Shepherds, know thy flock or it will flee

April 25, 2002|By Rebecca Sheridan Malone


Through all these weeks of news about abusive priests and negligent bishops, I follow the story closely while protecting my children's innocence. I turn off the car radio when the news comes on. I hide the newspaper. I leave the kids at home when I go for groceries so they won't see the cover stories on Time and Newsweek.

But Sunday we were in our good, joyful church, where the priests are wise and gentle. We were sitting near the front, as we often do, because my children like to be close to the altar, when your disembodied voice was played for us on a tape recorder.

And as you repeated the words "child sexual abuse" at least three times, I wanted to reach out and cover the ears of my young sons, but I didn't have three pairs of hands. I wanted to scoop them up and run out, but I couldn't figure out a dignified way to flee. So I sat frozen, as your voice went on and on and my 9-year-old sat there with a puzzled expression.

He is an excellent listener. He, too, is gentle and wise, and he has even said that some day he might like to be a priest. So I asked him after Mass what he had understood from your tape and what he wanted to ask me.

"Well, first of all, I didn't understand who that man was who was talking. And all I really heard was that he kept saying something about child ... well, about child abuse. I didn't really hear the rest."

I'm sure he heard more than he's willing to admit.

In trying to do "damage control," you have done still more damage. Your desire to try to convince us that the church is in the hands of prudent shepherds is belied by the daily reports emerging from all over the world of priests who harmed their flocks and bishops who covered it up.

I have met two of the bishops involved in the cover-ups. I grew up in a New York parish to which a known pedophile was transferred. I'm struggling to make sense of this evil, as are all Catholics.

You cited the importance of the parable of the good shepherd in choosing to "speak" in all parishes on Good Shepherd Sunday. The parable tells us about how the good shepherd is different from any other shepherd. He knows his sheep. He calls them by name.

"They will not follow a stranger; such a one they will flee, because they do not recognize a stranger's voice" (John 10:5).

How can any bishop (I am thinking of Boston Cardinal Bernard Law) cling to his title as shepherd when the sheep are running away, fleeing in revulsion and horror? The true shepherd knows his sheep, and the sheep know his voice and follow him when he calls.

"The hired hand -- who is no shepherd -- catches sight of the wolf coming and runs away, leaving the sheep to be snatched and scattered by the wolf. That is because he works for pay; he has no concern for the sheep" (John 10:12-13).

Sometimes when young children hear the parable of the good shepherd, it reminds them of their mothers -- someone who protects them, whose voice they know and love, who would lay down her life for them. The hired hand is no shepherd and has no concern for the sheep.

I am tired of feeling as though the church is being tended by hired hands, men so disconnected from the real lives of people in pain that they don't know their sheep and the sheep don't recognize their voices. There are many good and gentle priests and bishops, men who know empathy, men who can listen, men who call us by name and look in our eyes and listen to us.

And I believe that the pope is one such good man. But I hope he was told this week that, while celibacy is indeed a gift to the church, it is not the only gift. There are also gifts that come from the experience of committing oneself in a covenant of love. There are also gifts that come from giving and bearing and sustaining life with one's body. The church needs all of these gifts among its leaders, not just the gift of celibacy.

When one of my sons was 2 years old, he went to look at the large crM-hche scene in the church. I asked him what he saw. "Oh, just a baby and some guys."

Just a baby and some guys. Heaven forbid that we allow our children to grow up thinking this is what God's kingdom is all about. Please help us to do better.

And next time you want to have a tape recording of your voice read in all the churches, think about who will be sitting there listening. Think about the children who will hear the words "child sexual abuse" for the first time as they gaze at the flower-covered altar. Think about these things, and maybe, just maybe, run your statement by some mommies and daddies before you read it to their children.

Rebecca Sheridan Malone, a middle-school teacher at a Baltimore-area independent school, lives and attends church in Baltimore City.

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