Readers are well aware that I am an ecumenical and orthodox Christian. And I am in no way an anti-Catholic. While I remain a committed Reformed Protestant Christian I have learned so much from Catholic theology and Catholic friends that my life would lack more profound blessings than I can begin to enumerate without the contributions that I have received from this Christian tradition. I frustrate some of my best Catholic friends because I have not converted. I also frustrate some evangelicals, who believe I have "sold out" and thus lost my distinctive Protestant views on certain doctrinal issues by being so accepting of Catholics and Catholic thought. Yet I am loved by many from both sides of the division brought about by the 16th century Reformation.
My purpose in all of this endeavor is to love God, to love Christ’s church (all of it), and to pursue unity in peace, while I retain my confessional beliefs with integrity. Some do not think this can be done, thus they regularly comment to that effect. Others find in my journey something that offers them a ray of hope and a way forward for serious Christians who admit that there are real differences that remain but who believe we must keep pursuing "the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace."
I write these two paragraphs because I watched the Academy Award nominee for best documentary, Deliver Us from Evil, this week. This film reveals the stunning cover-up by leaders within the Roman Catholic Church of sex-abuse by priests that has plagued the church for some years. (The film argues, with only slight evidence, that these cases have plagued the church for sixteen hundred years!) Look, if you are extremely defensive about the Catholic Church, and can see no evil within it, then this DVD will shock you and maybe even anger you. I found several things in the film to suggest that the story must have another side to it that was not told well by this production. But, and this is important to my point, this documentary is stunning. The producer does not appear to have a destructive agenda but a desire to tell a story of pain and suffering. Entertainment Weekly says it is, "Brilliant and psychologically transfixing." I have to profoundly agree. Here you get to see and hear Father Oliver O’Grady giving interviews and court testimony about his abuse of children occurring over many, many years. You also get to see the adult children, years after they were abused, tell of what Father O’Grady did to them and how these actions destroyed their lives. The most chilling testimony of all is that of the parents, who trusted this priest with their kids and then lived to profoundly regret it.
Oliver O’Grady went to prison but after seven years he was released and deported to his native Ireland, where he is now free and not restrained at all, thus he can again be near children. This in itself is shocking. O’Grady demonstrates a winsomeness, a warmth, and an honesty that will disarm you. You can see how he could gain trust and then when he abused children people were shocked. Director Amy Berg reveals an unforgettable portrait of sin, corruption, betrayal and innocence lost. I was disturbed and touched profoundly.
Additional features included in this DVD version include the citations of the several Scripture texts that question the practice of priestly celibacy. The abuse of power that has often marked the Roman Catholic Church is also underscored. Cardinal Mahoney, the bishop of Los Angeles, does not come out looking well but as quite evasive in the scenes where he gave an account to the court. In the background of such scenes attorneys are heard telling Catholic priests how to answer or to avoid difficult (legal and personal) questions. Forgetfulness seems to reign in all the comments when it comes to answering questions about how Oliver O’Grady was moved from parish to parish and never brought to answer for his sins. This is, of course, a major reason why the Catholic Church has paid so many millions of dollars to victims.
One comes away from this film with the sick feeling that institutions, including and especially ecclesiastical institutions like the Roman Catholic Church, do not do well when it comes to admitting their own sins and dealing faithfully with failures found within their own hierarchy. One example must suffice. The Vatican asked President Bush to keep Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, out of all internal United States legal investigations regarding these scandals. The President complied with this request. This does not mean that Cardinal Ratzinger was deeply involved in the knowledge of the cover-up but it means we are likely to never know this for sure. It also means that the Catholic Church has never been as forthcoming about these sexual abuse cases, and the way they were handled before they became legal trials, as it should have been.
I am not casting stones at the Catholic Church. I do find the form of hierarchy practiced by the Catholic Church extremely problematic. (I do not see it in Holy Scripture or in the earliest Christian tradition thus I am not convinced by the Catholic polemics that advocate it.) I am also quite aware that many churches play the cover-up game when it comes to their own leaders and sexual sin. This is why I wrote my own book, The Stain That Stays: The Problems of Sexual Misconduct in the Church. The church— Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant—needs to be much more forthcoming with the world about its own sins. God’s standard for us is not perfection, at least not in the way we often use the word. What he requires of us is honesty and integrity. Leaders will fail. The church must face these failures and come clean. Lives are at stake. Our cover-ups drive more people away from Christ than all the protective measures we take to save money and careers. God requires better if we would be faithful to him.
On an emotional level I have to tell you that if my nine year old granddaughter had told me yesterday, when I spent the day with her, of such abuse from a priest or a minister I would not have taken it well. I would be more than angry. I would also demand honest discipline at all costs. Why then are we shocked that so many Catholics demand this of the Roman Catholic Church when they and their loved ones were abused? To my Catholic friends I urge you to watch this DVD and get involved in asking for honesty and justice in your own communion. This issue is not just about homosexuality, as this film makes abundantly clear. (I once thought that it could be reduced to this one problem in most cases.) To my Protestant friends I urge you to be very circumspect and careful and never cast stones. We have far too many sexual abuse cases of our own making to go there. And to all of us who profess love for Christ and his church repentance and honesty is the norm, not the exception.