The Church in Darkness
The Church in Darkness
I write these words sitting at the back of my church at Easter Vigil. As we do each year, we have processed into the dark building, candles in hand, and lit them, spreading the light suddenly, dramatically, and we hope, emblematically. Yet this year my heart is not in it. This year I cannot recognize in the brightened room the sign of my faith. Rather, I feel like Isaiah when he observed that clouds cover the earth, and darkness the peoples.
I am still reeling from the report that the Pope’s personal preacher has devoted part of his Good Friday sermon to comparing the Pope and the church, under pressure to account for their complicity in the abuse of who knows how many children committed to its care over the years, to the Jews in the Holocaust.
The comparison is far, far worse than mindless. It is willfully blind. It casts the Pope and the hierarchy in the role of victims, and those seeking accountability in the role of persecutors. This precisely reverses the reality.
To be sure, there can be times when demands for accountability can be a form of persecution. In American politics, we have seen phony outrage and claims that someone has to account for something raised to an art form. We have seen it so often that we know very well what the manufactured version looks like. What is happening in the Church is nothing of the sort.
Instead, for the longest time, priests have been engaging in rape and abuse. Not all of them, certainly not anything like the majority of them. But lots of them. And the Church has systematically covered up for them. I blogged last time about two cases of coverup in which the Pope was involved. Since then we have learned of another two cases in Arizona. One involved Rev. Michael Teta, of whose case then-Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger took control in 1992 – and continued to sit on the case until 2004, while Rev. Teta remained on the church payroll and worked with young children outside the church. The other involved a Msgr. Robert Trupia, whose case stretched out over twelve years while his superior bishops continued to sound the alarm and ask for him to be removed from contact with children. Cardinal Ratzinger was in charge of the case for at least the last year and a half, from February 2003 to August 2004, when Trupia was finally laicized.
It is not victimizing Benedict to insist that he finally tell, in full detail, what happened. Rather, every day that passes without Benedict and the others involved confessing their roles perpetuates the victimization. The victimization of the true victims, that is.
I am fortunate enough personally never to have been sexually abused by my religious preceptors. But I have met several who were. And the one thing which is common to all of them is that they crave acknowledgment – maybe not public identification but acknowledgment. It would do them tremendous good to have their tormentors unmasked, with their deeds named. Some wish the abuser would face them personally and acknowledge his crimes; others would never willingly have anything to do with abuser ever again. Some need financial aid for counseling or compensation for more serious emotional injury. But common to all of them is the desire to have the truth known, in some way.
The canonical trial process the Church used to address charges of priestly sexual abuse was designed, as far as humanly possible, to frustrate that desire for public acknowledgment of the truth. As we have learned from a secret 1962 protocol in force until 2001, the canonical trials that occurred were themselves to be carried on in secret. All church personnel who participated were required to maintain secrecy on penalty of excommunication. Complaining witnesses too were sworn to secrecy about the proceeding. The 2001 substitute protocol is not explicit about secrecy enjoined upon accusers, but includes the piquant phrase: “Cases of this kind are subject to the pontifical secret.” And, as if one could not have guessed, Ratzinger’s signature is at the bottom of the 2001 document.
What Benedict and his hierarchy have done, then, is not merely delaying or frustrating accountability; they are prolonging the victimization. And for the Pope’s personal preacher to compare demands for accountability, the only means of ameliorating the victimization which goes on right to this day, with genocide, is to equate opposites.
It is grotesque for perpetrators to put themselves on the same moral plane as victims of any sort, let alone victims of one of the greatest wrongs ever committed.
If anything, it is even more grotesque for them to put the media, where the calls for accountability thrive and the secrets are revealed despite a Church determined to withhold them, on the same moral plane as mass-murdering Nazis. As James Madison recognized two centuries ago, and as modern life teaches again and again, the press’s proper role is to provide the information the public needs to make wise decisions.
In gradually ferreting out detail by detail, and in assembling the mosaic of this international pattern of abuse of children and young people, the press is only doing the work that the Church itself should have been doing all these years.
On Good Friday this year, many of the faithful around the world heard the account of the Passion according to St. John. They heard Jesus’ words to Pilate: “For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” John 18:37. By withholding the truth in service to Heaven only knows what supposedly higher priority, Benedict and the hierarchy have therefore placed themselves not merely on the wrong side of history, but very likely on the wrong side of the Master Himself. Those who put Him to death – they too were all about a coverup, let us recall.
It is that wrong side of history that has me worried most at the moment, though. It is all very well to denounce how the hierarchy has handled things, another to see how they could be replaced. Yet if they are allowed to continue their refusals to come clean, and to continue as well simply holding office, the anger will continue to grow. It seems unlikely to me to stop growing.
Something explosive is therefore gathering force. I do not know what the blast will look like when it happens. Isaiah says that the darkness covering the peoples is strictly a temporary thing. As I sit in the darkened church tonight, I hope he was right. But I am afraid of explosions.
Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn