Sunday, June 1, 2014

The Edge of Sadness: Pedophile Priests Deserve No Mercy From Our Bishops

I will do what needs to be done, though I'm damned to Hell! You should understand that, or you will mistake me. 
                            Sister Aloysius Beauvier, the movie Doubt
Years ago, while practicing law in Alaska, I knew a woman attorney who had once been married to an Inuit--or as people in the Lower 48 commonly say--an Eskimo.  She told me once that her former husband had confided to her that the Inuits had a forthright way of dealing with child molesters in their villages. If the villagers caught a child predator, they would simply take him out on the ice and kill him.

I was not a Catholic at the time I heard this story and our Church's priest pedophile scandal was still in the future, but I remember thinking that the Eskimos had a sensible way of dealing with child abusers. And I haven't changed my mind.

Scene from Doubt
Today--well into the second decade of the 21st century--we know just about all we need to know about the pedophile Catholic priests who preyed on children during the last half of the 20th century. We know there were hundreds of victims and that they were mostly boys. And we know that many, many bishops--probably dozens--helped cover up the scandal.

But what we still don't know is why. Why was the Church afflicted with so many evil men and why did our bishops respond so cravenly? In Goodbye, Good Men, Michael Rose argued that some Catholic seminaries became afflicted with a sexually permissive culture.  Rose's thesis may partly explain the pedophile tragedy, but it doesn't explain why the bishops didn't call the police when they learned they had child abusers in their parishes.

Last week, I thought again about that question while reading The Edge of Sadness, Edwin O'Connor's Pulitzer-Prize winning novel about Father Hugh Kennedy, a Catholic priest in Boston during the pre-Vatican II era.  Father Kennedy is a good man, but he drifts into alcoholism after his father died. Slowly his affliction comes to the attention of his parishioners and finally to the attention of his bishop.

Father Kennedy is summoned to the Bishop's office, where he expects to receive a harsh reprimand and be removed from his parish. But the Bishop skips the lecture.

"Almost everything I could say to you," the Bishop reasoned, "you know as well as I do. To give you a talking-to, a lecture, would simply be empty punishment. Rubbing it in. I'm not much interested in that."

The Bishop then comes straight to the point. "What I'm interested in," he tells Father Kennedy, "is that all this stops. As soon as possible. Right now. That's all I say to you, Father. I want you to stop."

Father Kennedy is stunned by the Bishop's unexpected mercy and kindness, and he tries to stop drinking. For a few months he is successful but then he lapse back into abusive drinking. The Bishop summons him a second time, and Father Kennedy is sent to an alcohol-treatment center in Arizona for four years. Father Kennedy conquers his addiction to alcohol while in Arizona and then returns to his diocese, where he resumes his priestly duties as a more humble and more deeply spiritual man.

Reading The Edge of Sadness, it occurred to me that many of our bishops may have thought they were acting as good pastors when they gave child-molesting priests second and third chances. Perhaps, like the bishop in Edwin O'Connor's novel, who gave Father Kennedy a second and a third chance, they believed that sexual abusers could be redeemed by the mercy of Christ and the aid of psychiatric counseling.

But the bishops were wrong. Very few priests who were serial child abusers--perhaps none-were redeemed.  The recidivism rate for this particular disorder is very low--quite close to zero.

So by restoring child-abusing priests to their pastoral duties, the bishops were, for the most part, releasing evil men back into the parishes, where more children were injured.

So I put this proposition before my fellow Catholics and the bishops. Perhaps there are some men who are so infested with evil that they are beyond all human intervention--beyond all redemption in the world of humankind.  Such men, surely, must be cast out from our Catholic communities and never allowed to return.

Men who rape children are truly evil, as evil as the men who operated the World War II concentration camps. And such men deserve no mercy, no mercy whatsoever.  And if they are to receive forgiveness and redemption of any kind let it come solely from God.


Edwin O'Connor. The Edge of Sadness. Chicago: Loyola Press, 1961.

Michael S. Rose. Goodbye, Good Men: How Liberals Brought Corruption into the Catholic Church. Washington DC: Regnery Publishing Company, 2002.

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