On Tuesday a personal friend of mine, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, held a news conference in Pennsylvania’s State Capitol, Harrisburg. At times almost choking with emotion, he announced the findings of a grand jury report examining sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.
The report, which was written over two years and investigated six Pennsylvania Catholic dioceses, described in sometimes graphic detail how 300 priests abused over 1,000 Pennsylvania youths. This abuse then was covered up by the Church hierarchy.
In one revolting section, the report notes that priests in Pittsburgh raped young boys, took pornographic pictures of them, then gave each boy a gold cross to wear so he easily could be recognized by other abusers.
Needless to say, the report has shaken the Church to its core. Already Pennsylvania legislators are contemplating lifting the statute of limitations on some of the criminal offenses so the priests can be tried. News shows are filled with stories detailing how institutionalized were both the abuse and the cover up. Questions are being raised about whether the Church even can survive.
There are no words to express how badly I feel for my Catholic friends and neighbors. So many of them are such good people. Many use their faith as a guidepost for the way they conduct their lives. I can’t imagine their internal despair.
Institutionalized religion has been the catalyst for much of humanity’s greatest achievements, yet also it greatest abuses. How many wars have been fought, and currently are being fought, over religion?
It’s still happening today. Right on Israel’s doorstep, a twisted creed inculcates their children that massacring innocent others who don’t believe as they do is the key to eternal paradise.
Nor has Judaism been free from this. During the period around the time of Jesus, the institutionalized religion fell into corruption, internal strife and even murder, leading to the disaster of the Great Revolt and the Bar Kochba Rebellion. I’m sure there are numerous cases today, especially in more insular Jewish communities, of abuse covered up by the community at the expense of the victim.
Yet for all its abuse, religion provides the faith that has sustained millennia of people and given their lives meaning, hope and comfort.
Religion is the ultimate double edged sword, resting on that narrow plain between hope and faith on one side and mind control on the other. Every day we hear about the evils of the latter, but we cannot overlook the beauty of the former.
Regardless of your religious affiliation or beliefs, people maintain faith for a variety of reasons. For some their beliefs are purely scientific. We can’t explain in any rational terms how the universe exists. The Big Bang may have been the mechanism for the creation of the galaxy, but how did the dust and the other particles that caused the Big Bang get there in the first place? No matter what scientific theory you follow, you can’t answer the question of “how did that get there”?
Faith for others, however, is much more than a way to fill in scientific gaps. Given the inexplicable cruelty in the world, to people of faith there is great comfort in believing that in our universe there exists a higher authority which can law low even the most powerful human.
Faith helps sustain those whose lives on earth didn’t turn out as they had hoped. How many people do you know who wanted children, but for whatever reason were not able to have them? For people like that, and for many others who did not attain what they so desperately wanted, faith provides a way to believe that their death on earth is not the end of their story. There may be a glory in the World to Come that they were denied on earth.
Finally, faith provides a way to help express emotions you experience but don’t understand. During the last year that culminated in September when I outlived my father I many times felt inexplicable emotions and connections to a man dead over 35 years. I have no rational way of explaining those feelings.
While we Jews (and especially Israeli Jews) deal with issues pertaining to the intrusiveness of religious authorities and doctrine into our daily lives, we are light years away from the problems now engulfing the Catholic Church. Judaism pays a price in cohesiveness for its almost complete lack of a religious hierarchy, but any damage Judaism suffers when individual members of the religious authority stray is localized. That’s not true of the Catholic Church, with its worldwide structure, bureaucracy and dogma.
For my Catholic friends, they now must deal with the ultimate existential question. Any institution can be corrupted. But if a religious institution claims to be divinely inspired, shouldn’t that divinity be enough at least to protect its innocent young boys and girls from molestation by authority figures within the institution? Put more broadly, at what point do the systematic offenses committed against the innocent in the name of holiness overwhelm the ability of the believers to maintain the foundation on which the institution was created?
We can only watch now from afar. Externally for the Church the struggle will be with the legal system, but internally is where it matters most. Pennsylvania is now the front line, but sexual abuse by Catholic priests has been reported throughout the world. The Catholic Church of the next 20 years may look very different from that which existed before. Let’s wish them wisdom as they undertake their journey, and hope they find the comfort and faith that was denied them by the people most charged to provide it.