|The Pope's First
His declaration on the abuse scandal was necessary but not sufficient
By Peggy Noonan
Wall Street Journal
March 22, 2002
This week an old giant returned to speak of what roils us. His words were welcome, heartening and necessary. But they were not, I think, sufficient.
In Rome John Paul II, our warrior-saint of a pope, addressed, finally, the sex scandals that continue to rock the American Catholic Church.
Now the pope is a great man. From almost the moment of his election to the papacy in 1978 he raised his staff--the silver crosier he carries in public, which bears at the top the crucified Christ--turned toward the east and, in effect, commanded the atheist Soviet Union to recede. And almost from that moment the Russian dictatorship began to recede like the great debris-filled wave it was. John Paul II is not only a warrior, of course; he is a mystic who believes the hand of the Mother of God literally guided the bullet away from his heart the day, 21 years ago, that he was shot. He is said to pray seven hours a day--alone, at mass, while doing work. He is a holy man.
In his Holy Thursday letter to the Catholic priests of the world, the pontiff spoke on the sex-abuse scandals that have engulfed the American church. His words were strong and direct. They were also brief, comprising only about 10% of his letter. Here in toto is what he said of the scandals:
It was heartening that the pontiff broke his silence, heartening that he did not say that priests who prey are only sick, which is how the American cardinals have treated them in the past.
The pope did not say some things that many if not most--I think almost all--Catholics here yearn to hear. He did not speak of defrocking the abusers, of defrocking serial seducers of the young and their protectors. And he did not speak of the victims of abuse and their families, except to assert the church always intends to treat them justly and with sympathy.
But it has not always treated them justly, truthfully and with sympathy,
not on our shores.
For the first time in my lifetime ardent Catholics, or perhaps I should say orthodox Catholics, no longer trust their cardinals and bishops to do what's right. They have pinned their hopes on the Vatican, and on the old warrior saint, JPII. They want him to hold up his silver crosier with the crucified Christ on the top and demand that priests who seduce teenage boys--or who sexually abuse, molest or seduce anyone--be thrown from the church, and that their protectors, excusers and enablers be thrown from it too.
As the scandal has escalated, the language used to describe it has become
more shaded, more full of euphemism. Any scandal involving sex in the
modern world will become in time an ideological/political scandal, and
the little dishonesties of ideological discourse have worked their way
into this drama. And as usual they haven't made things any clearer. But
here are some things that appear to be true of the overwhelming majority
of the known cases: they involve not rape but seduction; they involve
not a sole sin, mistake or indiscretion but a series of seductions by
priests who are serial seducers; the seductions do not involve priests
in pursuit of sexual relations with women or girls but of priests in pursuit
of sexual relations with boys and young men; and most of the victims have
been young male teenagers, not little boys.
It's true. Half a century ago in the American church the pool from which young seminarians were chosen was wide and deep, fed by belief, love, tradition and large families. But in the decades since, the world has changed, and the pool from which the church picked her priests became narrower, shallower. So much that had fed the pool dried up. America went on a toot--and I would know as I was at the party, as perhaps you were, though I must say the very best people I know seem not to have been. But America went wild in the 1970s, '80s and '90s, and the priesthood got fairly strange too.
Fifty years ago hale and eager young men entered the priesthood out of devotion and gave their celibacy and chastity to God as a gift, to join in His sufferings and deepen their commitment to serving others--to serving, that is, a family of strangers in a place called a parish. There were scandals here and there and problems; some priests left to marry, or for other reasons. But mostly it worked.
But in the past 30 years or so, many young men who were less clear-minded, who were ultimately less devoted, put themselves forth for the priesthood. And the church took them. Some, perhaps many, were sexually ambivalent, or confused, or burdened. Certainly some of them saw themselves as homosexual in their orientation, and some perhaps hoped the church's very limits and strictures might help them, might protect them from their own desires. And some no doubt became priests in part in hopes they would find comfort surrounded by those who shared their burden.
In any case some of them rose, gained power, prestige and local respect,
and became sexual bullies--predators who preyed on 12- and 14-year-old
boys in their ambit. And they got away with it. And one priest saw another
get away with it, and he tried to get away with it too.
One wonders if those who run the American church fear that if they remove all the sex-abuser priests the church, which has a shortage of priests as it is, simply won't be able to operate anymore. Local churches would close; schools would be understaffed. And this is perhaps the central reason--not the only reason but the biggest one--the cardinals have reassigned abusive priests, and sent serial seducers for psychotherapy, sending them back to parish work when they'd been "cured."
But the pragmatism of the cardinals and bishops has resulted in scandal for the church--a scandal that will take at least a generation to heal. Now it has resulted in tragedy for the hundreds and perhaps thousands of innocent victims. And now it has resulted in shame and embarrassment for the faithful, striving and suffering priests who have done right, and not wrong, through the years. For they have been tarred by this, and badly.
People who call themselves pragmatic are often the least practical of
people. The cardinals thought they were pragmatic.
Some cardinals have no doubt chosen to keep the sex-abuse stories quiet in order to protect the assets of the church. And in truth the church has assets that deserve protection--great cathedrals, great works of art, schools in which poor children and immigrant children are given a good education and where all are welcome no matter their faith. And local churches with high heating bills where new Americans and old Americans gather, work together, know each other.
The church does so much good! So much of what it is should be protected.
But not, of course, at the price of betraying what the church stands for. The Catholics I know, and I know all kinds, left, right and center, would rather see the cathedrals sold for condominiums than see the decay continue.
Which is where the old pope--the mover of mountains, defeater of tyrannies, killer of communism, holder to the faith whose most special gift has been his power to show the powerless of the world, the peasants, the workers with grim hands, that he was their protector, that he loved them in the name of the church--comes in.
The powerless need his protection now. They need that old crosier held up again, to tell the dirty wave to recede.
Which is why so many of us are hoping that what we heard this week will not be remembered by history as "the pope's statement" but as "the pope's first statement--the one that led to a great shaking of the rafters in 2002."
Ms. Noonan is a contributing editor of The Wall Street Journal. Her new
book, "When Character Was King: A Story of Ronald Reagan," is
just out from Viking Penguin. You can buy it here at the OpinionJournal
bookstore. Her column appears Fridays.
Original material copyright © BishopAccountability.org 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.