Priests, children and abuse: Is there a 'Gospel of Shame'?

November 21, 1993|By Frank P. L. Somerville | Frank P. L. Somerville,Staff Writer

Little wonder that many Roman Catholics long for a simpler, more innocent, more serene time when shocking sexual-abuse accusations involving respected religious figures, such as those lodged recently against Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, could be dismissed as preposterous without so much as a second thought. If such longing is a head-in-the-sand reaction to current events, it nonetheless is understandable.

Unfortunately, as investigative reporters Elinor Burkett and Frank Bruni make painfully and abundantly clear in their readable, well-researched book, too many years of official church mishandling of unspeakable clergy misconduct have taken their toll. Whatever the resolution of the lawsuit naming Cardinal Bernardin, he maintains his innocence in a climate of growing cynicism, suspicion and mistrust.

It is a climate created by the cardinal's fellow bishops and pastors. Their collective response to clear evidence of the sexual abuse of children by priest after priest after priest has been a combination of naivete, disbelief, neglect, denial, cover-up, deceit and criminal inaction.

One could also mention a greater concern for the abusers and the financial costs to the church than for the victims.

Few members of the Catholic hierarchy have publicly admitted to, or apologized for, either the stunning dimensions of the scandal or the church's secretive mishandling of it.

Cardinal Bernardin, to his credit, is one who has.

He is quoted in "A Gospel of Shame" as confessing to a Chicago woman, "I made a mistake. I'm sorry." They were talking about his earlier refusal to heed her warning that a popular priest was molesting young boys. It was one of many bitter experiences that led the cardinal to establish a more open, more comprehensive, more impartial policy to deal with such cases in the Chicago archdiocese.

The Rev. Andrew M. Greeley, the Catholic sociologist and prolific novelist of potboilers, is not known for understatement. Pedophilia is his church's "S&L disaster," he said on one occasion, and on another he termed the sex-abuse scandal Catholicism's most serious crisis since the Reformation.

The Burkett-Bruni team finds both assertions extravagant. "Child sexual abuse by priests is neither cleaving the church in two nor threatening it with financial collapse," the authors say. "But it is, without a doubt, creating the greatest public relations fiasco the Catholic Church has faced in recent memory."

But any reader of their disturbing account of the problem must come away wondering what single crisis in Christianity's history since the birth of Protestantism in the 16th century has cut closer to the heart of the Catholic Church's complex, fragile clergy-laity relationship.

Catholic teachings about human sexuality, the church's insistence on patriarchal authority, the theology of the priesthood and the celibate life, the confidence in and efficacy of the confessional -- all are being questioned and challenged by Catholics in the pews against the insistent drumbeat of sex-abuse revelations.

Ms. Burkett and Mr. Bruni may discount others' estimates of numbers and costs -- such as Father Greeley's that at least 2,500 Catholic priests in the United States have victimized 100,000 children in the last two decades, or author Jason Berry's contention that, between 1982 and 1992, sexual abuse cases cost the Catholic Church $400 million in settlements, legal expenses and medical treatment of clergy. But "A Gospel of Shame" contains its own examples of extravagant language.

It offers this judgment: "As their demand for justice reaches into every nook and cranny of American Catholicism, the victims are creating the very revolution the bishops cannot lead: a revolt by the laity against the perils of hierarchy. . . . They can control the size of the purse of a church already strapped for cash by considering the price of children's souls when they reach for the collection basket."

This book is at its weakest when it departs from clear recitations of the appalling facts uncovered and treads on angels' territory, as when it questions the fundamental Christian principle that "forgiveness is what leads to healing." It does so in an otherwise sound discussion of the shortcomings of the Servants of the Paraclete Treatment Center in Jemez Springs, N.M., which was "letting diagnosed and often convicted pedophiles wander the playgrounds and swimming haunts of the small town."

Mr. Berry's more exhaustive, wider-ranging study -- "Lead Us Not Into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children," published last year by Doubleday -- was on surer theological ground. It was also more journalistic, less emotionally novelistic in its handling of the case histories.

A curious departure from the facts in the Burkett-Bruni book is its attack on Mr. Berry for allegedly "misunderstanding the difference between child sexual abuse and homosexuality." The authors state that Mr. Berry "suggested a purge of gay priests" -- something he did not do.

What he did, though, was to discuss a related issue that Ms. Burkett and Mr. Bruni soft-pedal: the disproportionately high percentage of male victims of Catholic priests, whereas among all other groups of pedophiles -- including clergy of other churches -- the victims are overwhelmingly female.

"A Gospel of Shame," its incongruous title suggesting the "good news" or "glad tidings" of a disgrace notwithstanding, is a useful contribution toward solving one of society's most vexing problems. Both it and Mr. Berry's book should be read by anyone with the Catholic Church's best interests at heart.

Mr. Somerville is religion editor of The Sun.

Title: "A Gospel of Shame: Children, Sexual Abuse, and the Catholic Church"

Authors: Elinor Burkett and Frank Bruni

Publisher: Viking

Length, price: 292 pages, $22.50

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