This week we’ve had to absorb the sad and dispiriting news that the Catholic Church hierarchy in Pennsylvania has covered up the sexual abuse of at least 1,000 children by its clergy over the last 70 years. The grand jury report covering six Catholic dioceses describes in disturbing detail the levels and types of abuse, and how church officials in Pennsylvania went to extraordinary lengths to protect three hundred pedophile priests at the expense of their victims.
Back in 2001 the Boston Globe documented how priests carried out similar abuses in the Boston area with the awareness of church leaders. The Globe’s brave work won the paper a Pulitzer Prize, but more importantly triggered other investigations into the issue in America and around the world. And yet the problem continues.
I am not one of those who see this new report as proof of the illegitimacy of organized religion in general or the Catholic church in particular. I have known too many Catholics through the years who have exemplified both the spirit and love of Christ in their lives to accept that the actions of some degenerate priests in sheep’s clothing provide a final judgment on the church they desecrate by their unholy actions.
Last year my wife and I spent five weeks walking the Camino de Santiago, a 500-mile path through northern Spain that for a thousand years has been walked by Catholic pilgrims. Along the way we met many of them and forged heartfelt friendships as we celebrated with them the unique spirit of pilgrimage, regardless of our often different faiths.
This week I have been thinking about the faithful Catholics in our own towns and communities, and how difficult this news from Pennsylvania is for them. For those who have felt the inner call to believe in a power greater than our own, it is disheartening to see how easily we humans can commit immoral crimes while hiding behind a wall of moral authority.
Such actions are not unique to the Catholic church. Scandals involving those who abuse trust are far too common. It simply proves that power, regardless of where it is experienced—in religion, government, or business—has the constant potential to corrupt. Despite religious commandments and earthly laws, powerful people sometimes decide they are free to ignore the limitations and restraints that we who are merely ordinary follow daily.
It seems obvious to me that the requirement of nearly every religion to conduct ourselves in a spirit of sexual restraint creates problems for some. As humans we can philosophically see the importance of such teachings, but in a cage match between philosophy and human emotion, there is ample evidence that emotion sometimes wins. This is true regardless of our station in life, and when it occurs the results can destroy lives.
And so we all struggle. We reach for the clouds while our feet remain firmly on the ground. This will never change.
Here’s what I think: I’m a fan of religion insofar as it turns the hearts of its believers heavenward, and encourages us to strive to live the standards we intellectually support but too often emotionally ignore. The reality is we all need constant reminders of our better angels.
But I also accept that any religion pointing us toward God is nevertheless run by fallen man, who from time to time will screw things up to an alarming degree. Many of you will disagree, but I’m convinced that individual human frailty does not disqualify the wider moral authority of the worlds’ great faiths.
If you are a Catholic who has backed away from the church due to these horrible breaches of confidence, I understand. But if you continue to maintain fidelity with your church, I understand that too. In either case you have my deepest respect. In a world of inexhaustible imperfection all we can do is follow the quiet inner light that leads us.
This does not excuse the guilty, who richly deserve the fullest legal punishments prescribed by the laws they have cynically broken. Perhaps we will even learn from their mistakes, though human history provides scant evidence of that eventuality. Nevertheless, I have faith.