Back in the 1970’s at the Watergate hearings in Congress, the mantra became the question: “What did the President know, and when did he know it?” Central was the question of what the highest authorities knew, and failed to correct.
A similar refrain can be heard in the sombre background of the priest-pedophile story, as dramatized in the film “Spotlight.” Minds that seek Mystery will want to engage with this story, not because the ending is ultimately unknown, but because the road to penetrating the story was as fraught with trolls, sand traps, and mini-mysteries as the richest fairy-tale. On the painful issue of abuse-by-clergy, reporters from the Boston Globe peeled back layers of facade and protection that could have guarded the gold in Fort Knox. Huge, popular institutions like the Church have their armor.
For years, and across dozens, then hundreds of cases, that armor creaked, but not cracked, as minor payoffs were made. The religious scandal of the century was mostly contained. But the Globe came to learn that the prelate of ultimate authority in the Boston region, Cardinal Bernard Francis Law, had apparently known about the abuse for years. Much of the driving force of the story became, “What did the Cardinal know, and when did he know it?”
A whole subtle, silent system for handing the problem had grown over the years. Priests were shuffled off on unspecified “leaves,” or priests were transferred to other venues, often to repeat abuse on a new, unsuspecting parish. It was administrative magic, designed to conceal the truth, and protect the Church. “What did Cardinal Law know?” Sadly, going back decades, he knew a lot, and failed to keep errant clergy away from new potential victims, much less discipline criminal behavior.
In one sense a Corruption and Conspiracy Mystery, we also treat the priest abuse scandal as a Social and Psychological conundrum. The Church provides the fiber of faith to many lives, and its good works in social needs, and education, are impressive in scale. Who wouldn’t want to protect such an institution from loss of prestige, from a loss in cheritible giving? Thus the personal agony of many Church supporters who learned the truth.
What are the greater losses, where is the greater good in all of this? If I assist in handling this case discreetly, can I count on the Church at the highest levels to correct the problem? Sadly, “apparently not” emerges as the answer. It took the vigorous penetration of old-fashioned journalism to cut to the heart of the matter, and begin to change the system.
Here’s a question to try to wrap your mind around. Today, years after the worst torrents of the scandal, how much has really changed? The celibate priesthood has this potential problem woven into its very fiber. Instances will recur, perennially.
Has the system changed, or simply designed new methods, new walls, to keep its secrets in a cloistered place?