Sins of the Fathers

I rarely cry at movies. But I did a few days ago while watching Spotlight, the film about the Boston Globe's 2002 exposure of Roman Catholic priests who sexually abused children and the prelates who covered up for them.

The Globe's story was only the first wave of what became a tsunami of scandal. Fifteen years later, hundreds of similarly sordid cases of clerical misconduct and ecclesial concealment have come to light, not only in the United States but also throughout Europe, Australia, and Canada.

Watching Spotlight brought back all the shame, anger, and grief that seared me fourteen years ago when the scandal first broke. The sexual exploitation of children is horrible enough. But that the predators were priests, servants of God revered, trusted, and upheld as role models by the very families they betrayed, was a body blow no one saw coming.

For generations of American Roman Catholics, it was simply unimaginable that priests were capable of such things. As one man abused as a child told the Globe, "We were taught that priests were God's representatives on earth. A priest would walk in and nuns would bow."

Another victim, abused when he was twelve, explained why he never told his parents. Had he said anything bad about a priest, he recalled, his mother would've slapped his face. "No one would believe you in those days. The priests were everything." He and his peers were raised to look upon priests "as separate from the rest of us, as special people, as holy people deserving our respect."

Again and again, victims and non-victims alike spoke of the culture of unquestioning deference to priestly authority they'd internalized while growing up, a deference that bordered on idolatry. It was this Father-Knows-Best privileging of clergy that perniciously accommodated and even encouraged clerical abuses of power.

Priests who molested grew accustomed to thinking of themselves as untouchable lords of their parishes. Their ecclesial bosses, worried about damage to the Church's reputation if the misbehavior of rogue priests went public, encouraged this attitude by shielding them from prosecution. Pedophiliac priests who got caught by parents were generally sent to diocesan clinics for a few weeks and then assigned to new and unsuspecting parishes where they inevitably began molesting children again.

Why did the priests sexually abuse youngsters? A number of explanations have been floated. One is that the vow of celibacy is the culprit. But since the majority of celibate priests aren't molesters, this is unlikely. Another theory, equally unlikely, blames homosexuality. But pederasty has little to do with same-sex attraction. One is a disease, the other an orientation.

Nor is there strong evidence to support a third hypothesis, that all priests who abuse children were themselves abused by priests.

Yet another theory argues that the seminaries attend by the priestly offenders failed to require adequate psychological screening of the young candidates for ordination. This one has some merit.

Most likely, no single explanation is sufficient. But what's undeniable is that a Church which encouraged its laity to think of priests as demi-gods, and which moreover accommodated child molesters by allowing them to remain in active ministry, was seriously confused about its mission and priorities. Thankfully, in large part due to the courage of victims who have gone public about their abuse, Rome is finally acknowledging this terrible chapter in its history and laboring mightily to make amends.

I'm not a Roman Catholicism basher. As a priest in an independent Catholic jurisdiction, my theology, my sense of liturgy, and my spirituality are similar to those of my Roman sisters and brothers, despite our fundamental disagreements over church polity, same-sex marriage, and the ordination of women. I know that most Roman priests are good and honorable men who would never dream of harming a child, and who grieve as I do over the scandal. Finally, I'm well aware that the Lord cautions us about pointing out splinters in the eyes of others while ignoring the planks in our own.

Yet Spotlight forces us to remember a sobering truth: even the fathers can sin, and sometimes sin horribly. And if their religious superiors choose to look the other way, thereby putting Church before Christ and reputation before righteousness, it's not just innocent victims who suffer. The whole Body of Christ is wounded. Christ himself is molested.

We ought never to forget that.