Last Thursday, the NY Times reported that a commission established by Prime Minister Bertie Ahern back in 2000 finally issued its long awaited report. It confirmed “tens of thousands of Irish children were regularly sexually and physically abused by nuns, priests and others for more than sixty years in hundreds of [Church run] residential institutions that housed the poor, the vulnerable and the unwanted”. The last of these horrific places were closed only in the 1990s and there was, and remains, great resistance by both the Church and the Irish Department of Education to investigating, much less reporting, what occurred within their walls. Sadly, as anyone who has followed the news in recent years knows, this is by no means an isolated case. Even its breathtaking scope is not without peer. William Lobdell in his recently published book “Losing my Religion” recounts the story of remote St. Michael Island “where a single Catholic missionary raped an entire generation of Alaska Native boys,” and he was not the sole abuser. I had just finished reading Lobdell's book when the Dublin findings were made public.
Bill Lobdell has lost his faith, one that had been methodically and urgently won as an adult. His is the story of a highly personal intensive religious pursuit, a journey that ultimately led him from being “born again” to the doorstep of a Catholic conversion. Already a seasoned journalist, he felt triumphant in landing the religious beat for the LA Times. At the time, he saw it as a made-in-heaven symbiotic dream job that combined a concurrent quest for personal faith and an equally dedicated professional pursuit as a reporter. It morphed into a nightmare that would give him many troubled and sleepless hours. What he hoped would be uplifting and reassuring turned to be just the opposite, beginning with his reporting on the fall of Michael Harris, a fabled Hollywood priest, and culminating on that Alaskan island. What made the many stories of abuse he covered ultimately overwhelming were not so much the acts of the predatory priests, which could be explained on an individual basis, but the complicity and duplicity of the institutional Church. It, he and others were to discover, engaged in a systematic effort to cover-up wrong doing that made Watergate pale in comparison, and it did so at the highest levels.
So where was God in all of this? The great and classic religious question, one posed across all faiths, is, “why do bad things happen to good people?” The bottom line answer to this question is some version of “God works in mysterious ways”. Not really a satisfactory response, but adequate for most believers. The religious generally are willing to give God a pass, accepting that divine action is not always understood. The widespread abuse that has enveloped the Catholic Church, actions of an institution as Lobdell puts it, that God “is supposed to be guiding”, can’t simply be construed as mysterious. So they pose a much far more profound theological dilemma. We may bemoan, but can accept, many of those bad things happening to good or innocent people by attributing them to “accidents” or illness-causing genetic flaws. But the willful evil acts of those who claim to speak for God and act in God’s name are something totally different. After all, Catholic doctrine views the Pope as Christ’s direct representative – he speaks and acts for God. The Cardinals, Bishops and priests (some of each class were involved) are his surrogates, exercising substantial power. Only a priest can offer a Mass reenacting the sacrifice of Christ and it is the priest who is empowered to grant God’s absolution for human sin. Lobdell understood that, and the underlying and corrosive question posed or implied by his book is, how could God allow divine surrogates to behave in that way, or condone the institutional behavior of the Church? He finally submitted to this painful but logical Occam Razor answer, “the simplest explanation kept boomeranging back to me: there was no God.”
Let’s put that in a larger perspective. If, as is the case with so many people, one believes that God has a hand in everything that happens – for example that he both spares and takes lives – then he must have a hand in approving the actions of his representatives here on earth. You can’t believe that a priest can act in God’s name, and presumably approval, one minute and not in the next. That’s precisely why the broad scale scandal that has overtaken the Catholic Church in recent years has turned so many Catholics away from their religion, and not inconsequentially has had a ripple effect of making many non-Catholics question their faith as well. Where was God when all of this was going on? Were the divine “eyes” simply averted, as someone once suggested was the case with the Holocaust? If God is God, that’s hard, if not impossible, to believe. God was clearly absent when everyone assumed the divine is always on watch, or as Bill Lobdell suggests, perhaps there is no God.