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The metastasizing scandal in the Catholic priesthood is more than another chapter on lost innocence, it's like an entrance to the catacombs--God only knows what lurks down there.

Hal Crowther 

Darkness visible

When something sits on your brain like a buzzard on his breakfast, when the thing will not fly away, everything you encounter seems to mirror and anticipate your obsession, as if inanimate objects could read your mind. For several years I've been writing a book on the nature of innocence, studying the changing meanings and cultural significance of innocence and the causes of its recent, drastic devaluation. The metastasizing scandal in the Catholic priesthood is more than another chapter I have to write; it's like an entrance to the catacombs--God only knows what lurks down these corridors, or where they wind. Brooding on it, walking through the tapestry show at the Metropolitan Museum, I naturally found myself in front of "Massacre of the Innocents," and then another 16th-century classic, the Bronzino allegory "Justice Liberating Innocence."

This was our year of lost innocence, of vanishing illusions. Remember when you felt safe in your office, in an airplane, or just sitting in the kitchen opening your mail? When New York seemed impregnable, when the Middle East seemed manageable and far away? Remember when cremation was a clean and reliable way to shuffle off this mortal coil? It wasn't so long ago that nearly everyone trusted accountants, brokers, utilities, undertakers, doctors, priests ...

These priests--the shepherds become wolves, the fathers devourers, the sanctuary a slaughterhouse for the lambs of God. Even stripped as we are of comforting illusions, these priests have shocked us profoundly. As diocese after diocese yields up its secrets, as legions of weeping victims weigh in, it's as if vandals have pulled one of those awful relics from its casket, one of those mummified saints you find in European cathedrals, and ripped off its satin vestments till the thing that lies before us is so ghastly no one can bear to look.

Outrage is a difficult note to sustain, and exhausting for the writer and the reader. For the note that's required I yield to the late Andre Dubus, a Catholic writer whose fiction includes many sympathetic priests. This is from his story, "Rose":

"But if the outlaw rapes, tortures, gratuitously kills, or if he makes children suffer, we hate him with a purity we seldom feel: our hatred has no roots in prejudice, or self-righteousness, but in horror."

Horror, indeed. I despise the weary cynicism that poses as tolerance, that asks us, even with such grievous sinners as these priests, "Who will throw the first stone?" I believe there are hosts of us--gays and straights, Catholics, Jews and Protestants--prepared to throw the first stone at a child-molesting priest. If I'm wrong, this is a degenerate society that deserves, like negligent parents, to lose custody of its children.

Can a church survive with such secrets? Most of us raised in sects with humbler, more homespun traditions held the Roman Catholic Church in private awe. Against the vulgarity and banality of secular America, the medieval grandeur and supernatural tenacity of this ancient institution made a powerful impression on rustics like me. I guess I've been impressed with nearly every priest I've known. There was an ageless Jesuit, a longtime mentor, an ex officio confessor. And when I was a college student, and our one Catholic president had recently been assassinated, I used to play golf with a country priest. He was a ruddy, handsome Irishman with curly hair and charm to spare, and the fact of his celibacy fascinated me. I was at that painful stage of life where someone's sister might walk by in a certain kind of summer dress and I would almost literally need oxygen, I'd slump in a doorway and whimper and gasp for air. And here was a man whose appearance and confidence, not to mention his suave conversation, could have attracted females of a quality beyond my wildest dreams.

Yet he chose Christ instead. To me, a boy with ascetic aspirations already undermined by lust, he seemed unimaginably strong and holy. That he might have embraced or even practiced some alternate form of sexuality never occurred to me. I was naive--I was 19--and if at that moment the closets of the world were packed with sexual outlaws, no one I knew ever mentioned it. If Father Tom had a secret he died with it, like other priests of his time; and he died young, of liver cancer.

Maybe I write about innocence because my own is inexhaustible. Though I near 60, bone-weary with experience and often accused of cynicism, events continue to reveal, shock by shock, that I'm one of the most innocent people alive.

Why do I need to believe that most Catholic priests are faithful to their vows, regardless of their secret desires? Celibacy is no reasonable thing to require of a healthy animal living in a sex-saturated culture. Eros is mysterious, almost unfathomable. Every living soul has a peculiar itch of some kind; the sexually wounded may nurse obsessions too bizarre to describe. If the Church in its obstinate make-believe has created a priesthood of homosexuals and a sanctuary for criminal pedophiles, the pattern of its fall is as clear as the archbishop's conscience (a figure of speech, perhaps now obsolete, that I learned from Father Tom).

