Commentary: The Wound Is Not Healed

Last September Boston College invited me to address the current crisis in the Roman Catholic Church--my church. Four thousand people turned out, not because I was speaker, but because their anger and frustration over the sex-abuse scandal had found no other better outlet. Cardinal Law's resignation last week lanced a festering boil; it will not heal the wound. Indeed, it was typical of Law that he chose to resign in Rome, at a safe distance from the faithful he and his subordinates (several now bishops themselves) had so haughtily ill served.

The fall of this country's senior Catholic prelate sends notice: no one is immune from justice, whatever the color of his robes. The sight of Thomas Reilly, a Catholic attorney general, reprimanding a cardinal of the church has been both sobering and salutary. All too often, our bishops look up and over their shoulders--in the direction of the Vatican--before deciding how to act. Unlike their European counterparts, American Catholics have never been an anticlerical breed. But the continuing trauma puts this tradition to the test.

So far, I think, Rome has spoken wisely. The Vatican was right last October to demand of the American bishops due process for priests accused of sexual abuse. Victims' groups cried foul, as did The New York Times, but neither seems to understand that a bishop's bond with his priests is one of father to sons. Fathers do not automatically throw their sons out of the house when they are accused of wrongdoing. Neither do they shield their sons from the law when found guilty. And never should they put the honor of clan or church above the truth on the pretext of avoiding scandal.

The church will not recover soon from this long year of revelation and public pain. As more states rescind their statutes of limitation on child abuse, more past crimes by the church's few sick priests will be unearthed. The media everywhere are now on alert status, and my guess is that Law will not be the last American cardinal to be cashiered by the Vatican. The U.S. bishops have promised "transparency" in their management of the church. Their best hope is that the laity will hold them to their word. The first impulse of Catholics in the past was to rally round the church in times of trial. But the bishops no longer have that luxury.

I have never been a priest or seminarian--not even an usher at Sunday mass. What I've learned about careerism in the church comes from journalistic observation. Still, I do not understand what it is about ecclesiastical privilege that would render any bishop unable to sympathize--on the instant--with the victim of a predatory priest. The innkeeper of hell, I suspect, is holding special reservations for those few sanctimonious bishops who, complicit in cover-ups of their own, delude themselves in thinking they are suffering like Jesus on the cross. Have they never heard of Judas?