You swore to yourself a long time ago
There were some things that people never needed to know . . .
And you can’t talk about it
Because you’re following a code of silence . . .
That’s not the kind of code you’re inclined to break
Some things unknown are best left alone forever . . .
You’re never gonna to lose the anger
You just deal with it a different way
But you can’t talk about it
And isn’t that a kind of madness
To be living by a code of silence
When you’ve really got a lot to say?
Excerpt from Code of Silence by Billy Joel
Father Frank Richards was the principal of Knoxville Catholic High School when I was a student there. He was a big bear of a man, soft-spoken with a kindly smile. My Senior year, he presided over the special outdoor Mass at our retreat, the one where we all held hands. He presented me with a plaque and congratulated me after I made the valedictory address at Graduation. He also raped three boys.
Of course, none of us knew that then. Nor did we know it the next year, or the year after that. I learned the sordid truth from an article in the local paper over fifteen years later, about the time that I and everyone else in our Diocese learned that our beloved former Bishop was also guilty of decades-old sexual abuse, after one of his victims decided to go public despite having been paid over $100,000 by the Church for his silence.
Catholics seem to operate with the understanding that silence is golden when it comes to anything at all that could bring bad publicity upon the Church. This attitude extends to more than cases of priestly sexual abuse. I’ve continued to encounter this attitude throughout the Catholic education of my older children. On several occasions, teachers left abruptly under mysterious circumstances and neither parents nor children were given any information or explanation, but were rather left to sort through the rumors or, in one particularly egregious case, read all about it in the local paper. The thought process seemed to be that if we didn’t talk about it at all, maybe it would go away.
As for Father Richards, they simply expunged him–the video put out to celebrate the school’s 75th anniversary just leaves him out of the list of KCHS principals, skipping right over the 1981- 1985 school years without comment. Bishop O’Connell, having founded our diocese, couldn’t be forgotten so easily, but they took his name off a building. And everyone tried to forget.
And why not, right? After all, we’d suffered so much embarrassment over the abuse scandal. Some had even left the Church over it! Protestants were saying bad things about Catholics and looking suspiciously at every priest, even though we all knew that priests are no more likely to abuse children than anyone else. We instituted Diocesan policies and took our Virtus classes so that we could continue our volunteer work and put up signs forbidding children to use the church bathrooms alone. Why couldn’t everyone just move on?
Many of us really did think we could put this all behind us. We didn’t know that more revolting revelations were forthcoming.
But many people did know. The priests who had committed abuse and continued in ministry. The people who had reported being abused by priests and bishops. And Bishops who ignored victims, or didn’t believe them, or paid for their silence, and moved abusers from place to place–in some cases watching them advance in stature and responsibility–instead of removing them from the priesthood or reporting their crimes to authorities. They knew, and they chose to remain quiet, one presumes from a misguided belief that their silence would avoid scandal.
In our Catechism we learn that scandal is “an attitude of behavior which leads another to do evil . . . [it] takes on a particular gravity by reason of the authority of those who cause it or the weakness of those who are scandalized . . . [it] is grave when given by those who by nature of office are obliged to teach and educate others” [CCC 2284-2285].
Our Bishops have failed dismally in their obligation to teach, educate, lead, protect, and shepherd the faithful. My faith in the Church is unshaken, but my faith in its hierarchy is at an all-time low, and I am not alone. The faithful laity will no longer be satisfied with apologies and committees. We must demand change–accountability, penance, resignations, and complete transparency.
Bishops, the silence IS the scandal! It’s time to shed some light.