by Father Raymond J. De Souza

Regarding the distressing news about the child pornography charges brought against Bishop Raymond Lahey, former bishop of Antigonish, one cannot improve upon the letter Archbishop Anthony Mancini sent to the faithful of Nova Scotia and read in all parishes last Sunday.

“What do you say to the parishioners, to the priests, the young people and to the faithful communities that make up our Church in Nova Scotia?” the Halifax archbishop asked himself. “What will you say to the victims of sexual abuse, as we all struggle in the aftermath of unbelievable revelations and allegations of even more unacceptable shocking and possible criminal sexual behaviour?”

“What I want to say is: Enough is enough! How much more can all of us take? Like you, my heart is broken, my mind is confused, my body hurts and I have moved in and out of a variety of feelings especially shame and frustration, fear and disappointment, along with a sense of vulnerability, and a tremendous poverty of spirit. I have cried and I have silently screamed, and perhaps that was my prayer to God: Why Lord? What does all this mean? What are you asking of me and of my priests? What do you want to see happen among your people? Is this a time of purification or is it nothing more than devastation?”

Archbishop Mancini’s cry of anguish expresses how many of us feel. The scandal of Bishop Lahey’s conduct is surely devastating. With God’s grace perhaps it will be purifying too.

There are three principal reactions to news like this. One hears first from the anti-Catholics, more numerous than one might think and certainly vocal, who delight in the sins of Catholics. Those who would tell lies about the Church certainly will not blanch from telling damaging truths. It is embarrassing to have sins shouted from the rooftops, but the shouting and derision are only secondary to our own shame.

Second, one hears from the putative reformers, both within and without the Church, who consider every difficulty — parish amalgamation, school closing, sexual scandal, financial crisis — to be an opportune time for the Catholic Church to change her teachings. If only we had married priests or taught differently about sexual morality or modified our internal governance, then presumably everything would be better. In short, Catholics would have fewer problems if they were more like Protestants. There are serious doctrinal differences between say, Catholics and Anglicans or the United Church, but sinfulness is a shared part of the human condition. Catholic scandals get more attention than others, but the problems we have are not absent elsewhere, in the Church or society at large.

Third, one hears from those, again both Catholics and non-Catholics, who simply wonder about whether this is ever going to stop. The short answer is no — there will always be priests and lay leaders who will betray the trust put in them. The longer answer is that those betrayals are growing fewer and being punished more readily. Catholics have learned, at the cost of the great pain and suffering of many innocents, how to better confront this evil behaviour.

Even Bishop Lahey’s case illustrates this. While all relevant details are not known, a reported accusation of child pornography in 1989 apparently did not get followed up. Today, that would not happen. To the contrary, it is likely that a priest would be bounced out of his rectory within the day if a credible accusation was received. Such things are now treated with both severity and alacrity. Bishop Lahey was charged on Friday. On Saturday the Pope removed him as bishop of Antigonish (only the Pope can remove a bishop). The news became public on Wednesday, Bishop Lahey returned to Ottawa from Nova Scotia for arrest on Thursday and Archbishop Mancini was on the ground and issued his letter the next day.

Today, parish volunteers — yes, including the pious church ladies of impeccable character — are subject to police background checks. I have had to demonstrate that I am not an abuser, criminal or miscreant in a half-dozen jurisdictions in the last few years. A routine part of being a priest today is demonstrating that you are not a pedophile; it’s not the state that asks that, it’s the Church. There are no other professions I am aware of where that level of rigour is applied.
Still, it doesn’t take the sting out of this case. It’s hard — humiliation and anger and contrition and repentance. It should be.

Copyright National Post, Oct. 8, 2009. Reprinted with permission of the author