If Satan does exist, then he thrives inside the Roman Catholic Church.
Of course that’s a huge “if”.
A grand jury in Pennsylvania last Tuesday released a report that documented 300 “predator” priests who are accused of sexually abusing more than 1,000 child victims going back to the 1940s.
“It’s just the tip of the iceberg,” a priest in the Washington, D.C., diocese told me Sunday. “It is our shame.”
It is worse.
“We believe that the real number of children whose records were lost or who were afraid ever to come forward is in the thousands,” according to the grand jury report.
“Priests were raping little boys and girls, and the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing; they hid it all. For decades. Monsignors, auxiliary bishops, bishops, archbishops, cardinals have mostly been protected; many, including some named in this report, have been promoted.”
I first covered the story of pedophile priests in the 90s. It was tough then and tougher now. This is the church in which I grew up and where I was told I was safe. It is the foundation of my thoughts about community – and of being charitable to others.
I was an altar boy and the worst I dealt with – that I know of – was an Irish priest who nipped at the sacramental wine a little too much. We had to occasionally nudge him toward the pulpit.
On a flight from Chicago to D.C. more than 20 years ago, I met a young priest at O’Hare while we were waiting for our flight home.
Naturally, I spoke to him – he was approximately the same age as I was then, in his early to mid-30s. And being a former altar boy, I have always felt comfortable speaking with priests even if I don’t always buy what they’re selling.
It’s been that way most of my life. I can’t speak for anyone else, but since I was a young child, I’ve always enjoyed discussions of good and evil and deep thoughts about God with members of the clergy.
I, like many young Catholics at the time, knew friends and relatives who “Got the Call” and became priests. In fact, I lived in mortal fear as a pre-pubescent that someone would one day knock on the door, and I’d open it to find the stern visage of an elderly priest pointing stoically at me and saying with a resolve I couldn’t shake, “You!”
My mother thought me dramatic, and told me I had little fear of “Getting the Call,” unless it was from a theater agent.
As I sat discussing religion with the priest at O’Hare that day more than 20 years ago, our conversation drifted toward four priests in the D.C. diocese who were accused of abusing young men beginning in the 1970s in Montgomery and Prince Georges County.
“If you’re a Catholic child in a Catholic school, priests are above man. They’re your link to God,” said a 34-year-old Bowie woman who grew up attending Church of St. Matthias the Apostle in Lanham, where the abuse that led to the ouster of the four priests occurred.
The revelation at the time shook me to my Catholic core, and I told the priest as we waited in Chicago as much.
“Imagine how I feel,” the priest told me. “I am one of the guys who investigated it.”
I will never forget the priest’s face as he told me of this. Shame. Anger. Fear. It shook his faith too.
I began running a football program for my parish in the D.C. area a few years later. I managed two dozen coaches and a program that at its height included 200 children.
During that time, I remember the D.C. diocese passed new rules. Priests had glass doors to their office. The confessionals were open or behind glass doors. The church took transparency literally, but apparently didn’t take the need to flush out the sinning priests as seriously.
That it happens by a priest is the truly evil part of the story.
I came to believe the Church refused to punish its pedophiles because the Church – particularly in the United States – had a chip on its shoulder. It also suffered from the sin of pride and hubris.
The investigator I spoke with in O’Hare even harbored it. “We don’t like priests becoming pedophiles,” he told me.
At the time I’d just finished a project for America’s Most Wanted during which I had spent a good deal of time interviewing pedophiles featured in a documentary “Chicken Hawk.” These politically active pedophiles were busy lobbying state legislatures, among other things, to lower the age of consent laws so they could legally be physically involved with young children.
As much as the ancient Greeks had taken young men under the wing and “mentored” them, the pedophiles wanted the rest of society to “evolve” to accept their point of view.
Going backward to me isn’t evolution, but de-evolution, but not so to the pedophile.
After I spent some time walking the streets of New York City and interviewing them, I came to a conclusion that I shared with the investigator in Chicago: priests don’t become pedophiles. Pedophiles become priests.
They also become teachers, coaches, and anything else where they can mentor young children. They are the lions in the underbrush looking for wounded wildebeests.
Worse, pedophiles do not see their activity as harmful or dangerous. Many of them believe it to be normal and acceptable behavior.
A few years later, I wrote a book “Innocent Victims” and interviewed a convicted child molester, Stephen Simmons, who met a troubled 15-year-old boy in an Internet chatroom and “mentored” him. The 15-year-old boy ended up killing another 11-year-old youth in his neighborhood.
The damage done by such “mentoring” is life altering.
That it happens by a priest is the truly evil part of the story.
The very person you are taught to trust above all else is the one you can’t trust.
The Catholic Church, frozen in its guilt about having pedophiles in its ranks, and suffering from the arrogance and hubris of being seen as a “Link to God” has rendered itself obsolete and dangerous.
Those who propose a solution say priests should marry and that would end it then and there. I’m not so sure, but I agree you’d attract a better quality priest if you’d allow them to marry and if you allowed women to be priests. At the very least, reputable people with a desire to explore their spirituality wouldn’t be driven from the ranks of potential priests because they also want to get married and have children.
Priests were allowed to marry for the first several hundred years of the Church, but that began to change after the Council of Nicea in 325 when it was decreed that after ordination a priest could not marry. In 352 at the Council of Laodicea, the Church decreed women couldn’t be ordained as priests – indicating the Church was more inclusive before then.
Of course, the Church has always had a problem with sexuality. Pope Gregory the Great around 600 AD said all sexual desire is sinful. Meanwhile for the next few hundred years many, including St. Ulrich, a holy bishop argued from scripture and common sense that the only way to make things right was to allow priests to marry.
In 1139 at the Second Lateran Council, the issue was supposedly settled when Roman Catholic priests were told they had to be celibate. With that, it still apparently took a few hundred years more to purge the Roman Catholic church of its married clergy.
I remember once, when I was first married, a priest recommended my wife and I come in and talk with other young couples. “Get involved. Be part of the great married life of young Catholics,” the priest told me. He would head the group and teach us all about being young married Catholics and how we could lead a successful married life together.
“What experience do you have with marriage?” I laughed. “I’m married to God,” I was told. “Yeah, well, does God leave the toilet seat down or forget to put the cap back on the toothpaste?”
My wife and I turned down the offer.
I also laughed when I was told the football coaches at my parish had to be certified by the Church and go through what amounted to “pedophile awareness training.”
“Are the priests going through this?” I asked.
I was told I was out of line to ask those questions. I had no objection to the coaches going through the training, but as I pointed out, “None of my coaches have been accused of being pedophiles while we have documented cases of priests in this archdiocese who are pedophiles.”
I think the nasty look I got was uncalled for.
But I did enjoy the nun who laughed and told me I was right.
The nuns always get it.
At the end of the day, I am appalled, angry and unable to understand how the Church has continued to employ and protect those who abuse children.
The Catholic Church as I knew it hasn’t ceased to exist. It never existed.
But Jim Carroll had it right; “I’m a Catholic boy. Redeemed through pain and not through joy.”
The Church is the pain.
The joy is breaking free from it.
The Catholic Church must change or it will die.