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Eraser Duty For Bart

by Published on

2011 MOLLY PRIZE HONORABLE MENTION

Also read: “Devil of a Scandal“, “The Church’s Judas Moment“, and “Worlds Without Women

Published: March 20, 2010

Angry nuns have been calling Congressman Bart Stupak’s office to complain about his dismissive comments on their bravura decision to make a literal Hail Mary pass, break with Catholic bishops and endorse the health care bill.

As a Catholic schoolboy, the Michigan Democrat had his share of nuns who rapped his knuckles when he misbehaved, like the time he crashed a kickball through the school window.

So, of course, he’s having some acid flashbacks, but he told me, “They’re not printable even in The New York Times.”

Like that other troublemaking Bart (Simpson), Stupak, who wants to kill the health care bill because he thinks the language on abortion funding is not restrictive enough, should have to write on the blackboard a hundred times: “I will listen closely when the nuns tell me I am wrong. I will not be an obstinate lawmaker.”

Stupak got in hot holy water when he told Fox News, “When I’m drafting right-to-life language, I don’t call up nuns.” He followed that with more scorn for sisters, telling Chris Matthews that the nuns were not influential because they rarely try to influence—which makes no sense—and because “they’re not the recognized spokesperson for the Catholic Church.” He listens to the bishops, he said, and antiabortion groups.

We might have to bang Bart’s head into a blackboard a few times before he realizes that in a moral tug-of-war between the sisters and the bishops, you have to go with the gals.

The nuns are giving the Democrats cover. As Bob Casey, an abortion opponent who helped negotiate the abortion language in the Senate bill, observed, quoting Scripture: “They care for ‘the least, the last and the lost.’ And they know health care.”

On Friday, Tim Ryan, an antiabortion Democrat from Ohio, took to the House floor to say he had been influenced by the nuns to vote for the bill.

“You say this is pro-abortion,” he said to Republicans, and yet “you have 59,000 Catholic nuns from across the country endorsing this bill, 600 Catholic hospitals, 1,400 Catholic nursing homes endorsing this bill.”

For decades, the nuns did the bidding of the priests, cleaned up their messes, and watched as their male superiors let a perverted stain spread over the entire church, a stain that has now even reached the Holy See. It seemed that the nuns were strangely silent, either because they suspected but had no proof—the “Doubt” syndrome—or because they had no one to tell but male bosses protecting one another in that repugnant and hypocritical old-boys’ network.

Their goodness was rewarded with a stunning slap from the über-conservative Pope Benedict XVI. The Vatican is conducting two inquisitions into the “quality of life” of American nuns, trying to knock any independence or modernity out of them.

The witch hunt has sparked the nuns to have a voice at last. Vulnerable children were not protected by the male hierarchy of the church, which treated sexual abuse as a failure of character rather than a crime. The men were so arrogant it never occurred to them that they should be accountable to the secular world. In their warped thinking, it was better to let children suffer than to call the authorities, embarrass the church and risk diminished power.

Now the bishops think that it’s better to deprive poor people of good health care than to let the church look like it’s going soft on abortion.

Under the semantic dodge of ideological purity, the bishops also are doing the bidding of the Republicans, trying to kill the bill and weaken the president. But the nuns are right when they say that “the Senate bill will not provide taxpayer funding for elective abortions” and that its protection of pregnant women is the “real pro-life stance.”

The nuns stepped up to support true Catholic dogma, making sure poor people get proper health care. (Which would lead to fewer abortions anyway.)

The men running the church seem oblivious to the fact that, with the ranks of priests and sisters dwindling, they can’t afford to alienate the nuns who make their schools and hospitals run smoothly.

And now, just as he’s finally issuing a pastoral letter about the Irish clerical child abuse, the pope himself has been ensnared in the international scandal, with a psychiatrist in Germany saying that an archdiocese that Benedict led at the time ignored warnings in the 1980s that a priest accused of sexually abusing boys had to be “kept away from working with children.”

Because Pope Benedict has addressed the sex scandal belatedly and sparsely, stonewalling on the skeleton in his German closet, he has lost authority to speak about the issue consuming his church.

