Never did I expect to feel sorrow and pity for the Catholic Church, yet I confess that I do.
The first reports of this latest round of scandal could be absorbed as gossipy and ironic reminders of the hypocrisy and all-too-human frailty of the most sanctimonious among us. However, now that the tales of sad sickness spew forth so unrelentingly, even a non-Catholic can recognize the staggering pain of the victims, while also mourning the church's lost dignity, which it might never recover.
For all its deep flaws, the American Catholic Church has been a valuable institution, providing support for the poor and prodding the rich to give back to society. The loss of the church's moral authority and organizational effectiveness will be felt most acutely in this country by those on the margins -- exploited immigrants, poor working families, poorly represented men and women on death row -- for whom it was an important and, at times, unique ally. But the church as an important moral force in our secular society will end if it cannot climb out of the terrible sexual morass that is its medieval legacy.
By confusing repression with propriety, the church long ago blurred the distinction between the sexual behavior of consenting adults and that which is coercive and illegal. When church officials consistently concealed the heinous crime of molestation, they failed to "render unto Caesar" respect for the laws of men.
Who in the church hierarchy didn't know that to avoid reporting knowledge of such crimes, whether committed by stranger, parent or priest, is often itself a crime -- and always morally repugnant cowardice?
That church leaders thought themselves above the law reflects the arrogance of those who presume that they alone know the path of moral rectitude. It is an arrogance long exhibited by the church in its myriad attempts to protect the morals of even non-Catholics, by censoring books and movies, for example, and by dictating government birth-control policy.
All this in the name of a moral propriety that the church itself cannot sustain; a repressive sexual climate, apparently, does not a sinner save.
The church has long been a major opponent of sex education for the young, arguing that a frank discussion of sex would lead the innocent astray. Yet Catholic seminaries, certainly prime testing grounds for the stern moral lectures the church advocates for educating the general public, have proved a most fertile ground for the growth of sexual appetites that are truly destructive.
Similarly, the preaching of sexual abstinence, the church's main weapon in the fight against sexually transmitted diseases and teenage pregnancy, obviously didn't work for highly motivated priests who had taken a vow of celibacy. Indeed, the main lesson of all this tawdry behavior is that denying oneself healthy sexual outlets may be the surest path to illegal perversion.
What hypocrisy that predatory priests were on the front lines of the church's endless crusades against such simple lifesavers as condom distribution, as well as the fundamental human rights of women to make their own decisions about their bodies.
Should a 15-year-old be required to carry to term an egg fertilized by a condomless priest as an expression, as the church teaches, of God's will?
The ugliest side of the bishops' defense is to blame the problem of abuse on a failure to better screen out homosexuals from the ranks of the priesthood. The notion that homosexuals are more likely to break the law and abuse the young not only flies in the face of social science research, it also has been contradicted by the ample evidence of heterosexual abuse by priests.
Throughout its history, the church has sustained life for many when not sabotaged by its arrogance; it is at its best when humbly fulfilling its responsibility to serve the least among us, be they economically or sexually exploited. It is at its worst when attempting to confine the human experience to a prison constructed of archaic and contradictory nostrums that bear no relation to modern life or the internal practices of the church itself.
If there is a God of the type worshiped by the faithful, this will all be sorted out in some final accounting of sins and sinners, and I leave it to those who claim divine inspiration to flick the fallen angels off the head of the pin.
But as a non-Catholic, I do hope this ancient institution can regenerate itself while sloughing off the paralyzing accretion of centuries of pompous judgment, arcane intellectualism and medieval secrecy.