Sodomizing Jesus

For any parent, one of the scariest stories in the New Testament has to be in the second chapter of the Book of Luke. Twelve-year-old Jesus is separated from his parents on a trip to Jerusalem. They’re halfway back to Nazareth before they realize he’s missing and they rush back in a panic before discovering he’s safe.

Why the panic? Because there were predators about in those days, just as there are today. And just because Jerusalem was the seat of Judaism doesn’t mean a child wouldn’t be raped, killed or sold into slavery. It happened to Joseph.

And now we know it’s happened to thousands of other children by the hands of men the world over who claim to act in Jesus’s name. While that’s horrible, an added horror is that other men – who lay claim to moral leadership, the men for whom the word “sanctimonious” was coined – covered up and defended the crimes.

The Catholic Church’s pederasty scandal has gone global and now coils its tentacles around Josef Ratzinger, a / k / a Pope Benedict XVI. Did he – when he was a cardinal – ignore warnings about a rabidly pederastic priest in Wisconsin, as the New York Times reports? Did he – when he was a bishop in Munich 30 years ago – approve the transfer, rather than the prosecution of pederast priests under his jurisdiction?

There’s a famous story about American political organizer Saul Alinsky. In the 1960s, two Catholic seminarians came to him for advice. They were drawn to the civil rights movement, but their superiors disapproved of priests’ involvement in what the church (wrongly) considered secular social issues. What should they do, they asked?

Mr. Alinsky had a question of his own: Do you want to be a priest or a bishop? If civil rights is important to you, dive into the work, but know your career in the church hierarchy will never advance. If you want to be a bishop – perhaps telling yourself you can do more good once you’ve achieved a position of authority – then forget about the civil rights movement.

I think it’s clear which choice Mr. Ratzinger made. It’s equally clear he hasn’t done any good. This pope is famous for bringing the full force of canon law down on the heads of priest and nuns who oppose his will, especially those who call for a preferential option for the poor and alienated. Communists, he calls them.

If the priests and bishops are not good at policing their own, they are good at message discipline. Ask your parish priest about the church’s sexual abuse scandal. The Vatican line is that yes, sins were committed, but only by a very few bad apples.

This, of course, begs the question of how many molesters have gone unreported. A common feature of the victims’ stories is that they were warned no one would believe them if they turned in the priest. Certainly they had reason to fear being subjected to shame in the small societies of Catholic parishes of the 1960s and 1970s.

For the sake of this brief argument, let’s make the unlikely statement that we have now caught all the guilty priests. Statistically, they may constitute a small percentage of the priesthood, but one need not sodomize a child to share the guilt. There were the bishops who knew about this behavior and shuffled the priests around, rather than turn them over to the authorities as they should have and so the number grows.

There are the priests who work in diocesan administration, handling the paperwork for the transfers – so the number grows. Let’s not minimize the guilt of this latter group. Stop and think about their actions. They knew children were being raped and they obfuscated, shuffled priests and hid the crimes. They bullied the victims’ parents into silence, using the faith and obedience of their flocks as tools against them.

Here in Vermont, then-bishop of Burlington, John Marshall, in the 1970s told Catholic prosecutors that if his priests’ crimes were brought to light, the prosecutors would be guilty of “the sin of scandal.” A school was named for this man recently.

So there were the pederasts, the bishops and the priest administrators. There were also the pastors and associates who served alongside the pedophiles, some of whom probably turned their fellow priests in to the bishops – but not the police. They too, knew and so the number grows still larger.

I’ve known priests all my life. The priests of a diocese are a fraternity, like members of the same police force or a military unit. They know each other very well; their capacity for gossip is unrivaled. Consider the case of Father Robert Trupia, a molester whose predilections were so well known in the diocese of Tuscon, Arizona that other priests referred to him as the “chicken hawk.” What a wonderful inside joke. Ha, ha, ha.

And what of the rank and file? Surely, many have left the church over these scandals, swelling the tide that was already flowing away from the church’s insistence on making itself irrelevant to the concerns of its people. For those who remain, it’s easier to keep blinders on and pretend nothing happened or that it’s all in the past.

Since we began with a gospel, let’s end with one, Matthew, chapter 25: “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, that you do to me.”

© Mark Floegel, 2010

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