I entered the seminary near the end of my thirteenth year, in 1956. No pubic hair yet, but I was supposed to be embarking on a lifelong commitment to become a celibate priest. All the adults in my life took it seriously, and encouraged me.
Did this medieval practice have something to do with the surprising number of priests of that era who stand accused and often convicted of the foulest of crimes—whether it was pedophilia against children or forced sex with pubescent but legally minor boys and girls?
One of the things that made these crimes even worse was the way bishops reacted. The first thing they did was turn to their lawyers.
As retired Bishop Thomas Gumbleton tells it, the lawyers tried to protect the bishops, the diocese, and its material resources. They advised the bishops not to talk because it might compromise the case if it went to court. “Money was more important than children.”
Of course, there are thousands more priests—many I’ve known personally over the years—who are saintly servants of their parishes.
Abuse is not confined to the Catholic Church. Any religion can be a haven for predators.
On Tuesday, Britain’s Guardian newspaper reported that the Church of England this year downplayed thousands of cases, examining 40,000 accusations but accepting only thirteen. Abuse cases emerge from madrassas, yeshivas, temples, and mosques. Buddhism hasn’t escaped allegations.
What distresses me, and many other Catholics, is that the scandal is not being dealt with fully and resolved finally.
The drumbeat continues, with reports of abuse in Chile and Australia, and new accusations of abuse against seminarians and young priests by older clerics in positions of power—bishops and cardinals. The abuse of women by the ordained clergy in countries throughout the world is coming to light, creating what theologian Mary Hunt calls "a Catholic trifecta of disgrace."
A further disgrace: instead of locking arms in a united effort to reform the Church, bishops are acting like Washington politicians by engaging in hand-to-hand combat along conservative-progressive ideologies.
I know Christ is as anguished as I am: “At the sight of the crowds, his heart was moved with pity for them because they were troubled and abandoned, like sheep without a shepherd.” (Matthew 9:21-22)
Betrayal has marked the Church’s history since Judas, since Peter and the crowing cock, since Christ's followers abandoned him at his arrest.
I remember, however, when he announced the Eucharist in the sixth chapter of John’s gospel: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day.”
Most people walked away when they heard his outrageous claim.
Christ turned to his followers and asked, “Will you also leave?”
My namesake, Peter, spoke up: “Where will we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
This is the nub—what Catholics know as the Real Presence.
How can I believe in something so outrageous? Because if I believe Christ is divine, then I must also believe that he meant exactly what he said: "This IS my body."
The Eucharist is neither metaphor nor symbol. If it were, Christ would have called back the people who were leaving, and he would have clarified what he meant.
Only the Catholic Church believes that under the consecrated species of bread and wine, Christ is present in a true and real way.
The Real Presence is why we pray the Mass. It is the foundation of our faith. It is our identity. It is why I am still a Catholic.
The rest are details, to quote Einstein.
All this said, I cannot offer a solution to my Church’s problem. I just pray that it stops.
(Top Image: Canto 19 illustration of Dante’s Inferno: Dante and Virgil at the third pit of Circle VIII, for sinners who used their Church positions for personal monetary gain. Bottom image: Jesus and the Little Children by Vogel von Vogelstein.)