WHEN I WAS YOUNG, there was a priest named Fr. Angelo who used to play around with the children—cuffing our ears, mussing our hair, pinching our faces, warning us to “be good and love God.” He was always the gentlest priest in the confessional, and the mildest from the pulpit. If our stern old Irish pastor scared the sin out of us, Fr. Angelo served as a model of the warm, fatherly love that God treasures for each human soul. Countless children from my parish remember him fondly, and no doubt he has served as a silent, positive influence on many lives.
You’re waiting for the punch line, aren’t you? For the next paragraph which details the appalling acts of sexual abuse for which this priest was later exposed, the traumatic memories of altar boys who trusted Fr. Angelo, whose innocence was betrayed on a camping trip, in the sacristy, in the rectory kitchen…boys who now are sex-addicts, AIDS patients, alcoholics, or pedophiles themselves, serving prison time—or worse, still on the prowl, perhaps also wearing priestly collars….
The subsequent paragraphs would detail the inaction of the Diocese, which shuffled the priest from parish to parish, in the vain hope that his pattern of misbehavior would change—that God’s grace, which we are taught can overcome any sin, would heal his twisted soul and make him once more an upright priest of God, an image of Christ. I can almost hear the bishop’s conversation with his vicar general: “If only Fr. X could be removed from this ‘unhealthy particular friendship’ he’s developed with this one young man; best to move him far, far away.”
All in vain, of course. Pedophilia is a poorly-understood, recently-diagnosed psychological disease—distinct from homosexuality, sex addiction, and promiscuity; it is rooted in a profound emotional retardation and emptiness, in a self that is so shriveled and inadequate it can only find fulfillment in wielding power over the helpless. Clinicians only recently categorized this condition—in part as a result of the molestation scandals afflicting various institutions (As Philip Jenkins has documented, the Catholic Church has the same rate of abuse as other organizations that work with children—churches, scouting groups, schools; but its high ideals and deep pockets make priestly abuse more attractive to reporters and attorneys).
Pedophilia is also incurable—except perhaps for a miracle. But we’re not supposed to count on miracles—that’s called “putting the Lord your God to the test,” and it’s what Satan tempted Jesus to do in the desert. When your tooth hurts, you don’t go to Lourdes—you go to the dentist. Likewise, Christians are supposed to address psychological disorders through therapy, even as they pray for healing.
And we’re supposed to keep predators away from the weak. Another Bible verse says of him who’d corrupt the innocent “It would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his neck.” (Luke 17: 2) We’ve been minting those millstones.
The last paragraph would focus on the legal cases, the trial lawyers’ search for jackpots at the expense of the diocese. The legal bills and jury awards will amount to the hundreds of millions—some of which will go to counseling, to helping the victims recover some shreds of dignity and rebuild their lives. More will go to the attorneys—as it always does. Meanwhile, that negligent bishop will never miss a meal, or sleep on a cot instead of a comfy bed. Instead, he’ll have to close a Catholic hospital, or school, or pregnancy center. Somewhere, a drunk will go hungry, a battered wife will sleep on a park bench, a teenage mom will abort her child, a smart immigrant girl will languish in a rotten public school, an old lady, gut-shot by a robber, will bleed to death in the back of an ambulance—and a trial lawyer will go to Vegas. And no one will make the connection, no one but God.
As you may have guessed, there is no punchline. Fr. Angelo was and is a wonderful priest. I still see him shambling around Astoria, now stooped by beloved old age. The worst thing he ever did to an altar boy was to fire one named Matthew for spiking the incense at a funeral with marijuana (I was the snitch). But I’ll bet Fr. Angelo is more cautious around kids now—just as no American priest will now feel free to muss the hair or pinch the cheek of a child. Instead of fathers, priests will have to behave as circumspect administrators, like doctors in latex gloves. That’s one more layer of distance between God and us. And it is a Goddamned shame.