Decent Priests Suffer While Bishops Dissemble

Unlike some observers, I’m not prepared to equate the Roman Catholic clergy with the Taliban. Catholics have good reason to be furious with the actions of those bishops who have aided and abetted the predatory habits of pedophile priests. But those who suggest that the horrendous sex-abuse scandal is evidence of a systematically rotten and downright misogynist priesthood really ought to get to know a pastor or two. (Sorry, but watching Going My Way doesn’t count.)

Members of the Catholic Church’s hierarchy have acted with gross incompetence-that point is so clear that the bishops have few if any defenders even among the devout, and even among the vast majority of priests who are not and never have been child molesters. Good priests are as horrified as their congregations-and given that some of those congregations are in neighborhoods where no elite opinion-formers dare trespass, it’s worth noting that Catholic priests continue to minister to the poor, the grieving and the forgotten, even as they’re subjected to undeserved ridicule.

A priest friend of mine-whose name I won’t mention because we were talking off the record-said with palpable sadness that he doesn’t wear his clerical Roman collar when he ventures out in Manhattan these days. He’s self-conscious, and more than a little angry with the bishops and archbishops who have dealt so miserably with this terrible problem. At Mass a couple of weeks ago, my friend apologized for the shame and scandal a few priests and bishops have brought on an institution so many lay people still look to for consolation, for inspiration and, yes, for moral and ethical guidance.

My friend and I talked a little bit about a mutual friend of ours, a priest whose job it is to help recruit and train young priests. “How would you like that job these days?” my friend asked. He talked, too, about the uncounted ways this scandal has changed the dynamic between parish priests and their congregations. “Look, I know guys who’d like to take kids to a ball game, to show interest in the lives of the kids in the parish. They can’t do that now,” he said. “And when you talk about vocations, priests are supposed to be examples for young men. But that’s tough now.”

Perhaps it would have been a little easier if Cardinal John O’Connor and Cardinal Joseph Bernadin of Chicago were alive. O’Connor was a terrific pastor and a so-so bureaucrat. He spent a lifetime confronting unpleasant truths regardless of the consequences, and very likely would not have responded in lawyerly fashion to allegations and cover-ups. It’s the bureaucrats who’ve gotten the church into this mess, not the genuine pastors.

Cardinal Bernadin, you may remember, actually was accused of sexual abuse years ago by a onetime seminarian who was under the spell of the recovered-memory hucksters. One of Bernadin’s close friends, writer and ex-priest Eugene Kennedy, recalled that the cardinal dispensed with the advice of lawyers and public-relations experts who urged all manner of spin-control tactics. Instead, he confronted a ravenous press corps, denied the charges and expressed sympathy for his accuser. The charge, it turned out, was false. Bernadin publicly embraced his accuser, who later died of AIDS.

That’s leadership, but Bernadin and O’Connor-two very different archbishops with very different styles-are gone now, and too many of those in power act like middle managers rather than teachers and pastors, servants of the servants of God. Cardinal Edward Egan’s homily on Palm Sunday had the right language and the right tone: He vowed that sexual abuse in the priesthood would be “wiped out,” and he spoke with feeling about the crimes committed against children. But the messenger himself remains covered in shadow. He inherited a scandal in Bridgeport, Conn., and did not cover himself with glory when he had to deal with the consequences.

But at least the cardinal has not taken the low road of blaming the media-a journey his colleague in Boston, Cardinal Bernard Law, and others have undertaken at no small cost to their credibility. This is not a media-driven story; it’s driven by sin, criminality and a shocking breach of trust.

As the scandal continues to unfold, as outraged lay people make it clear that they will no longer tolerate dissembling from their bishops, parish priests will continue to comfort, guide and teach-even as the larger world makes cruel jokes at their expense. They will continue to baptize the newborn, marry the young and bury the dead. And they’ll do so for years to come, knowing that their way of life is open to question and even ridicule.

They knew when they were ordained that theirs would be a lonely calling. They had no idea just how lonely it would be.