Viewpoint: They Know Not What They Do

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Santiago Lyon/AP

Pope John Paul II and the Cardinals

I had to read the sentence twice to make sure I wasn't imagining it. In the text of the American Cardinals' statement issued last week in Rome, the hierarchs specified which statutory rapists among their clergy would be subject to being defrocked. Such a punishment would be meted out to "a priest who has become notorious and is guilty of the serial, predatory, sexual abuse of minors." Excuse me? Why on earth is the "notoriety" of a child abuser in any way relevant to punishment for his crime (except as an excuse for the church to avoid sifting through past allegations that remain unpublicized)? Then there were these loopholes: the abuse also had to be "serial" and "predatory." Occasional or one-off child-abuse violations could perhaps be forgiven. And even serial abuse might be overlooked if it had not been "predatory." A simple question: How is an adult's exploitation of a minor ever anything but predatory?

We have learned one simple thing from last week: the highest officials of the largest Christian denomination on earth have lower standards with regard to the protection of children and minors than secular criminal law does. The endorsement of "zero tolerance" by Philadelphia's Anthony Cardinal Bevilacq last Saturday (good post-Rome spin) is still not official policy. I can't believe I'm writing this — but they still don't get it. And if they cannot get the enormity of the crimes their clergy have committed, they are even further from acknowledging their own role in enabling them. No one has resigned. No one has taken responsibility. And on the two central issues behind this scandal, there is no movement. The first is the authoritarian governing structure of the church, whereby a self-selected elite makes every decision for hundreds of millions of people. When you have a structure like this — immune from outside input — it is bound to create crises like this one. It has no real means of self-correction. The system creates incentives for secrecy and cover-ups that are often just as bad as the crime. But none of that is on the table. In fact, a critical element for recovery — boards of inquiry composed of lay people, not just clergy — was not even mentioned in the text.

As for a frank discussion of sexual morality, celibacy, women priests or homosexuality, it's not likely to happen anytime soon. The usual diversions designed to avoid these subjects were thrown about with abandon. This is a purely American problem, some church spokesmen argued, as if scandals weren't exploding elsewhere: an ABC News report charged the Vatican itself with covering up abuse claims against a priest previously praised by the Pope. Then there was the scapegoating of gays. Equating homosexuality with child abuse is one of the oldest slanders there is — but this church didn't hesitate to invoke it to deflect attention from its own culpability. Besides, now we know that perhaps as many as half of America's priests are believed to be gay. A church that still preaches that homosexuals are "intrinsically disordered" relies on these allegedly sick people to run its dioceses, churches and schools. Talk about cognitive dissonance.

As a Catholic struggling to keep the faith through all this, I find myself asking: Why? Why can these men not get the enormity of what has happened? The best I can come up with is that they are well-intentioned men who somehow cannot see that what they have enabled is systematic child rape. They resist deep change by claiming that celibacy isn't the issue. But the hierarchy's cover-up of this evil surely has something to do with celibacy. Today's church leaders see sex primarily as an act, fraught with moral danger, not as a relationship, imbued with moral good. And how could they think otherwise? They have never known sexual relations — only sexual fantasy, masturbation and struggle. So perhaps it never occurred to them, as the writer Michael Sean Winters has pointed out, to see this abuse from the child's point of view.

That is why this crisis is of profound importance. One of Jesus' main teachings was the dignity of the vulnerable — children central among them. Unless you are like a child, Jesus taught, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven. When Jesus' own church, far from protecting children, molests them and shields their abusers, the sin goes to the heart of what the church is about. And when its leaders cannot take full responsibility, the sin can only metastasize. Bernard Cardinal Law didn't even attend the press conference last week to explain the Cardinals' statement to the people he serves and the families he betrayed. "[It] was rather late, you know," he told reporters. "I had other things to do." Forgive him, for he knows not what he does.

Andrew Sullivan, a senior editor at the New Republic, writes daily for