“His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into his granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” Luke 3:17
At the time, I knew I was being sent to a one-year assignment where I would fill in for monk who had been yanked from Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, after a victim came forward and accused the monk of child sex abuse. This was not my first emergency assignment. The previous year—before I was ordained—I was ordered to replace a monk who had been working as a faculty resident at Saint John’s University. He had also been accused of sex abuse.
I was assured by Chancellor of the University, Abbot Jerome Theisen, O.S.B. that these were isolated incidents. Unfortunately, they were not.
In 1992, I could not imagine that hundreds of priests and religious currently in ministry were child molesters—or that the moral decay included Priors, Abbots and Bishops. But I would soon learn. After six years of hearing confessions and being a “company man,” I saw first-hand that the rot of clerical sex abuse of minors is centuries old (read the Didache) and that the knowledge of abuse runs all the way to the Pope.
Hearing confessions and performing the Sacrament of Penance is life changing for every priest. A priest is forever separated from lay people the moment he starts to hear the confessions of men and women in his parish. I will never forget—nor can any human—the first time I heard confessions of child molestation or murder. What affected me even more was that the penitents knew that they held the privilege and that the priest may never do anything about it. That was when I truly understood the lesson behind the myth of Sisyphus.
But is there hope now? I believe there is.
In the face of all this crime, I learned that criminals are eventually exposed, or as the Gospel says, the chaff will be burned.
There have been several major paradigm shifts during the past 20 years:
- It is no longer unconscionable for people to understand that Roman Catholic deacons, priests, religious and bishops have sexually abused minors. A majority of people understand that this is a real problem that must be stopped.
- The public understands that church officials at all levels have covered up abuse, promoted abusers, and marginalized victims.
- Prosecutors and detectives know they can get a conviction against a Roman Catholic official without fear of being fired or voted out of office.
- Grand Jury, Royal Crown and bankruptcy investigations across the globe have exposed the system of abuse, cover-up, and shuffling molesters from post to post, and
- The internet and global communications have exposed child-molesting clerics to a global audience, allowed victims to network, and shined a bright light of truth into a 2000-year history of abuse.
But this change in child safety has gone beyond the Church. We have learned that any group with leaders revered as gods are incapable of self-policing. Whether it is the Hasidim, Boy Scouts, Penn State Football or Roman Clerics—once leaders are revered as gods, crime and cover-up are soon to follow.
As Augustine of Hippo (highlighted by Thomas Aquinas in his teaching on fraternal correction) said,
God willing, I look forward to the next twenty years.