The ripe tones of Archbishop Mahoney of Los Angeles filled my house last week, courtesy of National Public Radio. Mahoney spoke of his horror, his shame at the stories of priest abuse. He apologized to the victims. The mellifluous sanctimony of his penitence filled the room with such extreme unction that I burst out laughing. What a surprise it all is! Priests hitting on altar boys! Priests molesting children. We’re shocked, shocked!
“Rum, sodomy and the lash” was Winston Churchill’s famous itemization of the finest traditions of the British navy. With the Church we can maybe exclude the rum and, for the lash, substitute contrition and forgiveness.
When Oscar Wilde was packed off to Reading Jail in 1895 for sodomy, the railway trains to Brighton and Dover were soon replete with panicked gays fleeing England to Paris. Hundreds of Catholic priests here, many of them in retirement, must be asking themselves whether it might be prudent to remove themselves from the jurisdiction until the heat dies down.
It was bound to happen. Five years ago a senior dignitary in the Roman Catholic hierarchy confided that over the previous decade the Church had paid out over a billion dollars in out-of-court settlements as well as court fights on priest abuse cases.
On the old way of doing business someone molested by a priest 20 years earlier would read of a big settlement and contact an attorney with experience in the field. In the Bay Area it’s been Michael Meadows. Then, if the case looked as though it had merit, Meadows would push forward, and sooner or later be in communication with the Church’s lawyers who would either settle out of court for some hefty sum in the high hundreds of thousands or low millions. Or the Church would fight it, and often go down in court. The Church would pay the legal bills, and the Church would keep the priests on the payroll.
So now the Church is cutting the priests lose, because it can’t afford the money drain. Of course the Church will still face suits from people molested by priests, but they won’t fight the cases and they won’t keep them on the payroll. Big savings right there.
Anyone with any knowledge of these cases knows perfectly well that this is no matter of a few rotten apples in the barrel. Sometimes, hearing about one priestly molester after another one has the impression that not only has the Catholic church has been the prime sanctuary for repressed gays for the past several hundred years but that there isn’t a priest alive that hasn’t at some point made advances to a altarboy or boy scout. At least in the Middle Ages they got off with the nuns, or in the nineteenth century when they could afford domestics, the maid.
And certainly the Church has protected these priests, moved them around the country, away from an area where their activities had become known. The Church has some very dingy closets to clean out.
That being said, the witch-hunt atmosphere is very disagreeable and getting worse. Years of prison time seems out of line with what the Boston priest actually did. The same NPR program featuring Mahoney had the story of two priests in northern Maine, driven from their parishes by the diocese, against the desires of the congregation, who knew their pasts, felt comfortable with them.
But on some sexual matters Americans are unforgiving, demanding that people convicted of violent sexual crimes stay behind bars not just for ten or fifteen or twenty years, but for ever. The same society sends young non-violent offenders off to prison where the near-to-absolute certainty is that they will be raped, and many of them thus rendered into psychopathic time- bombs.
The church protected its priests. The state of California, the governor, the prison union, and we the people in the form of the jury, stood by the prison staff at Corcoran responsible for conditions under which a man was put in a cell with a violent convict who raped him repeatedly over a period of two days. The society that has designed our gulag rape factories shouldn’t get on too much of a moral high horse about the Catholic Church’s moral delinquencies.