What the Priest Scandal Is – and Is Not – About
I have not written about the recent barrage of accusations regarding the scandal of Catholic priests who could not keep their hands and other things to themselves, and the prelates who did the same, encouraged them, or shuffled them here and there to hide them. I am not a private investigator or a lawyer, so for the time being I’ll let matters take their course and see what specifics are brought to light.
But many of my fellow Catholics, and plenty of people who detest the Church, and some who are a little of this and a little of that, have said things that ought to be addressed.
First, some people say that to focus on the homosexual nature of the crimes is unjust to the girls and women who were victims, and that in any case it is not to the point. Here we must both condemn all the abuse, and insist on the cold numbers, to analyze the character of most of it. Four out of five of the victims in the whole scandal were male, and most of them were not little children, but adolescent boys and young men. It may well be that a disproportionate number of homosexual men entered the seminary in order to hide their desires from themselves or from others, and that therefore we should not interpret that ratio too severely. But the social stigma cuts in both directions. If it raised the number of homosexual men who became priests, it also undoubtedly lowered the number of men who would ever admit to having engaged in homosexual relations. If a boy is even half as likely as a girl to report that he has been molested by a man—almost always not by force but by enticement and invitation into indecency, so-called “grooming”—then the ratio is more like eight males to one female, rather than the four to one ratio whereof we have hard evidence, and four to one is already staggering. Perhaps it was ten to one, or twelve. We don’t know.
Second, the whole of the meta-crime was homosexual. That is, we do not have examples of womanizing priests or priests with fetishes for girls going out of their way to recruit other such priests, forming a tight little cabal, covering for one another, suborning young men into this wicked way of life, issuing veiled threats against anyone who would go public, and snubbing those who did not approve. There was no network of abusers of girls. This network was about men who wanted to do things with boys and men.
Fourth, what on earth can people possibly mean when they say, as Mr. Damon Linker has said, that the Church is a “repulsive institution” that no decent person can endure? Name any other large human institution. Ask of it, “What is the worst thing this institution has done in the last seventy years?” to take the interval specified in the report out of Pennsylvania. The United States government? Hollywood? The British Broadcasting Corporation? Harvard? Let us be consistent here. I remain an American not because of America’s sins, which are many and grave, but because I owe a citizen’s debt to the land of my birth, and because America is also a nation of great and humane virtues. I do not judge America by her worst presidents, or by her worst crimes, but by her character as a whole, and by her triumphs and her goodness. No nation is utterly evil—even the Soviet Union, which could give Satan a run for his money, was not utterly evil, and, in any case, Russia and the Soviet Union are not the same thing, as the Church and her evil prelates are not the same.
Fifth, who’s kidding whom? I’ve seen an “icon” of the homosexual predator Harvey Milk, whose name also graces a Navy ship. Exactly what did McCarrick do that was worse than what Mr. Milk did all the time? On the contrary, if McCarrick was a predator, Milk was evil incarnate. He groomed boys, “helping” them when they were on the streets, taking them in, seducing them, entering into a relationship with them, and then dumping them when he got bored with them. Yet he is celebrated. So is Sir John Gielgud, an actor whose considerable skills I admire; he, too, did that sort of thing, and the old boys in film covered for him. What on earth do we think that homosexual men talk about when they are in the exclusive company of older boys and young men? Stock car racing? Of course, they are aroused by the youths. Greece and Rome attest to the old man’s attraction to the youthful beauty of the boy, which is not like the beauty of the woman, or like the roughness of the grown man. Look up the word “neoteny.”
Sixth, again, who’s kidding whom? We hear that in Pennsylvania 300 priests took indecent liberties with 1,000 children—most of them boys big enough to have gotten away or given the priests a jolt to the jaw, a right cross that I would beg fathers to teach to their sons in these sick times. This was over the course of seventy years, in a state of ten million people. And how many families during those seventy years were sliced in half by divorce? How many of the people who are furious with the evil men in the Church spent some years of their lives doing their kinds of sexual evil? Fornication, cohabitation, adultery, pornography—were priests the big promoters of all of those? Abortion, too? I am not making an excuse for the evil. I am taking away the right of almost everyone alive during these times of easy and widespread and socially accepted sexual immorality to get on their horses and portray themselves as chivalrous defenders of the Order of Decency. Give me a break.
Seventh—I hear some people say that the priests in question only became priests so that they could become predators. If only things were so simple. Never underestimate the tangle of motives and contradictions that is the human heart. Some conservatives have said that Theodore McCarrick must never really have believed in God or the gospel. Do you think that is also true of the Mass-going couple down the street who are not yet married? We have all been sold a bill of goods. The whole anti-culture roundabout McCarrick, with those nice young people in your neighborhood, has said, “The Church will get with the times, you’ll see. You’re not really doing anything wrong.” When it comes to what is acceptable and what is not, people will usually set the bar two inches below where they happen to be standing—wherever that is. Jesus did not offend the world because he loved sin. He offended the world because he loved sinners, which is another way of saying that he tore away all of our petty excuses for every conceivable sin.
Eighth, the response of some of our bishops has been astonishingly callous and petty. “Madam,” says the policeman, “I know that your child has been kidnapped, but would you kindly shut up about it? I’m working on the logistics for the parade tomorrow.” I do not require that my bishop be a saint. I do require that he be faithful to the teachings of the Church, and that he obey the law of the land. That is not too much to ask. If you are leading a double life, get out. We don’t need you. If you have ever covered for someone leading a double life, get out. If you have covered for someone who has molested a young person of either sex, get out. Please, leave us already. You have done plenty of harm.
Ninth—it does appear that most of the offending prelates, not all by any stretch, were hippy-dippy loosey-goosey innovators with the liturgy, heterodox on family matters, and very bad managers of diocesan resources, especially the schools. They have seemed happy to preside over failure. Whether they were or no, the last people they ever wanted to see were those who complained about some sex-education slime in the local school, or about flatly heretical sermons and sing-a-ding-dings. Please, leave us. Go home, repent, take up bowling or stamp collecting, pray, work in a soup kitchen, do anything but burden us any longer with your incompetence.
Tenth. The Church is our Mother. No true son or daughter takes delight in the shame of his mother. We also must not do so. Nor do I want to believe the worst about any individual member of the Church. I have named McCarrick only because his case instigated all that has been discussed since, and at that I have not judged him, I think, with any harshness beyond what he has clearly deserved. Let us not be prancing play-actors shedding phony tears to hear about the sins of others. We now must be more loyal to our Mother, more committed to keeping her teachings, more devoted to the faith she has brought us, and more humbled by the sight of once-admired men brought to the pit by sin. That pit may await any one of us, too.
Professor Esolen is a teaching fellow and writer in residence at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, New Hampshire. Dr. Esolen is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of many books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) and Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013). His most recent books are Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching (Sophia Institute Press, 2014); Defending Marriage (Tan Books, 2014); Life Under Compulsion (ISI Books, 2015); and Out of the Ashes (Regnery, 2017).