The only internal investigation he has undertaken with alacrity, for heaven’s sake, is the one bullying American nuns.

 


 

DEVIL OF A SCANDAL

Published: April 3, 2010

The Devil didn’t make me do it.

The facts did.

Father Gabriele Amorth, the chief exorcist for the Holy See, said in Rome that The Times’s coverage of Pope Benedict, which cast doubt on his rigor in dealing with pedophile priests, was “prompted by the Devil.”

“There is no doubt about it,” the 85-year-old priest said, according to the Catholic News Agency. “Because he is a marvelous pope and worthy successor to John Paul II, it is clear that the Devil wants to grab hold of him.”

The exorcist also said that the abuse scandal showed that Satan uses priests to try to destroy the church, “and so we should not be surprised if priests too … fall into temptation. They also live in the world and can fall like men of the world.”

Actually, falling into temptation is eating cupcakes after you’ve given them up for Lent. Rape and molestation of children is far beyond what most of us think of as succumbing to worldly temptation.

This church needs a sexorcist more than an exorcist.

As this unholy week of shameful revelations unfurls, the Vatican is rather overplaying its hand. At the moment, the only thing between Catholics and God is a defensive church hierarchy that cannot fully acknowledge and heal the damage it has done around the globe.

How can the faithful enjoy Easter redemption when a Good Friday service at the Vatican was more concerned with shielding the pope than repenting the church’s misdeeds? The Rev. Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher of the papal household, told those at St. Peter’s Basilica, including the pope, that he was thinking about the Jews in this season of Passover and Easter because “they know from experience what it means to be victims of collective violence and also because of this they are quick to recognize the recurring symptoms.”

Amazingly enough, it turns out that the Franciscan priest was not referring to the collective violence and recurring symptoms of the global plague of Catholic priests who harmed children, enabled by the malignant neglect of the Vatican.

He was talking about the collective violence and recurring symptoms of those critics—including victims, Catholics worldwide and commentators—who want the church to face up to its sins.

Father Cantalamessa went on to quote from the letter of an unnamed Jewish friend: “I am following with indignation the violent and concentric attacks against the church, the pope and all the faithful by the whole world. The use of stereotypes, the passing from personal responsibility and guilt to a collective guilt, remind me of the more shameful aspects of anti-Semitism.”

As they say in Latin, “Ne eas ibi.” Don’t go there.

Mindful of the church’s long history of anti-Semitism, Leon Wieseltier, the New Republic literary editor and Jewish scholar, noted: “Why would the Catholic Church wish to defend itself by referring to other enormities in which it was also implicated? Anyway, the Jews endured more than a bad press.” This solidarity with Jews is also notable given that Italy’s La Repubblica reported that “certain Catholic circles” suspected that “a New York Jewish lobby” was responsible for the outcry against the pope.

It’s insulting to liken the tragic death of six million Jews with the appropriate outrage of Catholics at the decades-long cover-up of crimes against children by the very men who were supposed to be their moral guides. Even the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, tried to walk the cat back: “I don’t think it’s an appropriate comparison.”

Father Cantalamessa was expressing the sense of self-victimization permeating the Vatican at a time when more real victims are pouring forth. News reports said that the abuse hot line set up by the Catholic Church in Germany imploded the first day out when more than 4,000 callers charging abuse flooded the lines.

There is the pope’s inability to say anything long, adequate and sincere about the scandal and what role he has played, including acceding to the petition of the Wisconsin priest who abused 200 deaf kids that he should not be defrocked in his infirmity, to spare his priestly “dignity.” And there is his veiled dismissal of criticism as “petty gossip.” All this keeps him the subject of the conversation.

It is in crises that leaders are tested, that we get to see if they succumb to their worst instincts or summon their better angels. All Benedict has to do is the right thing.

The hero of the week, for simply telling the truth, is Ireland’s Archbishop Diarmuid Martin. His diocese is Dublin, where four archbishops spent three decades shrugging off abuse cases.

