This is a difficult column to write. No matter what I say or how diplomatically I try to say it, I'm apt to offend readers who are Roman Catholics.
Yet offending Catholics isn't my intention.
I'm an admirer of the Roman Catholic Church. Its rich history, theological rigor and consistent voice on issues such as a seamless defense of life from conception to the grave are better than anything we Protestants have come up with.
And, while I know this kind of statement often serves as the last refuge of bigots and blowhards, it's true here: Some of my best friends are Catholics.
But let's face it: Much contemporary news about the Roman Catholic Church has been shocking beyond one's wildest imaginings.
We Protestants, of course, produce our own dysfunctional goings on. Can anyone say Ted Haggard? Jimmy Swaggart?
Still, for sheer scale of scandals, the Catholic Church has set a record.
I find that paradoxical. The Catholics I count as friends are sincere, honorable Christians, people I trust and agree with on 90 percent of the issues we discuss.
So, how did their wonderful church veer so far wrong?
The first big revelation was of priests molesting children.
Other denominations also have their share of pedophiles, as do state governments, public schools and Boy Scout troops. Child molesters infiltrate every stratum of society.
What made the Catholic situation singular was the depth of its problem, and that bishops and other officials covered up for the pedophiles. Leaders withheld information from law enforcement, bullied the abused and reassigned molesters from parish to parish.
The logic of that boggles the mind.
Now, tales emerge from Ireland that could rival the child-molestation scandal for pure evil, if such a dubious achievement is possible: the discovery of 800 dead babies in a sewer at a former Catholic home for unwed mothers.
Martin Sixsmith, author of Philomena, a book about an unwed Catholic mother that was made into a film, explains the recent gruesome unearthing:
"The mother and baby home at Tuam in County Galway was run by the nuns of the Sisters of Bon Secours and operated between 1925 and 1961. It took in thousands of women who had committed the 'mortal sin' of unwed pregnancy, delivered their babies and was charged with caring for them. But unsanitary conditions, poor food and a lack of medical care led to shockingly high rates of infant mortality. Babies' bodies were deposited in a former sewage tank."
On the Washington Post's website, Sixsmith suggests the bodies in County Galway might be just the beginning. Up to 60,000 young women were confined in a dozen such Irish homes.
Pregnant girls were, he says, "refused medical attention, including painkillers, during even the most difficult births; the nuns told them the pain was the penance they must pay for their sin. In the home where Philomena gave birth, an unkempt plot bears the names of babies and mothers, some as young as 15. There are undoubtedly many more there who have no memorial.
"For those who survived, the psychological trauma has endured. Philomena and thousands like her were forced to look after their babies for up to four years, bonding with them before they were taken away to be adopted. Many went to families in the United States in return for substantial 'donations'; lack of proper vetting meant some were handed over to abusive parents. The mothers were told they were moral degenerates, too sullied to keep their babies. The nuns said they would burn in hell if they spoke to anyone about their children or what had been done with them."
Again, the level of corruption and sadism overtaxes the mind.
I should hasten to point out that these homes have closed, and many cases of pedophilia by priests happened 30 or 50 years ago.
One prays none of this could occur today.
Still. It did happen.
What I take away, obviously, isn't that Catholics are bad. The Catholics I know personally are exemplary.
My impression as an outsider is that for a long time the church as a powerful institution became more important to some who ran it than the church as a living, breathing embodiment of Jesus Christ. (Remember him? He's that guy who said you'd be better off to tie a millstone around your neck and drown yourself than to mistreat a kid.)
Instead of doing what any yahoo with half a conscience would know was right — raising bloody screaming hell, taking names and tossing the perpetrators out on their ears — the hierarchy approved of its subordinates' crimes or was concerned foremost about safeguarding the church's power and reputation.
My guess is that, more often than not, it was the latter consideration.
The same errant choices are made in non-Catholic churches and in secular organizations such as Penn State, although on a smaller scale.
Here's a suggestion, then, not only for Catholics, but for Protestants, Jews and Muslims. And university presidents. And, well, everybody.
As Christians — and if you're not Christian, then simply as a human being — among our primary obligations is to stand up for those who can't stand up for themselves.
The moment protecting our institution becomes more important to us than protecting a helpless child or unmarried mother threatened within said institution, we've quit doing God's work. We've unwittingly sold our souls to the devil.