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Casualties in the Pursuit of Holiness

By Eugene Kennedy
In the Washington Post


The Catholic Church of the 1950's, in which so many of us were altar boys and then young priests together, seems as distant as Camelot. Those of us who left the priesthood some to marry gaze back on old comrades, many of whom are now bishops. They are wrestling, as did Jacob with the angel, with how to face and tell the truth about the explosion of pedophilia among priests over the past two decades. The latest troubling accusations are in Washington

Those bishops lost their apple-cheeked innocence when they made a Faustian pact with the nation's demonic counselors-the lawyers, the insurers and the public relations advisers, who convinced them, now to their great discomfort, that the pedophilia problem could be "handled" rather than addressed directly. And so rather than responding candidly and with compassion as each new case surfaced, they acted more like officers of Union Carbide after the catastrophe at Bhopal.

The bishops, many of whom I know, are good men who want to tell the truth. They may not have understood, when they signed on with those secular saviors, that the latter looked at truth far more pragmatically than they themselves did. They trusted these people who made truth the last stop, an exotic resort visited, as Lourdes is, only by hopeless cases.

Had they asked themselves how and why sexual abuse could have arisen in the ranks of priests supposedly trained to renunciation, they might have discovered the truth. The late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago, then the widely respected leader of U.S. bishops, had urged them to do so in the mid-1980s when the problem was emerging. Instead, they chose to let the lawyers play hardball with the victim plaintiffs, let the insurers prevail in protecting assets rather than people, and let the public relations people make it sound like a rescue mission when the lawyers shot the wounded. They need an injection of the skepticism expressed by the first Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago who said, 'The experts? What do they know!" Sadly, these tactics continue. The Boston Archdiocese has responded to its pedophilia scandal with a public relations campaign known as "Operation Restore Trust," as if trust were funds to be raised rather than a sacred human transaction ever rooted in the truth.

This is a poignant tale of victims. First, of course, are the children who were violated in such a primal way by the priests who had, ever since they shepherded the masses of immigrant Catho1ics into the new world in the 19th century, been trusted fully and freely by their flocks.

Next are the priests themselves, victims of the administrative aspects of the Church that recruited and retamed them without helping them to come to terms with their own internal psychosexual conflicts. On Thursday, Pope John Paul II, a towering figure of our time, spoke of but did not name the problem of pedophilia in his 22- page annual letter to the priests of the world. Priests with problems, he observed correctly but narrowly, cast a shadow on all the good, hard-working priests we all know.

He urged priests, according to news reports, "to overcome human weakness by committing themselves more fully to the search for holiness." Yet the pope's recommendation reflects a naivete about human nature that does not ring true in a man who endured a totalitarian Polish regime whose dull colors did not hide its manipulation of and disrespect for the sacredness of human personality.

Desperate men may reach for the pope's cure. Others will find the notion of such an abstraction irrelevant and evidence that the pontiff is living in a time warp. They all need to discover the hard truth about themselves and their lives and all the influences that led them finally to furtive searches and rationalized betrayals in pursuit of erotic relief, always so brief, before being doused by the acid bath of shame at discovery and, often enough, imprisonment as well.

There is a deep truth in the "holiness" that the pope prescribes. The word's root, hal, is found also in wholeness and health. The pursuit of holiness must first build on growing up, that is, becoming whole, a seemingly more plain and less romantic enterprise. When the American bishops decide, as they will eventually, that only the truth will serve them in resolving this crisis, they must ask: What has been lacking in the wholeness of these priests who have violated others? What has been missing that they were unable to maintain healthy relationships with the children placed into their care?

The pope has referred to this problem as a "grievous evil." That kind of language may easily be appropriated by those who want to say that the devil made all these men slaughter the innocents as heartlessly as Herod did those after the birth of Jesus.

Having worked both as a priest and as a clinical psychologist whose clients include priests struggling with pedophilia, I heard more sadness than sin in their troubling stories. For many of them, pedophilia is rooted in the distorted notions of a guilt-drenched sexuality hand, many never fully grew up and never became whole sexual beings. I have listened to them, their eyes glistening with tears, as they try to patch together some sense of themselves that will enable them to go on with life after they have been caught seeking satisfactions they do not understand. And, lacking wholeness, they are frustrated by what for them is often the impossible quest for holiness.

These men seem trapped by the years of rationalizations they offered to others and whispered to themselves --- rationalizations they believed. I have heard men say they cannot remember their victims, although their victims, of course, can never forget them. Looking into their shadowed and shriveled lives, I have sensed that their problems began in a place they can no longer identify, for reasons they never understood fully. Those problems were often ignored or worsened by the emotionally starved conditions of their training and tested severely by the real life conditions they entered after their years of hothouse preparation in the seminary.

Their leaders would have done well to listen to Bernardin, who was accused in 1993 of having sexually abused a seminarian several years before, when he was archbishop of Cincinnati. He and I had been friends since we were young priests. By the time he was accused, he had married my wife and me, and I had written his biography.

"The only thing some people will ever know about me," Bernardin told me on that tense day as the news crackled around the world, "is that I have been accused of harming a young man." He scheduled a news conference.

Cohorts of powerful Chicago lawyers and media advisers converged on his office on Superior Street to prepare him to face the media, which had begun descending on the diocesan headquarters. Bernardin heard the advice given by the worldly wise and returned, alone, to his office and, as he told me later, he sat quietly and prayed, then glanced down at the television trucks swarnling in the street below.

Ten minutes before the news conference, he called me. "I've been listening to a lot of well-meaning people all morning. They tell me that I can't ta1k about the accusation, that I should say that the matter is in litigation. And they say, 'if they ask you this, say you don't know or refer them to the press office or your counsel.' " He paused a beat. "But, you know, I believe that the truth will make me free. So I'm going down and answer all the questions as fully as I can. And if these advisers don't like it, they can go to hell."

I watched the news conference on television a few moments later. He entered a room electric with tension, stood alone, with no script in his hand or adviser at his side, and began to answer the reporters' questions, dodging none of them. How vulnerable he seems, I thought, this Christian looking back through his large-framed glasses at the shouldering and shouting reporters. He did not look away.

The reporters were transformed by the power of words spoken by a truthful man, that rarity in Chicago's public life. Later, one of them, a grizzled veteran, told me, "Halfway through, I wanted to hug him and tell him everything would be all right." But the period did not end without one last assault. "Are you," a young reporter asked, "sexually active?" A hush fell across the room, I have always lived a chaste and celibate life," Joseph said. He spoke the truth, which he saw as his ally and his counselors saw as his enemy. The accusation, without evidence or merit, fell of its own weight within a matter of weeks.

The American bishops should remember that noon as they head into an endless series of them. Telling the truth is easy, my father used to say, but telling a very complicated.

Catholics do not ask much from their bishops and they want to be proud of them. If I could gather the bishops I would tell them simply this: It is by no means too late for you to pledge yourselves, as Bernardin did, to the truth, even if the accusations are correct. It requires no rehearsals and you dont have to remember so much. The eyes of Catholics across the country are on you and you need not fear their glances or worry that they will not listen carefully. Look deeply into their honest eyes and you will honor them and yourselves with the very things that will make us all free.