I once had a priest apologize to me and a roomful of others, on behalf of the entire Catholic church, if any of us had been abused by a priest.
It was a touching gesture, delivered almost twenty years ago, at a time when all the victims of decades of priestly misconduct seemed to be coming forward at once. As the country and the Catholic church took stock of the damage a relative handful of predatory priests had wrought, this one stood before us and apologized for his colleagues’ behavior.
Here’s what was truly shocking about the behavior he was apologizing for: by the time the church started to acknowledge it publicly in the mid to late ’90s, it had been going on for decades.
And the bishops and archbishops responsible for disciplining these priests had known about their predatory behavior for years, and had done nothing.
We could point to a hundred other examples of misconduct, often criminal, to which authorities habitually turn a blind eye:
- Philandering politicians.
- Racist police.
- Sexist or abusive bosses.
- Corrupt civil servants.
- Abusive spouses.
For all the progress we’ve made against these abuses in the last thirty or forty years, they are still common enough we make them the punchlines of jokes. But when faced with real-life examples, most of us are content to look the other way.
The answer is never simple, of course. Answers rarely are when people are involved. But we can make a few general observations:
The perpetrators almost always have some degree of power over us.
There’s often a cost, whether it’s real or imagined, to stepping out against an offender. The boss can fire us. The police have a monopoly on state-sanctioned force. Politicians, civil servants, or our spouses can make our lives difficult to a greater or lesser degree.
It doesn’t seem like any of our business.
It’s not my problem, we tell ourselves. If a senator can’t keep his zipper up, who’s really harmed as long as it was consensual? I’m not the target of the boss’s advances, so what do I care? I’ve got plenty to worry about without borrowing trouble. And it’s somebody else’s job to deal with this kind of thing, after all.
We like the perpetrator.
It’s hard to call out someone we admire. It’s easy to dismiss as rumor something we don’t want to hear about them. Surely our guy wouldn’t do something like that, right? And even if he did, he probably had a reason, or he just had a bad day, or he’s really sorry and won’t ever do anything like that again.
But all these excuses ignore one basic truth: we know what’s right, and the perpetrator usually does, too. Confronting them, or reporting them, or leaving, or some combination, is often the course courage demands. It’s a course that may have real consequences for us, and each of us has to balance that cost against our own needs.
I don’t know if that priest had the sanction of the church, or even of his diocese, to do what he did. In the end, it didn’t matter. He did what he could to rectify an evil of which he was innocent. He could have ignored his fellows’ misconduct like so many others had. Instead he took the courageous path, and with one line, changed at least one person’s view of the church.
That’s the power of courage. If we’re dissatisfied with the world we live in, it’s the only way to change it.