“There is no shortcut to addressing the past,” he said during a Holy Week Mass. “This has been a difficult year. We see how damaging failure of integrity and authenticity are to the body of Christ. Shameful abuse took place within the church of Christ. The response was hopelessly inadequate.”

Amen.

 


 

THE CHURCH’S JUDAS MOMENT

Published: April 6, 2010

I’m a Catholic woman who makes a living being adversarial. We have a pope who has instructed Catholic women not to be adversarial.

It’s a conundrum.

I’ve been wondering, given the vitriolic reaction of the New York archbishop to my column defending nuns and the dismissive reaction of the Vatican to my column denouncing the church’s response to the pedophilia scandal, if they are able to take a woman’s voice seriously. Some, like Bill Donohue of the Catholic League, seem to think women are trying to undermine the church because of abortion and women’s ordination.

I thought they might respond better to a male Dowd.

My brother Kevin is conservative and devout—his hobby is collecting crèches—and has raised three good Catholic sons. When I asked him to share his thoughts on the scandal, I learned, shockingly, that we agreed on some things. He wrote the following:

“In pedophilia, the church has unleashed upon itself a plague that threatens its very future, and yet it remains in a curious state of denial. The church I grew up in was black and white, no grays. That’s why my father, an Irish immigrant, liked it so much. The chaplain of the Police and Fire departments told me once ‘Your father was a fierce Catholic, very fierce.’

My brothers and I were sleepily at his side for the monthly 8 a.m. Holy Name Mass and the guarding of the Eucharist in the middle of the night during the 40-hour ritual at Easter. Once during a record snowstorm in 1958, we were marched single-file to church for Mass only to find out the priests next door couldn’t get out of the rectory.

The priest was always a revered figure, the embodiment of Christ changing water into wine. (Older parishioners took it literally.) The altar boys would drink the dregs.

When I was in the 7th grade, one of the new priests took four of us to the drive-in restaurant and suggested a game of ‘pink belly’ on the way back; we pulled up a boy’s shirt and slapped his belly until it was pink. When the new priest joined in, it seemed like more groping than slapping. But we thought it was inadvertent. And my parents never would have believed a priest did anything inappropriate anyway. A boy in my class told me much later that the same priest climbed into bed with him in 1958 at a rectory sleepover, but my friend threw him to the floor. The priest protested he was sleepwalking. Three days later, the archbishop sent the priest to a rehab place in New Mexico; he ended up as a Notre Dame professor.

Vatican II made me wince. The church declared casual Friday. All the once-rigid rules left to the whim of the flock. The Mass was said in English (rendering useless my carefully learned Latin prayers). Holy days of obligation were optional. There were laypeople on the heretofore sacred ground of the altar—performing the sacraments and worse, handling the Host. The powerful symbolism of the priest turning the Host into the body of Christ cracked like an egg.

In his book, ‘Goodbye! Good Men,’ author Michael Rose writes that the liberalized rules set up a takeover of seminaries by homosexuals.

Vatican II liberalized rules but left the most outdated one: celibacy. That vow was put in place originally because the church did not want heirs making claims on money and land. But it ended up shrinking the priest pool and producing the wrong kind of candidates—drawing men confused about their sexuality who put our children in harm’s way.

The church is dying from a thousand cuts. Its cover-up has cost a fortune and been a betrayal worthy of Judas. The money spent came from social programs, Catholic schools and the poor. This should be a sin that cries to heaven for vengeance. I asked a friend of mine recently what he would do if his child was molested after the church knew. ‘I would probably kill someone,’ he replied.

We must reassess. Married priests and laypeople giving the sacraments are not going to destroy the church. Based on what we have seen the last 10 years, they would be a bargain. It is time to go back to the disciplines that the church was founded on and remind our seminaries and universities what they are. (Georgetown University agreeing to cover religious symbols on stage to get President Obama to speak was not exactly fierce.)

The storm within the church strikes at what every Catholic fears most. We take our religion on faith. How can we maintain that faith when our leaders are unworthy of it?”

