How to Punish A Fall From Grace?

Thanks to the bungling and sins of the leaders of the Catholic Church in America-who have yet to perform a notable act of public penance for covering up the pedophilia scandal in their midst-any priest found in violation of his vow of celibacy can expect neither mercy nor justice from his superiors. Exhibit A is Bishop James McCarthy, onetime secretary to Cardinal John O’Connor, lately pastor of Saint Elizabeth Seton Church in Westchester County.

Bishop McCarthy recently confessed that he’d had several inappropriate sexual relationships with adult women years ago; the admission came after one of those women-now 37 years old-informed Cardinal Edward Egan of the affair. The cardinal immediately removed Bishop McCarthy from his clerical duties. The bishop then resigned, and soon found his case included among the sexual scandals and crimes that have so terribly wounded the institutional church and many of its faithful.

I can’t claim to know Bishop McCarthy, although I met him once and spoke with him twice by telephone when I was researching the life of his mentor, Cardinal O’Connor. But I do know many people who know the bishop well, and while the revelations about his past have shocked and saddened them, they insist that he’s not just a good priest, but a great priest. And they’ve begun to question why his punishment is so severe, unrelenting and final.

The bishop’s supporters are not alone. Even as Catholics condemn not only pedophiles in their rectories and schools but the scarlet-robed prelates who tried to suppress clerical crimes against children, some voices are being raised against overreaction and scapegoating-the inevitable byproduct of a frightened and ashamed hierarchy. Having been exposed as enablers (wittingly and unwittingly) of some predator priests, the church’s leaders suddenly are determined to show just how tough they are. One strike, one violation of celibacy-even if committed years or even decades ago-and you’re banished from the altar.

Forget compassion: Is this justice? The answer, clearly, is no, and Catholics are beginning to say so. Writing in the July 29-Aug. 5 issue of the Jesuit magazine America , Camille D’Arrienzo of the Sisters of Mercy criticized the bishops’ adoption of what she called a “one size fits all punishment” for wayward priests. She spoke of an unnamed cleric who was suspended from his ministry in an all-girls’ high school for no stated reason after a meeting with his bishop. Although nobody knows for sure, the assumption is that the priest was accused of sexual misconduct of some sort. After allowing that an accusation of pedophilia would require another kind of response, Sister Camille wondered: “Does the goodness, the generous self-sacrifice” in the years following the possible misconduct “count for nothing?”

That same question is being asked about Bishop McCarthy, whose indiscretions took place during the first 20 years of his 34-year career as a priest. During an interview with radio impresarioWilliam O’Shaughnessyon WVOX in late July, former Governor Mario Cuomo specifically cited the McCarthy case during a rumination on the church’s handling of its sexual scandals. There is a difference, Mr. Cuomo said, between abusing a child and entering into a consensual relationship with an adult, “which is sinful and wrong,” but should not be treated with the “same severity as the abuse of a child.”

“There is a tendency to overreact in the punishment of such an act,” Mr. Cuomo said. “It happened to a wonderful man who confessed to having an inappropriate relationship …. This man has been banished for all time; he can be a priest only covertly. That sounds to me like an extraordinarily difficult and cruel punishment imposed on somebody who had led a terrific life”-except, of course, for his sexual liaisons years ago.

Friends of the bishop have organized a campaign to have him restored to the rectory of Saint Elizabeth Seton, where he was a beloved and accessible spiritual leader in the mold of his friend, Cardinal O’Connor. The campaign has found its way into the public prints via Neal Travis’ column in the New York Post , and in a series of articles about the bishop’s fall in Gannett’s Westchester-based daily, the Journal-News . It’s not clear whether the bishop’s allies will be successful, but their efforts certainly have gotten the attention of Cardinal Egan, who has denied having anything to do with Bishop McCarthy’s resignation and has denounced suggestions that he and the bishop butted heads back in the days when they were working for O’Connor.

Whether or not Bishop McCarthy says Mass again in Saint Elizabeth Seton, there’s a larger issue here. He has confessed to his sins, and has submitted to his superiors’ judgment, however hasty and misguided.

His superiors in the church, however, have confessed to very little, and have yet to be punished for their offenses. And still they stand in judgment of others.