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Priest: Here’s Why Bishops Cover Up Abuse

Here is an extraordinary e-mail from a Roman Catholic priest who hopes to give some insider perspective on why Archbishop Myers of Newark may have assigned this sex offender priest to a prestigious archdiocesan position. I republish it here with his permission. I have edited out a couple of things to protect the priest’s identity:

You may remember we corresponded a couple of times, most recently when I testified at a trial for an abuse victim. He’s doing well–God be praised!–but I’m less so. I’ve kept my faith, though.

I think there are certain aspects of the clerical culture at play in Abp. Myers’ decision. There’s no single factor that can be pointed to.

First, I think we have to always remember that priests are in the business of forgiving sins. It’s a constant in pastoral life, whether in the confessional or not, that people tell you things they’ve done wrong, and reveal their dark sides to you. You learn to suppress your judgement, and always to offer hope and the possibility of a new beginning. If, as a priest, a layman came to me as a sex offender of the most horrible kind, I would swallow my disgust, and try to find some way to help him move forward. It’s part of the job description.

I think this dynamic is at work in bishops dealing with priest offenders. They have in front of them someone who, for all the rotten things he’s done, is still a broken child of God.

The second factor that’s important is that priests generally don’t grasp the seriousness of the offense, and the damage it does. We see this in Cardinal Mahony, but it’s not just him. I wish I knew why this was so. It seems to me common sense that assaulting children sexually or otherwise damages them.

The attitude lingers, largely, because even now most clerics haven’t heard a victim’s story. I was revolted by these things from the first moment I heard of them, but it wasn’t until I dealt with a victim that my reaction became visceral. Abp. Myers probably hasn’t had a real conversation with a victim, or a victim’s parent, and so the damage done is still abstract.

It’s a matter of proximity. A broken priest directly in front of you vs. a victim who you perceive as somebody who’s just angry and demanding, but not somebody you have daily contact with.

The third factor is where clericalism comes in. There’s a tendency among priests to hypostasize the priesthood. Being a priest is thought to bestow a certain dignity and grace on a person, and that grace objectively must be safeguarded. The world is objectively better off with more priests than less. So, even if a man is totally corrupt, the idea is that he’s still a priest, and that must be held onto at all costs. I’ve found this attitude myself when I’ve wondered if I can stay part of an organization that, in some areas, has become irredeemably lost. “We have to find a way to preserve your priesthood” was said to me by my superior.

The only analogy to this that occurs to me is in the context of the Eucharist. Karl Rahner was silenced by the CDF in the ’50’s over his writings on concelebration of the Eucharist. Part of his argument in that book was that there was an overemphasis on the phenomenon of transubstantiation–the ex opere operato of the sacrament–to the neglect of the salvific character–the ex opere operantis. His claim was that multiplying masses was pointlesss without the latter. But, some argued that the more masses said, the better.

So, no matter what the person did, the priesthood, as a thing, must be saved. I sometimes think it’s even more important than the person who’s actually a priest. It’s certainly, for many, more important than any victim.

There are other factors than these three. Social phenomena have complicated etiologies. But, these are the most important.

Tonight on HBO the documentary Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God premiers. I saw a preview screening. The only criticism to be made is that it’s part of Rembert Weakland’s attempt to rehabilitate himself and shift some of the blame onto Ratzinger. But, of course, Weakland was the one who said in his diocesan newspaper: “Not all adolescent victims are so innocent. Some can be very sexually active and aggressive and often quite streetwise.”

There’s so very much here in this rich letter worth commenting on, but I’m going to focus on only a couple of things.

First, my correspondent is a priest who has put a lot on the line to help victims — including testifying in a trial. You can read how he has suffered. I have always maintained in my writing that we underappreciate how much good priests suffer from this scandal, because the bad priests and the bishops who protected them have brought disgrace and mistrust upon the entire priesthood. I wish more priests, in the Catholic church and other churches, would speak out on this matter. There are so many people in the laity who are dying to hear these words, who want to believe the best about priests, even after everything that has happened, but who see too much evidence that priests who have done no wrong still believe that protecting their priesthood is more important than speaking out against evil in their own ranks. Some priests must genuinely be under the mistaken belief that to admit that there are serious problems in the priesthood with some priests will somehow scandalize the laity, and cause them to lose faith. My guess is that at this point, just the opposite is true — that laypeople will take heart that there remain real Christians and decent men in clerical cassocks and collars.

