"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Sunday, July 15, 2007

It ain't over

The clergy sex-abuse scandal, I mean. Nor, I might add, should it be.

The Archdiocese of Los Angeles has just agreed to "settle" the sex-abuse lawsuits pending against it for at least $600, 000, 000. That's 600 million, folks. And that's on top of the $114 million that's been paid out so far either by the Archdiocese or by other Catholic bodies within its jurisdiction. That ought to be a cure for scandal fatigue; if I were a significant financial contributor to the Church, I'd be doing a slow burn. A lot of the payout will come directly from the pockets of the rank-and-file laity, as have the ever-higher liability-insurance premiums that will probably have prevented the Archdiocese—unlike a few other dioceses—from going into bankruptcy. We are paying for the sins of the fathers, indeed.

I've seen that from both sides. As an adolescent victim of the sort of abuse in question—the vast bulk of which was committed against adolescent boys, even though it's considered impolitic to bring that up much—I was psychically damaged. I was not as damaged as some, whose lives were thereby too blighted to yield any significant success; nor have I ever seen fit to make a legal issue out of the matter. But I have gradually come to realize how much my spiritual and psychological growth had been inhibited, and how important a factor that was in my failures. But it was not the chief factor. At my age, the chief cause of my problems is not the priest who abused me, not my parents, not even the IRS or the state Child Support Enforcement Agency. The chief cause is myself; and it started way back, when I was more interested in God as a resource for attaining success and admiration than as my suffering Savior calling me to take up his cross and follow him. It was doubtless to cure me of that illusion that I was allowed, in due course, to crash and burn. Thus, even though I have never sexually abused anybody, I have learned in my own life just how great the cost of letting one's spiritual life be hollowed out can be. In a clergy that, for way too long, included too many men who were psychosexually immature, unprincipled predators, or both, such hollowing out was what allowed the crimes in question to happen. It also explains why far too many of the bishops covered it up for far too long. The financial costs both signify and are dwarfed by the spiritual costs of the underlying complacency, infidelity, and arrogance. I know because the costs of such attitudes in my own life, both as a victim and as a sinner myself, have been very real.

But the financial costs will have been helpful if they jolt enough people into grasping the true malaise of the American Church: we have become so assimilated and comfortable that we have largely lost our spiritual identity. For the past several generations, Catholics as a whole have become less and less distinguishable from people in the culture at large. It is human to get into a state of denial about certain problems, but we've gone beyond denial. It's become a matter of principle with many Catholics to believe that both the example of the saints and the constant, irreformable moral teaching of the Church can be ignored with spiritual impunity. As long as the leadership of the Church allows that belief to persist, the Church in this country will not have learned the deeper lessons of the sex-abuse scandal. And we'll keep paying bills we never thought we'd never incur.
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