about parents turning against the words of their own children (“he was told that he must be lying”) and refusing to even consider they are hearing the truth because to do so would contradict the precious image of they have of the wonderful cardinal, or the parish, or of the Church itself, or how a good Catholic should act towards the clergy, or even one’s image of the pope. But this is a form of idolatry. Some of this is certainly generational. Younger Catholics today, sadly, have become more informed, and consequently more cynical, about these things than their grandparents were. But all of us are potentially the unbelieving parent or friend.
However, I have great hope for the laity. As I witness the responses of cardinals and bishops to sex abuse revelations, and as I again and again see a group of men protecting their clericalism and bureaucratic comforts instead of, it would seem, having faith in God, I am also witnessing the rising up of the laity. Too often the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops acts like their primary job is all about program administration and publishing official statements, and not about the gospel. They put out statements about needing to have “clearer procedures” in place to handle abuse cases, etc. etc. The “good” bishops (and sometimes “bad” bishops) put out platitudinous statements condemning the abuse, but then do nothing. They risk nothing.
Are we now like sheep without a shepherd? Who will lead us?
Perhaps some of these “good” bishops should publicly identify and shame the “bad” bishops. Perhaps they should not let Rome whisk the abusers back to Rome for rehabilitation and retirement. Perhaps some of these “good” bishops should literally start punching the “bad” bishops in their faces (like St. Nicholas slapping Arius at the first council at Nicaea). Honestly, that might make for one of the best bishops conferences ever.
But I am seeing the laity standing up more and more, calling false shepherds what they are, pointing out the wolves in sheeps clothing, and being less afraid to say what needs to be said because they have come to trust first in God rather than the hierarchy. And perhaps because they have social media at their fingertips. I have hope. I think we are going to hear less and less about parents refusing to listen to their children’s cries for help. I hope we hear less and less about abuse too. I am all for a massive house cleaning.
Finally, if the whole Cardinal McCarrick affair is a prime example of the “open secret everyone knows,” potentially implicating numerous bishops in a vast coverup, what about Catholic media? How many stories were not written, stories buried, leads not followed, questions not asked, and reporters told to back off? How complicit is the media? And how complicit is the Catholic media? How much did those at EWTN, Catholic News Service, National Catholic Reporter, etc., etc. know? Who knew what and when did they know it?
It was an open secret. Everybody knew, or heard stories. Are not Catholic news reporters trained in investigative reporting? Or are they merely mouthpieces for the hierarchy?
Here’s something to consider. Read some of the last lines from the film SPOTLIGHT. Remember that this award winning film is about the 2002 Boston Globe (a secular news agency of course) investigation and reporting on the story of predatory sexual activities by Catholic priests in the Boston area, and the subsequent and systematic coverup by the Church hierarchy, specifically by the revered Cardinal Law. Read this carefully:
We’ve nailed down multiple stories on seventy priests.
Yeah. And with the confirmation from Robby’s source, we’re ready to go. We can have a draft next week.
Robby, that source of yours, is this someone we could revisit?
Might be tough.
But he has no problem helping the church protect dozens of dirty priests. Guy’s a scumbag.
Matt glances at Robby. Who’s looking at Ben.
He’s a lawyer, he’s doing his job.
He a shill for the Church.
He knew and did nothing.
He coulda said something about this years ago. Maybe saved some lives.
What about us?
What’s that supposed to mean?
We had all the pieces. Why didn’t we get it sooner?
We didn’t have all the pieces.
We had Saviano, we had Barrett, we had Geoghan. We had the directories in the basement.
You know what? We got it now.
Robby, this story needed Spotlight.
Spotlight’s been around since 1970.
So what? We didn’t know the scope of this. No one did. This started with one goddamn priest, Robby.
Robby looks at Sacha.
MacLeish sent us a letter on 20 priests, years ago. Sacha found the clip.
Are you freaking kidding me? 20 priests?
Just after Porter. December of ‘93.
We buried the story in Metro. No folo. Sacha found the clip.
That was you. You were Metro.
Yeah, that was me. I’d just taken over. I don’t remember it at all. But yeah.
The room quiets. Gut punch. Ben shakes his head.
Uh, can I say something?
They turn to him.
Sometimes it’s easy to forget that we spend most of our time stumbling around in the dark. Suddenly a light gets turned on, and there’s fair share of blame to go around. I can’t speak to what happened before I arrived but all of you have done some very good reporting here, reporting that I believe is going to have an immediate and considerable impact on our readers. For me, this kind of story is why we do this.
The team takes this in.
Having said that, Cardinal Law and the Catholic community are going to have a very strong response to this. So if you need to take a moment, you’ve earned it. But I will need you back here Monday morning focused and ready to do your job.
Here’s what I believe you should notice: Marty appeals to the precious self-image of the reporters to support their own coverup. Yes, we all “spend most of our time stumbling around in the dark,” but they weren’t in the dark except that they wanted to be. They had the information. They had the evidence. They chose to burry it. Marty’s words lets them get themselves off the hook. Yes, we all have to keep moving forward, and yes their reporting eventually was good and necessary, but Marty has just helped them clear their consciences. They are now “absolved” because, while everyone else is stumbling, “you have done some very good reporting here, reporting that I believe is going to have an immediate and considerable impact on our readers. For me, this kind of story is why we do this.”
I see the bishops doing the same thing — giving themselves a pass again and again. They set up commissions, appoint overseers, establish new processes because the old ones didn’t work, and then walk away self-congratulated and self-absolved. No risk. No sackcloth and ashes. A brood of vipers.
But remember, we all do this in one way or another, and we support each other in our games. We’ve all got our own precious self-images. And we will protect them fiercely. We’ve all got some viper in us, so let’s be careful in our judgments. But still…
‘When James tried to tell his parents about the things his “uncle” forced him to do, he was told that he must be lying.’
Pray for one another.
Lord have mercy.