 


 

WORLDS WITHOUT WOMEN

Published: April 10, 2010

When I was in Saudi Arabia, I had tea and sweets with a group of educated and sophisticated young professional women.

I asked why they were not more upset about living in a country where women’s rights were strangled, an inbred and autocratic state more like an archaic men’s club than a modern nation. They told me, somewhat defensively, that the kingdom was moving at its own pace, glacial as that seemed to outsiders.

How could such spirited women, smart and successful on every other level, acquiesce in their own subordination?

I was puzzling over that one when it hit me: As a Catholic woman, I was doing the same thing.

I, too, belonged to an inbred and wealthy men’s club cloistered behind walls and disdaining modernity.

I, too, remained part of an autocratic society that repressed women and ignored their progress in the secular world.

I, too, rationalized as men in dresses allowed our religious kingdom to decay and to cling to outdated misogynistic rituals, blind to the benefits of welcoming women’s brains, talents and hearts into their ancient fraternity.

To circumscribe women, Saudi Arabia took Islam’s moral codes and orthodoxy to extremes not outlined by Muhammad; the Catholic Church took its moral codes and orthodoxy to extremes not outlined by Jesus. In the New Testament, Jesus is surrounded by strong women and never advocates that any woman—whether she’s his mother or a prostitute—be treated as a second-class citizen.

Negating women is at the heart of the church’s hideous—and criminal—indifference to the welfare of boys and girls in its priests’ care. Lisa Miller writes in Newsweek’s cover story about the danger of continuing to marginalize women in a disgraced church that has Mary at the center of its founding story:

“In the Roman Catholic corporation, the senior executives live and work, as they have for a thousand years, eschewing not just marriage, but intimacy with women … not to mention any chance to familiarize themselves with the earthy, primal messiness of families and children.” No wonder that, having closed themselves off from women and everything maternal, they treated children as collateral damage, a necessary sacrifice to save face for Mother Church.

And the sins of the fathers just keep coming. On Friday, The Associated Press broke the latest story pointing the finger of blame directly at Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, quoting from a letter written in Latin in which he resisted pleas to defrock a California priest who had sexually molested children.

As the longtime Vatican enforcer, the archconservative Ratzinger—now Pope Benedict XVI—moved avidly to persecute dissenters. But with molesters, he was plodding and even merciful.

As the A.P. reported, the Oakland diocese recommended defrocking Father Stephen Kiesle in 1981. The priest had pleaded no contest and was sentenced to three years’ probation in 1978 in a case in which he was accused of tying up and molesting two boys in a church rectory.

In 1982, the Oakland diocese got what it termed a “rather curt” response from the Vatican. It wasn’t until 1985 that “God’s Rottweiler” finally got around to addressing the California bishop’s concern. He sent his letter urging the diocese to give the 38-year-old pedophile “as much paternal care as possible” and to consider “his young age.” Ratzinger should have been more alarmed by the young age of the priest’s victims; that’s what maternal care would have entailed.

As in so many other cases, the primary concern seemed to be shielding the church from scandal. Chillingly, outrageously, the future pope told the Oakland bishop to consider the “good of the universal church” before granting the priest’s own request to give up the collar—even though the bishop had advised Rome that the scandal would likely be greater if the priest were not punished.

While the Vatican sat on the case—asking the diocese to resubmit the files, saying they might have been lost—Kiesle volunteered as a youth minister at a church north of Oakland. The A.P. also reported that even after the priest was finally defrocked in 1987, he continued to volunteer with children in the Oakland diocese; repeated warnings to church officials were ignored.

The Vatican must realize that the church’s belligerent, resentful and paranoid response to the global scandal is not working because it now says it will cooperate with secular justice systems and that the pope will have more meetings with victims. It is too little, too late.

The church that through the ages taught me and other children right from wrong did not know right from wrong when it came to children. Crimes were swept under the rectory rug, and molesters were protected to molest again for the “good of the universal church.” And that is bad, very bad—a mortal sin.

The church has had theological schisms. This is an emotional schism. The pope is morally compromised. Take it from a sister.