Seeing Clerical Corruption in a Larger Light

It must be because February is so fleeting that one naturally assumes the news cycle will follow suit.  Less calendar time translates into fewer stories, right?  Wrong.  Recent events have blown that thesis completely out of the water.  Begin with the announcement of a papal resignation—could anything be more newsworthy?  It will take effect by the end of this month, too, leaving the See of Peter officially vacant until a conclave can elect a new pope.

So what else has happened this month?  How about the unprecedented public rebuke of retired Cardinal Roger Mahony by his successor, Archbishop Jose Gomez, in the largest Archdiocese in America, the City of Angels no less?

What an extraordinary moment this has been in the life of the Church.  And, without doubt, the most stunning humiliation possible for a once popular prelate, who had championed all the hot-button issues so dear to the liberal heart, from farmworkers to immigrants to inmates on Death Row.  What had he done to deserve this?  He had, in a word, failed to protect children and young boys from sexual abuse by predatory priests.  “Nothing in my own background or education,“ he confessed on his blog, equipped him to cope with such a problem.  How competent does a Cardinal need to be to recognize and report criminal sex abuse among members of his own clergy?  If it requires a masters degree in social work, then what possible use did he make of the one he had earned?  On the other hand, one would have thought a class or two in Morals and Canon Law quite enough background for someone charged with the spiritual welfare of four million plus souls.  That and a little courage with which to punish priests who set about perverting the young and the innocent.

“I cannot undo the failings of the past that we find in these pages,” declared Archbishop Gomez, referring to the release of some twelve thousand pages of personnel files revealing both clerical crime and episcopal cover-up.  “I find these files to be brutal and painful reading.  The behavior described in these files is terribly sad and evil.  There’s no excuse, no explaining away what happened to these children.  The priests involved had the duty to be their spiritual fathers and they failed.”

This is only the latest—and, please God, the last—in a series of shattering disclosures coming out of Los Angeles since 2007, when the faithful first learned of a massive pay-out ordered by the courts for victims of clergy sex abuse.   Nearly seven hundred million dollars have been distributed among the more than five-hundred plaintiffs who had joined the legal suit against the Archdiocese.  Which is a heap of cash even by California standards.  Meanwhile, from sea to shining sea, the current price tag for clergy corruption and episcopal cover-up is over two billion dollars and counting.

So what else has the Church lost besides money?  And will the amount paid out, coupled with the satisfaction of seeing the guilty punished, amount to an atonement sufficient to allay all the grief and suffering inflicted upon the innocent?  What have we lost?  Certainly the institution has taken a beating.  Who wants to belong to that which has behaved so badly?   Or put it this way: How do you defend what looks to be more and more indefensible?  Are there churchgoers out there willing to take up arms on behalf of so bankrupt a body of bishops and priests?

Not at the institutional level, certainly, which is where the argument is joined against all that has happened to the Catholic Church since 2002, when the crisis first burst upon us with accusations coming out of Boston.  And the argument is, at that level, unanswerable.  Indeed, I have launched a few warheads myself.  What else does one do with honest rage when innocence is defiled?  One would sooner dismantle whole bureaucracies than to allow even one priest to so abuse his calling as to defile a single child.  I will not be outdone, I am saying, in the contempt department when it comes to the depredations of those who either betray their calling, or others who cover-up their crimes.

On the other hand, is it entirely fair to blame an institution for those who betray its mission?  Do we close the local constabulary because there are bad cops on the take?  Or ban libraries because not enough good books are being read?  Of course not.  Then why should we punish the Church for the sinfulness of its members?  Especially not when the survival of the things we value most, like the Mass and the Sacraments, depend upon the maintenance of that very institution which we are so inclined to revile.  Go ahead and jettison all that you find odious and unjust.  And when you’ve succeeded in completely leveling the thing for its many iniquities, where will you then go to hear God’s Word proclaimed, his Sacraments celebrated?  It is not the Secular State that can guarantee the things we love, but the Catholic Church.  It is the institution alone whose exercise of authority upholds the standards we observe, including those we invoke in order to punish great big bishops and cardinals.  Or, sounding the very source and summit of the Church’s life, the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, which only a validly ordained priest can confect.

Have we perhaps gotten hold of the wrong end of the stick here?  I mean, when the Church is seen through an institutional prism only, it is awfully easy to find fault with anything; in fact, a reductionism of that sort is interested only in the parts, particularly when they mal-function.  But what if the Church were not finally an institution at all, but a Woman, She who is both Virgin and Mother, who in the purity and simplicity of her response to grace, to God, is Mary Immaculate?  Under that sublime aspect, it is not so easy to hate the Church.

“Christ warns us that we must answer for what we have received,” writes Francois Mauriac.  “When it is himself we have received, what shall we not have to answer for?”  How the web of complicity is widened now!  In other words, it is too easy to demonize bad priests who trash their vows.  How much harder to hold all the baptized accountable for the evil that we do.  No one who belongs to the Body of Christ will be given a free pass into Paradise.  That should at least keep us from becoming pharisaical, which has got to be a good thing.

