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Darkness Visible

Innocence goes down for the count

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For several years I've been writing a book on the nature of innocence, studying the changing meanings and cultural significance of innocence and the causes of its recent, drastic devaluation. The metastasizing scandal in the Catholic priesthood is more than another chapter I have to write; it's like an entrance to the catacombs -- God only knows what lurks down these corridors, or where they wind.

This was our year of lost innocence, of vanishing illusions. Remember when you felt safe in your office, in an airplane, or just sitting in the kitchen opening your mail? When New York seemed impregnable, when the Middle East seemed manageable and far away? When certified public accountants were above suspicion, when the stockbroker was on your side? When few of us would have believed that the corporate heart of Texas was a sordid Ponzi scheme, rigged to fleece investors, employees and consumers and fatten a few thieves? Remember when death was grim but dignified, when cremation was a clean and reliable way to shuffle off this mortal coil? It wasn't so long ago that nearly everyone trusted doctors, accountants, brokers, utilities, undertakers, priests"

These priests -- the shepherds become wolves, the fathers become devourers, the sanctuary a slaughterhouse for the lambs of God. Even stripped as we are of comforting illusions, these priests have shocked us profoundly. As diocese after diocese yields up its secrets, as legions of weeping victims weigh in, it's as if vandals have pulled one of those awful relics from its casket, one of those mummified saints you find in European cathedrals, and ripped off its satin vestments till the thing that lies before us is so ghastly no one can bear to look. I suppose even the Sistine ceiling looks compromised, with a dark tarnish of irony over Michelangelo's ivory magnificence.

Outrage is a difficult note to sustain, and exhausting for the writer and the reader. For the note that's required I yield to the late Andre Dubus, a Catholic writer whose fiction includes many sympathetic priests. This is from his story "Rose":

"But if the outlaw rapes, tortures, gratuitously kills, or if he makes children suffer, we hate him with a purity we seldom feel: our hatred has no roots in prejudice, or self-righteousness, but in horror."

And why not "horror"? I despise this weary cynicism that poses as tolerance, that asks us, even with such grievous sinners as these priests, "Who will throw the first stone?" If there aren't hosts of us -- gays and straights, Catholics, Jews and Protestants -- prepared to throw the first stone at Father Paul Shanley, then this is a degenerate society that deserves, like negligent parents, to lose custody of its children.

Can a church survive with secrets like these? Most of us raised in sects with humbler, more homespun traditions held the Roman Catholic Church in private awe. Against the vulgarity and banality of secular America, the medieval grandeur and supernatural tenacity of this ancient institution made a powerful impression on rustics like me. I guess I've been impressed with nearly every priest I've known. There was an ageless Jesuit, a longtime mentor and ex officio confessor; there were the valiant Berrigan brothers, whose crusade against militarism and materialism made them heroes.

Maybe I write about innocence because my own is inexhaustible. Though I near 60, bone-weary with experience and often accused of cynicism, events continue to reveal, shock by shock, that I'm one of the most innocent people alive.

Why do I need to believe that most Catholic priests are faithful to their vows, regardless of their secret desires? Celibacy is no reasonable thing to require of a healthy animal living in a sex-saturated culture. Eros is mysterious, almost unfathomable. Every living soul has a peculiar itch of some kind, and certain combinations of nature and nurture produce sexual obsessions too strange to contemplate. If the Church in its obstinate make-believe has created a sanctuary for criminal pedophiles and a priesthood of homosexuals, the pattern of its fall is clear. Denying that there's a necessary connection between the rule of celibacy and sexually skewed priests is a game of logical hopscotch, like denying that a trillion tons of fossils proves evolution.

No vocation ever offered so much access, so few impediments, such protective coloring for child molesters. The celibate priesthood is an anachronism that offered layers of concealment, closets within closets like Chinese boxes. A large community of secret homosexuals -- some observers say 50 percent of American priests -- provided prime camouflage for gay predators and the deepest cover in America for desperate pedophiles like Boston's Father Geoghan and Father Shanley. Their archbishop protected them all because he assumed, not irrationally, that one or two notorious cases could bring down his whole house of cards, his whole cathedral of closets.

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