"The PBS Frontline documentary, Hand of God., is the story of pedophilia victim Paul Cultrera. It is a disturbing illustration of an arrogant Catholic Church hierarchy that does not always practice what it preaches -- as well as a clear-cut case example of why no religious denomination should be allowed to exempt itself from equal justice under the law by pronouncing itself as its ultimate arbiter.
As I watched the horror of the film unfold, I was reminded of when I first learned of the scandal. More so, I recalled how many of the Catholic Right provide cover for a dysfunctional, but reactionary portion of the hierarchy. Instead of cauterizing the pain by taking responsibility, they tried to shift the blame upon both the violated children for whose protection they were entrusted as well as those seeking accountability within the Church.
Filmmaker Joe Cultrera's dark, but moving portrait of his older brother Paul's ordeal stirred many of my personal adverse feelings for certain church hierarchy. I recognized the lack of explanation, the arrogance, the second-class treatment Italian-American Catholics are often subjected to; as well as the detached coldness of some of my church's leadership. But there was one experience Paul had that I could not relate to: being molested by a priest.
The ordeal of the victims has only been exasperated by pastors, bishops and cardinals who still shirk responsibility often while trying to shift the blame to a secular society for what they often incorrectly misinterpret as hyper-individualism. The obvious question is raised: by evading full accountability, isn't is now certain clergy, the not society at large that is pursuing a reckless a course of self-interested behavior?
It is impossible to miss the film's justified anger and bitterness. This is not the story of an individual who just walked away from his religion out of convenience -- but of a once-faithful man who in 1964 was abused by priest whose behavior was known to the local hierarchy and was not stopped and properly disciplined. Shockingly, Paul's abuser, priest Joseph Birmingham who was first alleged to be a child abuser in the early 1960s, was instead assigned to duties that put him within greater access to potential victims, eventually rising to the level of pastor. Instead of punishing the abuser, certain clergy of the hierarchy chose to ignore the victim, and reward the predator with greater opportunities to further his serial crimes.
An overall theme emerges in many of these pedophilia cases: a Catholic hierarchy that continually seems more interested in protecting the church as an institution rather than her flesh and blood members. Power always seems to come before the personal well-being of her congregants. Accountability is avoided. In its place, members of the Church hierarchy brazenly seek to be exempted from the rules -- make that the laws -- that apply to everyone else. No wonder why many on the Catholic Right rail at the notion of keeping church and state separate.
And the Catholic Right uses this scandal by attempting to use it to further an ultra-orthodox agenda as well as making homosexuals in general the scapegoats. In Rove-like fashion they are trying to turn a disastrous weak point into a strength. Many of the hard Right leadership deride ordinary Catholics who simply want the violators and their enablers held accountable as "a culture of dissent," as if their primary goal were the Vatican's demise. We hear of bishops and cardinals who falsely describe this shameful chapter as being the result of the aggiornomento of Vatican II or worse, as the logical outcome of living in societies built upon American liberal democracy.
This outrageous claim just doesn't square with the facts. Joseph Birmingham and one of his primary enablers, Bishop John McCormack both graduated from St. John's Seminary in Brighton, Massachusetts in 1960-two years before Vatican II effected the changes so disdained by ultra-traditionalists. Several generations back, there was a disturbingly similar incident within the Catholic community in Australia that was well-documented by the CBS news magazine Sixty Minutes. Pedophilia among clergy has been known to exist in a variety of societies.
Organizations such as the Catholic League try to use red herrings by stating that there is an increase in pedophilia incidents in public schools or miscasting the severity of the scandal by claiming the victims were mostly teenagers instead of pre-pubescent children--as if that were to lessen the already inflicted damage. As historian Garry Wills observed, "Priestly pedophilia is also set apart from other varieties by the fact that the seduction technique employs religion."
Paul Cultrera wonders how folks such as his parents could remain faithful to the Catholic Church. The answer is simple. They know that the Church is not about Bishop Lennon, Father Birmingham or Bernard Cardinal Law-members of a hierarchy who flagrantly seek exemption from the rules of our pluralistic society. Instead the true Catholic Church is Joe and Paul Cultrera's parents, folks who in the best tradition of American liberal democracy play by the rules and merely ask that everyone else do the same, even princes of the Church. Someday, good people such as they will better be able to contribute to the direction of that great institution. But this will only come about when individual Catholics realize that without dissent, accountability is an impossibility-even at the risk of excommunication.
In Part Five of this series we examined how the issue of clergy pedophilia is a clear illustration of how theocracy can easily translate into physical and psychological danger to our most vulnerable loved ones. And in Part Twenty we examined the Aristotelian belief in inequality that still permeates the traditionalist Catholic mindset, paternalistic in its belief that only holy philosopher-kings, not the common men truly understand what constitutes the common good. The logical implication of a theocratic society built upon this autocratic thought would be an increase in such immoral behavior simply because there would be no secular society to ensure accountability.
IRD stalwarts of the Catholic Right, such as Robert H. Bork, rail against Liberalism's faith in equality. Yet it is this very adherence to equality that prevents self-exemption from the law by those evoking the unenlightened grounds of heredity or non-meritoriously arrived at privilege. It almost seems bizarre that those whose actions are the most repugnant and close-minded have the audacity to attack loyal, reasoned dissent as attacks upon the Catholic Church. It is astounding that they would attack those who--as Christianity's Founder questioned His religious hierarchy's powers-that-be did--call for internal accountability. Why is it that they are so threatened by a secular society that merely requires equal justice under the law? If threats of eternal damnation and excommunication could be used to avoid justice when sectarian beliefs are not carbon copies of secular laws, what greater evils could be advanced if that were to change?
But in closing we must return to the aggrieved, victims such as Paul Cultrera. It is for him and others who have been first violated then alienated as if they, not the pedophile clergy were the perpetrators who must be made whole. Justice, both sectarian as well as secular has a duty to them before it considers the Catholic Church an institution: that much is owed to them for a continuum of psychological pain, broken marriages and the moral confusion that comes from the misplaced threat of damnation to buy silence. It is only through such a placement of priorities that the Church could redeem its reputation. And if the church hierarchy fails to do so in this age of falling church attendance, perhaps they should look into the mirror if they seek the true agents of apostasy."
Note: Content reposted with the permission of the author.