Paul Elie, of Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, lays out our Catholic scandal in “Acts of Penance,” but it’s only half the story.
My post, “Forty Days of Lent in a Church Wandering in the Desert,” began with a movie review of the great but gritty 1981 film, “True Confessions.” It’s a tale about a fictional Los Angeles priest, Monsignor Desmond Spellacy, innocently caught up in a scandal about sexual misconduct and murder.
On a fast track to become the next Archbishop of Los Angeles, Monsignor Spellacy’s career, and the film itself, ends in a remote parish outpost in the California desert. The symbolism of that ending is powerful, and it became a backdrop for our own desert experience of repentance. A few readers reported seeing the film after reading my post, and concluded that it is indeed great, but a tour de force of the darker side of human nature.
The role of Monsignor Spellacy was played perfectly by actor Robert De Niro. Fifteen years later in 1996, De Niro played the role of another Catholic priest, Father Robert Carillo, in an even greater but grittier film, Sleepers, based on a riveting 1995 book of the same name by Lorenzo Carcaterra. I have seen the film and I am reading the book now. Both convey the gray matter of a moral quagmire portrayed to perfection by De Niro.
The term “quagmire” first appeared in British literature in 1570. It combines two older English terms, “quag,” with its origin in the word “quake,” and “mire” which is to find oneself entangled in something. A quagmire was first used to refer to a bog which looks solid enough to walk on, but then entraps you in the muck. A “quagmire” now refers to a mora1 dilemma. Wading into it may seem safe at first, but you can become entrapped in its mud.
The quagmire of both priestly roles by Robert De Niro was one of innocence verses guilt. These are not always as black and white, either/or, as blind systems of justice treat them. The moral quagmire of Monsignor Spellacy in True Confessions is that he is innocent of involvement in the murder of a prostitute, an investigation doggedly pursued by his homicide detective brother played by Robert Duvall.
But is he innocent of any knowledge of it? And if he knows, how did he come to know? The title of the film may give a hint to its moral dilemma.
De Niro’s role as. “Father Bobby” Carillo in Sleepers conveys a far greater moral trap. It’s a story about sexual abuse, but I wonder if Carcaterra could even write it today. “Father Bobby,” as his heroic but compromised character is called, is not the perpetrator of the abuse, but rather the one who must bring recompense to it. His moral quagmire is that telling the whole truth as he knows it will further endanger the (sort of but not always) innocent young men he is protecting.
And yet the letter of the law requires him, under oath, to tell that truth. Father Robert “Bobby” Carillo is a real priest with a fake name. The shocker for us is that Lorenzo Carcaterra has written not a fictional novel, but a true story in which he has changed the names and locations to protect the innocent. But absolutely no one in this story is innocent absolutely.
The story is about four boys growing up with abusive or absent fathers on the streets of New York City’ s “Hell’ s Kitchen” in the early 1960s. Father Bobby befriends them, and they him and provides the only male bonding and role modeling they will ever know. Father Bobby is their nautical keel, the one force keeping the ship of their lives aright upon a raging sea.
SURVIVING THE NIGHT
The irony for us is the fact that today, that alone would throw Father Bobby under the bus of suspicion His relationship with these four boys would earn him a trip to Maryland’s St Luke Institute where his over-familiarity with them translates into a one-way ticket out of the priesthood. The young men of the story can just go to hell. Carcaterra’s story makes clear that Father Bobby is all that stands between them and that.
In the story, and I remind you that it is a true story, the four best friends on the mean streets of Hell’s Kitchen commit a petty crime at ages 12 and 13 that earns them time in “Juvey.” One by one, while there, they are raped and violently brutalized into hopelessness by a sadistic guard and his corrupt crew. They emerge from this nightmare destroyed as men, but they hide the truth even from Father Bobby.
As the years pass, they remain friends, not only for what bound them together in youth but also for the silent darkness within them, a darkness never spoken but nonetheless binding them in unending torment They grow up dragging the trauma along with them, a dark lens through which they view their lives.
