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Spotlight Report

  James Carroll  

Meltdown in the Catholic Church


The current priestly child abuse crisis is to the Roman Catholic Church what the radioactive explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant was to the Soviet Union -- a harbinger and cause of massive institutional collapse leading ultimately to broad reform.

It was 1986. A long-buried discontent was sporadically being felt throughout the Soviet empire. A few lone voices of dissent, like Lech Walesa in Poland and Andrei Sakharov in Russia, had openly challenged the totalitarian system, but the vast Soviet population was still submissive, and communism seemed to be holding firm. But then the nuclear reactor in Ukraine blew up, spewing radioactivity into the air, killing many dozens of people, forcing the relocation of more than 100,000, and terrifying the nation. Contaminating clouds began to drift across Europe.

The assurances of Soviet scientists and politicians were literally incredible, and an entire people awakened to the moral paralysis into which they had settled. A cold fear, especially for their children, shocked the Soviet people into a new attitude. They faced the truth about the inhuman system in which they lived, and they began preparing to overthrow it.

The accident at Chernobyl, in the words of Cold War historians Jeremy Isaacs and Taylor Downing, "tragically illustrated how incapable the old system was of responding to, or reporting and publishing information about, a disaster of this magnitude. The Soviet nuclear power industry had been closed, secretive, and complacent; this was no longer tolerable. In this sense, the Chernobyl tragedy helped speed reform and glasnost within the Soviet Union."

A generation ago, good Pope John XXIII famously opened the windows of the Catholic Church to let in fresh air. His successors slammed those windows shut, but now the windows have blown out in a burst of air poisoned by priest predators and, more, by "closed, secretive, complacent" authorities who have put public relations damage control ahead of safety and truth.

Cardinal Bernard Law is the man on the spot in Boston, but he is a mere local agent of Pope John Paul II. The pope is the architect of a priest crisis that deprives the faithful of enough priests to celebrate Mass, insults women and the married, and leaves good priests holding the bag.

Predator-priests, still a small fraction, are causing a collapse of the whole structure of ministry, like fuel-rods sparking a meltdown, but they are doing so only because the culture within which they have thrived has blindly made itself vulnerable to them, through a generalized submissiveness, inbred clericalism, and a triumphal assumption that authority in the church is simply not to be questioned. Sacred vows of obedience, as much as of celibacy, have been perverted in this culture.

Thus the resignation-in-disgrace of Cardinal Law would be meaningful only in the context of an equivalent resignation by Pope John Paul II, of whose antireform policies -- closed, secretive, dishonest, totalitarian -- Cardinal Law is a mere functionary. And those papal policies, abetted by countless bishops, are destroying the priesthood and traditional authority more efficiently than anything any enemy of the church could do.

Cardinal Law's responses to the post-Geoghan scandal -- first denial, then legalese, then apology matched to glib assurance, then more apology when assurances are revealed as hollow, then thinly veiled resentment at the media which keeps asking -- have been consistently at the service of the Restoration Vatican's purpose, which is to deflect any hint of the need of broad reform in the Catholic Church.

Cardinal Law, with no regard for due process, may jettison good priests as well as bad, letting individuals take the fall for a problem that, at bottom, is deeply institutional. But, similarly, at some point the Vatican may well jettison the cardinal, as if he alone is at fault for the trouble in Boston. All for the sake of shoring up a wall against the broad reform movement that began with Vatican II.

But it is not working. The rest of the world is not letting church leaders succeed with this deflection. The poisoned cloud is spreading. The same principle that applied in the Soviet Union after Chernobyl applies in the church after the priest-predator eruption. The Catholic people -- read their letters to the editor! -- see the real character of the way authority has come to be exercised in our beloved institution. And, to say the least, we do not like it.

We know that church reform is possible because it has been undertaken before. And we know from the Soviet story, in fact, that humane change even of a rigorous command society is inexorable once the people begin to demand it. It is now 1986 in the Catholic Church. The collapse has begun. Our 1989 is coming, when the wall will fall before real reform.

This story ran on page A15 of the Boston Globe on 2/26/2002.
Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

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