On Not Being Silent
Over the weekend, I had the occasion to talk to a young man I’ll call Alex, who is in the process of discerning a religious vocation. He has observed some alarming instances of deep corruption in the seminary/community with which he’s been involved (I’m being deliberately vague to protect his identity). He told me what he had seen, and though I can’t talk about it here without his permission, I can tell you that it is very serious stuff that rightly disturbs his conscience). He is wrestling in his conscience now about whether or not to come forward. He has decided not to cut his ties to that particular group, but he is still considering whether or not he has a vocation, and should give it a try somewhere else within the Church, which is broad.
Here’s why I write this: Alex told me that he was advised that if he really believed that he had a future as a priest or religious, that he should keep quiet about what he has seen and heard, because to go public with it would probably destroy his chances. I could tell that Alex is a young man of deep conscience, and that he’s wrestling with this. I told him what I thought about that, but I wasn’t very eloquent. I wish I had said to him in the brief opportunity we had to talk the things I write here.
Any religious vocation built on concealing the truth about serious wrongdoing is a religious vocation built on a house of sand, which is to say, a lie. The temptation you face here, Alex, is to put your own private interest over the interest of the whole church, and more importantly, the truth. If what you say you have seen and heard is true, then to participate in the cover-up and deception as the price of admission to the fraternity is to give up your integrity, and quite possibly your soul.
Because here’s the thing: if they get you to accept that it’s okay to lie about such things so as not to scandalize the faithful, or for whatever reason, they’ve got you. There will be no end of the compromises that will be pressed on you as a priest or religious, all for the same reason: to protect the Church, to protect yourself, to protect the faithful. What they’re really about is protecting evildoers, usually evildoers in positions of power within the religious organization.
Ten or eleven years ago, working as a reporter in New York, I had several long conversations with a young man just like you. He had been in a religious order’s seminary, discerning his vocation. He could not deal with the open and widespread homosexual activity among the seminarians, and many of the priests who taught them. The superior of the community even came on to him, and when the young man persisted in telling him that he was straight, that he wanted no part of it, the superior told him to just get a girlfriend, then, that nobody cared.
The young man contacted me because he had read other things I had written about this kind of corruption within the Church, and he just wanted to talk. I could tell that he was a very pious young man, and that his conscience was grieved by all this. He felt that he should come forward, but he didn’t want to hurt the Church. We talked through it for a long time, and eventually he agreed to do an interview.
Hours before we were to meet for the interview, he phoned to cancel. He said that out of respect for the religious community he’d been part of, he had called the superior the night before to tell him that he was going to speak to a reporter about everything that had happened. The young man said the superior told him not to talk to the press about these things, because if he did, he could only hurt the Church. I don’t want to hurt the Church, the young man told me. I love the Church, he said, so I can’t go through with it.
And that was that. Assuming that everything the young man said was true — and there had been strong rumors about this community for a long time — then a very bad man, the father superior, appealed to what was best in this young man — his love for the Church — to win his silence. And he got it, too.
Another story: in 2002, when I was writing about this stuff at National Review, I was contacted by the family of a middle-aged man who was an official in a monastery. Brother B. had been made monastery treasurer. He discovered that the abbot had been using money in connection with gross sexual misconduct — including, if memory serves, paying off victims of their own sexual predation — and that the misconduct included others within the monastery. As soon as Brother B. confronted the abbot with what he learned, the abbot, under monastic obedience, ordered Brother B. to commit himself to a facility for mentally ill clergy.
Brother B. was not, of course, mentally ill. But he was torn up about what to do. Brother B.’s family wanted him to talk to me about the situation, to make what he had found public. Here was a case of a sexually corrupt abbot abusing his power to win the silence of a good and faithful monk, by attacking him on his most vulnerable point: his love for and fidelity to the Church.
Brother B. went on to have a heart attack; that’s how stressed he was by all this. In the end, though, he couldn’t bring himself to betray his community. His heartbroken sibling told me that the abbot got to him, ultimately, and convinced him that by telling the world what was really going on there, he would be selling out his community and the Church.
Any community that would seek to compel your silence about great evil as the price of belonging is not a community you should want to be part of. You start by compromising in small things, you end by compromising in large things. I cannot tell you the number of times I spoke to various priests about a certain very senior prelate who is a sexual predator. They all knew what was going on with this guy, and told me in detail. But not one of them would come forward and put his name to accusations. They were all afraid for their positions. This prelate is, or was, powerful, and he could make life very difficult for them as priests. In fact, that was the source of his power over seminarians and priests who worked for him. To this day, not a single priest, former seminarian, or ex-clergy who knows the score on this guy has come forward. When I was looking into this, I spoke to a prominent layman who had detailed knowledge of this predator’s activities — but he told me he wouldn’t talk about it, for the sake of protecting the Church.
Who is protecting the Church from whom?
There is a such thing as discernment and discretion. Not everything that can be made known should be made known. But in my observation, far, far more often than not, discernment and discretion is invoked not to protect the Church, but to protect power-holding wrongdoers within the Church. And the most sincere and faithful people within the church — obedient clergy, religious, and laypeople — are those whose consciences are targeted by these devils.
Live not by lies, Solzhenitsyn said. All that is necessary for corruption to persist in the Church is for those who love God the most to convince themselves that that love requires their silence in these matters. Silence means consent. Do not say anything that you don’t know to be true, or believe strongly to be true, and say everything you have to say carefully and soberly. But say it. At this point, it should be obvious that the Church — all churches, Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant — has far more to fear from cover-up and concealment than from transparency.
Might you sacrifice your own future as a priest or religious brother by so doing? Yes. But the Church has no need of priests or monks who conspire to conceal grave corruption for the supposed sake of the Church. Better to be an honest man without holy orders than a man who has had to trade his integrity for a monk’s robe or a priestly collar. Once you start down that path, there is no end of it — and there is no telling how many innocent people may suffer because those who could have warned them chose not to.
Not all martyrs, real and figurative, are created for the Church. Sometimes they are created by the Church.