interesting times

Cleansing the Catholic Church of Its Sins

There are several cases where Cardinal Donald Wuerl, now archbishop of Washington, clearly protected and enabled child rapists. Photo: Franco Origlia/Getty Images

After a while, I couldn’t continue reading the Pennsylvania grand jury report on sexual abuse in six dioceses in the Catholic Church. Apart from the rising nausea, I realized the horror of each incident had begun to numb my conscience, and the sheer number of cases had numbed it still further. One case is a tragedy; thousands of cases can too easily become a statistic. Like dealing with Trump’s lies, you can get dizzy following the specific horrors committed against children, and the excuses and prevarications and silence of so many in the hierarchy. Which is why specifics matter. They reveal the core nature of the evil involved.

And so we come across a case like this: A teenage boy called George was befriended by a young priest in his twenties, Reverend George Zirwas. The boy’s family saw this as a good influence, as most Catholic families in the 1970s and 1980s would have. One afternoon, the priest invited George, who was around 14 at the time, to a rectory 25 minutes south of Pittsburgh, where he met several other priests: “During a conversation about religious statues, the priests told George to get onto a bed and remove his shirt, and strike a pose like Jesus on the cross. Then they instructed him to strip off his pants and underwear,” writes the Philadelphia Inquirer. “In the unnerving moments that followed, George claimed that [the priests] began taking photos of him on a Polaroid camera. All of the priests giggled — and then added the photos of George to a collection of photos of other teen boys.” This was a grooming gang.

The sex this gang had with the selected boys and teens was, according to the grand jury report, filled with “whips, violence, and sadism.” Then this, per the Inquirer: “The men gave a specific gift to children they favored, something they could wear that would mark them as prime targets for abuse. Zirwas ‘had told me that they, the priests, would give their boys, their altar boys, or their favorite boys these crosses,’ George told the grand jury. ‘So he gave me a big gold cross to wear.’” Literally marking potential victims of rape with the sign of the cross … how am I supposed to grapple with that? If Stephen King had collaborated with Voltaire, they could not have come up with something this evil.

And then the kicker: the diocese was aware of Zirwas’s abuses as early as 1987. Zirwas continued in the priesthood until 1994, when he was placed on leave, citing “personal reasons.” Bishop, soon-to-be Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua did nothing to punish or report this man for molesting countless children. Then he was actually re-appointed as a priest by Bishop Donald Wuerl, who is now a cardinal in my own archdiocese of Washington. When another complaint of abuse found its way to Wuerl, he removed Zirwas, who then moved to Florida, fled to Cuba, and was found strangled to death in Havana in 2001. Nonetheless Wuerl presided at Zirwas’s funeral and made some remarks: “According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Wuerl described how Zirwas was a kind man, and had preached a message of salvation through faith in Jesus. ‘A priest is a priest,’ Wuerl said that day. ‘Once he is ordained, he’s a priest forever.’”

This case is, in many ways, a microcosm of the entire wicked business: the abuse, the cover-up, the continued abuse, the conspiracy of silence. But more deeply for this Catholic: the cynicism. The giggling priests — by their very actions — could not possibly believe in the Gospels. They were merely using the Gospels to commit unspeakable crimes. The upper ranks, by their indifference and cover-up, are also deeply suspect. There is simply no way to square a belief in the Gospels and enabling, promoting, and covering up the rape of children. All of these men come off as cynics, incapable of summoning the overwhelming sense of outrage any nonbeliever, or any decent human being, would feel in the face of this kind of accusation; all protecting their own ranks, all far more committed to good public relations than saving children. There is simply something deeply wrong with these people.

Take Wuerl. Some have argued that the report is a “mixed bag” for him. He did over time come to dismiss or suspend any priests credibly accused of abuse. He helped formulate new procedures for dismissing them. And cases of abuse have plummeted since the reforms were put in place. But not always. He’s mentioned 15 times in the report, none positively. Zirwas is one case where Wuerl clearly protected and enabled a child rapist. But there are three other cases where Wuerl — along with the network of psychiatric facilities that the church opened up to launder its abusers — kept child abusers in their jobs. This is not a “mixed bag.” Any enabling of a single act of child abuse is disqualifying for the priesthood, let alone for the Curia. And Wuerl’s attitude tells you so, so much. When his predecessor as archbishop of Washington, Cardinal McCarrick, was dismissed for child abuse and sexual harassment and abuse of seminarians, Wuerl said that it was not “a massive, massive crisis,” merely “a terrible disappointment.”

