Recent events remind me of a legendary anecdote from the 1919 Black Sox scandal in which Chicago baseball players were accused of throwing the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds to accept bribes from gamblers. A little boy, so the legend goes, confronted White Sox star Shoeless Joe Jackson with the plea, “Say it ain’t so, Joe.”
I felt like that little kid after reading the Freeh report on Penn State football coach Joe Paterno’s collaboration with the cover-up of the alleged child molesting of Jerry Sandusky. Like other sports fans, I respected Paterno for his insistence he be paid no more than other educators and for his generous support for the academic functions of the university.
I had another reason for becoming a Penn State football fan. Paterno and I both graduated from the same high school. I was proud that a fellow alumnus appeared to have his priorities straight. I thought how appropriate it was that this father figure’s surname itself connoted a paternal personality.
Joe Pa and I were both taught by the Jesuit fathers. You may remember that outfit here in Alaska has also been involved in sexual misconduct. In fact, three Jesuit personal friends have been so charged, along with the first two Jesuits I met in Alaska in 1961. Like Joe, some Jesuit “paters” were involved in covering up the crimes of the child molesters who worked for them.
Recently, Penn State took down Paterno’s statue and hid it someplace. That’s right thing to do.
I think my fellow Catholics and those who have rejected the faith they were baptized in consider doing the same kind of thing. It’s time to take church officials off the pedestal. We need to stop holding them up as icons. They’re as human as the rest of us doctors, lawyers, Indian chiefs, football coaches and college presidents.
Now comes the hard part for my fellow Catholics and my former Catholic friends. Once we take them down from the pedestals we put them on, we need to complete the process. We need to stop the double standards. Yeah, I’m familiar with the charge that they “hold themselves up” as holier than the rest of us. But in 72 years as a Catholic, I have never encountered a bishop, priest, nun, deacon or brother who has told me he or she is holier than I am. Nor have I ever heard of anyone such religious person making that claim. If others have experienced such a claim in the past half-century, please provide the quote and the context.
The real problem is not so much what they say or pretend as much as our own expectations. Intellectually we admit that being ordained a priest or deacon does not automatically make a person holier or make them behave better. But we expect them to do so. We forget they are just as human as we are.
The other thing we forget is that the more expectations we put on their being holier and better than we are, the more likely they are to get away with their crimes. The very fact that we psychologically turn these humans into statues encourages them to become more arrogant and believe their innate holiness makes it impossible for them to commit the crimes they’re accused of.
A Fairbanks priest counselor friend of mine more than 30 years ago told me we tend to angry according to our own expectations. Imbuing Catholic clergy and other religious with unrealistic double standards is not only unrealistic but it's also dangerous to some extent.
Dumping unrealistic expectations on folks is a form of idol worship. We’re called to worship God, not priests’ cassocks or bishop’s miters. I do not expect my pastor and my archbishop to behave better than I do. In fact, I’ve been a Catholic longer than either of them have. If anything, I treat them with compassion. They have it tougher than I do. They have so many people kissing their butts in so many ways, they are afflicted with far more temptations to believe they’re holier than I am. I believe I am blessed with far more examples of my own humility than they are. I’m a lucky one; I have very little power and therefore very little opportunity to abuse the power I don’t have.
So, when a priest gets caught his pants down—sometimes more literally than others-- and a bishop gets caught covering the crime, I try to remind myself of the old platitude that there but for the grace of God go I. I don’t have people asking me to take responsibility for their consciences. Nor do I have fellow Catholics expecting me to be holier than they are. If anything, fellow Catholics are eager to tell me why they are holier than I am.
At this point, I anticipate complaints from the either-or crowd accusing me of excusing child molesters. The perverts, like the rest of us, are responsible for their crimes. I accept no excuses for their crimes any more than I accept excuses for government officials’ crimes. But the rest of us can influence their behavior. Pretending they’re holier than we are and expecting them to be better does encourage them to try to get away with their crimes and does encourage them to make excuses for their behavior. I have seen instances where church officials play the anti-Catholic card by pretending that opposing their crimes is persecuting the church—a classic case of perps pretending they’re the victims.
I am not suggesting that taking statues down physically and psychologically will end child molesting. The child molesters, not our expectations, are responsible for their own behavior. But I am suggesting that we stop empowering them by pretending they’re statues. They’re already just as frail and just as vulnerable to temptations as the rest of us. We don’t need to increase their frailty and their vulnerability by treating them as statues.