Politics & Policy

Shame On Tape

Whence is relief to come?

The New York Times has published excerpts from a tape recording. Featured: a 39-year-old man (“Curt”), a 64-year-old bishop, and a 60-year-old priest. The plaintiff carried a tape recorder with him when he confronted, first, the bishop in the diocese (Albany, New York) where the crime took place, and then the priest who committed the crime. The excerpts bring rage and tears. The final words are addressed by Curt to the bishop. “You’re going to go before God, Bishop. And you’re going to answer for this guy [the priest]. For keeping him. All of you guys are going to answer for that, Bishop. Let me just say this, Bishop: Let my face be in every sleeping and waking moment of your existence.”

Those searing words were spoken by a man who was abused by a priest for seven years. The bishop does very little of the speaking in the excerpts published in the Times, but to believe other than that the priest was guilty and the diocese at best, indecisive, is hard to do. Money was paid to the plaintiff, as also to two of his brothers. Whether the diocese learned as long ago as 1994 that other offending priests were still in clerical practice, rather than behind bars, isn’t established — the bishop goes no further than to say that he did not himself recall the other complaints by Curt.

Why? Because it was so commonplace? Just one more charge that a priest was abusing boys over whom he had custody?

It is dismaying, the terrible wound of the past twelve months. As if God himself had contrived to mortify his Church in America. The distress is most acute among clergy, who feel most deeply the fraternal blight on their calling. A doctor is especially aggrieved by malpractice, a lawyer by disreputable conduct of other lawyers. The shame is one-hundred fold when the offender has acted in progressive defiance of his trust. A priest who yields to an aberrant temptation tells us no more than that priests are human beings. This particular priest is heard on the tape pleading his own problem to the human being he abused. “My problem, O.K., Curt, you know, and you haven’t asked this question, O.K., but you know what I’ve learned in my therapy is that I suffer from very immature sexual development, and that goes back to when I was a kid. Nothing happened to me, but my sexual development was arrested in terms of probably when I was 7, 8 years old.”

But the priest here did not recoil from the effect of his arrested sexual development. He went on studiously to engage in crimes against God, nature, and civil society. And whether it was in 1993 or 1996 that the bishop in this story first knew about the cobra harbored by the diocese, nothing was apparently done beyond calling a therapist, and continuing to shell out money to Curt and who knows how many other plaintiffs who did not think to take tape recorders with them when they accosted the priest and their bishop.

A great deal has been done to acknowledge directly that there is a grave problem within the Catholic Church. There is near unanimity on the point that abuse of a child is also a civil crime, and that civil offenses are properly prosecuted by civil authorities. There is active a reputable commission of laymen charged with looking into the dark corners of the infestation, and one learns that the Pope is appropriately alarmed.

But there are no visible means by which the hurt of the American Catholic laity can be measured, let alone alleviated. We know better than to assume that our clergy are uniquely proof against temptation. But Catholics have felt a quiet pride in the distinction of their association with the unworldly caste of men who pull away from all that is conventionally appealing in order to further the word of God. The sense of it today is that there is something on the order of a corporate responsibility by the Church in America for what happened — year after year — ever since Curt was nine years old, or whatever. The mortification is beyond that of individual priests who went about their work, unmolested molesters. Curt is correct that they have their God to answer to. But whence is relief to come to the Catholic men and women so shamed by the insouciant cowardice of so many of the leaders of their faith?

In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul speaks of his own travail. “Of the Jews five times did I receive forty stripes, save one. Thrice was I beaten with rods, once I was stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I was in the depth of the sea. In journeying often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils from my own nation, in perils from the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils from false brethren. In labour and painfulness, in much watchings, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness. Besides those things which are without: my daily instance, the solicitude for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is scandalized, and I am not on fire? If I must needs glory, I will glory of the things that concern my infirmity.” We are given perspective. We need it sorely.


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