The accusations of pedophilia in the Catholic church have never faded from the public eye, and while there are moments when other cataclysmic events push the tragedies a little further back from our immediate view, the fact that children were abused by prelates is never far from our consciousness.
As a Catholic, I am particularly devastated by the black mark against my church. There are many Catholics who have abandoned the pews with an anger that approximates the searing white flame of a votive candle. There are others who never loved the church enough to be devastated by her failings, people who could not or did not want to live according to the difficult, demanding and yet necessary obligations of being a true Catholic.
I belong to neither group. I still sit in those pews, coming back to them like the immigrant who comes home after long journeys. I find great peace there. I never hated the church for telling me things that I might not like to hear, things about sexuality or penance or the mandate to “be my brother’s keeper.” I am told to be generous of spirit, to turn the other cheek, to forgive, and not judge, and I find all of those things extremely difficult. It’s not a surprise that my patron saint, the only one I really pray to on a regular basis, is St. Michael, the angel with the sword and the kick-ass attitude.
And yet, I stay, because there is no other alternative for me. There is no other faith, no other place. For that, I am ridiculed and criticized, and for that I am doubly committed to remain in those pews.
But the scandal of men who abused the innocence of children and young men, and who were aided and abetted in their crimes by fearful or venal administrators, has made me ashamed. It has placed me on the defensive with those who already hated a church that stood proudly for the dignity of the unborn and the sanctity of a marriage open to the creation of human life. It has made it difficult for me to say that we speak with one, holy, apostolic and moral voice.
Last week, a famous lawyer who will not be named here because he doesn’t deserve more publicity, admitted that he might have named the wrong priest in a lawsuit filed by his client, a 50-year-old who claims he was abused in the archdiocese decades ago.
As a lawyer, I am astounded at the fact that someone in my profession could have been so careless as to accuse the wrong person of committing a crime so heinous that it is considered by many to be worse than murder. I know that lawyers make mistakes, and I know that we are sometimes blinded by money or crusades or hatred of our opponents, but when you are dealing with claims of sexual abuse, you damn well better get your facts straight before you start pointing fingers.
It looks as if the person who should have been named actually died several decades ago. And when confronted with his mistake, the lawyer gave a comment that looked, sounded like and amounted to nothing more than an “oops.”
This is a problem. We have been saturated with news stories about immoral, criminal priests, to the point that it is now common to simply dismiss all Catholic priests as the punchline of brutal jokes. The media has made it easy to ridicule my faith and the good men who have devoted their lives to it.
But it’s not just the media. We now have lawyers, those members of my profession who are committing acts of near if not actual malpractice, subjecting the wrong defendants to accusations in the pursuit of some raw and vengeful justice.
I expect that many of my readers will be angered by this column. There are those who will never admit that the church, my church, has been treated unfairly by the press and the courts and by they themselves. They will recoil at any call for self-reflection, because the subject of child abuse is so horrible and soul-destroying. We need, and want, our sacrificial lambs.
But unless we take the time to examine these cases one by one, under a bright light that has the power to bring out flaws and discrepancies, we are no better than the people we accuse of abuse. Because false accusations are as destructive as true crimes.
And lawyers and journalists, of all people, should know that.
Christine Flowers is an attorney and a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.