Priests and Preachers

The other evening, a very Catholic neighbor dropped in for a visit. Over the years, he and I have often discussed religious and exchanged books on a variety of topics. A cradle Catholic, now 73 years old, he is active in his church and well versed on Catholic doctrine and practice. Our discussions often have included detailed examinations of doctrine and practice.

That evening, however, he had not come to talk. He brought me a book that he had just finished reading; Our Fathers: The Secret Life of the Catholic Church in an Age of Scandal. David France, the author, had covered the crisis in the Catholic Church as a senior editor at Newsweek magazine.

My first thoughts were that the book would be just another attempt by a Catholic writer to cover up or excuse the multitude of accusations of priestly sexual misconduct and episcopal machinations that had dominated newspaper front pages a few years ago. Out of respect for my friend and neighbor, I opened the book and began to read. I am glad that I did. The book is a “grabber” that is almost impossible to put down.

France writes in a comfortable, easy to read style that never becomes wearisome. He opens the book by introducing readers to the 1960 graduation class of the Boston Archdiocese Catholic seminary. What follows is a detailed collection of time-ordered vignettes as he traces the lives and activities of members of that graduating class.

David France takes us back to the church of the 1950s, a time of relative innocence, to look for answers. With deft nuance, he crafts a panoramic portrait of the faithful, encompassing the hopes, dreams, disappointments, and courage of numerous Catholic and non-Catholic families over the last fifty years. Drawing on hundreds of interviews, private correspondence, unpublished scientific probes and secret Vatican documents, and tens of thousands of pages of court records, he shows how, ironically, the church's institutional suspicion of human sexuality lit the fuse on the crisis.

Our Fathers braids a heartbreaking narrative from the personal lives of good and bad priests, pious and heartless prelates, self-interested lawyers turned heroes, holy altar boys turned drug addicts, mothers torn between their children and their faith, hard-bitten investigative reporters reduced to tears, and thousands of church critics who, through this crisis, returned to their faith renewed and invigorated. He shows us the intense history of dissent within the ranks, especially regarding Catholic teachings on sexuality and homosexuality. He tells the heroic stories of whistle-blowing nuns, independent pastors, church insiders trying to do the right thing, and—ultimately—a group of blue-collar men, all molested by the same priest, who overcame their bitterness and took it upon themselves to try to save their church.—Cover notes for Our Fathers: The Secret Life of the Catholic Church in an Age of Scandal; Broadway Books © 2004 David France

France's writing calls to mind the style of Tom Clancy—weaving the stories of church authorities, victims, their families and representatives of the law into the fabric of his social history.

France's reporting is compassionate, both as regards the ephebophile priests and their victims, but in no way avoids direct and detailed recounting of the horrible actions of the offending priests. When writing of the responses of the victims' family members when they were made aware of the terrible things done to their children, compassion at times is set aside in favor of impassionate reporting. The responses and activities of prelates when apprised of charges of sexual misconduct involving priests are reported without attempt to excuse their failures.

One races through the compelling narrative of Our Fathers with a shock that just keeps on building—that all these priests could corrupt so many kids. And then at the end you realize that it wasn't only the priests who had betrayed their trust, but at least two-thirds of the American bishops, too, who were covering up as a matter of policy to save 'the Church.' What a delusion! In fact, they were trying to save their own clerical caste—as David France's meticulous reporting demonstrates.—Robert Blair Kaiser, liner notes for Our Fathers; © 2004 by David France

News media have provided detailed reports of the allegations made by persons claiming to have been victims of priestly sexual predators and the unconscionable failures of Catholic prelates to act to protect Catholic faithful. I had thought I knew just about everything I needed to know concerning these issues. I was wrong! Drawing on church documents, court records and other sources, France fleshes out the news media's barebones accounts of priestly seductions and diocesan cover-ups.

What was most shocking to me were the numerous reports of Catholic parents, especially mothers, who welcomed predatory priests into their homes and saw nothing wrong with extended priestly visitations to the bedsides of their children. When their violated children found courage to tell their parents what had happened, it seemed the norm for the parents to choose to protect their church and its priests rather than their own children; often blaming the victims for what had been done to them.

The book is not an across-the board denunciation of all Catholic religious. Quite the contrary, the author reports the efforts of a number of Catholic religious and lay persons who defied the not inconsiderable power of their priests and bishops in their struggle to correct what was to them an egregious situation in their church.

I rarely recommend a book by a Catholic writer, but I do urge everyone, Catholic and non-Catholic, who reads this post to pick up a copy of France's book at his or her public library or favorite bookstore. For those Catholics who might be reluctant to read a book on this scandalous period in the history of their church, I offer these words from the book's dust jacket:

This book is a tribute to those ordinary Catholics called upon to make extraordinary contributions, Our Fathers is the sweeping, authoritative, and gripping work the scandal and its aftermath demand.

The book makes no attempt to excuse the wrongdoing of some Catholic priests, bishops and other religious. Rather, it draws out into the open those terrible secrets that had been hidden in the darkest recesses of Catholic rectories and chanceries. If reading this book has the effect of causing people to pay greater attention to looking after their children, I believe there will far fewer reports of child molestation by religious leaders.

Come soon, Lord.

Addendum: I believe it important for readers to understand that it is not just some Catholic religious who are sexual predators. There also are monsters in the Protestant churches who prey on children. This fact was once again brought home by recent reports in the San Antonio News Express of the prison sentences handed down on two evangelical preachers--one of a non-denominational church and the other former pastor of a Baptist congregation.

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