The priest who taught my son to be an altar boy 20-some years ago has just been accused of being a pedophile.

My son, Andy, laughed when I shared the news. "I knew that about him," he said. Knew what? "Just, like, knew about it." "Knew" about it but never talked about it. "Knew" about it without really knowing, at 10 years old, what there was to know.

The moms and dads in our Midwestern town didn't know. The pastor of the church told the press he didn't know. But somehow the kids figured it out.

How in hell did that happen? Why were our children put at risk?

Because no adult thought a priest could be molesting little boys. Because we trusted. Because we believed that by turning around his collar a man is able to turn away from temptations of the flesh.

Andy says I'm naive. He says that when he went to high school in California everybody knew about the priests who had a tendency to lay hands on little boys.

"What the church did is pass the trash," he says, referring to the way priests were moved around to avoid scandal. Even a football coach who got a senior girl pregnant was simply transferred, he says, rather than dismissed.

Those of us raised in a more genteel era shouldn't be shocked, I guess. The same stuff probably went on; it just wasn't talked about.

Besides, no one would have paid any attention to a kid accusing a priest of doing that.

The days of being ashamed to be a victim have, thankfully, passed.

"(Cardinal) Law and the other bishops made a terrible mistake by covering over these crimes," says my friend, Father Tom, a Midwestern priest. "I feel terrible about this - particularly for the victims. Because I dealt with victims of incest and pedophilia when I headed Catholic Charities in this diocese, I'm acutely sensitive to the pain these actions cause, I'm sensitive to the damage these priests have done."

Father Tom is not unique. He's alone, pastoring a huge suburban church, overseeing a school, even responsible for a church cemetery.

In many ways he feels violated by the hierarchy of his church. First, they stay closemouthed until the scandal reaches gargantuan proportions.

Then, in his diocese, they tell the priests that if they are accused of anything, the church won't pay for their defense.

"They're playing a Teflon game and hoping nothing will stick to them," Father Tom says. He expects that the worst has not come.

He foresees a time when priests will be closely monitored and told how they can socialize, who they can have as friends.

"This is a bad time, for sure," he says. "Circling the wagons is not a realistic answer."

Father Tom believes that the faithful will not abandon the church.

"It will quiet down," he says. "But it will never be the same."

You can lose your innocence at any age. It took six decades for Father Tom - and me - to feel tarnished.

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