By the time this column appears, the United States will be on the eve of the fall elections. I hasten to emphasize that these weekly essays have no political ax to grind and that whatever is contained in this week’s commentary is not intended to favor one party or the other.
There is, however, a remarkable similarity between the Republican leadership’s handling of various warnings regarding ex-Congressman Mark Foley’s inappropriate contacts with Congressional pages and the responses of several U.S. Catholic bishops since the 1980s to allegations of sexual abuse brought against a number of their priests.
Whether the leaders of the U.S. House of Representatives were involved in a deliberate cover-up of Foley’s improper contacts with pages is not at issue here. What is at issue is the appearance of a cover-up.
When the sexual-abuse scandal in the Catholic Church broke in January 2002, it soon became clear that the crisis was not confined to the Archdiocese of Boston, but that it was national and even international in scope.
What also soon became clear was that, in survey after survey that year, the Catholic public — across the ecclesiastical spectrum — was in unprecedented agreement that the bishops who had known of their priests’ criminal behavior and had transferred them from parish to parish without even informing the new pastor were more at fault than the predatory priests themselves, however repulsive their behavior.
Even though crowded out by domestic pre-election news and continued international developments in Iraq, the Middle East generally and North Korea, a new documentary, “Deliver Us From Evil,” has just been released about a predatory priest, who served at one time in California and later resigned from the priesthood. The film has already been the subject of a front-page story in The New York Times.
This column takes no position on the charges reportedly contained in the documentary because I have not seen the film nor am in a position to determine its accuracy, in whole or in part. Moreover, there have been formal denials from church sources and their legal counsel.
What is of interest is how little other officials, beyond the Catholic Church, seem to have learned from the unhappy example of several Catholic bishops during the worst of the church’s sexual-abuse crisis. The U.S. bishops, as a body, are still trying to regain and rebuild their lost credibility with their own Catholic people because of the irresponsibility of a significant handful of their brothers in the hierarchy.
As in the Watergate scandals of the early 1970s, which eventually forced the resignation of President Richard Nixon, it was not so much the original break-in at the Watergate complex that bothered the general public as it was the subsequent cover-up.
The Catholic public reached the same conclusion during the sexual-abuse scandal.
And now some of the nation’s highest-ranking political leaders seem to have been guilty of the same bad judgment and/or malfeasance in the Foley case as the bishops were in responding to the many allegations of sexual abuse involving some of their priests.
The political leaders in question just happen to be Republicans, but they might just as easily have been Democrats were that party in control of the Congress, under a similar set of circumstances.
We are dealing here with the weaknesses of human nature and the effects of Original Sin, which have no political or ecclesiastical boundaries.
Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.