Bing Crosby Had It Right

I stare at the lengthening list of priests accused of pedophilia and notice something others might overlook: most of these men are my age. Like me, they grew up in another era, before the so-called sexual revolution, and shared a Roman Catholic boyhood that was in many ways ideal for pubescent youngsters--the age group they are accused of abusing.

The parishes we knew back in the '40s and '50s were more than merely places for Sunday worship. Each one centered a welcoming universe where Catholic kids went to school together, played sports together, got into trouble together. The parish also sheltered us as we shyly began our dating and mating--all under the aegis of celibate priests. And yes, Virginia, there was a Father O'Malley--lots of them--like the young curate Bing Crosby played in that most Catholic of films, "Going My Way."

Unlike today, every parish in those days had lots of "Fathers." They coached football, said mass, listened patiently to our confessions, gave out our report cards. Unlike senior pastors--older men who had bills to pay and bishops to please--these young curates knew every kid in the parish by name and the grades we earned in school. In fourth grade at St. Christopher's School in Rocky River, Ohio, one priest taught us church Latin, still my only reliable second language. Another created the boys' choir like Crosby did in the film. McGovern was his name, and to this day I can see him demonstrating how to enunciate every syllable of a Gregorian chant. The bravest among them was a burly former minor-league baseball player who turned the parish basement into a village dance hall on sweaty Saturday nights, then would watch for any older teenagers who might arrive under the influence.

But for all their closeness and camaraderie, these priests also observed certain sensible boundaries; they never invited us kids up to their rooms. At the Jesuit high school I attended, the priests never feared to lay a friendly or restraining hand on students. But rarely were we allowed inside the cloister where they lived.

No doubt those accused priests wanted to be O'Malleys themselves. Some of them may even have chosen holy orders in the hope that the discipline of the priesthood would protect them from their worst impulses. We now know that all pedophiles fixate on the bodies of children, often at an age when other young males focus their imaginings on the anatomy of their female peers. Clearly celibacy is not the issue, since child abusers aren't interested in adult sexual relations. But looking back, I wonder how many pedophile priests began their training for the priesthood right out of grade school. Naively, the church in those days provided "minor" seminaries for ninth-grade boys who thought--or whose parents or teachers thought--they saw signs of a calling to the priestly life. These all-male high schools made it difficult for students to experience the sexual and social development adolescents need. For those who entered "major" seminary after high school--the usual procedure--there was no monitoring for signs of sexual dysfunction. Prayer and spiritual formation was the church's answer to every problem. Yes, I know that pedophilia is an individual, not a group, disease. Still, in anguish, I bury my face in my hands, and wonder if the church could have prevented the current harvest of shame and ruined lives.

Despite their limited experience, most of the guys I knew who became priests were very bright and socially savvy--much like the knowing priest Bing Crosby played. And in those robust days the church had so many candidates to choose from, they could afford to be selective. Today, many dioceses have no seminaries at all, and in some of those that have survived, the bar for admission is frighteningly low. The rule in our house was never invite a priest for dinner who wasn't smart, witty and clearly together: I wanted my own children to meet only the best men the clergy had to offer. My wife and I never dreamed that we had to worry about exposing our children to predators in round collars.

Now, though, the age of easy camaraderie of priests and children seems beyond retrieval. The alliteration of "priest" and "pedophile" has been so firmly yoked in the public mind that would-be O'Malleys are always on their guard around the parish youth. Grandmothers who used to pray that at least one son would become a priest now warn their grandchildren never to be alone with the men we still call Father. This is not the Catholic way. Catholicism is a communitarian way of life. The tragedy is that in their efforts to deflect scandal from the church, many bishops have alienated the very families they are called to serve. As for myself, I'm too rooted in a receding Catholic culture to treat priests with automatic suspicion; I know too many good ones and grieve for the guilt they suffer by association. But respect has to be earned, as my children--now parents themselves--like to remind me. Along the way, I like to think, my children's children will still be able to find their own O'Malleys.