I’ve been thinking lately about a serious situation I’ve learned about recently in which some good people I know prefer preserving their peace of mind to facing the painful truth. In talking to a friend about this stuff the other day, I brought up the conversation my niece Hannah and I had in Paris — I tell this story in Little Way — in which I told her there’s nothing wrong with happiness, but we must not seek to maintain or achieve happiness at the expense of the truth. That prompted Hannah to immediately put me to the test by revealing an extremely painful truth about how her sister saw me. I’m still struggling with the fallout from that, but I have never for one moment regretted her telling me this, because it is much, much better to deal with the real world, in all its disorder, than with a comforting lie. In most cases, the happiness believing in the comforting lie brings us is bought at too high a price.

That came to mind this morning in reading posts by Kevin O’Brien that a reader sent to me. Kevin is a St. Louis Catholic who has been blogging about a growing scandal in his archdiocese. The details are here, but the outline is a familiar one: priest molests minor after getting close to her family, family complains to archbishop, archbishop refuses to remove priest from service, until criminal charges were filed. A twist here is that Archbishop Carlson, according to a civil suit, allegedly tried to destroy physical evidence testifying to the accused priest’s guilt. The priest lived with Abp Carlson, and was very close to him, having followed him to St. Louis from his previous post in Michigan.

Kevin O’Brien notes this in one of his postings on the subject:

  • The family claims that they discovered emails of a sexual nature the priest was secretly sending the daughter.  If these emails actually exist, their content will be revealed in both the criminal and the civil trials – if either case comes to trial.  Since the DA in Lincoln County is prosecuting this case, it is almost certain that these emails do in fact exist; a case like this would not be prosecuted on the victim’s verbal claims alone, if the claims were not somehow substantiated with hard evidence.
  • Speaking of hard evidence, the family claims that the priest tried to buy off their testimony against him with a $20,000 check, which he placed on the windshield of their car.  The family also claims that Archbishop Carlson intervened to try to get this check back.  The family took the check to the police.  The check has led to an additional charge against the priest – tampering with a witness.  The check must exist, or this additional charge would not have been raised by the prosecutor.  (Incidentally, another Post-Dispatch commenter said the family is suing the archdiocese because they’re in desperate financial straits and they need money – if that’s their motivation, why didn’t they keep a $20,000 check?)

Kevin writes that he has been struck by how people he calls “Super-Catholics” have heartily embraced the “defend this priest and the Archbishop at all costs” mentality. Abp Carlson and Fr. Jiang have reputations for being solid orthodox Catholics. Haven’t we learned our lesson, he writes, with the cases of Fr. Corapi, Fr. Maciel, Fr. Euteneur, Bishop Finn, and other orthodox Catholic leaders who were revealed to have done serious wrong, in spite of their professed Catholic orthodoxy? Later, Kevin blogged:

Re. Fr. Jiang and Archbishop Carlson, I just wrote to a friend about the difficulty of blogging about this …

I keep trying to address the fact that we don’t really know all the facts here – but even when we did (as in the Bishop Finn case), the Super-Catholics still rallied around their guy and vilified the victims.
So, yes, I’m skeptical and I’m cynical.  The story told by the alleged victim in Old Monroe fits a pattern; it rings true.  It may be false.  But apparently there’s enough evidence to substantiate it, and if it is indeed true, it means we’re dealing with a level of depravity in our archdiocese that no one is going to want to face head on.  It means that clergy and laity alike will lie thorough their teeth or at least bend the truth in order to keep up appearances and reputation.  It means that children and families will be sacrificed for the sake of status and power.

If the allegations are false, then we’re dealing with a similar level of depravity on the other side.

Either way, I pray that we all have the courage to confront the truth when it finally comes out.  If it finally comes out.

But I fear that if this girl has indeed been victimized, and if Archbishop Carlson has indeed enabled the crime and attempted to cover it up, my fellow theologically orthodox Catholics will look the other way, call Bill Donohue for a spin job, and crucify me and any other Catholic who reports on this in the process.

Yes, this will happen. It’s happened before, and it will happen again. It’s human nature. People would rather believe the lie that helps them make sense of the world and sleep well at night. It’s true in religion, it’s true in politics, it’s true of everything that our humanity touches. A few years ago, I knew a woman whose family was really messed up. Her father had serious mental problems that were dramatically affecting the emotional health of the family system. But everybody in the family had to pretend that Everything Is Fine With Dad, because to face the obvious would mean that everything is not fine, and nobody wanted to deal with that. My friend really suffered from this, as did everybody in the family — and one component of the suffering was the sense that the situation was hopeless, because too many of her family members were emotionally dependent on not confronting the problem. I’ve heard this kind of thing over and over from friends who have had alcoholics in the family — and who, in a couple of cases I can think of, had to separate themselves from their families to protect themselves and their children from the family system that demanded assent to the Big Lie — that Dad Is Fine — in order to be a member in good standing. My friends felt the cost to their own integrity, even their safety, depended on separating themselves from a system that crushed the truth for the sake of maintaining itself. One of these friends told me that she could live with the Big Lie in her family, because she always had, but she did not want her children growing up to be inculcated in the values of her corrupt family system, because she feared it would expose them to danger down the road.

The book I’m reading now, The Captive Mind, by the Polish anti-communist dissident intellectual Czeslaw Milosz, examines four cases of fellow intellectuals who embraced the Big Lie of Communism, and what it cost their minds and souls. The danger to men like Kevin O’Brien is that the people who demand that the Big Lie is true, and that anybody who denies the Big Lie is an Enemy, will drive the truth-tellers into a place of bitter cynicism. In the case of the Church, if you come to see authority figures as profoundly untrustworthy (or worse), you may come to cease believing in their authority in other areas, and come to think everything they say — even the truthful things — is part of the Big Lie, or at least might be.

Fr. Jiang and Archbishop Carlson may be innocent here, but presuming their innocence does not require turning oneself into a credulous fool. It is very, very hard to walk the tightrope between cynicism and credulity; I struggle with this every day. The problem is when you don’t struggle at all. Hardcore cynicism is a different kind of Big Lie.