I have to pause here for a moment. Many of the stories of priestly seduction we are hearing about are sadly believable. But what I do not believe are the “add-ons,” the lurid accounts of violence or force, the priestly threats of death or bodily harm if they ever tell. Such accounts further a news media agenda, but in my experience, they are evidence of fraud.
What the young men in Sleepers endured is far different. The linking of sexual assault and violence is an especially damaging and lifelong slayer of the soul. There is no emerging from it.
One day, now adults with well-earned reputations as street thugs, two of the victims in Sleepers encounter the sadistic guard in a bar. It is clear to the reader and viewer that the crime that happens next pales next to the one they lived, and whether they now spend the rest of their lives in prison will rest solely on testimony from Father Bobby who now learns the whole truth.
I have been in a similar position twice in my life as a priest. Having seen the film, I have long pondered what I should do, but the pondering does not always make clear what I would do. It is
cheap and easy to sit on the sidelines and pontificate about priestly duty, but spare me that. Only someone who has faced such a quagmire can comprehend its moral dilemma.
NO ONE SURVIVES SUCH A NIGHT WITHOUT LIGHT
This all reminds me painfully of another story, “Bangkok to Bangor, Survivor of the Night” a story in which the priest is not the perpetrator, but, like Father Bobby, an accessory after the fact toward bringing to it a reckoning. Most who have read it agree that all the tales of priestly misconduct – some sadly true, some not so much, some not at all – pale in comparison.
And yet the survivor in that story, like the survivors in Sleepers, has fled not from the Catholic faith, but to it. As Pornchai Moontri himself once wrote, “I Come to the Catholic Church for Healing and Hope.”
Pornchai and I have another friend, CJ, who was released from prison two years ago only to find himself back in prison with a new charge recently at age 26. On the day I am typing this, CJ was moved from the quarantine unit for new prisoners to the eight-man cells where Pornchai and I used to live.
CJ put his things away, then came to see me in the library where I work. His head was bowed in silent shame for his failure to live uprightly in freedom. He told me only that life became difficult and he “did something stupid.” I do not yet know the details. I’ll hear them later.
What I do know, and it is well documented, is that CJ spent much of his young life – until he was old enough to escape – as a victim of unspeakable abuse, torture, and sexual violence. Like the young men in Sleepers, he carries in his heart and soul a devastating devaluation of his life. His freedom was stolen from him long before his petty offenses. Every moment of every day is spent in “fight or flight” mode. We kept him from getting into fights where we used to live.
As an accused priest, one would think I am the last person on Earth that someone like CJ would want anything to do with. CJ comes to us because he knows we will not excuse his offenses, but he also knows that we place them in the context of the totality of his life. We challenge him to face his grief rather than compensate for it. We see through his smoke and mirrors.
CJ came to ask if he could attend Mass with us on Sunday, but what he really came for was some validation that we have not given up on him. I cannot convey how devastating that would be. CJ and Pornchai have a silent bond built on their sure knowledge of the reality that each endured and the wreckage in its wake.
And they both react with fury at the stories of priestly abuse in which someone can claim that his buttocks was squeezed forty years ago (an actual claim against the notorious abuser, Father John Geoghan) and expect half a million dollars in compensation for that trauma. CJ was traumatized yet again when someone showed him “The Trials of Father MacRae” by Dorothy Rabinowitz.
So I am left with the irony of life on the edge of a knife, sheltering them not only from what happened to them, but also from what happened to me. They cannot bear it. And there was no deep pocket for them to exploit. The only true solace they have – the only solace they will ever have – is found in the light of Divine Mercy.
IN THE TWILIGHT OF PARTIAL TRUTHS
A reader recently alerted me to an article, “Acts of Penance” by Paul Elie in the April 15, 2019 issue of The New Yorker. Mr. Elie is a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. His 14-page article – long even by The New Yorker standards – is a rehashing of the clerical abuse scandal in the Archdiocese of New York.
