Paul Prather

Trying to understand the heavenly virtues and hellish sins of the Catholic Church

The Most Rev. Ronald Gainer, the Roman Catholic bishop of the diocese of Harrisburg, Pa., discusses child sexual abuse by clergy and a decision by the diocese to remove names of bishops going back to the 1940s after concluding they did not respond adequately to abuse allegations, during an Aug. 1 news conference in Harrisburg, Pa. Gainer served as bishop of the Lexington diocese from 2003-2014.
The Most Rev. Ronald Gainer, the Roman Catholic bishop of the diocese of Harrisburg, Pa., discusses child sexual abuse by clergy and a decision by the diocese to remove names of bishops going back to the 1940s after concluding they did not respond adequately to abuse allegations, during an Aug. 1 news conference in Harrisburg, Pa. Gainer served as bishop of the Lexington diocese from 2003-2014. AP

In mid-August, a grand jury in Pennsylvania released the latest revelation of the worst scandal to mar any Christian denomination in our collective memories.

That scandal, of course, is the ongoing, seemingly never-ending story of the sexual abuse of children within the Roman Catholic Church and the systematic cover-ups of that abuse by bishops and other church leaders.

The grand jury detailed abuses by more than 300 predator priests in Pennsylvania over a period of 70 years. Its report, which covered six of the state’s eight Catholic dioceses, found 1,000 victims, but said there were thousands more the grand jury failed to identify.

Although the Pennsylvania report is the most extensive yet by a governmental agency in the United States, the crimes it exposed shouldn’t surprise anyone.

For three decades, countless cases of sex abuse by Catholic clergy and other forms of child abuse by church workers have been exposed across the country and around the world, including locales as far flung as Germany, Ireland, Chile, Australia, the Dominican Republic, the Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland and Brazil.

The church’s die-hard defenders argue the Catholic Church is getting a bum rap, that child abuse happens everywhere — in Protestant churches, in public schools, in secular universities such as Penn State, in youth sports, in families.

They say their church is being singled out because of anti-Catholic prejudice.

Well, they’re half right.

Sad to say, children are and always have been abused in settings of various kinds, including all the aforementioned places.

An old friend of mine, after retiring from the army, worked for the state in child protective services, investigating allegations of abuse.

One day as we sat eating in a crowded steak house, he looked around at the patrons and did a quick tally in his head.

“Statistically,” he said, “there are at least several child molesters here in this room.”

So yes, abusers are everywhere. Wherever you find kids gathered, you’ll eventually encounter somebody looking to prey on them. If you’re a parent or grandparent or teacher, that’s a nauseating truth to face.

But the Catholic Church hasn’t been unfairly singled out by bigots.

No other institution, religious or secular, has drawn the sheer volume of predators the Catholic Church seems to have attracted, nor has any other institution so systematically enabled and covered up for them.

I’m a Protestant, but it gives me zero pleasure to say that. Just the opposite.

I have great admiration for the Roman Catholic Church and for the many Catholics I know.

I’ve spoken at Catholic meetings. I’ve interviewed and written about Catholic theologians. I often use the Catholic prayer books and scholarly works on my bookshelf as I prepare my sermons. My favorite authors of fiction written from a Christian worldview — Graham Greene and Flannery O’Connor — were both Catholics.

Roughly 15 percent of the members of the congregation I pastor are either former Catholics or current Catholics who divide their time between their home parish and our church. My grandson even attends a Catholic school.

And tricky as it is to say “some of my best friends are,” in fact, some of my dearest friends are Catholics.

The Catholics I know and love are fine, fine Christians. They serve the Lord. They cherish their families.

For that matter, I have no doubt the great majority of Catholic priests also are and always have been trustworthy, sincere men who’d never harm a kid. They’re suffering indignity for the crimes of a few.

Yet somehow this same church, given all the good it has done and continues to do, given the myriad saints it has produced, has also fostered one of the more depressing scandals of our time.

It’s hard to wrap your mind around. It’s a spiritual conundrum.

In Stanley Kubrick’s Vietnam War film “Full Metal Jacket,” a marine nicknamed Private Joker (Matthew Modine) encounters a colonel who berates him for wearing a peace-symbol pin on his body armor while having written “Born to Kill” on his helmet.

“What’s that supposed to be, some kind of sick joke?” the colonel asks.

“I think I was trying to express something about the duality of man, sir,” Joker says.

“The what?”

“The duality of man. The Jungian thing, sir.”

Of course, the duality of man isn’t just a Jungian thing.

Before it was that, it was a Christian thing.

In the Christian version, it’s the idea that we humans, having fallen from our original state of bliss, are individually capable of both profound virtues and wretched evils.

Hardly anyone is either entirely good or entirely wicked. We’re each some mixture of both. The two sides of our fallen nature seem always to be competing for supremacy.

That same principle applies to institutions.

A church made up of humans can, as a corporate body, produce both heavenly virtues and hellish sins, often right alongside each other.

It would appear the Catholic Church has proved that.

Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at pratpd@yahoo.com.

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