I’ve tried to grapple with that word “disappointment.” That is the emotion you feel discovering that one of the most powerful men in the church — someone you knew intimately — had molested children and abused young priests under his authority? And notice that he is still focused on McCarrick. The children, the survivors, the human wreckage? Not so much. In an interview on Wednesday, Wuerl did not offer an apology for the child rape he enabled, pushed back against parts of the report, and insisted that handling of child abuse cases had “evolved” over the years, until the current zero-tolerance policy. Wuerl actually set up a public relations website to defend himself — a site that the archdiocese mercifully took down after a few days. All I can say is that I cannot understand why any human being — let alone a bishop — wouldn’t immediately suspend the priest and call the cops after a credible allegation. It doesn’t matter if it’s the 1980s, 1990s, or 1890s. You save the children first. And instead of PR, what about shame, penitence, taking responsibility and begging for forgiveness? Are those only for the laity?

How much of a role did homosexuality play in all this? There is of course a vital distinction to be made here between sexual orientation and sexual abuse, and between being gay and being a pedophile, hebephile, or ephebophile. Many gay priests are fine and honorable servants. It horrifies me they are tarred by association, by some of the more reactionary voices in the church. It’s also true that one reason young men and boys were targeted was that they were far more readily available to priests than girls.

But it remains true that the overwhelming majority of Catholic abuse cases are between men and boys, or men and men, not men and girls, or men with women (although that happened too). And the way in which homosexuality has been treated by Catholicism — the only option for all gays is a life of celibacy and emotional repression — is not likely to lead to healthy homosexual lives, let alone priests.

Homophobia may also have increased the proportion of priests over the centuries who have been gay, because the priesthood has always been a reliable cover for not dating women. And these closeted, fucked-up gays are the ones who may well have internalized many of the slurs against gays in the past, hated themselves, never come to terms with themselves, and seen no real difference between sexual abuse and sex. So gay priests may well have covered this stuff up for aeons, or formed cliques that perpetuated it, or developed personae that could create some campy subculture to make the awful contradictions and cruelties of sexual repression and self-loathing bearable. When no form of sex is allowed, all forms of sex can seem equally immoral. And if your celibacy has ever slipped, you sure don’t want to snitch on someone else, do you?

It’s a vicious, destructive, evil circle. Which is why, it seems to me, that the clerical closet has to end. Secrecy and shame abet sexual dysfunction. Openness and self-respect are the cure. If a priest is celibate and openly gay, he is in no way disqualified for the priesthood — the church teaches that being gay is in itself no sin — so why can’t he be out? The stricture against this kind of honesty and transparency has only compounded the fucked-upness of it all. Allowing married people and women to be priests is also a no-brainer. We have long discovered that secretive, hierarchical cabals of single men are usually trouble in any context and I have a feeling that a female priest would not react to the news of an abused child with concern for the abuser. The church’s moral credibility is now close to zero. All the more reason to throw open the doors and let the light in.

I’ll add one final thought. I can’t help asking myself: How long has this been going on? More to the point, how would we ever have known about it until the modern era? The authority of priests was near-total in the past, especially in Catholic countries or Catholic communities. Any child complaint would have resulted in the disciplining of the child, not the priest. Concern for children was historically minimal, compared with today, and most countries have never had the kind of journalism that is able to go up against the church and prevail. And once you can see the proof of principle — a Cardinal who got away with molesting a child and abusing countless grown men for decades — you can barely imagine what happened in decades or centuries past. I have wakeful nightmares about this. Is it all a giant, cynical scam, as my old friend Hitch would insist, night after night, over drinks?

And that is why this past week has been so shattering again for many Catholics. We may still believe in Jesus. But precisely because of that, we can no longer believe in the church. No one is untouched. Even Pope John Paul II personally advanced and championed one of the worst abusers in the church, the Legionaries of Christ’s Marcial Maciel Degollado, because of the money he brought in, and the rigid ideology he upheld. And they made John Paul a saint! This is no time to shore up the institution. It’s time to open it up and cleanse it. We could start with Cardinal Wuerl.

