08 June 2011

Of Pastors and Pedophiles

For all our political correctness and sensitivity training, Americans absolutely love to pronounce sentence on the failings of others.

I think it's a by-product of our political process: we are the descendants of political savants who put their lives behind the conviction that normal people exercising their God-given judgment could collectively govern themselves. Under our system, the people elect representatives and hold them accountable to their responsibilities to serve the common good. This requires that the electorate be reasonably informed about various matters of public interest and make judgments based on what they know so as to form an opinion and be persuasive.

Notice how much we enjoy exporting this process into other realms. Take sports, for instance. There are few discussions that can get as heated as those over the particular choices of certain players, coaches, or teams. Nourished by the machine-gunned commentary of sportscasters and ESPN commentators, countless sports bar arguments flow unabated by anything resembling self-restraint, nuance, or acknowledgment of multiple points of view. Getting through one of these conversations is often less a matter of real knowledge than the authoritativeness of the tone in which pronouncements are made. And if you happen to be the coach that makes a bad move, God save you from the curses on the lips of your unnamed and anonymous accusers.

Those conversations can be fun—I've enjoyed them myself in the past. But when something more serious than a first round draft pick or choice for starting pitcher makes its way into the public eye, the mob is all too quick to assemble and equip itself with the weaponry of indignation. In particular, the response to the issues surrounding the Catholic Church's handling of clerical sexual abuse cases seem to provide the context for a perfect storm of apodictic pronouncements that rise like a tsunami and spout from every headline, news ticker, and combox.

And well it should—the presence of broken, abusive, and compulsively pathological men in the Catholic priesthood should awaken a strong desire in everyone to ensure that children are preserved from the predations of such persons.


I've been standing at some distance from the media conversation—you could say I've been distracted with other more pressing responsibilities over the last few weeks. But the news certainly made it to my ears, and it hurt. It's one thing to bear up under the suspicious glances and crude pedophile jokes, enduring it as part of the reality of priesthood today. It's another thing to see a priest credibly accused of crimes that should make even the most wanton turn away in disgust—and then step into the same public role. I put on the same clothing and perform the same rituals and basically stand in the same shoes as do the accused. It does make you look at things from a different angle (there but for the grace of God, etc.).

So the distance between me and the media bulletins has presented some different perspective on the question. I present these thoughts as a short rejoinder to those who are still reeling, and perhaps still seething, over the revelations about Father Shawn Ratigan these past few weeks.

Have you noticed how the outrage has been directed exclusively at Bishop Finn and his staff? Not one mention has been made of the (allegedly) reprehensible conduct of Father Ratigan himself—beyond the piling up of data with which to build a case against the diocese. The various advocacy groups are so swift to divert the narrative into their own predictable channels that we forget where the real scandal is to be found: the fall of a Catholic priest into a dark and horrible way of being that poisoned the lives of children as well as his own life—so deeply, in fact, that he sought to take his own life in despair over his actions. The actions of the bishop are, in comparison to this fundamental delict, secondary and derivative.

I make this point not to throw the priest under the bus and divert attention from the admitted imprudence of the diocesan response, but to humanize the target of our accusations and denouncements. It is very easy to allow anger to run unbridled when it is directed at an impersonal and imposing institution. When it's a monolithic corporate body as visible as the Catholic Church, I can easily feel justified in "letting them have it" because—well, they can take it. It could just as easily be Halliburton, or Monsanto, or the Government; as long as it's big, no stick is too ugly to beat it with.

But it's not as easy to give both barrels to the person standing right in front of me. It happens all the time, of course. We justify our cruelty by rationalizing it into candor, “telling it like it is.” All the same, it takes some determination to push aside that natural sense of compassion for our fellow human beings when we're face to face with them. And there are times when we push it aside to our peril.

I don't know Father Ratigan, but he went to my seminary and was ordained just a year or two before I started there. He walked on the same grounds, ate in the same refectory, sat in the same classrooms, and prayed in the same chapel as I did for the last five years. Many of the same men and women who were responsible for my priestly formation were responsible for his. He and I probably have many common memories of a good, holy, and enriching place.

That is a disconcerting thought for me as the wave of my own bewilderment and anger begins to crest. My defenses go up. In some way, I am associated with this man. I find myself torn between the entirely justified reaction of parents whose children were in harm's way, and this sense of compassion that presents itself when the more strident voices die down. My thoughts stray to times when I was younger and was caught out after some misdeed—some lie, some vandalism, some petty act of childish violence. That feeling of remorse, of wanting to take it all back, of realizing the consequences of my actions and finding them fearful is still tangible in me so many years later. And then I imagine that same feeling stoked white-hot by a thousand hostile pairs of burning eyes; the chorus of lips flecked with spittle and quivering with loathing; the forefingers jabbing into my sternum, fists clenched and barely restrained from swinging; the hissing and hoarseness of their voices; the platoon of polished lawyers ready to exploit my misdeeds against the community that gave me faith and nourished and supported me and loved me all my life, and then ordained me to serve in its name; no hope of ever returning to a normal existence, forever branded as a pervert and a deviant, eternally an object of fear and revulsion; and all of them standing there despising, despising, despising my wretched, hypocritical self, and me despising myself along with them for having done what I did—

—I'm not too sure I wouldn't have wanted to end it all, either. That is a dark, dark place to be, and I'm certain that the little imaginative taste of it that I had was a taste of hell.

Putting oneself in the shoes of an accused child molester is not a recommended exercise by any means, and what I've just written is probably hard for many to swallow. By putting it out there, I don't mean to imply that it is the only thing to consider, or even the most important thing. Undoubtedly, there are many more stories of anxiety, fear, and despair in the lives of the victims of sexual abuse and those who have to deal with the fallout and assist with the long and arduous process of healing. But it does have to be considered, and it's the one thing that I've not heard anything about these last few weeks.

What I want to say is this: Father Ratigan is a brother for whom Christ died. That fact has nothing to do with relaxing the standards of justice for him or those responsible for overseeing his ministry as a priest. However, when I look at the way in which this case was handled, and I see that there are some things that don't add up, I can only make wild guesses at why things panned out the way they did. My American upbringing kicks in, and I start formulating opinions and making them known... and then I am reminded that you and I will never get at the whole truth, treading as we do on the horizon of this story. That is enough to give me reason to believe that Bishop Finn wasn't just acting as a shepherd responsible for governing a diocese, managing and protecting the assets accrued by the sacrificial generosity of the faithful, and protecting the most vulnerable from abuse by a wayward priest. He was also acting as the pastor and father of that priest, doing what he could for the good of his name and his soul.

After all, that's what Bishop Finn—himself a priest—was ordained to do.

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