Columnists > Judgment Calls

Very great guilt

Forget the settlement, where's the repentance?

Issue: "Guns & Poses," April 13, 2002

Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa,"

we recited antiphonally on hard wooden kneelers every Sunday at Eglise Saint Joseph, before it was decided by the Vatican Council in 1965, a millennium after the fact, that Latin is a dead language.

It seems it was easier to confess "my guilt, my guilt, my very great guilt" in Cicero's tongue than in plain English, judging by the recitations emanating from the Roman Catholic Church in the wake of the recent sex-abuse revelations-things long "whispered in private rooms" and now finally "proclaimed on the housetops"(Luke 12:3). Since the Boston Globe's exposure of Father John Geoghan and a diocesan cover-up of pedophilia opened the floodgates of hell from Boston to Palm Beach and Los Angeles to Philadelphia, the average citizen might be forgiven for gleaning the impression that some Catholic leaders take their ethics not from Christ but from Erich Segal's classic statement, "Love is never having to say you're sorry."

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Various defenses, dodges, and double-talk have been thrown against the wall in hopes that some will stick. In my own Philadelphia, Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua spoke vaguely about being "face to face with our limitations," while obliquely urging the faithful to meditate on the passion story and "see yourself in their hopes, sins, and failures." In New York, Cardinal Edward Egan (who throughout the 1990s, as bishop of the Bridgeport, Conn., diocese, gave a pass to recidivist pedophile Father Brett) passed the buck to his predecessor and to the experts who had advised him, and in the pulpit preferred to generalize the blame rather than own it: "With war and terrorism and sexual abuse on our mind, we all know that we are all sinners and we are all expected by our God to do penance." In Boston, Cardinal Bernard Law, who had winked at reports of priestly lechery in his jurisdiction, called the crisis "a tragic error."

Excuse me, were those apologies? Read my lips: "I am guilty, guilty, very greatly guilty!"

Where is the similarity between Egan and King Josiah, who tore his robes and cried, "Great is the wrath of the Lord that is kindled against us, because our fathers have not obeyed the words of this book"? The good king then convened an assembly of "all the people, both small and great" and "made a covenant before the Lord, to walk after the Lord and to keep his commandments ... with all his heart and all his soul" (2 Kings 22,23).

Where is the spirit of Nehemiah, who assembled the Israelites "with fasting and in sackcloth, and with earth on their heads" (Nehemiah 9:1) to confess their sins? Where is the anguish and fear of Isaiah, who cried (though he had never reassigned a child molester to another parish), "Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips!" (Isaiah 6:5)?

And while bishops play a shell game, recycling offending prelates to other posts where they may sin again, where have they hidden the counsel of God for dealing with such allegations: "You shall inquire and make search and ask diligently" to ascertain "if it be true and certain that such an abomination has been done among you" (Deuteronomy 13:14)? And if it is true (the Lord thrice warns), "you shall purge the evil from Israel" (Deuteronomy 17:12; 19:13,19).

Would someone read to the cardinals from Paul, who rebuked defensiveness in sexual scandal cases, saying: "And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you" (1 Corinthians 5:2)? Shouldn't the prelates study the procedure set in place by Christ himself for dealing with such grievances-procedures that are open and not cloaked in secrecy: Confront the offender, bring witnesses, bring in the church, administer discipline (Matthew 18:15-17)? Shouldn't they realize that in cases like this, it is sometimes better for the church "to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord" (1 Corinthians 5:5)?

The house of Eli was punished forever "for the iniquity that he knew ... and ... did not restrain" (1 Samuel 3:13). How much more so when the iniquity committed is against "one of these little ones"? "It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea" (Luke 17:2). A six-figure, out-of-court settlement won't wash out the stain. Time in an ecclesiastical rehab hospital won't right the wrong. Frank Martinelli, former Connecticut altar boy victimized by Father Brett, says he would have settled for an apology. But God didn't settle for that. On Calvary's perch sat not a counseling center but a bloody sacrifice.

Andrée Seu
Andrée Seu

Andrée is the author of three books: Won't Let You Go Unless You Bless Me, Normal Kingdom Business, and We Shall Have Spring Again.


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