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No escape from news of sex scandal, even on a cruise ship


This clerical sex abuse scandal has gotten dirty. My wife Jean and I thought we would get away from it all by taking a cruise, one we had delayed months ago while my bowels growled with cancer. But it proved as futile as trying to escape a telemarketer.

The cruise ship had no Catholic chaplain because it was rumored that the shipping company now preferred married men. Just another example of the ripple effect.

We sailed from the white cliffs of Dover, England, as far as St. Petersburg, Russia, and back, visiting countries that were mostly Lutheran. Still, the scandal slithered after us. In London, an Indian priest with a soprano voice and a British accent asked us to pray for “our brother priests” in America. On the ship, a daily digest of The New York Times provided a keyhole peep and the latest revelations.

Only in Helsinki, Finland, did we get through a Mass, presided over by a Spanish priest, who prayed in Latin, Spanish, English and Finnish. We escaped mention of the American church debacle. Boston’s Cardinal Bernard Law should move to Finland. There are only 8,000 Catholics and 21 priests in a population of 5,170,000. But the cathedral, not much bigger than some American bishops’ vestment cases, was filled for the multilingual Mass. Law could hide there with his lawyers, PR flacks, bodyguards and private pilots.

We came home to a litany of voice mail, some of which invited me to comment on the abuse situation on TV and radio. I can’t resist a microphone. I will speak at supermarket openings. Further, I am the beneficiary of NCR’s courage for the past 17 years in uncovering the church’s cover-ups. The local and distant media wanted my thoughts on the ugliest situation since the sale of indulgences was a blue light special.

TV studios resemble the rear ends of computers. They are cluttered with lights and wires. The production crew contrasts sharply with the “talent” (that is, the people who appear on camera) who are all dressed like Brooks Brothers ads and have 60 to 70 teeth, all whiter than the Blessed Mother’s. They are all good people, saturated with news pouring in over the Internet. I enjoy just watching them work until someone with a stopwatch wiggles a finger and suddenly I am talking to a cyclops.

Although fairly young, most of the technicians and reporters remember when Bing Crosby and Spencer Tracy were priests. Now, they just can’t believe what they’re seeing and hearing. It seemed that many were cradle Catholics but were no longer practicing. Much of their alienation had to do with other zero-tolerance issues, especially those having to do with divorce, annulments and second marriages. Too often, marriage tribunals used everything but a rubber hose or kept the petitioner waiting so long they just despaired. Others told tales of petty rules that refused to treat unequal situations unequally.

Some were camera people or talking heads, raised in the church, but now non-practicing, together with their families, because of an impediment that was smaller than a flea’s behind. Now, they were following me to the studio plaza, asking: “How do these bishops get away with this stuff? Whose money is it? These guys are accessories to a crime! They want wiggle room. Geez, I’d love to give them some wiggle room! Now my grandchildren aren’t even baptized!”

We agreed that it was a Mediterranean (translate Mafia) model, supported by loyalty, secrecy, respect and silence. Although best estimates claimed that at least two-thirds of the bishops had abuse cases in their dioceses, not one was removed from office. Indeed, one still sensed recurring anger at the media coming from some bishops.

Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George likened the press to the Polish communists who had spied on him years ago in Poland. News reporters still experienced coldness and silence when they asked the most innocent questions. Some church lawyers still fought virtually every case, suggesting in some instances that the victims and their families were to blame for the destruction of their lives.

Like good underbosses, the careerist soldiers stuck by their bishops. They didn’t want to be found sleeping with the fishes in the bottom of a holy water font. Even bishops who knew that some of their colleagues were accessories to a crime said nothing.

Top bishops face the Vatican, not their people. They administer a cold and largely self-interested institution and are expert at protecting themselves, even at the risk of shredding young peoples’ lives. It’s likely that the new policies will cost some 2,000 priests and billions of dollars but most unlikely that a single bishop will melt down his episcopal ring to meet the cost.

Offenders will be told that they can no longer wear the clerical collar -- a laughable punishment since the vast majority of the good guys no longer even walk the streets of their parishes with their clerical collar.

The bishops’ conference lacks the authority to remove bishops, especially those who drop big envelopes at the Vatican. During the executive session, some bishops suggested that some bishops resign, but no names were mentioned. And all that the bishops did decide must be approved by the Vatican, a process that could take two years. Recall that this is the bureaucracy that has forbidden female homilists and the Eucharist to kids who cannot tolerate hosts made of wheat. This is the bureaucracy that looks for solutions to sexual abuse among the redwoods of canon law while abused kids throw up in their bathrooms.

The bishops have apologized. Now they must stop talking and listen with their hearts. Now, they must put their careers on hold and devote themselves to forgiving and seeking healing for their priests. Now, more than anything else they ever do, they must help to heal the wounded victims. Then, the people on the cruise, the staffs of the TV stations, NCR subscribers and believing people galore will forgive them.

Tim Unsworth writes from Chicago. Chat with him at unsworth@megsinet.net

National Catholic Reporter, August 2, 2002