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What’s The Big Deal, Anyway?

First Things editor R.R. Reno is miffed that I’m in a swivet over Cardinal O’Brien’s resignation amid sexual misconduct allegations. Excerpt:

I have no particular desire to defend the honor, innocence, or reputation of Cardinal O’Brien. But I must admit that I’m mildly exasperated by Rod’s overwrought concerns. The Cardinal is accused of making unwanted advances on seminarians, and the coded language used by the media suggests that he may have used his authority over younger men to coerce them to have sex with him.

Cardinal O’Brien’s alleged conduct is rather more like professors pressuring their graduate students to sleep with them than molesting pubescent altar boys. It’s something to be censored and punished, but surely that fact that some men do these sorts of things doesn’t throw a normal person into a state of anomic horror.

“Anomic horror”? Really? I leave it to you to determine if my reaction to the accusations against O’Brien amount to “anomic horror,” or if they were appropriate to the possibility that he used his authority to prey on priests, whose priesthood he could have ended had they resisted his alleged advances. The cardinal was a seminary rector from 1980 to 1985, and after that a bishop. The idea that a sexual relationship, or sexual overtures, initiated by a seminary rector to a seminarian under his authority is equivalent to a professor and a student is unrealistic. The rector could have a seminarian dismissed from the seminary, and end his priestly vocation. If Bishop O’Brien came on to priests or seminarians, that’s a far worse thing. Not only could a bishop end those careers, but a bishop also has a particular spiritual authority over priests, as well as laypeople. True, this isn’t as bad as a priest molesting a minor, but a religious superior — especially a bishop — who would use the power of his office to compel sexual favors from those below him is a much bigger deal than Reno thinks.

More from Reno:

But let’s leave that aside. If the allegations are true, O’Brien behaved shamefully. Nonetheless, this statement by Dreher gave me pause:

Cardinal O’Brien had a reputation for speaking out boldly for Catholic truth about homosexuality and marriage. He was called an anti-gay bigot by his opponents in the UK. And now, if these charges against him are true, he will have been shown to have been a roaring hypocrite, and the UK Catholic witness to Christian truth will be even more diminished and despised.

Come again? I am by no means without sin. I did after all grow up in the worst of the Sixties, which was actually the Seventies. It was a time of hedonism without idealism. Now I run a magazine committed to defending the moral truths taught be Catholicism (as well as Judaism and Islam, among other religions, as well as reason itself in some instances), some of which I have myself sinned against. Am I therefore a hypocrite? Has Rod never heard of confession?

If Cardinal O’Brien is guilty, then whether or not he is guilty before God is something between him, his confessor, and the Lord. But to have a string of sexual harassment against priests under your authority in your background, while certainly forgivable (all sins are forgivable), fatally compromises your moral authority. Or so it seems to me, and so it must seem to Britons.

An example closer to home: Back in 2004, when Deal Hudson, publisher of the Catholic magazine Crisis, was revealed to have left a teaching job at Fordham in 1995 after sexual harassing a student, he stepped down from the magazine. He understood, wisely, that he couldn’t continue in that role; whether or not he had been forgiven sacramentally and by the people he admitted hurting was beside the point.

If a Catholic magazine publisher resigns because he has lost a great deal of moral credibility over a past episode of sexual harassment, how much more serious is it when a cardinal is revealed to have done the same thing as a seminary rector and bishop (if indeed O’Brien is guilty)? More to the point, in 2013, with these past 11 years of searing scandal behind the Church, how is this not a very big deal?

And by the way, O’Brien’s alleged sins took place not in the freewheeling Sixties, but starting in the Thatcher era. I’m not sure what Reno’s point is here. Is he really holding his own youthful sins up against the alleged actions of a Roman Catholic priest who was 42 when named seminary rector, and 47 when made a bishop?

I suppose I don’t understand the position that some Catholics, like Reno, take when confronted by disgusting stories like this. Aren’t we far past the point now of saying, “Well, you know, the clergy are people too,” and “We mustn’t be scandalized by the sins of the clergy, for they have always been sinners”? What if that was your son or brother who was a priest preyed on by his seminary rector, or bishop? Would you want your son serving as an altar boy to a cardinal who had a record of sexually harassing priests and seminarians? I have heard over the years certain conservative Catholics reacting with a kind of academic laissez-faire in these matters, as if the faithful didn’t have a right to expect more from their ordained leaders, and besides, the sacraments are valid, so what’s the big deal?

The big deal is that we Christians — Catholics and non-Catholics alike — are facing a world that is either hostile to us and our faith, or (perhaps worse) indifferent. The big deal, as my fired-up wife explained to an Orthodox bishop who soft-pedaled a cleric caught in sexual scandal, is that there are a lot of us laying it on the line every day to raise children to be faithful Christians, and we’re doing in the face of a corrupt culture, a culture that sees no value in the things we hold dear. You guys have got to man up, my wife told the bishop. In Scotland, the Catholic newspaper says there are an estimated 750,000 Catholics, and only about one in four attend mass on Sunday. Massgoing in the Catholic Church in Britain as a whole is in sharp decline, even collapse, as is attendance in other Christian churches.

So really now, what sensible person reads news about a cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland resigning amid allegations that he sexually harassed (or worse) priests and seminarians, and shrugs it off? I don’t get it at all.

At every stage of the scandal, the cause of cleaning up this mess — perhaps the worst crisis in the Catholic Church since the Reformation, or at least since the French Revolution — and getting a measure of justice for the victims would have been helped had First Things seen more horror in the scandal than it did. Come on, Rusty, don’t you guys just sometimes get so damned sick of this thing with these pervs? Would it kill y’all to throw a few punches at some deserving targets?

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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