Trust, innocence are casualties of church sex abuse cases

November 23, 1993|By SUSAN REIMER

When Catholic families send their children down the aisle of the church for their first holy communions, the girls are dressed in white and crowned with wreaths of flowers or tiny veils. Their cheeks are flushed with the heat of the church in May. The boys squirm in their suits and their shirttails will be out soon. But they, too, look as if they have been kissed by angels.

The palms of the children are pressed together in prayerfulness, but their eyes are wide at the pageantry of the day. The hearts of the parents are comforted: They are entrusting their children to God, his church and God's representatives here on Earth, the priests.

The children's innocence, the families' trust. Both are so real they might be sitting in the pew next to grandma.

So, imagine the impact of the headlines out of Boston, Chicago and Baltimore. Each day brings a new allegation of sexual abuse of young children by priests.

It's yet another lesson that the vigilance of parents must be inexhaustible. The streets are not safe, the schools are not safe, teachers can't be trusted. Can it be that the church is not safe and the priests can't be trusted either?

Now, imagine what it is like for priests. Those men, who have been burdened for centuries by our expectations of holiness, must now bear our suspicion.

"That trust," says one of those priests. "It is one of the most sacred things I have ever felt. That trust has been violated. Profoundly."

It is also true that people seem to have this vague notion that all priests are really the same priest, the same extension of the church and God.

"There is this guilt by association for us, and I'm not sure if that is true of other professions -- the coaches, the teachers. If a chip falls out of one of us, has it fallen out of all of us?" he asks.

A little girl runs up to him after Mass and hugs his legs. He hugs her back instinctively and then looks up quickly to the dozens of parishioners watching. He searches their faces for some sign of what they are thinking and gently moves the little girl away.

His feelings run the gamut, he says. Sadness, anger, shame. A need to apologize.

"I am angry at the priest who does this. I don't want to sit in judgment, but it is clear to me how wrong this is. There is sadness. Sad because of what this does to ministry in general. Sadness for the victim and the family."

Sadness, too, for the offending priest. This priest has seen so many broken lives, he can just imagine the fractured life and mind the offending priest must have.

"There is some secret wound or weakness in them that they thought was well-hidden, and suddenly it is out for the world to see.

"And I feel the need to say I am sorry. Sometimes, because of a status you have or what you represent, you feel the need to apologize."

The status he has and what he represents is the mystery of the priesthood and celibacy. The voice of the Catholic church in sexual matters. These things now conspire to isolate him and to render him a target for everything you never liked about the Catholic church.

"The church is always, especially in matters of sexuality, perceived as self-righteous, and these incidents are thought of as an Achilles' heel, a weakness. A place to strike back.

"I wonder if that is not part of what I see sometimes in the reporting of this and in the unfair responses."

He wants to defend his church, too. He doesn't want to believe that this is a money issue: Only when the Catholic church was threatened with multimillion-dollar lawsuits did it do more than transfer the priest.

"Too often, the image is that the church only responded to save face. I want to believe that the church learned about priest pedophilia when we all learned about pedophilia -- that it was a breakdown in someone's psychosexual development and not just a moral lapse."

And where was God in this? Surely, he was on the other side of the world when these children were assaulted.

"Sometimes, people make the priest God. And then something like this happens and the priest is rejected and God is rejected," he says. "Anywhere there is goodness, there is God. If he was not there when the children were hurt, he is there in the

response to this, he is there in the healing."

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