The Scandal, the Coverup, the Aftereffects
Two Books Examine the Sex Abuse Crisis That Has Rocked the Catholic Church
By Karol Jackowski and David France
Downloaded March 18, 2004
Zhou Enlai, premier of China until 1976, was asked his opinion about the effect of the French Revolution. His verdict: "Too soon to tell." If a cold- blooded tyrant cannot enjoy the long view, who can? As stories keep breaking about the pedophilia scandal in the Catholic Church and the coverup of crimes against thousands of children, and with the arrival of the exhaustive study by the John Jay School for Criminal Justice late last month, it may also be too soon to assess what has been wrought.
Even so, soul-searching is under way. Will the church survive? Of course. Will it change and, if so, how? Everyone has a dog in that fight. Only professional deniers can think that this, too, shall pass. Then again, there were those who thought that nutty Martin Luther was a blip on the screen. Readers seeking the one definitive work are out of luck; for now, at least, they should read two: "The Silence We Keep" by Karol Jackowski, a nun for 40 years, and "Our Fathers" by David France, Newsweek senior editor. As different as these works are from each other, they illuminate the dark corners and secret life of the church.
This tragedy is much more than Enron in the Popemobile. Jackowski has perhaps an ideal viewpoint. As a nun, she is both insider and outsider when it comes to church business. Hers is a personal book that benefits from the lessons derived from inhabiting the contradictions imposed by the patriarchal culture of Catholicism. France concentrates largely on the crisis in 2002 that engulfed the Archdiocese of Boston, led by now-disgraced Cardinal Bernard Law. France's account goes back to the 1950s and takes a 360-degree view of some priests who perpetrated the crimes and some bishops who covered them up, as well as those survivors sacrificed on the altar of ecclesiastical expediency.
C.S. Lewis wrote in "Reflections on the Psalms" that "Of all bad men, religious bad men are the worst." Lewis may or may not be correct, but Jackowski and France do show that the monsters are banal and human. They also show how the church's higher aims have been subverted by a bureaucratic program of covertness, entitlement and arrogance. It was Jesus himself who said it were better to put a millstone around your neck and cast yourself into the sea than to "put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me" (Matt 18:6). When the bishops reached for their flotation device (the absolute pastoral imperative and moral unimpeachability of the church), it turned out to be an anvil.
At the same time, Jackowski proposes that the crisis may rejuvenate the church; it may even demonstrate, as it does for her, divine intervention. And according to France, although many of the survivors have renounced the faith of their childhood, many have reaffirmed it and attempted to save their church.
The scandal itself was made possible, if not inevitable, by the church's "structures of deceit." Both books invoke this term, made famous by Garry Wills' 2000 book "Papal Sin," which cleared the way for theirs. The church's hypocritical, entrenched and theologically baseless opposition to married or female priests, contraception and homosexuality, etc., proceeds from these structures and breeds cynicism and contempt. As a result, a pall has fallen on the great and good work done by the church, and noble, altruistic priests and nuns (the vast majority) have become a talk-show punch line.
Jackowski breaks her silence eloquently, honestly. She also does so repetitively, and the rhetorical transitions are not seamless. Nonetheless, "The Silence We Keep" has an undeniable force, one not vitiated by an occasionally supercilious tone that this popular author's fans may find charming. Finally, her book succeeds by virtue of her passion, intelligence and love. Her disquisitions upon virginity, sisterhood and the emerging priesthood are fresh, easily worth the price of admission.
And though France lapses into breezy journalese, he normally writes with steely discipline. His narrative sweep is generous, authoritative, smart, powerful and -- at the risk of using a much-abused term -- novelistic. The cast of characters brought to life is impressive; for every memorable villain there is an equally unforgettable hero, with most somewhere in between.
Reading these books in tandem clears the underbrush of conventional misunderstanding. No one will labor under a delusion that the priesthood is, or ever was, an invariably celibate institution. No one will assume that homosexual priests (a significant percentage) are more likely to molest children. Non-Catholics may learn that an increasing number of devout Catholics believe that women should not be barred from ordination. And despite the Vatican's politicized insistence that the scandal has an American accent, the virus has spread worldwide.
At one point in her book, Jackowski wonders if the time is ripe for an American Catholic Church. Even if it isn't, the church must rebuild trust. Truth commissions may lead to forgiveness someday. This is where France in "Our Fathers" does the heavy lifting, providing, in effect, a fascinating etiology of evil. The evil manifests itself in the church's mundane, institutionalized pursuit of self-interest at the cost of the lives and innocence of children. France has given us a kind of "All the Cardinal's Men," and one triumph is his portrait of Law.
A charismatic leader who once operated with the best of intentions, Law lives now in disgrace. Nonetheless, readers may be surprised to see him painted at times almost sympathetically, almost tragically. Almost. The author reserves his unqualified respect, however, for those courageous survivors and Catholics who resisted the hierarchy. The admiration David France earns is rivaled only by the heartbreak and indignation generated by his brave, important book.
Berkeley writer Joseph Di Prisco is the author of "Confessions of Brother Eli" and "Sun City."