Christmas Closes Another Dark Year for the Catholic Church

As Christmas Week begins, The New York Times leads its metropolitan section with another piece about sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests. Being Catholic educated through college in church-sponsored schools, I can't complain, nor can I resist the morbid appeal of such articles.

Having, as I do, a lingering religious sensibility and an attachment to Mother Church, is a complicated and confusing experience. One can be saddened and angered by repeated revelations of predatory behavior, mostly homosexual, mostly against children and adolescents, by priests and other church operatives, yet somehow be satisfied to read about moral failings a class of men who have too often distorted the call to serve the God of Love into an urge for power and cruelty.

It has been a particularly tough year for the church in Ireland, which has been over many generations the primary root of the church in America. In May, a government-sponsored commission delivered a report on church-run institutional schools that unflinchingly piled up details with a force that seemed to echo the violence of the incidents it described:

Punching, flogging, assault and bodily attacks, hitting with the hand, kicking, ear pulling, hair pulling, head shaving, beating on the soles of the feet, burning, scalding, stabbing, severe beatings with or without clothes, being made to kneel and stand in fixed positions for lengthy periods...

And on it went.

These evils were visited upon young people not only or even primarily by priests, but also by brothers and nuns belonging to monastic communities. Indeed, one of the reasons that this subject has been nagging me lately is my recent viewing of The Magdalene Sisters, a searingly well-made Irish film set in one of the nun-managed homes where, until the 1990s, women who had borne children out of wedlock or otherwise violated sexual taboos had been consigned and forced to labor in laundries. To serve its own purpose, the movie is selective and unrealistically portrays all nuns as relentlessly vicious, but the report quoted above demonstrates that such a strong and disturbing film is a valuable illumination of conditions in the not very distant past.

Nor have Irish priests in particular escaped the harsh light of state investigation. Last month a second scorching report reviewed 320 children's complaints of violation by priests in the Dublin Archdiocese, and concluded that, over three decades, through 2004, the administrations of four successive archbishops had been less concerned about helping victims than "the maintenance of secrecy, the avoidance of scandal, the protection of the reputation of the church, and the preservation of its assets." These motives sometimes seem to me most culpable of all. Many of the abusers are mentally unhealthy persons who are in some sense stalked by their own unnatural sexual desires, but men in power who have belittled the offenses of these persons, and re-assigned them to places here they could offend again, were free to act righteously and did not. And despite the many necessary adjustments that hierarchies have made to handling cases of abuse more responsibly, there remains in the church a smugness about its own wisdom and virtue, a resistance to observation from the outside, and a pretense that nothing very significant or potentially transformative has been revealed.

I am thinking of men close to home, such as Cardinal Edward Egan, recently retired archbishop of New York and previously bishop of Bridgeport, Connecticut, who in depositions revealed by the Times early this month, retreated behind his legalistic training to challenge the gravity of sexual malfeasance under that earlier watch. The claims of abuse expressed by 19 persons in that diocese, he argued, were not "a significant segment or factor" in a population of 360,000 Catholics. And I think of the bishop of my own diocese of Brooklyn, Nicholas DiMarzio, who taped supportive phone messages for a local state-legislator who has helped to save a statute of limitations on lawsuits charging clerical abuse. DiMarzio, by the way, succeeded a man who had been waist deep in the Boston cover-up scandal that undid Cardinal Bernard Law.

I realize that such suits have devastated the finances of many dioceses, but DiMarzio's crossing the line of separation between church and state suggests that he worries more about his budget than the horrific activities that have imperiled it.

Yet neither Egan nor Law nor DiMarzio stands for the Catholic Church that I or most Catholics I know adhere to. We are drawn to the church that is truthful, compassionate, generous, charitable, mysterious and holy, and we go to the many places where it is found. We are strengthened by the honesty and fortitude of men such as Father Aidan Troy, formerly of Belfast, until he was run out of Ireland and sent (hardly the worst of fates) to Paris. Troy charged the Irish church with "a wholly inadequate response to the horrendous abuse that has been uncovered" in the report of last May and called for "radical action" that involved a moratorium on recruitment of candidates for the priesthood and the end to the "old failed ways" of a "broken, wounded church." He did not call for the end of Catholicism, or of his own ministry.

The great 20th-century Protestant theologian Paul Tillich spoke of "the sin of religion." It is not hard to find, for there is much more false than true religion in the world. Why, even a great majority of Christians believe that Jesus Christ was born on the 25th of December, unaware that the feast of his birth is actually an adaptation of winter-solstice celebrations. But that does not mean that the Christ who was born on some other day in some other place than Bethlehem did not bring light into the world.