The last time I can remember big media taking an interest in the ecclesiastical affairs of Atlantic Canada was 20 years ago. There had been little interest before that, either, but the degree of attention that was suddenly granted compensated for many years of neglect. The issue was allegations of physical and sexual abuse against members of the Christian Brothers of Ireland in Canada, who had staffed the Mount Cashel Orphanage in St. John’s, Newfoundland.
By the time that was wrapped up, a Canadian parliamentary Royal Commission had investigated the affair, along with provincial and Church commissions, and of course the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary; two feature films had been made and widely distributed by the National Film Board of Canada; some convictions had been secured; compensation payments had been made by the tens of millions; the orphanage itself had been closed then razed, and indeed, every other property of the Christian Brothers in Canada closed, and the whole order scraped out of the country. The exhaustive media coverage succeeded in making the very name of Mount Cashel a term of infamy and a tremendous shame to be borne by all Canadian Catholics.
It would be politically incorrect to mention that this orphanage had, over the better part of a century, taken in children with nowhere else to turn, including wards of the state in its later decades; that the great majority had never been abused; and that many of these might be said to have owed their very lives to this charitable establishment. I only mention this because someone ought to.
Media attention faded over the years, though always rising to the bait offered by any sort of update. But the full blaze was reignited last month, after a gentleman named Raymond Lahey had his laptop “randomly searched” in Ottawa airport on return from a trip to Europe. It was seized on suspicion, and over several days the police examined the hard drive.
Lahey was the Catholic Bishop of Antigonish. He had recently received media coverage for delivering a remarkably large payout for sexual abuse claims against priests in his diocese, along with an unprecedented admission of guilt on behalf of the Church herself.
On September 25 he was charged with possession of child pornography. The next day he was removed from his office by the pope. Without waiting for a criminal conviction, but instead reviewing rumors of previous suspicions against this priest, the Canadian media went back into a moralizing frenzy. News reports and commentaries have been strewn alike with insinuations that the Catholic priesthood is to child molestation as al-Qaeda to terrorism. From my own familiarity with several of the writers, I would say the attitude is not feigned; they actually believe this. And thanks to their assiduous efforts, a large part of the Canadian population more or less believe it, too, and have believed it for some time — their belief confirmed by each news report, however tendentious or repetitious.
It goes without saying that priests who molest children, or commit other grievous acts, cause incalculable damage. It is no use pointing to the hypocrisy of the media, which give much different coverage, or no coverage at all, to malefactors who are not Catholic priests. There is no use pointing to evidence of an epidemic of child molestation in secular institutions, or demonstrating that the Church has instituted measures of prevention far stricter than any of them. No use showing the prevalence of child and all other forms of pornography on the Internet and in society at large. No use trying to correct critics who speak as if the Church winks at “the sins of the Fathers,” or reserves moral condemnation exclusively to outsiders. And there are many other dimensions of hypocrisy to which it is no use to call attention.
Whether it would be any use or not, it is quite impossible to give a candid account of how the Church got into her mess — of how much is direct fallout from concessions to the “liberal” and secular demands of the Zeitgeist through the last few decades. Such ideas as the fatuous one that sexual perverts can be “cured” by psychological counseling did not originate in Christian teaching, and were in fact repulsive to it until quite recent times. Behind the public stage, the recovery of Catholic theological orthodoxy, reverent liturgy, and moral teaching proceeds — gradually, in view of the scale of the “post-Vatican II” catastrophe.
As Hillaire Belloc was quoted, in one of the more sympathetic Canadian media reports, “If anyone should deny the divine origin of the Roman Church, let it be known that no mere human institution, conducted with such knavish imbecility, would have lasted a fortnight.” But that is an argument that has itself become tiresome.
In my view, we need to discard, quickly and thoroughly, the entire syndrome of cheap, affected compassion and excuse-mongering that encourages scandal and abuse at every level in our moral lives.
In particular, we should withdraw sympathy for people who claim their faith has been shaken by horrors within the Church — who make a parade of their own offended innocence, and abandon the Church in her distress.
If they do not know that their “relationship” is ultimately with Christ, not a priest, then they need to be taught, urgently and publicly. More profoundly, they need to be taught how to feel shame instead of unctuousness.
To be plain, priests are just “working for the company,” and if I found out that my grocer was a child molester, I wouldn’t stop eating on that account. The Church has taught for 2,000 years that human beings are terribly fallible, that temptations are real, that all are sinners, that forgiveness is not a light thing. Why then should we be surprised to discover that this is the truth?