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What WILL The Cardinal Say?

by Arthur Austin - November 2002

At least 114 priests have been convicted of criminal abuse of children in the United States.

This count does not refer to settlements or judgments for civil cases, pending criminal or legal cases, or priests removed from assignment.

Since 1990, 19 bishops worldwide have resigned due to allegations of, or mishandling of, sex abuse; 100 priests have been criminally convicted and served or are serving time. (This does not count the untold number of cases which were not pursued because of the statue of limitations.)

Dozens, perhaps several hundred, victims have committed suicide; 16 priests have committed suicide after allegations of sexual abuse brought against them; over $500 million has been paid by the church to keep this quiet and for "hush-money" settlements.
And yet people can still ask me seriously - because I was abused by a priest - what I think of Cardinal Law's apology at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross last Sunday. This is what I think: He has apologized, he has not confessed.

Let's not confuse the two states of being. They are not the same thing and one in fact - apology - usually follows the other; it does not precede it.

The act of public apology and asking for forgiveness is a subtle thing. It can make the wrongdoer appear in a suddenly humble and sympathetic light, piteous, even somehow noble. It can then make those who were wronged look hard of heart, mean-spirited, and plain nasty, if they do not forgive. "Well, he SAID he was sorry, what more do they want?"

I can answer that question. They want justice. I want justice. And that is only one of many things the cardinal's apology did not give to us, the victims of his decisions regarding sexually abusive priests.

The question of the cardinal's sincerity, or lack of sincerity, in apologizing is of little, if any, real interest to me. It does not matter whether he was sincere or not. (Although it is quite apparent that his new PR firm is sincerely doing its job.) Unless his apology translates into tangible, observable justice for victims, the apology remains essentially worthless, a formula, a simulacrum of repentance. I would rather have heard an apology and a confession from Wilson Rodgers, the cardinal's legal dark angel, and familiar, and be debating the question of his sincerity.

If all this apology amounts to is mea culpas on Sunday from the cardinal, and motions to dismiss from Rodgers for the rest of the week, who cares what the cardinal says?
More important, why should anyone care? There has been no justice from this Chancery. The John Geoghan settlement was not justice. It was a terror tactic and a warning to every victim: accept this or we will hold your life hostage in court for the next five years, and you will have five more years of this slow torment to endure. Did the cardinal apologize for any of this? I don't recall hearing it on Sunday.

What I heard on Sunday is that "now" the Cardinal understands the "intense suffering" caused by his personal decisions and actions. This is a Prince of the Church, a cardinal/archbishop of a major diocese, a man educated at Harvard University. Has it really taken him not only his whole life, but the additional last 11 months, to understand that sexual defilement and rape cause "intense suffering?" This defies belief.

And if it is true, we should be filled with dread that a man so devoid of empathy, insight, or imagination is shepherding the flock of the faithful. It is no comfort to this victim of sexual abuse by a priest that the cardinal "now" understands that I endure "intense suffering," and have for decades.

Bernard Law is an impediment to justice. He will not give justice in criminal or civil cases, unless it is forced from him by the courts; and spiritual justice he cannot give, because the efficacy of his pastoral function has been voided by his long intransigence, and evasion; and by his long, bland indifference to the suffering of his victims; by his legalisms; by his deferring not to Christian doctrine, but to his corporate lawyers and the hair-splitting possibilities in our statutory law, for the criminal and the complicitous to avoid responsibility or judgment.

And when all else failed he shielded himself from his victims in the coils of canon law. It is the 21st century, Bernard. Thomas Beckett and Henry II Plantagenet are a long time dead. The issue has been settled. Canon law does not take precedence over the law of the land anymore, anywhere, except in Vatican City.

The cardinal's apologies and explanations, sincere or not, mean nothing to me because I have come to understand that whatever this cardinal says or does not say, does or does not do, the ancient, lumbering, but formidable and ruthless machinery of the Roman Curia will keep grinding away, grinding down all oppositions, loyal or otherwise, as well as the individual souls it has betrayed. There is no apology sufficient to this calamity in which the cardinal has played a, if not the, key role; and the institutionally unforgiving cannot with any legitimacy beg forgiveness for themselves.

Bernard, my brother in Christ, I pity you. I pray for you every day. This is what I have to say to you about your apology: it is too late. You waited too long. The vast and enduring stain of your failure as a pastor, your faults as a priest acting from, and with, a "cultivated ignorance" toward those who were sexually abused by priests in your charge cannot be washed away by the forgiveness of those you harmed.

It is not within our power to cleanse your soul. And it is merely a further cruel indignity for you to lay the burden of forgiving you into the wounds of those who have been afflicted so grievously.

The other night, discussing your apology with a victim in Braintree, sexually abused by a priest from Saint Francis of Assisi Parish, as I was, I said to her, "You know, Kath, the scriptural injunction 'Take up your cross and follow me,' is not enjoined only on the laity." Thousands of lives have been ruined or lost at the corrupted touch of sexually abusive priests. People are dying. Pick up your cross, Eminence. Take your sins to Jesus. Lay your plea for forgiveness at His feet.

Beg Him, as we begged you, to be listened to and heard, for the simple truth of the matter is this: It is not the forgiveness of your victims that you require, Bernard, it is the mercy of God. Apologize to Christ, whose body was desecrated in the body of each victim of your feral priests, and pray that you will be given by Him, at long last, the thing which you have yourself denied for so long to so many.

Arthur Austin lives in Braintree, Massachusetts.

Survivors' Network of those Abused by Priests