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At the spring meeting of Touchstone’s editors, James Hitchcock observed that whenever a priest is exposed as a pedophile, no one ever says, “He was distant and formal,” or “He was an old crank.” The priest is always “warm” and “pastoral.” He is often said to be “charismatic” and “caring” and “accessible” and even “exciting.”
A priest I had met around 1971 was arrested for child abuse recently in Westminster, Maryland. His parents had helped me found the Charlottesville, Virginia chapter of Birthright. Brian was in a religious order at the time, but he later switched to the archdiocese of Baltimore. Many people close to him regarded him as otherworldly. I thought he was odd. He once told a story (which he thought funny) of how he had had a home Mass and one of the participants had given the consecrated Host to her dog.
Everybody loved Father Brian. He was a real entertainer, described in a newspaper story as “a charismatic priest and extemporaneous preacher who used unconventional methods to involve his congregation in the Gospel.” He celebrated sunrise Mass on Easter with balloons tied to each pew. He walked newly baptized babies around the church to be applauded. And on more than one occasion, he ended Mass by dancing down the aisle or by playing a kazoo. Even one of his victims admitted, “He has a naturally attractive personality, very outgoing. Everybody loved Father Brian.”
When he was accused in 1995 and sent away for treatment, many of his parishioners turned on the victim. One letter-writer to the local paper said: “More Father Brians are needed in this sad, hateful and so much jealous world. . . . Giving up his whole life for God is enough proof of his unselfishness. Come back, Father, nothing can compare to a bright tomorrow.”
Marcie Wogan, the deputy state’s attorney assigned to the case, saw nothing but sympathy for the priest and anger toward his victim. “When my office was investigating this matter in 1995, there was a great deal of anger and hostility directed toward whomever the public perceived as the victim of Brian Cox.” (The archdiocese of Baltimore protected him from the law, she added. “[W]hen investigators from the state’s attorney’s office attempted to reach him, he went on sabbatical and the church would not disclose his whereabouts.”)
Staunch conservative parish members still defend Father Brian. He was so interested in helping the poor. Why are people bringing up things that happened twenty years ago? Why upset such a man’s life just because he had sex with a young man? After all, what did he do that was so bad? Some parishioners were reported as saying that Father Brian’s sexual actions were the result of sheer exuberance.
One of his victims recalls going to the pool with the priest. After swimming, Father Brian would take the boy into the showers in the locker room, which were generally empty during the week. There, he masturbated the youth on at least four occasions, the boy says.
This ought to be enough. But when priests like Father Brian are exposed, the laity rally to their support. In doing so, they reveal their own complicity in the abuse—not so much in justifying it after the fact, but in encouraging the sort of religion from which abuse grows and finding priests to give this kind of religion to them.
Catholic laity often have been enablers of these criminals and share in their guilt. They have wanted to be entertained; they find Christianity boring, all this stuff about sin and atonement and penance and grace, all these restrictive rules, all this structure in worship. They want lively masses, clown masses, high entertainment. They want the freedom to do as they feel, not help in becoming saints.
They do not want priests who are what priests are supposed to be: men who have dedicated years of their lives to serious theological study and ascetic practices, men who are entrusted with handing on the very Word of God, preaching a gospel of repentance, administering the dread mysteries of the New Covenant in the Blood of God, mysteries at which the Thrones and Cherubim tremble.
No, this laity wants Father Brian, whom no one can take seriously. So what if these juvenile priests get their sexual pleasure by ruining the lives of minors? What are a few ruined lives in exchange for a fun religion for everyone else, one emptied of the dreadful and saving message of the gospel?
—Leon J. Podles, for the editors