Some years ago, shortly after the first stories about sexual abuse by priests began to surface in Boston, I met a man, a cradle Catholic, who told me that a priest had sexually propositioned him as a teenager. A parent now, he was full of conflict over the incident, which had soured him on the church even as his parents remained devout. His temperament was religious by nature, though, and he openly talked about missing something by not being a part of the church, and wondered whether he should bring up his own young children as Catholic. Yet, his own experience told him that what was going on in the church was not something that could be explained away as a few rogue priests in a diocese where the bishop was insufficiently vigilant.

He was right. The Boston revelations prompted a flood of new complaints around the country. In Boston alone, the archdiocese ultimately compiled a list of 250 priests—including some dead—accused of abusing minors. Hundreds of other cases came to light in dioceses stretching from Newark to Portland, from Dallas, Denver, and Minneapolis to Los Angeles. The reports revealed a pattern of appalling behavior that demonstrated a moral collapse among the clergy, and a church hierarchy more concerned with protecting itself than rooting out a pernicious evil.

The most recent revelations—sparked by the Pennsylvania grand jury report on sexual abuse, which has now resulted in accusations that even the Pope himself may have protected abusers—suggest an institutional rot in the Catholic Church, amounting to an existential crisis of the faith. Some of the church’s key leadership, the Pennsylvania report suggests, may have not just turned a blind eye to the abuses but also have actively participated in them. The crimes are so widespread that, if you grew up in the church, you almost certainly know of a priest who has been defrocked, or worse, led away in handcuffs. Catholics invited these men into their homes, entrusted them with their children, and named their kids after them; now they see that they were surrounded by widespread evil. This disaster represents a historic perfidy visited on the faithful and portends the gutting of an institution that does valuable work in society—educating poor kids, integrating immigrants, comforting the sick and dying, and giving people hope.

I’m old enough to have experienced what in hindsight was a fundamental transition in the clergy. The old, formidable, gruff priests of my parents’ world—who scared the hell out of me when I was very young—gave way in the early 1970s to hipper, more modern priests. The modern cleric wore his hair longer, dressed in the trendy clothes of the times (Nehru jackets could plausibly pass as clergy chic in those days), and worked harder to “relate” to Catholic teens. These priests organized “folk” masses and took us to see Catholic versions of “Up with People.” When two of them offered to help us explore the wider world of Manhattan, even proposing to take us on a trip into 1970s Greenwich Village, our parents went along with the idea. What safer way to see firsthand what the world outside our neighborhood was becoming than under the protective guidance of priests? Gradually, though, disturbing rumors surfaced. In college, my older Catholic classmates warned me to avoid a nearby seminary, where students on the path to the priesthood had a reputation for propositioning other guys. I didn’t know what to make of the vague accusations; in part, they seemed the disquieting fantasies of people who had been raised with too little respect for the church.

In time—and it took a long time—the rumors became hard to ignore. A priest whom family members of mine regularly invited into their homes was accused of several incidents of sexual abuse, and suddenly disappeared from the local parish. Another, who grew up in my neighborhood, was busted for distributing child pornography. When his mug shot appeared in the local papers, it contrasted starkly with family pictures showing him officiating at our baptisms and weddings. At first, adults began to whisper about these things among themselves, trying to keep them from the children and the older folk. But after a while, that became impossible. I measured the change in my mother’s attitude—in the waning years of her life, she began openly disparaging the church—as the bellwether. She’d been the quintessential good Catholic her entire life, but it was as if a veil had been lifted from her eyes and she could no longer tolerate what the church had become.

The latest revelations have prompted even deeper doubts from Catholics. Some prominent ones have talked or written about the struggle to stay within the church. Others have explained that they remain because their relationship is directly with God, not with their priest. Still other voices have said that the church, being made up of its congregants, should simply seize power from the priests and refashion the institution. Yet Catholic theology has invested more power in its priests than non-Catholic Christians do in their prelates, so that Catholics can’t even fulfill their religious obligations without a priest officiating. That makes reform difficult. Meanwhile, many of the changes that the church initiated in the wake of the initial scandals have proven tame and ineffective—the work of people seemingly more interested in holding on to power than cleaning house. Other proposals, including letting priests marry or letting women become priests, don’t go to the heart of the problem, their relative merits aside. Though the challenges of living celibate in the modern world must be real, they never justified the horror of the sins committed by priests.

Amid all of this distressing news, the accusations by former high-ranking Vatican official Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò that Pope Francis rehabilitated Washington, D.C. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, even though Francis was aware of sexual abuse allegations against McCarrick, have sparked press reports of a Vatican power struggle. Francis is controversial because he’s tried to sweep aside traditionalists in favor of a more doctrinally liberal church. He’s installed many like-minded prelates around the United States and throughout the world. One of them, Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, rose to the Pope’s defense, attacking Viganò for not “contributing to the healing of survivors of sexual abuse.” But Viganò’s accusations are far more than the stuff of backroom politics, and this is not a scandal on the level, say, of the Vatican bank cooking the books, or even of priests selling indulgences. This is moral depravity, a betrayal worthy of Dante’s powers of description, and Francis’s official statements on the abuse scandals, like those of too many American bishops, have been weak and formulaic. From the Bishop of Rome, a more appropriate response might be sackcloth and ashes.

The Pope might believe that the church is eternal, but after the full impact of the scandal is felt, the church in America may be unrecognizable. Already, the church and its insurance companies have paid out an astounding $3.8 billion to victims of the abuse scandals. And the revelations in Pennsylvania suggest that there’s far more to come. The  attorneys general of other states are talking about launching their own inquiries, and if what independent investigators have found in Boston and Pennsylvania is repeated elsewhere, a church already facing declining participation might well face bankruptcy. That will only hasten the church’s rapid retreat around the country, as dioceses have closed churches and tragically shuttered schools that once did an essential job educating children, especially in poorer urban areas, where public schools are often not up to the task. Meantime, the church has utterly forfeited its moral authority, leaving a gaping hole in the bulwark against moral relativism, the modernist’s new religion.

In Saul Bellow’s novel Henderson the Rain King, the narrator contemplates whether “the forgiveness of sins is perpetual and righteousness first is not required.” That seems almost to have been the creed of many priests and the American Catholic hierarchy of the past 50 years. The sins were not only grievous but repeated and sustained. The leadership did nothing to stop what they sensed was occurring, showing no compassion for the victims until outsiders uncovered the truth. Even then, the church’s efforts have been shockingly inadequate. The days of wrath the church now faces may be the almighty’s way of telling its leadership that, while the forgiveness of sins may be perpetual, it’s not automatic; if righteousness is too much to ask for, then at least remorse is required.

Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images


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