I cherish the reply Flannery O’Connor once gave to a friend who, appalled by the shortcomings of the Church she had just joined, resolved to take leave of it altogether.  “The Church is the only thing that is going to make the terrible world we are coming to endurable,” she snapped.  “The only thing that makes the Church endurable is that she is somehow the Body of Christ and on this Body we are fed.”

Please note that Miss O’Connor did not dispute the fact that the human face of the Church is something all our sins have helped disfigure.  Only that we mustn’t wrest from the evidence of so much weakness and sin the conclusion that God cannot use crooked pencils to write straight lines.  That would be a counsel of despair.

Here one thinks of the famous refusal of the sainted Francis of Assisi to condemn the fallen priest whom an irate group of churchgoers had accosted for his repeated infidelities.  What did Francis do?  Falling to his knees to kiss the hands of the suspect priest, he exclaimed:  “I do not know if this man is a sinner or not.  But I do know that in this world, I see nothing of my Lord Jesus Christ, except for His Body and Blood, which he consecrates and gives to me.  I do not judge priests, because I receive life from my Lord through them.”

Unless we see the Church as having truly begun with Mary, in whose blessed womb the Word first took on flesh, we shall not see her as God’s sees her.  Not that we shut our eyes to the awfulness of what is happening around us (indeed, how can we when the media report it so gleefully?), anymore than God himself did, who, after all, suffered his Son’s flesh to be flayed and crucified so as to redeem it.  What else then is the Eucharist if not evidence of God’s love for a fallen world, a world hungry for such wholeness that he will break himself to become its bread?

Editor’s note: The image above is taken from a deposition conducted by the Los Angeles court in January 2010.

Regis Martin


Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar's Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, also published by Emmaus Road, is called Witness to Wonder: The World of Catholic Sacrament. He resides in Steubenville, Ohio, with his wife and ten children.

  • mike mulligan,esq

    Thank you especially for the account of St.Francis. I have focused,exclusively on St.Augustine’s approach, as Bishop of Carthage. Those priests engaged in pederast are to be excommunicated. I believe the paramont obligation for the shepard is to protect the flock.

    • lifeknight

      Agreed. It will be an interesting time in the Vatican as soon as ALL the homosexuals are exposed….. We may be down to a paltry number of priests, bishops, and cardinals if true “housecleaning” is enacted when the new pope is elected.

    • musicacre

      The true shepherds (Bishops) have been the ones that were true to their calling and endured political fallout from their contemporaries because of it. You see it in the States, you see it in Canada. I think there is way too much emphasis on these friendship roles (Collegiality) between Bishops. If I’m not mistaken the diocese IS his family just like a woman comes first in a husband’s life, so should we as parishioners come first. Any Bishop that prioritizes like this has not compromised Church teachings. (Generally these are the strong Bishops we are all familiar with.) They are not afraid of unpopularity, (with men) because they love God too much! As a result they are much loved by the people anyway! The ones that love the Church and aren’t pushing for it to molded into their own image.

  • It is absolutely true that the Church is our only spiritual home. It is equally true that she is in a very bad need of cleansing. And – in these uncertain and full of surprises times – we also need to think about what we are going to do if the highest Church authorities ever step on the path of apostasy – for example, by accepting abortion, euthanasia or homosexual acts.

    • djpala

      We’ve already had a practice run, it was called ‘vatican II’ & the apostates ‘novus ordo’, communion in the hand etc. !

  • hombre111

    Regis is willing to forgive Mahony for his faillure to protect children, but he can’t be forgiven “for championing all the hot-button issues so dear to the liberal heart.”

    • Adam__Baum

      There’s really no nice way to ask this, so let me get right to it: are you on narcotics? The entire third paragraph is a stinging rebuke to the excuse to Mahoney’s pathetic excuse of unpreparedness to deal with the perpetrators.

      Good grief man. Think before you write, even when you are reflexively rushing to the defense of your god, political liberalism.

      • RuariJM

        It was after halfway through the third paragraph, Adam. You can’t expect the ageing MTV generation to sustain attention that long…


  • I am an Eastern Orthodox christian. Thank you so much for that quotation from Ms. O’Connor. The Church makes living in this world endurable.

  • Howard Kainz

    “What if the Church were not finally an institution at all, but a Woman,
    She who is both Virgin and Mother, who in the purity and simplicity of
    her response to grace, to God, is Mary Immaculate? Under that sublime
    aspect, it is not so easy to hate the Church.” This is a non sequitur and a red herring. The Church is not Mary.

    • You are correct Howard, the Church is not Mary. The Church is, however, the mystical bride of Christ. I think this was the imagery being pursued by Dr. Martin.

