There but for the grace of God go I

I hear stuff like this a lot about guys like Law: “Law and others apparently have the attitude that priests are demigods who can do no wrong”. I hear them described as men of calculated malice, etc. I don’t think that’s accurate. Here’s my take on how somebody like Law gets himself where he is:

I think I’m looking at a man who spent his life basically thinking (as we all do) “I’m a decent guy, and I’m doing good work for the world. Just look at my civil rights work! I didn’t become a priest to be a functionary, but to serve God and people. I remember when I felt the call of God and said yes. Sure age has taken the edge off my youthful zeal and I’ve made a few compromises, but I’m still basically OK. I’m not a saint, but I’m a decent chap! Sure I sin, but I’m not evil.” Put such a man (who, like most bishops, wants to avoid conflict as much as possible) in situations where people scream about a grave injustice, and he will do what Law did: avoid conflict, promise resolution, take parental quietude in response to such promises as the resolution itself (whew! conflict avoided!) and then, to avoid conflict with the priest, reassign him. It’s not that he thinks the priest a demi-god. It’s that he’s too much of a coward to confront somebody he doesn’t want to look at closely for fear of having to face conflict. “The psychs said it was okay, and a decent guy like me can hardly be expected to do much more.” The illusion of “I’m a decent chap” thus goes on undisturbed for years, the parents are content (they think something’s being done and so something *has* been done, by the canons of conflict-avoidance) or, if not, they are muffled by bureaucracy, and the priest is not giving you trouble.

And so it piles up for years, all while you seriously believe that you are “basically doing a good job–not perfect, but good” because there are no major conflicts–till the colossal roar from the wings of thousands of chickens coming home to roost deafens you and you have to face some huge and terrifying facts about yourself that nothing in your conflict-avoiding life has prepared you to face. It doesn’t take titanic evil to achieve this. It just takes little acts of conflict-avoidance so small you might never notice them if you’ve trained yourself to think in a certain way–a way that is rather common among more of us than I care to think. Look no further than an Internet BBS, an email list, or the comments boxes of the blogosphere when some rampaging ranter comes storming through hurling insults at everybody. How many people just quietly fold up and look the other way? How many actually spring to the defense of the abusive personality in the desperate hope that they can get the conflict to go away via appeasement? It’s not a rare psychological trait. It’s a temptation I struggle with myself.

In short, there but for the grace of God go I.

And so, when I look at Law’s testimony (and at his slowly-arrived-at admission, only seriously articulated long after this testimony, that he has indeed done great evil) I see a snapshot of a man grappling with facing that fact and doing it badly last summer. But given his more recent statements which seem to me to really be attempts at taking responsibility for the evil he has done, I also see a man who is struggling with agonizing slowness toward serious acknowledgement that he has committed grave evil. I wonder how I would do if I had to face something like this about myself.

This is not to say “To understand all is to excuse all.” As I wrote below, there is no excuse for Law’s gravely sinful inaction. Rather, it is to try to accurately diagnose just what went wrong. I don’t see calculated malice in Law. I don’t see “creative evil” (look to Shanley, or Kurt Cobain for that). Rather, I see passive cowardice. Likewise for somebody like McCormack. Do you think for one second that he *really* “didn’t notice” that Shanley was advocating sex with minors. Of course, he noticed. But, miserable coward, he trained himself not to notice because he could stave off conflict that way.

With Law, given his more recent statements that seem (at last!) to be taking some real responsibility for the evil he has done, I *hope* I’m seeing somebody with a long habit of passive cowardice slowly struggling to throw off the habit and take some responsibility, post-deposition. But at the end of the day, there’s no excuse for his inaction. Indeed, his torpor in taking responsibility *adds to* and does not excuse his guilt here. So the only recourse for us who have been wounded by his sin is forgiveness, not excusing, since forgiveness is precisely ordered toward sin, not toward well-meaning faux pas.

Until he retires, that’s pretty much what we have to do–as we prosecute, where Caesar deems it appropriate. And pray to God that he does not make trial of our cowardice in such a fiery furnace.