After reading a posted comment last week, I remarked that I hoped readers would not be too hard on my brother priests because of what I and others have written. It was then suggested to me that I write a post placing myself in their shoes under the yoke of scandal in the last seven years. Easier said than done.
The fact is, the atmosphere of accusation and settlement has placed all priests under a terribly confining weight from which many feel powerless to emerge. The enemies of the Church have scapegoated priests, pointing fingers of suspicion at them just for being priests.
Many among the laity don’t know what to do to be supportive. Some parishioners have gossiped about priests, reinterpreting their demeanor and relationships in the harsh light of relentless bad press. Many priests feel that the support of their bishops is for fair weather only. On this last point, the late Father Richard John Neuhaus wrote with dismal foreboding:
“Attempting to ward off outside threats, bishops have self-servingly tried to demonstrate their “’transparency’ by publicly revealing the names of elderly and deceased priests against whom there was a rumor or allegation of misconduct from twenty, thirty, or even fifty years ago. In some cases, the allegations were investigated, in others not, and in almost all cases they are now beyond fair investigation. Their once honored reputations now destroyed, such priests are deemed guilty until proven innocent.” (“Clerical Scandal and the Scandal of Clericalism,” First Things, March 2008, p.58).
Too many priests have been subjected to the risk aversion employed at the first sign of an ancient accusation. I imagine that many thus far untouched by The Scandal have nonetheless felt it close in upon them as they see their friends accused and ostracized. Many are afraid to be alone with a child or a teenager, even in the confessional.
The story of Father Anthony Tran Van Kiem posted here on These Stone Walls presents a gripping example of the terror from which few accused priests can emerge with their names and dignity and priesthood intact.
ABUSE OF THE ABUSE SCANDAL
Of course, we must never lose sight of the fact that there were true – and truly devastating – accounts of abuse perpetrated by some priests. As the John Jay report commissioned by the U.S. Bishops revealed, these cases reached a peak in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Some guilty priests were accused, removed and reassigned back then. The bishops have been repeatedly bludgeoned for not acting in 1975 as they would in 2005.
Still, no amount of recompense can fully atone for the harm that was done to legitimate victims of abuse. Many of the men around me in this prison were victims of sexual and physical abuse as children and adolescents. For most, that abuse took place in their own homes. In prison, I see daily the legacy left by child abuse.
But what is going on today is a different picture. Seventy percent of the claims settled by Church officials surfaced decades after the alleged abuse. The removal of priests in such instances – and they are the majority of the claims – places upon them the impossible task of proving their innocence when no one has to prove their guilt.
Many bishops and brother priests have been in denial about how easy it is to be accused. As one astute prisoner said to me at the height of The Scandal in 2002:
“Let me get this straight. If I say some priest touched me funny twenty years ago, I’ll be a victim, I’ll be paid for it, and my life will be HIS fault instead of mine. Do you have any idea of how tempting this is?” (“Sex Abuse and Signs of Fraud,” Catalyst, November 2005).
I cannot pretend that I am not angry about the distance and risk aversion practiced by many of my brother priests in my regard. Over time, however, that anger has dissolved into sadness, not only about them, but about the climate of fear and dismay created by The Scandal and kept in motion by people with axes to grind.
As more than one reader commented here on These Stone Walls, “Satan has targeted the priesthood.”
As I wrote in “Due Process for Accused Priests,” up to 40% of the population in this prison is convicted of sexual abuse. With but rare exceptions, only Catholic priests face accusations that are 20 to 40 years old.
A sexual abuse conviction is no novelty here. Of 2,900 prisoners here, over 1,000 are on the waiting list for the prison’s sex offender treatment program. The vilification of the priesthood by so-called Catholic “reform” groups has not extended to those exponentially greater numbers of abusers who have victimized young people in the here and now.
Is this vilification really about protecting children?
As I was led into prison fifteen years ago, it was not “Kill the Molester!” that the prisoners were chanting. It was “Kill the Priest!”