Scandal about sins of men, not their beliefs

March 28, 2002|By Michael Olesker

IN MY YOUTH, my parents shipped me off to Hebrew school three times a week. They wanted me to discover faith and tradition, and some notion of God. In my restlessness, I would gaze outside the windows of the Liberty Jewish Center and discover what looked like Greater America.

Out there, I saw gentile friends playing the great American game of football. In Mr. Aaron's Hebrew school classroom, we wore yarmulkes on our heads; out there in Greater America, they wore football helmets. In class, we each wore a gentle tallit around our shoulders; out there, they wore rugged shoulder pads.

In my self-conscious youth, I wondered what my gentile friends would think if they found me in such a setting, reading exotic-looking letters on a page and chanting in a language they had never heard. In the American mosaic, it takes a while to discover: The children of every faith have their self-consciousness. It is based on the idiosyncratic nature of religious ritual, of sacred language, and of belief in an unseen God.

And there is self-consciousness, too, in the face of human failing.

At lunch a few days ago, half a dozen of us talked about the sins of the fathers in the Catholic Church. As it happened this week, I was the only Jew in the group. The others were all Roman Catholics, most of them educated in this city's Catholic schools.

This lunch of ours has been going on for many years, so we know each other pretty well. And we are now months into watching a scandal within the Catholic Church involving thousands of sorrowful abuses of young people by men of power and authority.

And, additionally troubling, a series of cover-ups, secret legal settlements and intransigence by trusted church officials who allowed priests to continue working in the shadow of allegations and imagined they were doing their church, or God, some kind of favor. They cannot have believed they were doing a favor to any children.

Over the course of months of these revelations, the subject has never come up at our weekly lunches. I don't know why, because everything's fair game at these weekly get-togethers, including good-natured jokes about religion -- laughter instead of silent self-consciousness.

But this time we got around to the scandal. This time, there was news in the morning paper, where Cardinal William H. Keeler told a gathering of priests and lay people at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen that their anger over sexual abuses was justified -- though the cardinal cited "misunderstandings" about celibacy, and hedged about the transfer of offending priests from one parish to another, where some continued to abuse young parishioners.

What I heard at lunch, though, was different. In all of the media coverage, questions are raised about the church. At lunch, this was not the point. The scandal of grown men preying on children isn't about the belief system of a great religion, it's about flawed and corrupted men within that church. The sexual offenders were men trained to represent God who turned out not to be godly men.

But the same distinctions -- between men and institutions, and between men and God -- have to be made about the emotional forces that clearly play a part in a scandal that involves accusations about 2,000 priests across the breadth of the country. These distinctions are the church's laws about celibacy, and about an all-male priesthood.

These laws were not thunderbolts sent down by God. They were rules invented by men during the course of church history. That distinction was made clear around the lunch table, by men who revere their church but want reconsideration among its leaders.

Since men invented these rules, they were saying, other men (and women) can reinvent them -- because, in the course of human evolution, we no longer regard women as second-class citizens; and because, while we recognize the spiritual impulse behind celibacy, we also know the price that is paid in human loneliness and frustrated desires.

As a kid, gazing through the Hebrew school window at gentile friends playing ball outside, we knew there were things that divided us. Religion was presented to us as a series of precise rules and beliefs. The implication, in the ears of the children of each religious tribe, was that their way was the right way. Their answers were the correct ones.

As adults, we sometimes find the great religious discussions aren't about the things we know. They're about admitting what we don't know. All the great religions are based on a collective hunch, since none of us actually knows anything for certain about God.

What overwhelms us is our smallness, and our desire for answers. It is also the thing that binds us across all the religions: the knowledge that we all share the same struggle, and that we turn for answers to people who have struggles of their own. They are men (and women) of faith. But they are also fallible human beings. And their sins are their own. They are not the sins of a belief system, or of the God they swore to represent.

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