He said they're calling us child molesters. He said that will never wash off."
Those words were spoken to an official investigative committee this year, though not, it seems, by any of the clergymen who have spent decades running a protection racket for child molesters within the Roman Catholic Church. The speaker was instead that sparkling exemplar of corporate ethics circa 2002, Jeffrey Skilling. He was telling Congress of a final conversation with J. Clifford Baxter, the shame-filled fellow Enron executive who committed suicide just as the world was learning how America's "most innovative company" (as Fortune put it) had engaged in shadowy partnerships designed to rape its employees and shareholders.
Mr. Baxter was, of course, speaking figuratively about the public outcry against Enron. In the case of the church the accusations are literal, and only the church itself, by its own actions, can determine when the stain will wash off. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll finds that the church's standing among Catholic and non-Catholic Americans alike is crashing a crisis of confidence "as bad as anything that I've seen," according to the pollster, Peter Hart, who reaches to Watergate for a historical parallel. And that poll was taken before Wednesday's communiqué from Rome, which, to borrow a phrase from Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, allows the church perhaps the last thing it needs "wiggle room" in punishing its child molesters.
Yet sexual parasitism within the priestly ranks is far from a new story. Last weekend "60 Minutes" rebroadcast an exposé of a former archbishop of Santa Fe that it had first broken nine years ago. Nine years before that, the Rev. Thomas Doyle, then a canon lawyer at the Vatican Embassy in Washington (and now an American Air Force chaplain), helped draft a prescient protocol intended to counter the priesthood's looming child-abuse crisis. This time, though, the scandal has captured the broad public imagination as never before, and perhaps with good reason. The cover-ups, blame-shifting and arrogance that have emanated from church leaders in recent months have an all too familiar, and secular, ring. The cardinals' rhetoric, righteous in style but often self-serving in content, seems like a metaphor for too much of the behavior we've seen from American religious, political and business leaders alike since the nation's supposed moral turning point of Sept. 11.
What has been most shocking about the church scandal so far is not the revelation that some priests prey on minors but that their bosses are looking out for No. 1 (and I don't mean Him) rather than their victims. "Mistakes may have been made," said Cardinal Edward Egan of New York but always by somebody else. Instead of taking responsibility for their own failings, American cardinals have made a hymnal out of the Enron playbook.
Just as Linda Lay went on TV to testify that "God is good" and attribute her husband's woes to the media's propensity for wreaking "havoc and destruction in people's lives," so Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore (among others) tries to deflect attention from clerical sins by chastising "the media of the United States" for their "feeding frenzy." Much as Enron first tried to pin its wrongdoing on Arthur Andersen, so Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston at first rationalized his cover-up of serial pedophiles by lamenting "how inadequate our record-keeping has been." Other Catholic leaders have turned to other scapegoats the "sexual anarchy" of the 1960's, the alleged depravity of America in general and, inevitably, homosexuality to avoid accountability for a plague of abuse that is documented at least as far back as 1950, that spans the globe from Ireland to Africa to Australia and that is not caused by (or exclusive to) any sexual orientation.
It's depressing when the nation's spiritual mentors sound like businessmen fending off indictment, whether at Enron or Merrill Lynch or, worse, like buck-passing politicians on the order of that preacher's son Gary Condit. In recent months, this seems to be a pattern. Not until weeks after the latest round of Richard Nixon Oval Office recordings were released and only after a storm of reprimand did Billy Graham take full responsibility for his anti-Semitic remarks about "the Jews." Even so, his son and successor, Franklin Graham, soon rescinded his father's mea culpa by asserting that the taped quotes had been taken out of context and meant to refer to "liberalism," not Jews. The younger Mr. Graham's disingenuousness is of a piece with Jerry Falwell's and Pat Robertson's pseudo-apology for their televised remarks in which they tried to pin the Sept. 11 attacks on the same all-purpose culprits (gays, feminists) whom some Catholic leaders now hope will take the fall for abusive priests and their enabling higher-ups.
But the abdication of personal responsibility by some religious leaders in America is only half of the confused moral equation since Sept. 11. If too many religious leaders sound like politicians right now, the flip side is that more and more politicians in power are rushing into the ensuing vacuum. They exploit the exigencies of war to sound like clergymen, seizing religious language to veil partisan public policies in a miasma of ersatz godliness.
With the exception of Tom DeLay who this month announced that "only Christianity offers a way to live in response to the realities that we find in this world" no politician in power has ratcheted up this rhetorical religiosity louder than John Ashcroft. In a February speech he declared, "We are a nation called to defend freedom a freedom that is not the grant of any government or document, but is our endowment from God." So much, then, for that trifling document that defines our freedoms, a k a the Constitution. By wrapping himself in sanctimony as surely as he wrapped the Justice Department's statue of Justice in a blue curtain, our attorney general is trying to supersede civil law on the grounds that he's exercising the Lord's will whatever he does. Last week a U.S. district judge had to intervene and reprimand him for his repeated efforts to criminalize doctors who are obeying a law allowing physician-assisted suicide that has twice been approved by Oregon's voters.
President Bush's penchant for stark religious terminology has waned in the international arena now that he has lost his innocence in the Middle East. He has yet to brand the Israelis, the Palestinians or, for that matter, the Saudis "evildoers." But on the domestic front he has joined Mr. Ashcroft in pumping up the volume of his preening sanctimony, referring to the Almighty so frequently that He is becoming his de facto running mate for 2004. The president's push to ban therapeutic cloning is typically cloaked in a stated reverence for human life, without any humble recognition of the fact that he is playing God in determining that the "life" of a blastocyst, a tiny cluster of cells, is worth more than the lives of those suffering from juvenile diabetes, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and other diseases whose remedies could be hastened by the most comprehensive medical research.
If we learned anything from Sept. 11, surely it is that there is a reason to worry when politicians hijack religion just as we've learned from the church's scandal of the dangers that abound when religious leaders value political self-preservation over protecting the defenseless in their flock. But a half-year later, the overarching imperatives of that once-indelible morning are being devalued. In his latest effort to give himself some spiritual wiggle room, Cardinal Law said last weekend that "Some have likened the situation facing the Catholic Church in Boston and across the country to last year's Sept. 11 tragedy" as if there were an equivalence between the slaughter of thousands of innocent victims by terrorists and the destruction of a religious institution brought on by its own priests' practice of victimizing their young charges.
There was heroism along with tragedy on Sept. 11, and it was often informed by true religious values: self-sacrifice, concern for others, accountability for one's own actions. Among the first casualties that morning was a Fire Department chaplain who hurried from his base at the St. Francis of Assisi church on 31st Street to the stricken World Trade Center so that he could minister to the dying. That hero, it should be recalled, was Mychal Judge, a Catholic priest, who, not that it should matter, happened to be gay.
Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company