Monday, September 10, 2012

"Twilight Zone," Catholic-style: Bill Donohue and the dimming of the laity's witness

In the fall of 1961, "The Catholic Hour," a television show produced by the National Council of Catholic Men, presented "Prejudice U.S.A.," a four-part series attacking racism and anti-Semitism in the Catholic community.

This outstanding episode, the final one in the series, although very much a product of its time (it looks almost like it could be "The Twilight Zone, Roman Edition") is strikingly forthright. I would like to see Catholics engage in this sort of self-criticism today, particularly in our response to child sexual abuse.

What particularly moved me in watching the program was its demonstration of the disconnect many lay Catholics exhibit when confronted with a great social evil when that evil manifests itself in their own back yard. It reminded me of the experience I had answering questions on "Catholic Answers Live" last Friday.

One caller asked me if a known molester in her family should be permitted to resume contact with the four-year-old relative whom he molested. I answered firmly in the negative, restraining the urge to simply scream, "Are you crazy?"

Then the next call came in—asking the same question. A relative is a molester; should he be allowed among the family's children?

Again, I tried to restrain myself—not succeeding quite so well the second time around. I am afraid that to that poor caller, I must have sounded like Bob Newhart in the classic "Mad TV" sketch where he shouts, "STOP IT!"

The most disconcerting part was that the callers honestly meant well. One of them said she had herself been abused as a child by the same family member whom she now contemplated allowing around her own children. What these callers suffered from was a failure to see that the abuse of children is not a problem that is "out there," where it can be safely condemned. It is "in here": in our homes, in our families, in our schools and—much less often, but nonetheless tragically—in our churches. And just as Jesus said, "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters ... he cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:26), so too, we are not worthy of the name of Christians if we put peace in the family above protecting the vulnerable.

It is a grave misunderstanding of Christian compassion to assert, as a shockingly large number of Catholics do, that forgiveness of abusers should extend to the point of restoring them to contact with potential victims. The most compassionate thing we can do for abusers is to never, ever, permit them have an opportunity to abuse again! If we fail to affirm, in unqualified terms, our responsibility to protect children and reach out with Christ's love to victims, our witness collapses.

That is why, as a victim of childhood sexual abuse who found healing through Christ and the Church, I consider Catholic League President Bill Donohue's recent comments about Bishop Finn and Father Groeschel an affront to Catholic faith and witness.

At a time when the Vatican, from Pope Benedict on down, is calling upon the faithful to recognize the evil child sexual abuse for what it is and reach out with compassion to victims, how can Bill Donohue spend his donors' money trying to define deviancy down? Does it really say in the Gospel, "If thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out—unless you are looking at a photograph you secretly snapped of a child's genitalia, in which case it isn't really pornography"? Did Jesus really say, "If anyone should harm one of these little ones, it would be better for him if a millstone were fastened round his neck and he were thrown into the depth of the sea—unless he merely took clandestine photographs of naked children, in which case it isn't really child sexual abuse? And did St. Paul really say "weep with those who weep—unless they are weeping over insensitivity toward abuse victims, in which case they are 'scurrilous'"?

Pope Benedict has called upon the Church, in confronting the reality of "the suffering inflicted upon the victims," to "help the broader community to recognize the causes, true extent and devastating consequences of sexual abuse, and to respond effectively to this scourge which affects every level of society." He is trying to bring the Church, and society, out of the darkness of ignorance and apathy on the issue of childhood sexual abuse, and into the light of the Gospel. If we Catholic laity are to fulfill our mission to be agents of healing, the Bill Donohues of this world need to get out of their "Twilight Zone" and get with the Church's true program.