    • quisutDeusmpc

      If God the Father is Christ’s Father and the Blessed Virgin Mary the Mother of God, then Christ is their Son and the Church is Christ’s Bride. His Mother is His physical body, and the Church His Mystical Body (Eph 5: 25, 26, 28-30). The Church is an icon of Mary (cf. Ruth and Naomi in the OT book of Ruth). As Mary brought forth Christ, the Church bears Christ’s sons and daughters from the womb of her baptismal font, feeds them on the milk of the Liturgy of the Word (I Pet 2:2) and the strong meat of the Liturgy of the Eucharist (Heb 5:11-14, I Cor 3:1-3). Chrismation seems spiritually analogous to physical ‘puberty’ a strengthening and maturing (cf. Luke 2:52) that allows one to contend for the faith (cf. Eph. 6:1-4, & 6:10-20 to Lk 2:52)

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    We should ask ourselves why God permits such wrongdoing by bishops and priests.

    St John Chrysostom, speaking of Peter’s denial, gives us an answer. “The fall of St. Peter happened, not through any coldness towards Our Lord, but because grace failed him; and he fell, not so much through his own negligence as through the withdrawal of God, as a lesson to the whole Church, that without God we can do nothing.”

    St Augustine, too, says, “Our Lord points out to us, in the person of St. Peter, a righteous man, warning us by his fall to avoid presumption.” And also, “that God, in order to show us that without grace we can do nothing, left St. Peter without grace.”

    That is why St Paul asks, “For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? (1 Cor 4:7)

    • Teej

      I am confused… according to your first quote, st. peter is blameless in his denial of Jesus. He shouldn’t have felt bad about it because God wanted him to deny Jesus to make a point to the world… I am guessing there is more to the quote here. Second quote same. Third quote, non sequitor. Contrary to the Bible, Peter shouldn’t have felt bad about denying Jesus. His doing so was actually fulfilling the will of God. Bravo Peter for turning your back on your friend! Always a stand up thing to do, as long as God wants you to.

      • Michael Paterson-Seymour

        No, he is not blameless. For that, it is enough that he had the power of free will. But, just as a man with the power of sight still cannot see without the aid of light, so, without efficacious grace, evil inevitably appears more attractive to us.

        As St Augustine says, God creates good choices and exploits evil ones, always infallibly accomplishing His purposes.

      • quisutDeusmpc

        I hope you are being sarcastic in order to make a point. Peter’s sin is Peter’s sin. It wasn’t a “stand up thing to do” nor was it something “God wants (-ed) you to (him to do)”. On the contrary, Jesus prayed for him that he wouldn’t fall (Satan has desired to sift you as wheat), knowing that he would (before the cock crows thrice you will deny me three times), He nevertheless prays for Him that He will be restored (I have prayed for you; & Peter do you love me? Feed my sheep).

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  • crakpot

    These are not just priests who sinned in isolation. To assume that these people don’t recognize and protect eachother is ludicrous. I know of men who have quit the seminary because “the gays wouldn’t leave them alone.” This is a concerted infiltration of the Church, as is the predatory nature of sexual deviancy.

    • musicacre

      There are probably several kinds of situations going on here. First, there are the isolated cases where one priest keeps secrets. Then there is definitely infiltration; I can remember when the media was all over the Church for banning gays from the priesthood. Now they are screaming up a different storm. They even had a particular seminary everyone knew about called the pink castle or something like that. Why weren’t all those things dealt with at the time? I know someone who quit the seminary because he didn’t want to watch the porn he was forced to watch. How could that be training? And certain dioceses are
      famous for being almost ALL gay! So what the heck…were the Bishops sleeping or were they in on the party?? It certainly is “pay the piper time” now.

  • Anonymous

    My ‘Catholic innocence” was shattered the day a bishop – one who was the ordinary of his diocese – came to consult with me for counseling, having been referred to me by a priest. He was depressed and after some time with me, there was little mystery why. He informed me that he was having a sexual relationship with one of his priests. I was speechless. I would have to explain to this man that the fatctthat he was depressed showed that his conscience was still somewhat intact – even if seriously disordered. There must be ways for us to cleanse the Church of its evil because these kinds of things cannot go on if the Gospel is going to be proclaimed as it should.

  • Ford Oxaal

    This whole thing is a call to massive prayer and penance on the part of all the faithful. Would it fall on deaf ears, after the endless stream of horrible revelations, if all the faithful were commanded to perform some kind of stipulated visible penance as an act of reparation and promised amendment — for an enumerated list of sexual crimes and sins ranging from artificial birth control to pederasty or whatever you call it?

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  • teej

    I don’t really understand why politics is brought into this otherwise interesting post…” And, without doubt, the most stunning humiliation possible for a once
    popular prelate, who had championed all the hot-button issues so dear to
    the liberal heart…” While you note Boston down the line, Cardinal Law was, on a number of issues, a conservative’s wet dream and he allowed child rapists to thrive. This has nothing to do with conservatives or liberals in the church. It has to do with Church leadership that failed, repeatedly.