Father Raymond J. de Souza: The uniquely agonizing betrayal of abusive priests
The Catholic world has been embroiled this summer in a series of sexual abuse scandals, both historic and contemporary, in America and abroad. The news, even if doesn’t involve new developments in Canada, reopens old wounds for victims — or pours salt in wounds that have never fully healed. Many faithful parishioners are also hurt, embarrassed and irate. That too goes for priests who are implicated by a sacramental bond in what their brothers do, both holy or, in these cases, horrific.
The grave sins and crimes of those who swore before God to live like the Lord Jesus are doubly wicked. Yes, it is true that in Canada for some 25 years and in the United States for some 15 years there has been a veritable revolution in the speedy removal of offending priests from ministry. Yes, safeguarding measures for minors are now ubiquitous. Yes, the number of cases has fallen dramatically. Yes, yes, yes. But no, none of that makes the current moment seem less painful.
The revelations about the predatory behaviour of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, former archbishop of Washington, have shaken many — shaken by shock, shaken by anger. It’s not only his high rank, but that he was a key figure in the very reforms the American bishops adopted in 2002.
His double life does not invalidate the value of those reforms, but it does make his betrayal all the more treacherous.
Perhaps I might offer a comparison. When the news about Harvey Weinstein broke, that he had abused his position to sexually exploit many actresses, it was certainly distressing to hear but did not touch me personally.
Not so with the charges and criminal trials of Bill Cosby. Of course the two figures are not remotely comparable. Weinstein was well known in the limited circles of the Hollywood and media elite. Cosby, for decades, was one of the four or five most recognizable faces in the whole world. And he was, on a planetary level, a leading champion of wholesome family life — the value of marital fidelity, the essential priority of educational achievement, the importance of demanding high standards in childrearing. Aside from his comedic talent, that is the reason that my parents made an exception to their no-television-on-school-nights rule so that we could watch The Cosby Show together. It’s why I have the series on DVD.
So Cosby’s predations were wounding in a far more profound way, well beyond the primary injuries he inflicted upon his victims. Even though it doesn’t change the content or message of his artistic work, it does make it more complex to watch, no? Partly it is because of the immediacy of it all. I can look at a 16th century painting without being bothered by the moral character of the painter. Not so with those whose depredations are current. The betrayal of trust stings.
It might be responded that he was playing a role, and if the audience puts upon the actor the virtues of the character, that is the audience’s fault. We should not expect that the actor who plays Superman should be able to fly.
Of course, in Cosby’s case, he gave the show his own name, and out of character spoke clearly and often about the very social realities he dealt with in his comedy, even courting controversy on occasion to do so.
So it is justifiable to feel a betrayal by Cosby. Contrariwise, I may deplore Weinstein, but do not feel he betrayed me. He may not have even betrayed himself, but we cannot fully know his heart.
All of which underscores the devastating betrayal of Theodore McCarrick. He was not supposed to be playing a role. He should never have had a life “off stage” at odds with his life “on stage.” And the “stage” of a priest is called the “sanctuary” for a reason, because both he and it should be holy.
In Catholic theology, the priest — and even moreso the bishop — acts in the person of Christ. But it is not the acting of one on stage, pretending to be someone else. It the action of one who ought, with help of God, to makes present the character of Christ Himself. The good actor makes his character believable. The priest is meant to be come more like his “character” so that the people might come to believe in Him — Christ, not the priest.
A bad actor disappoints his audience because his acting is unbelievable. A bad priest can destroy the faith of his people.
The remedy is good priests who not only “play” their roles well, but live those same roles with integrity. The need for that remedy is felt all the more urgently this summer.