Secondly, I think my priest correspondent is onto something quite profound in his discussion of the relationship in Catholic Eucharistic and priestly theology, and the deep reluctance on the part of the institutional church to confront clerical sex abusers. At the end of my years as a Catholic, I had taken to derisively thinking of the church as the “Sacrament Factory” — this, because the church (by which I mean the institutional church) didn’t seem to care overmuch about the moral and spiritual health of its members, as long as the machinery of sacramental dispensation kept humming. It was as if the sacraments were a kind of magic. It is true that the validity of the sacraments do not depend on the worth of the priest through whose hands they are consecrated — this is true in the Orthodox Church as well — but this truth can easily be perverted into indifferentism toward the subjective character of the Christian life, and conversion. Many Catholics I know have had to compartmentalize their spiritual lives to deal with this scandal and other related scandals among the clergy, repeating to themselves the dogmatic truth (and I believe it is true, just so you understand me clearly) that however faithless, cowardly, and corrupt the priest may be, the Eucharist really is the Body of Christ. God bless them for that; I did that for a couple of years, but couldn’t keep it up. The thing is, though, when bishops and priests treat the Eucharist and the laity with such contempt, people may cease to believe in the authority of those priests when they teach that this is what the Eucharist is, and what the sacraments are. It begins to look like a sham.

Understand that I’m talking about how the overemphasis on the sacramental role of the priest in Catholic (and Orthodox) theology leads to a perversion, or rather, the unholy acceptance of perversion, because after all, the mechanic can still keep the car running, no matter what his own sins. But religion doesn’t work that way.

I think about how indifferent Metropolitan Jonah and the OCA bishops are (were, whatever) to the scandal of the gay archdeacon at the Miami cathedral. True, everyone can be forgiven if he or she truly repents. But forgiveness doesn’t require pretending that the sin never happened in the first place. A remorseful embezzler who has gone to prison and paid his debt to society is entitled to be forgiven and received into the community as a penitent. But he is not entitled to the expectation that he can resume his job as company treasurer. The nature of his sin, or rather, his crime, means that he has forfeited certain opportunities.

Similarly with the deacon who ran off to get married to a man. It is a breathtaking scandal in the Orthodox Church — but all the bishops seemed to care about was showering this man with cheap grace, and letting him return to his previous life, heedless of the messages this sent to the laity. Serious sexual sin and disorder among the clergy is just not that big a deal to them, though admittedly this particular case might have had to do with the rather outrageous fact that this archdeacon is the longtime, er, housemate of a retired OCA bishop. In any case, the whole think stunk to high heaven, and served to teach lots of lessons, but not in forgiveness.

Similarly, in my previous writing about Met. Jonah and Archbishop Benjamin of OCA’s Western diocese, I pointed out how they both colluded in reassigning a priest who had a serious sexual assault on his record — this, for his rehabilitation. As I wrote then, and as I affirm today, shouting from the rooftops: The Church is not a stage for the clergy, and the laity simply the supporting cast. 

I say that not as a crypto-Protestant, but as a supporter of apostolic hierarchy. But I say it also as a Christian with self-respect, and as a father raising children to be faithful to Christ in His church. I’m going to keep saying it too, and will raise my children to be faithful but skeptical.

And just to be clear, I can’t imagine being a Protestant. I mean no disrespect to Protestants — honestly, I don’t — but the Eucharist and the other sacraments mean everything to me. Orthodoxy has helped me deal with all this in a healthy way. As my friend the Orthodox writer Frederica Mathewes-Green writes in her forthcoming book, the Orthodox way remains a good and true way to holiness, no matter how flawed the bishops or priests may be. The medicine still works, even if the hospital administrative board is full of failures. That is true, and insofar as the claims of the Catholic Church are true, the same thing could be said of Catholicism. I get that. I believe that. I live by it. The danger here — and this is a danger not only for Catholics and Orthodox, but for all Christians — is that we can lose sight of the inescapable fact that to a great degree, religious truth is subjectivity. I’m speaking in the Kierkegaardian sense of religious truth being a mode of truth that has to be inwardly appropriated in order to be understood and to be effective.

The Eucharist, in its Catholic or Orthodox forms, is not a Magic Pill. Aspirin will make your headache go away even if you don’t believe in the healing power of aspirin. But to heal the soul, the Good News — in Eucharistic form, or in Scriptural form — depends on having a receiver. Otherwise, it is seed sown on fallow ground.

In this way, the receptiveness of the message depends in part on the authority of the person proclaiming the Good News, either in word or sacrament. It is undeniably true, from an orthodox Catholic or Orthodox perspective, that the Eucharist remains the Body and Blood of Christ whether it comes from the hands of a clerical saint or a clerical villain. The challenge is for the bishops to understand that this doctrine is meant to safeguard the Eucharist, not to safeguard bad priests. If they treat it as the latter, they will end up making a mockery of the former. People will notice, and act accordingly.

Anyway, the priest who writes has given us all a lot to think about. Please re-read his letter carefully before responding.


about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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