success stories

Shamed by the Sins of Others

by E.J. Dionne Jr. From an editorial in the Washington Post

Some of my best friends are priests.

To say that would seem either bold or sarcastic these days, given all the news stories about priestly pedophilia.

In my case, the assertion is simply true. And it can only deepen your rage at the Catholic Church’s coverup of contemptible behavior if you know many good and decent men who have devoted their lives to serving others. The innocent bear the scars of institutional failure.

“You’re walking around in a collar,” says the Rev. Frank Kelly of the Sacred Heart Church in Boston, “and you really feel that people are thinking: Is that what a pedophile looks like?

The Rev. John Mudd, director of development at Archbishop Carroll High School in Washington, tells of a friend who has stopped wearing his clerical collar. He doesn’t want passers-by to know he’s a priest.

Father Kelly and Father Mudd would be the first to say that the anguish of blameless priests is nothing compared with the suffering of those who were abused as children or with the betrayal experienced by their parents.

But this largely untold part of a terrible story only underscores the costs of putting institutional self-protection above service and decency.

This is the lesson that goes beyond the Catholic Church. Wrongdoers and the leaders who hide their crimes force the rank and file to choose between their institutional and ethical commitments. Those further down the organizational chart pay the heaviest cost every time.

Those in charge typically plead for mercy and exploit their power — along with the loyalty of their followers — to hang on to their positions.

Those who do the institution’s day-to-day work get stuck with the opprobrium and have to clean up the mess.

Monsignor Phil Murnion, a friend who directs the National Pastoral Life Center in New York City, sees a classic conflict: Actions purportedly designed to safeguard an institution by sweeping wrongdoing under the rug only compound the original crimes: “There’s a real danger in the way it’s being handled, because the effort to ‘protect the priesthood’ is at the expense of the individual priest.” And any leader who seeks protection in the cloak of authority, he says, only “soils” that authority by invoking it for self-interested purposes.

Yet church leaders such as Boston’s Cardinal Bernard Law (he’s desperately fighting off calls for his resignation) do not speak for all or even most of their priests, let alone for average Catholics in the pew.

The Rev. Ray Kemp, who spent two decades serving inner-city parishes in Washington and deals with priests all over the country through a program on the preaching of social justice, gave voice to the rage of many of his colleagues.

“We cannot stand to be party to covering up the rankest abuse of our young,” he declared in a sermon last Sunday at Our Lady of Mercy Church in Potomac. “In the midst of humiliation, at the hands of betrayal, there rises from deep within an anger and a frustration with any who would lead us into deceiving our parishioners, sparing us the extent and cost of their crimes, ‘cooking the books’ to tell us that all is well when it is not.

“We freely confess our sins, our weakness, our erring,” he said. “But dear God, we had no idea of the enormity of the malfeasance.”

For priests such as Kemp and Kelly, Murnion and Mudd, the immediate answers to the church’s crisis lie in ending secrecy, reducing the power of what Kelly calls “clerical bureaucrats,” and broadening participation by the laity in basic decisions. If even one parent had been on a board deciding the fate of pedophile priests, Kelly asks, would any of those priests have been assigned to parish work again?

The sadness and anger of Catholics is no doubt universally understood. All of us have experienced institutional betrayal. All of us understand how power is abused.

But when the institutions that fail us are those for which we have a special and lifelong affection, the sense of loss is personal. That’s how the good priests feel. “I’ve been happy as a priest for 33 years and I wouldn’t have wanted to do anything else,” says Father Mudd. “I was exposed to good priests growing up. They were great people. They were my heroes.”

I’ve known priests like that, too. To watch as their reputations are besmirched because of flawed leadership and the despicable behavior of some of their colleagues is to witness a profound injustice and to experience a terrible sorrow.