The reader who sent it said that she found it “negative and one-sided, omitting the fact that some priests are falsely accused. That is accurate, and I am left to wonder why Mr. Elie wrote it. There is little new in it beyond the fact that the Archdiocese of New York retained “outside” arbiters to mediate settlements in claims against priests. Paul Elie ponders…
“Like many Catholics, I wonder whether this story will ever be over and whether things will ever be set right. Often called a crisis, the problem is more enduring and more comprehensive than that Social scientists report that the gravest period of priestly sexual abuse was the sixties and seventies, and the problem has been in public view for the past three and a half decades.”
But then, like so many writers before him, Mr. Elie goes on to present a lurid and, at times, ludicrous history of abuse cases, treating every claim as demonstrably true and the U.S. bishops’ adopted “credible” standard for disposing of the accused as final justice.
As exposed in several recent posts (linked at the end) it is far from that. By lifting the story of Catholic scandal out of the context of the proliferation of sexual abuse in our culture, Mr. Elie, like so many others, scapegoats the Church and priesthood as some sort of special locus of abuse. It leaves people like my friend, CJ, scratching his head, wondering about the ivory tower from which these “experts” write.
Paul Elie tells us that to administer its Victim Compensation Fund, the Archdiocese of New York has retained the same people who administered similar, but much larger funds to compensate victims of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the infamous BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
What he omits from the story is that both funds had to establish fraud task forces to investigate and weed out the enormous number of attempts at fraud that marred the execution of both funds. BP took out full-page ads in The Wall Street Journal to expose what the mainstream media would not expose: that the company was forced to provide settlements in claims that it knew to be fraudulent, and that fraud attempts hindered their efforts.
Why would the administration of a fund to compensate past claims of abuse be any different? Why is there no similar task force formed to investigate such fraud? For the friends I spend my days with, this is a no-brainer. The story is manipulated, and the funds exploited, by many cases of fraud. I profiled some in “A Weapon of Mass Destruction: Catholic Priests Falsely Accused.”
Mr. Elie went on to cite all the usual media sources without digging into their own compromised histories in this story. He cites SNAP, the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, without any reference to their own exposure for internal corruption and fraud.
He cites the group, Bishop Accountability, with no mention of its well-documented distortions and history of publishing stories and claims with no effort to corroborate them, confusing being merely accused with being guilty. His article canonizes contingency lawyers, like Boston’s Mitchell Garabedian,who have become millionaires posing as the patron saints of victimhood.
In perhaps the most ludicrous paragraph of his article, Mr. Elie catalogs the names of priests he has met who have been accused – and are therefore guilty – and cites that four percent of the priests he knew or has met were child abusers, a percentage laid out by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in its study of the abuse story. He includes Cardinal George Pell on his list.
What Mr. Elie, like most writers, omits from the story is the John Jay report that homosexual misconduct has been the root cause of the problem, and the fact that 70-percent of the claims were brought forward for the first time only after 2002 when it became known that the Church will pay big bucks to settle them with few questions asked. Paul Elie drew no distinction between being guilty of abuse and being merely accused.
A much more accurate account appears in the May 2019 issue of Catalyst in an article entitled, “Moving Forward” by Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York. Without doubt, he, too, has an agenda, but he presents truthfully a fact that the mainstream media refuses to articulate:
“Only three instances of substantiated sexual abuse have been alleged to have occurred in the archdiocese since 2002. John Jay College of Criminal Justice conducted a comprehensive independent study of clergy abuse in the United States and found that the annual number of incidents of sexual abuse by priests peaked in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and then declined sharply after 1985.”
One well-known writer has revealed in these pages a most uncomfortable truth:
“The Catholic Church has become the safest place in the world for children, and the most dangerous place in the world for Catholic priests.”
In that story, Paul Elie may have just written the latest chapter.
Note to Readers: Stories like this count on you to share them. You may also like these related links from These Stone Walls:
- Why the Catholic Abuse Narrative Needs a Fraud Task Force
- David Clohessy Resigns SNAP in Alleged Kickback Scheme
- Cardinal Theodore McCarrick and the Homosexual Matrix
- A Little Perspective Before Stoning Your Priest