Ten years ago today a story broke that would change a lot of things. The Boston Globe, in what would go on to be a Pulitzer Prize winning investigation, broke a story about a priest who raped and abused boys, and had been reassigned to parish after parish. The title was stark: Church allowed abuse by priest for years. We’re so used to that story now, but holy crap, it’s terrible. It was the Feast of the Epiphany. We had an epiphany, for sure.
I was a student at Boston College, and every morning I would cross Commonwealth Avenue to my job at a coffee shop next to the T stop. Just on the other side of Lake St the protesters gathered, morning after morning, and the crowd grew as shock turned to outrage and the cover-up unraveled.
At that same coffee shop, I was allowed to take fifty cents from the register each morning and buy a copy of the Boston Globe at Maddie’s Market, next door. After unloading the milk order and pouring cups for the few people who walked into the place before dawn, I would skim the headlines.
They got worse, and worse, and worse.
I think it is safe to say I had an awesome religious upbringing. I saw God and the Church in my family, my friends, the parish I grew up in. The Church to me was not some group of old white men off in chanceries, or in Rome (although the Bishop who confirmed me, Bishop Rozazza of Hartford was a wonderful man and one of my great heroes). The Church was the people I lived among, the air I breathed.
I didn’t really recognize this, and so the Catholic college I ended up attending was not an aspiration but an accident. There I met other people of faith. I learned that there were those with whom I vociferously disagreed, but we still prayed together every Sunday, and Wednesday night, and most weekdays at 11 or 12.
I met more priests. I learned from them, I travelled with them, I prayed with them, I worked with them. Some were jerks, some were saints. They were all devoted to the Reign of God. They were all devoted to my learning. They were an important part of my community, of my “we”.
When the story broke I was ashamed and horrified and angry. With the perspective of a decade, I realize that what I felt most was betrayal. What the sinful priests did, what the bishops did, violated the most vulnerable among us – a sin that is horrific enough for ten lifetimes. Alongside that compassion for victims, I couldn’t help but feel that those clerics had betrayed me personally, as part of the body of Christ. I didn’t bear the brunt of the wound, for sure, but how could they not know? How could they not know that they were embarrassing us all? They made us all doubt, all have to fight for our faith, all have to recalibrate our belief in light of this trauma.
One of the benefits of being part of a group is identifying with those who are a part of it. Catholics take pride that Stephen Colbert teaches CCD, that Martin Sheen made a movie about the Via de Compostela, and that Brian Williams wears purple ties during Lent. It’s good to be a “we”, but it comes at a cost.
Our “we” also includes sinners, some wicked and some misguided. That makes the rest of the “we” hang our heads for while, maybe even for always. Allegiance to a group – no, love for a people, comes at a terrible, terrible price: the stain of those whose sin betrays us, and the pain of those who bear the brunt of their sin.
I can’t imagine how painful that betrayal must have been and must still be. I concluded a long time ago that the church – any church – is THE most human of institutions, with every weakness that implies. With the perspective of age, I want to respond to your comment that “Our ‘we’ also includes sinners, some wicked and some misguided.” What I’ve learned is that any “we” includes at least two sinners (depending on the number making up the “we”), since we are all inevitably and irrevocably sinners; the only distinction is the nature and perhaps the number – although I’m not too sure about that – of our sins. As humans, we all have the potential for wickedness within us, and I am convinced that we all act upon it from time to time; we all are also misguided in myriad ways.
One of the greatest temptations to sin is to become convinced that the sin of another is somehow “worse” than our own. The “sinful priests” are human, and even their horrible, destructive behaviors can be, I believe, covered by God’s promise of forgiveness and grace. As terrible as the damage they inflict is, those who even more fundamentally betray and undermine any beloved institution, but particularly the church, are those whose need for self-protection and the preservation of their own power outweigh their love for God’s truth and for the people they supposedly serve. They exist across denominations and across religions and are found in the upper ranks of any human institution. It is the relentless hubris at the heart of THEIR sin that, if not identified, named and controlled, eventually destroys the foundations on which such institutions rest.