The sexual abuse of children by American priests, which became a national scandal after a series of Boston Globe articles in 2002, is now entering its eleventh year. The satanic reality, of course, goes back much further. And the recent revelations about what happened in the Los Angeles archdiocese call for yet another effort at some sort of plausible explanation for this particularly repugnant instance of what St. Augustine called the “mystery of evil.”
A little background on those new revelations, before we get to a startling chart below.
If you haven’t been following the news, last Thursday, L. A. Archbishop José Gomez suspended his retired predecessor, Cardinal Roger Mahony, and an active auxiliary bishop, Thomas Curry, from any further “administrative or public duties” (their priestly faculties, however, have not been suspended). Unsealed archdiocesan documents clearly show that both men conspired – the only accurate term – to keep known pedophiles from being arrested by the police.
Archbishop Gomez, a good and courageous man facing many other challenges in an archdiocese long mired in chaos and dissent, said in his official announcement about the abuse documents, “I find these files to be brutal and painful reading. The behavior described in these files is terribly sad and evil. There is no excuse, no explaining away what happened to these children. The priests involved had the duty to be their spiritual fathers and they failed.”
He hasn’t spoken as directly, yet, about the involvement of the cardinal and bishop – the kind of thing that drove Cardinal Bernard Law permanently to Rome, one step ahead of what would no doubt have been humiliating public prosecution of his own failure to stop several predatory monsters. But Gomez’s action tells us all we need to know until the documents are more fully examined.
Cardinal Mahony’s reaction also tells us something, something we might well rather not have known. He’s defended himself saying: “Nothing in my own background or education equipped me to deal with this grave problem.” Okay, also true of many people. And let’s stipulate that the ethos was different back then – and not only for Catholics. Religious leaders and police did operate with a kind of unspoken agreement to try to avoid scandal in cases involving clergy of all kinds.
But Mahony didn’t stop there. He took the extraordinary step of replying in an open letter to Gomez: “When you were formally received as our Archbishop on May 26, 2010, you began to become aware of all that had been done here over the years for the protection of children and youth. . . .You became our official Archbishop on March 1, 2011 and you were personally involved with the Compliance Audit of 2012 – again, in which we were deemed to be in full compliance. . . .Not once over these past years did you ever raise any questions about our policies, practices, or procedures in dealing with the problem of clergy sexual misconduct involving minors.”
All this is probably true, technically. But it’s the kind of legal parsing of the situation – not the open moral self-examination one might expect – by a member of the hierarchy who is in grave trouble precisely for this kind of self-exculpatory rationalizing.
Leftist Catholics have for years been denouncing the “clerical culture” that permitted the cover-ups, and there is some justification for the charge – though not for the way they use it to try to discredit the very principle of an authoritative Catholic episcopate.
On the right, there have been varied attempts to blame the ongoing mess on the cultural revolution of the 1960s and the unchecked influx of same-sex attracted men into the priesthood. There’s something to this, too, though that’s far from being the whole story.
This chart is taken from a much fuller L.A. Archdiocesan webpage that puts out all the files they have on the abuse cases. The sharp rise in cases from 1968 to the 1980s is not surprising. That tends towards support for the conservative case that the loosening of morals also set loose sexual aggression against children.
But let it be noted: it more clearly confirms the Cardinal’s claim that he sharply reduced incidents of abuse – and those in years closer to us when the reporting would be much better.
What I find most surprising is the large bump in the late 1950s, the pre-Vatican II years. Some reports claim that as many as 10 percent of the students at St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo CA – Cardinal Mahony’s own alma mater – are known to have gone on to sexual abuse troubles. Is this evidence of the pre-Conciliar clerical culture or something else?
I’ve talked with some people who have worked on these kinds of problems for years and several seem to think that we’ve underestimated the cultural influence of American optimism in the post-World-War-II era. The very success that American Catholics always wanted earlier, and that translated within the Church to large numbers of vocations of all kinds, may have led to a deep complacency – and failure to adequately police the kinds of men entering seminaries long before the disorders that followed the Council.
This cuts across our usual assumptions that wealth and peace make virtue easier – but those are American and secular assumptions, not Catholic or philosophic ones. The reported numbers from the 1950s – high as they are – are probably on the low side, too, given that many victims have probably died or are too old now to want to revisit painful experiences from half a century ago.
No one element, of course, can explain evil of this kind and scale. But it would be wrong to ignore what those earlier numbers may tell us. Complacency is a perennial temptation.
We may be seeing here a confirmation of the line from the Psalms: “Man living in wealth and not in understanding is like unto the beasts that perish.”