While still the most unfinished business, much ink has been spilled
over the past twenty-five years trying to make sense of the Roman Church’s
horrendous predator priest scandal.
The Pope certainly is having what Queen Elizabeth famously described as
an annus horribilis. Beyond a lot of first rate
investigative reporting — that gossip of
the moment — we have seen moving and poignant columns by lay Catholic
columnists, a combination of both rage and deep sadness. Maureen
Dowd has taken the Church to task in a recent series of powerful pieces, as
she has often over the years. Her
colleague Ross Douthat, suggesting that Benedict in fact may be the better pope
tries to put some perspective on his verses predecessor John Paul’s response
(or lack of it). It’s impossible
to improve on what they have written, much less have their special in family authority in doing so.
It is shocking that this story has gone on for such a long time — a
quarter of a century is an eternity in our fast paced short news cycle
era. Reading current news from
Germany, including the thousands of calls coming in daily to its recently
established abuse hotline, gives one a definite sense of déjà vu. Much talk, shamefully modest progress. One has to think that another
generation of unsuspecting youngsters are in present and clear danger from
still unexposed or still free floating serial predators. Interestingly, it is a problem not
decades old but with deep roots as documented
in some detail by a relentless priest, Rev. Thomas Doyle, whose career has paid
the usual whistle blower price.
All this trouble is generally attributed to Church hierarchy and a
bunch of bad apples rather than to the majority of individual priests and
parishioners whom the writer (and Catholic) Anna Quindlan characterized in a
recent interview with NPR’s Diane Rehm as “good people doing good things”. That is undoubtedly the case, but
in our politically correct effort of avoiding making this an anti-Catholic
thing, we shouldn’t simply give them a pass. Pope Benedict attributes his membership in the Hitler Youth to
a situation beyond his control as a subject of the Nazi regime. I have no reason don’t doubt him. But I also know well that Hitler
survived in part because of citizen acquiescence, excused often as “only
following orders” or “we didn’t know”. The Roman Church is an authoritarian institution led by an infallible monarch. The Pope and his surrogates down the
line rule in the “name of God” and with that claimed credential take on special
authority. So it would seem the
faithful have chosen to avert their eyes and carry on business as usual. They see themselves as good people
doing good things and justify their silence by not wanting anything to get in
the way of that. A billion people
verses a top-heavy handful of leaders.
You be the judge.
Of course large numbers of Catholics have protested with their
feet. According to Pew’s 2008
Religious Landscape Survey one third of those who were born Catholic in
the United States have left the church.
On April 25, 2005, the day Benedict XVI was elected — the abuse scandal
already in its twentieth year — the New
York Times ran a front-page story entitled Europeans Fast Falling Away From Church. As Elaine Sciolino reported then,
“Among Catholics, only 10 percent in the Netherlands, 12 percent in France, 15
percent in Germany and Austria, 18 percent in Spain and 25 percent in Italy
attend Mass weekly.” That’s right,
in Benedict’s homeland, now the focus of attention, 85% of Catholics rarely, if
ever, set foot in their churches and even in Italy where he blesses throngs
gathered in St. Peter’s Square 75% of local Catholics are Sunday no-shows. So, if you want to understand the
larger story of why the Roman Church hierarchy has been going ballistic about
renewed bad press coverage, I’d suggest you might want to look beyond the
scandal of predatory priests to those statistics. The
Church is under siege in the developed world. Were it not for the large influx of Hispanic immigrants, it
would actually be showing a loss of market share (for the first time) in the
already shrinking American religious landscape.
One could legitimately say that as non-Catholics we have no business
treading in these waters, much less judging the Church or its leaders. Perhaps that’s so, but let’s remember
abusing priests have broken our civil law, committing what our larger society views
the most heinous of crimes. The
Church hierarchy, in taking the law into its own hands might well be accused of
vigilantism, something we generally deplore, and which again is illegal. Their cover-up certainly constitutes
obstruction of justice, a serious violation of civil code, especially in
criminal cases. But in the end the
real damage — the one about which we probably should care most — is to our
general faith in institutions.
Here all people and groups, religious or not, are affected.
Societies are dependent on their institutions — their organized we. Institutions facilitate functioning effectively and
furthering our collective agendas.
When we lose our trust in institutions both they, and logically we, are
imperiled. It is now well known
and often repeated that we Americans hold our principal governmental institutions
in low esteem and by larger margins each year. Think Tea Party.
What may be less so is that, according to the 2008 General
Social Survey, high confidence in organized religion has fallen to a paltry
20% — only marginally better than our discredited banks. That is an important number to the obviously
worried Vatican, but is no less so to any of us. To say that the Pope's annus
horribilis is wholly to blame for undermining our institutions would be
ridiculous; to say what’s been going these past decades plays no role would be
naïve. And it’s not merely what
the Church has or has not done, it is also the misguided respectful silence of
many of its own and of the larger religious community, which, aside from woeful head-shaking, has remained mostly silent and continues to be. None of our business you might say. Wrong!