Confronting An Unspeakable Sin

Pedophile priests: For Catholics, it's a special kind of horror; for all people of goodwill, a tragedy. But what should we do?

I was a poster child for growing up Catholic. A redheaded altar boy taught by nuns in grammar school and by Jesuits in high school, I was in the seminary for a year, went to a Catholic college, and finished with a doctorate degree from Notre Dame. In my hometown of Jersey City, people still ask, "What parish are you from?" And like me, many of them got married in the same church where they were baptized.

The priests I met in those days were a decent lot, but you might meet a few who fell short: a mean one, a drinker, or one with an eye for the women. But whether it was luck, innocence, or the grace of God, in my youth and young manhood I never met a priest who was a pedophile.

Pedophile priests: The phrase brings instant and visceral reaction: anger, revulsion, fear.

For Catholics, it's a special kind of horror; for all people of goodwill, it's a dual tragedy: the violation of a child and the betrayal of a trust.

No matter where in the spectrum of judgment we place the pedophile, as a sick person or one who calls forth that rare thing in the New Testament, the anger of Christ "But who so shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck and he were drowned in the depths of the sea" (Matthew, 18:6) our reaction after the rage of discovery is simple but confused. First, help the victim, and then deal with the violator.

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But what should we do? And how?

To find some answers, I called some thoughtful friends (devout, rebel, and doubtful Catholics and ex-Catholics) and found an unsurprising unanimity.

A married ex-priest in California, a father of four in Illinois, a mother of two young boys in Massachusetts, a nurse practitioner, a mother of a college-age daughter in New Jersey, and a New York playwright with a just-finished script about pedophilia in New York all demand that the pedophile be stopped and removed instantly and permanently from contact with children.

All of them insist on the same thing: Get the child and his family immediate and effective care.

But it is what they say in tones strong and unequivocal to the Catholic Church's hierarchy that is the most telling: You must stop the cover-up.

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