The older I get, the less I am prepared to go in thundering against those I consider to be evil doers. I hope this is humility rather than complacency. One rarely if ever knows all the facts, even of the most public cases. The problem is all the worst in the case of priests who sometimes know things they cannot reveal. I wonder if our passion for total disclosure comes from our living in the information age. Least said, soonest mended, is a counsel honoured more in the breach than in the observance.
Neverthless, I have been scratching my head with increasing frustration in the last few days over the conduct of some of the clergy. I was dumbfounded at the nerve-shrivelling melodrama of Fr John Corapi's public self-exile. I'm not underestimating how difficult it is to sit accused of wickedness and be subject to a system in which one appears guilty until proven innocent. I'm just amazed at his lack of judgment, his appalling self promotion, and, let us say it, at his cloth-eared sense of what makes a good, heroic moniker. The Black Sheep Dog sounds a bit like 'The Black Vegetable', if you know what I mean. He is seriously in danger of looking thoroughly absurd. We can only pray he rediscovers not only his sense of obligation to the Church but his sense of proportion.
At a much more serious level, I have between tea breaks and lunch today watched the BBC's latest documentary on priest abusers: Abused: Breaking the Silence. Not for the faint hearted, this documentary lays out accusations, many of them admitted by those accused, of sexual abuse by four Rosminian priests in the late 1950s and early 1960s. One of them, Fr Kit Cunningham, later became a minor celebrity, served in Saint Elthelreda's in London, and earned an MBE which he returned last year to the Palace without any explanation. He died in late 2010.
Peter Stanford is wringing his hands in palpable confusion over this news. He wonders whether he can ever trust a priest again; if he was so wrong about Fr Cunningham, how can he ever trust his judgment in the future? I sympathise with Stanford but do not agree. The preparation for celibacy which seminarians go through these days is considerably more sophisticated than it was in the 1950s. The less formal nature of social mores also, arguably, creates a more supportive context in which priests and religious can live out their celibate vocation. The standards of child care and safeguards against abuse in the Catholic Church in this country easily compare to anything available in civil society.
But why is the fall of Frs Corapi and Cunningham so devastating for so many people? Undoubtedly some suffer directly through their actions: in Corapi's case, those who have been inspired by him; in Cunningham's case, those who have been abused by him. Yet in some way, we all are touched by their actions. The Church suffers because their sins stain the icon of Christ which they are supposed to embody. The world suffers because even though it had its doubts about such an icon, to find that they have fallen means there is a little less hope in the world at large.
It all underlines the importance of support for our priests, of the need not to be too hasty in judgment, of the need not to isolate them out of a false sense of hierarchy. If you want to make people good, the first thing you have to do is to love them, i.e. to see them as God sees them.
I pray that Fr Corapi comes to his senses. I pray that the Rosminians do the right thing by the victims of their members. Other than that what can one do except wonder at the God who gave such power to men?