Denying that there's a necessary connection between the rule of celibacy and sexually skewed priests is a game of logical hopscotch, like denying that a trillion tons of fossils proves evolution. No vocation ever offered so much access, so few impediments, such protective coloring for a child molester. The celibate priesthood is an anachronism that offered layers of concealment, closets within closets like Chinese boxes. A large community of secret homosexuals--some guess 50 percent of American priests--provided prime camouflage for gay predators and the deepest cover in America for desperate pedophiles like Boston's Father John Geoghan and Father Paul Shanley. Their archbishop protected them all because he assumed, not irrationally, that one or two notorious cases could bring down his whole house of cards, his whole cathedral of closets.

Historian Garry Wills, a former Jesuit seminarian, interviewed priests who complain that seminaries are no longer comfortable places for heterosexuals. Enrollment in the seminaries has dropped 85 percent since 1966. America's priests are notably scarcer, older and odder since the Second Vatican Council (1963) refused to consider the ordination of women or married men. And suddenly there are thousands of cases of sexual abuse involving, according to The Economist, at least 2,000 priests and counting. The august old men in skullcaps and glistening robes, the whispering secret-keepers, are drowning in a flood of sorrows beyond their blinkered comprehension.

It is, sadly, more of a shock than a surprise. "The scandal is all the greater," Carl M. Cannon writes in the American Journalism Review, "precisely because the story has been around so long."

Cannon wrote in 1988 that "the Church's reluctance to address the problem is a time bomb waiting to detonate in American Catholicism." The notorious Father Shanley claims that he himself was abused, as a teenager and a seminarian, by a series of priests including a future Cardinal. Shanley, a charter member of the North American Man-Boy Love Association, is 70 years old.

It was nearly two decades ago that Jason Berry, investigating a series of cases in Louisiana, first warned us that the Catholic Church was spending a fortune to silence the victims of pedophile priests. The total from all settlements now stands, by many estimates, at more than $1 billion. Berry's articles were rejected by most of America's major magazines; his book Lead Us Not Into Temptation, a scathing expose, was turned down by 30 publishers before it found its way into print. Nothing captures the appalling gravity, the dark weight of wholesale betrayal quite like the verse from the Gospel of St. Mark that serves as the book's epigraph:

"Whosoever shall offend one of these little ones that believe in me, it is better for him that a millstone were hanged around his neck and he were cast into the sea."

Jason Berry is a prophet now, invited to write his "I told you so" for the Op Ed page of The New York Times. He pulled no punches when he was vindicated at last. The story languished, he wrote, because it threatened both Catholics and homosexuals, who run two of the most powerful anti-defamation operations patrolling our media. Children, unfortunately, have no media presence--and no lobbies, no votes, no friends in high places. All of us who heard Berry's story and ignored or soft-pedaled it--hoping it was exaggerated--should stand up now and share the blame.

In their frustration, some bishops chose to stress the fact that most offending priests are not clinical pedophiles, that their victims are not small children but adolescent minors. This is a lethally double-edged defense. Pedophilia is a pathological condition, a compulsion that yields grudgingly, if at all, to drugs, therapy or even chemical castration. A wretch in the grip of this illness is, it seems to me, far less responsible for his behavior, far less morally reprehensible, than the "normal" homosexual who uses the priest's office to seduce adolescents and the church's power to escape prosecution.

The word "pedophile" is abused because it presents a safer target for the media, according to George Weigel, a biographer of Pope John Paul II, who adds, "The largest portion of what's come to light is a pattern of homosexual clergy not living up to their celibate promises."

You can argue that fossilized homophobia is an aggravating factor--that there's no intrinsic harm in a gay priesthood, even a sexually active one--and receive a respectful hearing, at least from secular liberals like me. But argue that parishioners' children are acceptable lovers for gay priests and you'll be run out of Rome on a rail, and rightly so.

Anyone with a trace of sexual sophistication knows there's a world of difference, in psychopathology, between fondling a 6-year-old and a gay priest's hopeless crush on a 16-year-old choirboy. But in each case it's the cassock--the hypocrisy, the betrayal of a sacred trust--that raises the stakes from criminal irresponsibility to genuine evil. ("The seduction technique employs religion," Garry Wills emphasizes.) Hypocrisy elevates these false priests to the small fraternity of monsters, connoisseurs of cardinal sin and violated innocence.

