When I was a boy, my parish priest was a child molester.
This was more than 15 years after a parishioner at a different church had reported this priest to the local bishop, testifying that he had “contributed to the delinquency of two minor boys, ages 11 and 12, by demoralizing them in a manner that is not natural for any human that has all his proper faculties.” Shortly thereafter, the priest was assigned to a different parish, and some time later to the parish my family attended. In 1991, he was criminally charged with sexually abusing a minor at that parish—a boy who was just my age. Among other things, he had forced the boy to sodomize him. After his conviction, the bishop wrote to his sentencing judge asking that the priest be transferred from prison to a church-run health care institution that specialized in “these kinds of cases,” in order that he might “continue his therapy.” The judge rejected this plea. The priest died in prison in 1994.
I was fortunate. We did not stay in that parish for long, moving away when I was still in kindergarten. I do not recall ever having been sexually abused—by a priest, or anyone else. In college I considered becoming a priest myself, but I gave up that idea before discovering what Catholic seminaries are really like. I am married, with five children. We are still Catholic.
I need to think about my children. We want to raise them in the faith—yet not without telling them of the abuse that children have suffered at the hands of Catholic priests or how our bishops have tried to cover up those crimes. Bishops are supposed to be the successors of Jesus’s apostles, who were commissioned by Christ to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” But their contemporary successors often behave as though they were running a corporation, minimizing liability and keeping the shareholders happy with legalistic statements and polished publicity campaigns to help them combat bad press.
Yet if the Catholic Church were a corporation, the leaders of its American branch would surely have been fired long ago for incompetence—even if the corporate mission didn’t include the salvation of souls. Theodore McCarrick, who was archbishop of the diocese I grew up in, was a child rapist and a serial abuser of seminarians. The latter was widely known, and was reported in writing to at least two other bishops. Nevertheless, McCarrick was made archbishop of Washington, appointed to the College of Cardinals, and put forward as the public face of the American bishops’ response to the child sex abuse scandal in the early 2000s. He remained influential in the church until the New York Times revealed his sins.
McCarrick's replacement in Washington, Donald Cardinal Wuerl, also paints himself as a champion of sexual abuse victims—yet while bishop of Pittsburgh in the 1990s he allowed an offender to transfer quietly to another diocese. He also apparently paid off a retired abusive priest who claimed to know of illegal sexual behavior by other Pittsburgh priests. In response to these allegations in the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report, Wuerl issued a statement saying that the report only confirmed how during his tenure in Pittsburgh he had “acted with diligence, with concern for the victims and to prevent future acts of abuse.”
What to do? Where to turn? Having long been convinced of the Church’s claim to truth, lately I have been recalling Peter’s words to Christ: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” I understand that the demand for morally perfect leadership cannot be satisfied by any institution staffed with fallen human beings. But I can no longer comfort myself with an argument I used to find convincing: that the Church has always been filled with sin, even at the highest ranks; and that since I knew this before, my faith should not be shaken by these revelations now. However dark the past may have been, I am not sure it was much worse than this. It looks as if the gates of Hell have prevailed.
I have also been meditating on these lines of late: “You shall know them by their fruits. A sound tree cannot bear evil fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” This is also the message of the strange passage in Mark’s Gospel in which Jesus curses a barren fig tree—shortly before he drives the moneychangers out of the temple courts, accusing them of having turned his house of prayer into a den of robbers.
My family went to mass on Sunday. Having written to our local bishop last week criticizing his underwhelming response to the McCarrick scandal, we received a letter back from him acknowledging the need for a far-reaching investigation and the bishops’ lack of credibility to carry it out. This arrived on Friday evening while my wife and I were at Costco shopping for groceries with our daughters. It brought us both to tears—a tiny ray of light at the end of a very dark week. Yet if the necessary reforms do come, it will be only by God’s grace. Too many lay Catholics are apathetic or uninformed, and too many among the episcopacy stand to lose the comfort of their careers if the extent of their involvement in this wickedness is revealed. They will tell themselves that they are only trying to avoid scandal, doing it all for the good of God’s people. Perhaps it was not a promise but a threat with which Jesus ended the Great Commission: “Lo, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
John Schwenkler is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Florida State University.