Yesterday, a friend on Facebook (and I'm very sorry that I didn't write it down, so I don't know who it was) was writing about how people in his parish frequently complain that the priests don't preach about sin enough. His response was that they preach about sin all the time: economic injustice, racism, selfishness and hatred. The retort from the dissatisfied was that they never preach about abortion or homosexuality.The friend said, "Oh, you mean we don't preach about other people's sins?"
This brought back to mind a novel I read about five years ago called Be Near Me, about the time we watched the chilling and heartrendingly sad documentary Deliver Us from Evil. Both of them deal with the issue of pedophilia in the church, though the novel uses an episode of accusation as an opportunity to explore the humanity of the protagonist more sympathetically. I've written about this before, I know, and nothing I say satisfies me and certainly won't begin to answer for the horrors of the past or the repercussions of these actions in the present and future. Generally I skirt around my own thought, like I did in this post about the mystery of sin. But the more I think about this and about my own sinfulness, the more I think I begin to see that all the evil that people do is connected, and that social sin, which is the amalgamation of personal sins as they accumulate into structures and strategies of oppression, abuse, inequality, poverty, and all the “isms” over which we seem to have no power (racism, consumerism, sexism, etc.), is the thousand pound gorilla in the room of the Church. Almost no one is talking about it, and we have so domesticated our sacramental system that it doesn’t appear that the Church even addresses social sin. All of our efforts are focused on the individual (at least in this country), and what is done about social sin is left to individual bishops and the group of bishops to address with circular letters, and to lay folk to address with their time and talent. When was the last time you heard a cathedral, for instance, celebrate a penitential ritual about war, or hunger, or racism?
Deliver Us from Evil is Amy Berg’s disturbing 2006 documentary on the story of one abuser, Father Oliver O’Grady, an Irish priest shuttled from parish to parish in the 1970s in central California, abusing dozens, possibly hundreds, of children along the way. The movie looks at the case through the eyes of three of his victims and their families, with commentary from attorneys, canon lawyers, and clerics as the story unfolds. It is this case, among others, that is at the center of the controversy surrounding the former cardinal archbishop of Los Angeles, Roger Mahony, at whose annual religious education conference about 25,000 Catholics a year, from a hundred different dioceses around the world, congregate every year. I’ve been to this conference many times over the last twenty-five years, and seen Mahony in action, and seen the love people had for him. I’ve also seen how this case gradually eroded that support, especially in the people immediately around him, as more effort seemed to be put into defending the cardinal from legal action than into uncovering the truth of what occurred and addressing the wrongs that were done in the name of God and the Church by priests.
What’s troubling about a case like the one that this movie documents, and it is far from unique, is not that an individual has a sickness and preys upon children. That is certainly bad enough, and the heartbreak of his victims and their families is amply evident in the film. Having lived for eight years in the culture that bred this kind of individual, the minor seminary system that brought children out of the eighth grade and put them into a one-sex system for the next twelve or thirteen years, I can even say that there is a sense in which the system itself engendered ephebophilia by not providing adequate sexual socialization opportunities during adolescence. This is not to say that most men did not emerge from the seminary able to live holy and celibate lives. By the time I reached the seminary system, it was already starting to unravel, and by the time I had nearly finished by seminary experience in the early 1970s the minor seminaries were beginning to fail, first being consolidated and later closed. At the college and theology level, social, financial, and educational pressures began to integrate seminary students onto coed campuses, and the lid was off the pressure cooker, so to speak. But the real problem really went unaddressed right up to the present day, and was only exposed by the media over the last ten years or so as the pedophilia scandal burgeoned. The real problem was less with the offenders than with the ignorance, arrogance, and lack of accountability in the episcopacy. Even at the height of the scandal, the “official” church lashed out at the media for “priest-bashing” and “bishop-bashing,” rather than taking responsibility, swiftly and clearly, for the tragedy that had unfolded in so many lives over so many years. It is this “papal sin,” if you will, of lack of accountability, of entitlement and imagining that one lives above civil and criminal law in such cases, that is the continuing and unrepented sin exposed by Deliver Us from Evil and the tenacious advocacy of SNAP, the Boston Globe, and similar entities.
Bringing some further wisdom into this whole area for me was the beautiful, gentle novel called Be Near Me, by Andrew O’Hagan. The novel is the story of Father David Anderton, a Scot raised and educated in England, who has come back to Scotland a kind of outsider to the less than cosmopolitan life of his small parish. He is attracted in his middle age to a group of bored and dreamless teenagers, a relationship that wakens in him memories of the one real love of his life, a young man with whom he had had a relationship and who had perished while they were in college. The dangerous cocktail of middle age, intoxicants, and the “awful daring of a moment’s surrender” lead him into a situation that results in his being accused of assaulting the teen boy he has befriended. It is the way the novelist handles the confluence of the past and present, courage and naiveté, wisdom and insouciance, that makes this story unforgettable, and begins to actually help us understand some of these kinds of crimes without condoning them. In a way, it helps us get to a place of compassion and the suspension of judgment, because we see in the trajectory of memory, ambition, and events an image of ourselves as though in a mirror, and we realize how close we have come in our lives, and how often, to making life-changing mistakes that are not retractable.
There isn’t much more I wanted to say about all this, just that suspending judgment and trying to appreciate the complexity of the human person and the influences upon all of us from before the time we were born might help us be less quick to judge each other. This isn’t to say that we don’t need to protect our children, have safeties in place to try to prevent the recurrence of the pedophilia problem, and to seek compensatory justice and satisfaction for the crimes that have already been committed. Father Anderton’s mother, who, in the novel, is a successful if quirky romance novelist who finds her son’s religious faith odd and uncharacteristic of him, often speaks pithily and wisely as one hopes a mother will do. During the denouement of the story, as the trial is ending and they are driving away from the courtroom, there happens this interesting exchange:
The taxi drove away and the shops of Kilmarnock seemed to blur into each other as we passed the lights and streets grew empty of people. The driver kept looking into his mirror and the journey seemed unending. After a minute or two, my mother twined her fingers into mine on the seat between us and tears came down my face.
‘Don’t hate me,’ I said.
‘That’s not possible,’ she said. ‘Unless you allow that carnival back there to make you stupid.’
‘But I am stupid, Mother.’
‘Nice people don’t always get it right,’ she said, and as she said this I could feel a certain resolve enter her frail hand. (p. 259)
“Nice people don’t always get it right.” That’s one of the most comforting phrases I’ve heard in a long time. It’s not a license to sin, but it goes a long way in helping us forgive ourselves for the messiness of our lives, and give us the courage to make amends and try to forge new relationships beyond the breach. Yes, the priest did a bad thing, made bad decisions, acted reprehensibly. But any more so than the religious and national prejudices and vindictive behavior that turns us from citizens into an avenging mob? It is certainly true that we can spot the splinter in the eye of the other when there’s a log in our own eye. But “nice people don’t always get it right.” I like that. I think that might be what Jesus was thinking as he walked among us, warning us, gently, to judge not lest we be judged, to do good to those who hate us, and to love our enemies, even the most reprehensible of them, even when they wear Roman collars or miters, and sin against children.