One victim recalled that he would be compelled to confess--to the same priest who had just raped him--the sin of having sex with a priest. Another pedophile had the children reciting their Hail Marys during the sex act. If the human spectacle gets any uglier than this, I don't want to be there to see it. It reminds me of the unspeakable Jim Bakker, fornicating with a church secretary backstage and then rolling out in front of the TV cameras to praise Jesus Christ for his good fortune.

To have achieved such a marriage of impudent evil and defiant hypocrisy, Adolf Hitler would have had to have been a Jew. And the priest compounds his sin by confirming his atheism. No one who believed in God's power to punish sinners ever dared to commit such an impious crime as God's emissary, wearing God's uniform.

Even the wise priest will tell you that human sexuality was never the Church's strong suit. The Vatican's Paleolithic sex code condemns all homosexual activity, consigns masturbators to the flames of hell and officially forbids any sexual intercourse that isn't aimed at reproduction. Ironically or inevitably, this head-in-the-sand denial of erotic impulse has spawned a secret church with morals like the Rome of Caligula.

What we don't know is how much the old men know. Their model for dealing with wayward clergymen--penance, forgiveness, a certain indulgence--is the proper Christian response to an honest priest struggling with the sins of the flesh. How could decrepit cardinals comprehend the viciousness of priests who took vows only to gain access to boys, and power over them? Or have they understood and concealed it for centuries, and is my innocence showing once again?

It comes down to whether the contemporary Church, at its heart, is hopelessly decadent or only hopelessly irrelevant. The harm has been done and cannot be undone, by money or tears or papal decrees. Divine judgment, if we believe in it, would be far harsher than ours. There are not enough prayers in Christendom, in my opinion, to pray some of these lamb-devouring shepherds up from the hell they pretend to believe in.

For protecting the Church's image instead of its children--its future--the archbishops like Cardinal Bernard Law and Cardinal Edward Egan have earned, at best, hard time in purgatory. But don't expect the Catholic Church to implode and collapse with remorse. Notice how few of these priests commit suicide, even when they're trapped and exposed. People who commit the worst sins often suffer less abuse from their consciences than those of us whose trespasses are more trivial.

The Church's ancient model of remorse, penitence and forgiveness fails to acknowledge the awesome power of rationalization. One thing you had better understand, if you ever hope to see humanity clearly, is that rationalization--self-justification--is a force like no other in human nature, with the possible exception of sex.

Father Donald Cozzens, who counsels priests accused of abuse, found "little or no moral sense, no feelings of guilt or remorse for what they had done. ... I don't remember one priest acknowledging any kind of moral torment."

In The Feast of the Goat, Mario Vargas Llosa writes of the murderous dictator Rafael Trujillo that he was "convinced to the core that his actions were justified." The Führer slept well, I believe. And I have seen the transforming power of rationalization among humbler sinners. In an essay about criminals who prey on children, I mentioned a local case, a man imprisoned for his sexual relationship with an adolescent boy. To my surprise I received a long letter from this man in prison. His theme was that I was a dull-witted homophobe with too little imagination to appreciate a love affair between a 45-year-old man and a 13-year-old boy. At no point in these 20-odd pages did he appear to acknowledge any guilt, any error of his own. He'd found some support group to reassure him that he was the misunderstood victim of a vile homophobic society.

I keep this letter to remind myself that there are no known limits to denial and self- justification. Perhaps denial and faith are two sides of the same coin, a coin of great value that you can never spend if the curse of logic is upon you.

The priesthood in this country has been permanently compromised, much as it was in Ireland, where church attendance and seminary enrollment have plummeted since a similar series of sex scandals. This is a great misfortune for the majority of decent priests and the parishioners they conscientiously serve. But in the long run there may be compensations.

Sexual predators will find it harder to function, harder to hide. The scandals hasten the eclipse of religious celibacy, an idea whose time has passed and will not come again. But a much bigger, more stubborn idea with no future is the idea of a church based on absolute authority, temporal and spiritual. The pope's unwillingness to discuss celibacy--or birth control or any progressive reforms--is the measure of his own obsolescence, of which he seems blissfully and terminally unaware.

The wire photo image of this sick old man unable to lift his chin from his breastbone, dressed in vestments unmodified since the Middle Ages, says everything that needs to be said about petrified authority and inflexible doctrine. I say goodbye and good riddance to the metaphor of the shepherd and his flock. I am no sheep, sir. I stand upright, I boast opposable thumbs on both hands. Give me a crook, a stick as big as yours, Father, and I'll deal with my wolves the best I can.

Accuse me, if you will, of the Church's unpardonable sin of pride. Cardinal Law has pardoned worse sins, has he not? EndBlock

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