The Opioid Epidemic’s Grim Toll

We now have a solid estimate of how many of our fellow citizens died because of drug overdoses last year: 72,000, with a large majority being opioid-related. More than the number of Americans who died in the entire Vietnam War. Far more than car crashes, shootings, or suicides, although I think of opioid-related overdoses as a slow form of suicide in a culture of despair, especially among the youth. And the numbers keep rising — a 7 percent increase nationally over last year, which was the highest yet recorded. In some places, the deaths are soaring: In Nebraska, deaths were up by 33 percent; in North Carolina, 22.5 percent. In some of the states already hardest hit, the numbers mount: Ohio, Indiana, and West Virginia also saw an increase of more than 17 percent in deaths. There’s some encouraging data about a decline in deaths in some states, like Massachusetts and Vermont, that have devoted money to the problem and distributed naloxone kits more widely. But they are the exception, not the rule. And it is no surprise that the lethality of fentanyl is behind much of the rise. Lethal is the word: This week saw Nebraska use the drug in its gruesome pharmaceutical cocktail to murder someone on death row.

What worries me even more is the dispersal of fentanyl in other recreational drugs. On Wednesday, 72 people were rushed to hospital in New Haven, after smoking the synthetic weed product, K2. The New Haven fire chief said they believe “it was laced with something, some opioid compound, possibly fentanyl.” At least that is the current working theory, and we’ll know definitively soon. But it is telling that using naloxone on the victims generally revived them — a pretty solid indicator that some potent opioid was involved. Fentanyl is also showing up in coke, regular weed, and in counterfeit Xanax and Adderall. What makes fentanyl so deadly is its extraordinary potency — up to 50 times as strong as heroin — and the enormous difficulty of dosing it correctly. It’s so concentrated, a few grains can kill you. Getting the mix right is simply beyond the capacity of most drug dealers.

I wonder what the effect would have been if the New Haven incident had been a mass casualty event: a large number of people in one place suddenly collapsing and dying from ingesting a fentanyl-laced drug. Imagine a news story in which over 70 people died on one day in one park. It would lead every news outlet. And yet, on average every single day in America, close to 200 people die because of a drug overdose. Every day. And this will continue unless and until we revolutionize our approach to drugs, legalize and regulate them, and treat addicts in a way that helps them return to sobriety or something close to a functional life. The trouble is that those very states where the death toll is highest are the ones in which such ideas are anathema. At some point, this has to change. The question until then is just how many people we are prepared to see die in front of us.

Immigration Backlash Spreads to Sweden

It seems to me a pretty big indicator of Europe’s future that a party with neo-Nazi roots is currently surging in the polls in … Sweden. Yes, super-liberal, deeply anti-racist Sweden. The election is on September 9, and this famously tolerant social democracy — a humanitarian superpower that has recently absorbed more refugees per capita than any other European nation — is swinging hard to the right over immigration and crime. As of 2017, one in six people in Sweden were born outside the country. Sweden has historically had a higher representation of humanitarian migrants than the rest of Europe, but in recent years, larger numbers are coming from Syria, Iraq, Somalia, and Eritrea. The gender mix of these new arrivals is also skewed — if all applicants are granted asylum, the male-female ratio could become lopsided, growing from 105:100 to 107:100 among those aged 18 to 34. Integration has been hard and the country is statistically one of Europe’s worst at integrating foreigners. It’s easier to welcome people than to find ways to get them to adjust to an entirely different culture. Riots began in 2008 and have occurred frequently since. Crime is up:

Dozens of people have been killed in the past two years in attacks in the capital Stockholm and other big cities by gangs that are mostly from run-down suburbs dominated by immigrants. In the latest bloodshed, three men were shot dead and three were wounded outside an internet cafe in the city of Malmo on June 18. A fourth man was shot dead days later and another man survived because he was wearing a bullet-proof vest.

The far right Sweden Democrats have emerged as the party most willing to fan the fear these incidents have understandably aroused — and it’s been contagious, with almost every other party vowing to crack down on immigration and crime. The far-right party’s current plan is a freeze in immigration entirely and a vote to leave the E.U. At 20 percent in the polls, it’s possible they could surpass the moderates to become the major opposition party. At the very least, they could be kingmakers in the next parliament. It hasn’t helped that another wave of immigrant-gang–related car arson earlier this week has put crime front and center of the campaign, generating fears of chaos.

My fear is that the admirably humane acceptance of refugees and the remarkable openness to mass immigration from outside of Europe is nonetheless destabilizing liberal democracy in Sweden and across Europe. Well, it’s not a fear any more. It’s a fact. It seems you simply cannot enact such massive sudden demographic changes — even with the best of motives — and expect no backlash. The rise of UKIP in Britain and Brexit itself were a response to this; so are the shocking gains of the AfD in Germany, the consolidation of Orbán’s power in Hungary, and the new populist government in Italy. It seems to me that in Europe at least, you can have liberal democracy or mass immigration. It’s becoming increasingly clear you can’t have both.

See you next Friday.

Cleansing the Catholic Church of Its Sins