THEY KNOW NOT WHAT THEY DO
by Andrew Sullivan
Even in Rome, the U.S. Cardinals still forgot the children.
I had to read the sentence twice to make sure I wasn't imagining it. In the
text of the American Cardinals' statement issued last week in Rome, the
hierarchs specified which statutory rapists among their clergy would be
subject to being defrocked. Such a punishment would be meted out to "a
priest who has become notorious and is guilty of the serial, predatory,
sexual abuse of minors." Excuse me? Why on earth is the "notoriety" of a
child abuser in any way relevant to punishment for his crime (except as an
excuse for the church to avoid sifting through past allegations that remain
unpublicized)? Then there were these loopholes: the abuse also had to be
"serial" and "predatory." Occasional or one-off child-abuse violations could
perhaps be forgiven. And even serial abuse might be overlooked if it had not
been "predatory." A simple question: How is an adult's exploitation of a
minor ever anything but predatory?
We have learned one simple thing from last week: the highest officials of
the largest Christian denomination on earth have lower standards with regard
to the protection of children and minors than secular criminal law does. The
endorsement of "zero tolerance" by Philadelphia's Anthony Cardinal Bevilacq
last Saturday (good post-Rome spin) is still not official policy. I can't
believe I'm writing this - but they still don't get it. And if they cannot
get the enormity of the crimes their clergy have committed, they are even
further from acknowledging their own role in enabling them. No one has
resigned. No one has taken responsibility. And on the two central issues
behind this scandal, there is no movement. The first is the authoritarian
governing structure of the church, whereby a self-selected elite makes every
decision for hundreds of millions of people. When you have a structure like
this - immune from outside input - it is bound to create crises like this
one. It has no real means of self-correction. The system creates incentives
for secrecy and cover-ups that are often just as bad as the crime. But none
of that is on the table. In fact, a critical element for recovery - boards
of inquiry composed of lay people, not just clergy - was not even mentioned
in the text.
As for a frank discussion of sexual morality, celibacy, women priests or
homosexuality, it's not likely to happen anytime soon. The usual diversions
designed to avoid these subjects were thrown about with abandon. This is a
purely American problem, some church spokesmen argued, as if scandals weren'
t exploding elsewhere: an ABC News report charged the Vatican itself with
covering up abuse claims against a priest previously praised by the Pope.
Then there was the scapegoating of gays. Equating homosexuality with child
abuse is one of the oldest slanders there is - but this church didn't
hesitate to invoke it to deflect attention from its own culpability.
Besides, now we know that perhaps as many as half of America's priests are
believed to be gay. A church that still preaches that homosexuals are
"intrinsically disordered" relies on these allegedly sick people to run its
dioceses, churches and schools. Talk about cognitive dissonance.
As a Catholic struggling to keep the faith through all this, I find myself
asking: Why? Why can these men not get the enormity of what has happened?
The best I can come up with is that they are well-intentioned men who
somehow cannot see that what they have enabled is systemic child rape. They
resist deep change by claiming that celibacy isn't the issue. But the
hierarchy's cover-up of this evil surely has something to do with celibacy.
Today's church leaders see sex primarily as an act, fraught with moral
danger, not as a relationship, imbued with moral good. And how could they
think otherwise? They have never known sexual relations - only sexual
fantasy, masturbation and struggle. So perhaps it never occurred to them, as
the writer Michael Sean Winters has pointed out, to see this abuse from the
child's point of view.
That is why this crisis is of profound importance. One of Jesus' main
teachings was the dignity of the vulnerable - children central among them.
Unless you are like a child, Jesus taught, you will never enter the Kingdom
of Heaven. When Jesus' own church, far from protecting children, molests
them and shields their abusers, the sin goes to the heart of what the church
is about. And when its leaders cannot take full responsibility, the sin can
only metastasize. Bernard Cardinal Law didn't even attend the press
conference last week to explain the Cardinals' statement to the people he
serves and the families he betrayed. "[It] was rather late, you know," he
told reporters. "I had other things to do." Forgive him, for he knows not
what he does.
Andrew Sullivan (Andrewsullivan.com)
Time Essay, May 6, 2002, p. 68.
Reproduced with Andrew Sullivan's permission.