This may seem like a very bad time for someone who is not even a Catholic to defend priests, but that is what I need to do this week.
Tommy (my deceased friend and partner for many years, Father Thomas Hartman) and I lived through the first big pedophilia priest scandal in Boston. At that time, I remember that we did our best to condemn in the most powerful way we could all those priests who used the trust of their holy vocations to sexually abuse children. All abuses of children are obscene, but the abuse of a child by a man who hides behind a child's trust in God is absolutely monstrous.
I remember at the same time, however, Tommy and I tried to encourage people who had been served faithfully by loving and virtuous priests not to give up on the goodness in them, and to not give up on the institution of the Catholic Church and its ability to purge itself of the sinful cancer in its body.
Without Tommy by my side, I want to say the same things and make the same pleas. To quote Abraham in his biblical appeal to God to spare Sodom and Gomorrah, "Will You indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?" (Genesis 18:23) The appeal of the Catholic Church now is the same as the appeal of Abraham. The church is pierced by new accusations from Pennsylvania. After assuring the public that steps had been taken to address this problem the last time, it has been discovered that not enough was done — and in some cases, nothing at all was done.
So, again, the Abrahamic cry goes out not to sweep away the righteous with the wicked. This time the plea may be too late. This is not a minor moral failing. It is a deep systemic cancer in the Catholic Church, and it must be cut out. All who admire the church's mission must join the pope in praying for a way to protect the holy work of the righteous priests while allowing justice to sweep clean the halls of the church of those predators and sinners who have imperiled the life and future of the church.
The recent appeal of the pope in a letter to all Catholics, unlike the appeal of Abraham, was rightly directed at the people of God and not God. That is a good start. God does not need to hear the pope's contrition. Catholics need to hear it now. His shame and guilt seem sincere, yet the time has long passed when simple shame and contrition are sufficient. The same sentiments were expressed the last time this scandal erupted, and now with credible allegations from Pennsylvania against more than 300 priests and their bishops — who knowingly moved the guilty ones around from parish to parish — more is needed than shame.
Unfortunately, the pope's letter did not specify what steps would be taken to end this monstrous threat to the innocence of Catholic children in the care of priests.
I have a modest suggestion, and I am proud to say that it is not mine. I was speaking recently to a friend who is active in the higher echelons of the church, and he recounted to me a conversation with his friend who is a cardinal in a large American city that has not been tainted with this scandal. He told me that he asked the cardinal how he handled accusations of abuse against priests in his diocese. His response was simple and clear and direct. He said, "When an accusation comes in, I call the police." So simple. So right.
The church cannot police itself. The conflict of interest runs too deep. Let the police, then the courts sort out the innocent from the guilty. Let people see that the church will not use its power to shield itself from justice but to pursue justice.
"Call the police" is the only advice the church needs now.
As for those of us who view the Catholic Church from outside as sympathetic friends and observers, I do not want you to lose hope in an institution that is, I believe, populated with both criminals and heroes. May the heroes win. The mission of the church is too important to be swamped by cowardice and sin. The sacrifice and love of thousands of dedicated priests is too central to the social fabric of America and to God's work in our needful land.
Let us pray for the church now, and when the predators are revealed let their bishops and their cardinals and their pope pick up the phone and call the police. Only then will there be time for shame.