08 March, 2008

Deliver us from evil

I recently watched a documentary on a certain kind of priestly misconduct, Deliver Us from Evil. It has its merits, but in my opinion it misses the point. The last twenty or thirty minutes essentially degenerate into anticlericalism, showmanship, and the exploitation of human emotion.

The story itself focuses on one particular priest, an Oliver O'Grady, who served in a California diocese for twenty years or so. When some parishioners complained that he abused their children, the bishop promised to remove Fr. O'Grady from any ministry that brought him into contact with children, then moved him an hour's drive away into another parish.

Of particular interest is Roger Cardinal Mahoney, who as bishop moved Fr. O'Grady away from the second parish, where O'Grady was assistant pastor, and to third parish where O'Grady was installed as pastor. Fr. O'Grady sent then-Bishop Mahoney an effusive letter thanking him for this, then wasted no time taking up his old habits again. In his deposition, Mahoney says that he didn't understand why O'Grady wrote such an effusive letter. Incredible.

Fr. O'Grady is interviewed in the film, and is all too happy to talk about himself. This alone is creepy, but it gets worse. He seems nice at first, and speaks forthrightly about his crimes against boys and girls. (His appetites ran as far as parishioners' wives. His ability to convince most of the parishioners that he was a decent man and "good priest", reading from his Bible every morning, is testimony to the power of evil to deceive.) However, as we watch the deposition, and watch him explain to the filmmaker why he decided to invite all his previous victims to visit him in Ireland so he can apologize to them personally, the feeling grows in the viewer that this man either is profoundly wicked or has lost any shred of contact with reality.

Cardinal Mahoney was not interviewed, but I have already referred to the deposition that the film excerpts. It is not flattering. Mahoney states repeateadly that he doesn't know who would say such-and-such to a family, or who would be responsible for such-and-such action. One might believe him if these were the minutiæ of parish administration, but not when they are major diocesan issues. Either the man was grossly negligent, or he was lying.

Anyone familiar with the way Mahoney, Cardinal Law, and Archbishop Weakland performed in this matter comes away with the sense that the vast majority of American bishops were more concerned with the legal repercussions than with the effect such men had on people's souls. (Especially anyone familiar with Weakland's behavior; he had a habit of threatening whistleblowers with defamation lawsuits, and referring to them as "squealers".) The film conveys this effectively near its end, when a priest who works with such victims, a Fr. Tom Doyle takes some victims to a restaurant, where he offers an apology for the way the Church has treated them. "That's all I ever wanted," one of the victims says.

Unfortunately, the film (and Fr. Doyle) suffer from a major flaw: they present the Church as a monolithic entity whose every minutæ are checked and manipulated by power-brokers in Rome. I will give two examples.

  1. The first is a sentence that appears near the end, "The Catholic Church refused to be interviewed for this film." Who is this "Catholic Church" of whom you speak? the Pope? Cardinal Mahoney? parishioners? Many scenes are given of Fr. Doyle angrily telling victims that "they aren't the Church; we are the Church." Since Doyle and the victims were happy to be interviewed, and the film clearly embraces the notion that the people are the Church and not the leaders, it would seem that the Catholic Church did not refuse to be interviewed. Rather, certain individuals within the Church refused to be interviewed. I would have liked to see their names, although I gather that Cardinal Mahoney was among them.
  2. In a rather ill-conceived stunt, Fr. Doyle takes a group of victims to the Vatican and demands to see the pope. Naturally, they are denied entry. This struck me as exploitative, regardless of what anyone involved might say.

    Suppose a high school teacher had a history of abusing children, and several school districts moved him from one school to another. (Such things have been reported in the news.) Would you then take the man's victims to the state capital and demand to see the Secretary of Education, genuinely expecting to meet with him? Of course not.
That said, the film has a powerful point at the end: No one in the diocese ever met with the victims personally to apologize to them and admit that what was done was wrong. If true, it is a shameful fact. Issuing general statements and apologies is insufficient; bishops, as pastors, have to meet personally with those who have been abused by their "brother priests" (a favorite phrase of many bishops, if not all).

Increasingly, the Catholic Church in America has been run on the model of a business: endless committees, mission statements, empty pronouncements designed to win good will rather than actually accomplish anything, etc. Too many priests and bishops have been all too happy to empty the Church of any hint of holiness or sacrality, trying to be "relevant" instead and maintain a "brand image". Holy days are moved to Sundays to avoid inconveniencing the faithful (or the clergy). Clergy neglect clerical garb, largely to avoid the inconvenience of having someone walk up to them and ask, "Are you a priest?" Priests boast about not even talking to God on their days off.

If God means so little to you that you refuse to talk to him or to represent him, and if God's people mean so little to you that you are unwilling to minister to them or apologize for your or others' actions, then why are you a priest?

By pure coincidence, news emerged yesterday that the former bishop of my diocese has been accused of indecent action with an adult male.

No comments: