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Don't Think

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Msgr William Lynn.jpgThe Rev. Thomas Reese, the Jesuit priest who edited the Catholic weekly America, once quoted a Vatican consultant who gave this advice on how to survive in the world's oldest bureaucracy.  It went like this:

Don't think.

If you think, don't speak.

If you think and if you speak, don't write.

If you think and you speak and you write, don't sign your name.

If you think and you speak and you write and you sign your name, don't be surprised.

Reese should have taken that advice to heart.  In 2005, he stepped down as editor of America under pressure from Vatican officials, including now Pope Benedict XVI, over printing offensive articles -- specifically ones by writers who called into question the church's stands on celibacy, sex and the ordination of women. You can read the particulars here.

I thought of that dictum the other day in considering the case of Monsignor William J. Lynn, currently on trial in Common Pleas Court on charges of conspiracy and child endangerment in connection with the local priest abuse scandal, which looks like it is going to have a longer run than The Fantasticks.

Lynn was secretary of the clergy in the archdiocese of Philadelphia between 1992 and 2004.  In effect, he was personnel manager for the nearly 600 diocesan priests, helping to determine assignments and dealing with problems.

Lynn followed the dictum that Reese did not.  He was a good soldier who knew his role, followed orders and did as he was told.

The trial is still underway, but if you examine the facts in the case, it is clear that Lynn was part of a conspiracy and did endanger the lives of children.

The conspiracy, which began at the top of the archdiocesan pyramid, involved protecting priests who were charged with sexually molesting minors, usually boys. In the criminal code, this is called rape.

The endangerment part came when priest/molesters were shifted from the scene of their crimes to another parish, where they remained in contact with a whole new flock of potential victims. According to testimony last week, the pastors who got problem priests often weren't told about previous transgressions. Unaware that his new assistant had been transferred because there were allegations he was diddling altar boys, the pastor would put that priest in charge of altar boys. Not a good idea.

The defense has yet to have its day, but Lynn's attorneys have given a preview by saying the monsignor was, in his own quiet way, a hero -- working to keep problem priests at bay, urging his superiors up the line to act decisively, etc.

Of course, it was all done within the walls of the church's headquarters at 222 North 17th Street. We haven't yet been shown memos, emails or other missives Lynn may have sent to his bosses, Cardinal John Krol and then Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua that buttresses that assertion. Both his former bosses are deceased and unavailable for further comment.

There is no doubt -- given the evidence laid out by two local grand juries -- that the guys at the top were the architects of the policy. Lynn was the implementer. He was only following orders.

In fact, the contours of these scandals -- here and elsewhere in America and the world -- are the same. The church protected its own, even if they were molesters. The matters were handled internally, without involvement from civil authorities (i.e. the local sex crimes unit). A few priests were defrocked and sent on their way. Others were sent for stays in local diocesan-run hospitals for psychological counseling. Most were shifted from the scene of their alleged crimes to another site, where they could -- and sometimes did -- sin again. (The priests on trial with Lynn are alleged to be serial molesters.)

The problem with understanding the church is that we like to think of it in modern terms -- the equivalent of a large corporation, for instance. But, the church is not modern in any significant sense of that word. Being a bishop is not like being a CEO and being a priest is not like being a junior executive. This is an ancient institution that more resembles an absolute monarchy, where the ruler is seen as God's agent on earth. The ceremony where priests are ordained is called Holy Orders. It's not a job; it's a way of life. So, it should be no surprise that the world's oldest fraternity protects its own.

When a priest is ordained, he takes vows of chastity and obedience. Notoriously, priests have had problems with the chastity part. The obedience part remains very much intact.

In fact, if you look at the record of the last 25 years, priests were far more likely to be punished if they tripped up on obedience -- by questioning the church's teachings and hierarchy -- than if they committed a sex crime.

To use an old Latinate word, that's lunacy.

-- Tom Ferrick

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