In one sense there are few surprises in Tuesday evening’s broadcast of Frontline’s latest documentary on the scandals that continue to rock the Catholic Church. Few surprises, that is, if you have been following the story for the last ten years: though this is not about birth control, abortion, women’s ordination, liberal nuns or health care’s alleged anti-Catholicism. It is about the corruption of a local culture, where the combination of lust for power, sex and money has undermined the credibility of an institution originally modeled on the body of Christ.
The scandals are familiar—the plague of sex abuse, the victims’ demand for justice, the disgrace of the Legion of Christ and its founder, the Vatican Bank scandal, the charges of homosexual cliques among the priests and hierarchy, the leak of documents by the pope’s butler—as is the scramble of the investigative reporters to make all this public.
Frontline’s documentaries remind me of the old Edward R. Murrow radio and TV dramas, “You Are There,” where the reporters grab Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson after a meeting of the Continental Congress. Except that the Frontline cameras and researchers are really there to show us the young Marcial Maciel Degollado, of a powerful conservative elite Mexican family, as he founds the Legion of Christ in 1941, rises in Vatican influence by raising money and collecting vocations and wins the favor of Pope John Paul II as he enjoys his double life. We see the faces and hear the voices of former seminarian Juan Vaca, abused at 10, from 1949 to 1961, and of Raul Gonzales, one of Maciel’s two sons, both of whom were abused on every visit. As Raul weeps, so do we.
Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor of Westminster sets the right tone in the opening shots: On the eve of the papal conclave the air was very tense, because of the impact of sex abuse all over the world, the “trouble at the top,” which had to be confronted. Many of the commentators are the reporters who broke the original stories—Jason Berry for the National Catholic Reporter, Robert Mickens of the London Tablet, Carmelo Abbate of Panorama and Gianluigi Nuzzi, the TV investigative journalist in Milan who received the “Vatileaks” from the Pope’s butler. Add to these parishioners, lawyers and priests from all over America who have their own horror stories to tell—all told in un-sensational tones.
Harvard psychiatrist Dr. Martin Kafka observes that the Catholic clergy accused of sex abuse vastly outnumbered Protestant clergy, at least partly because they suppressed their sexuality to better serve God. Men who abuse children, he says, were likely to be heterosexual, but those who abuse adolescents reflect their own sexual orientation in whom they victimize, the doctor says. For many years the Catholic clergy was a closed world of boys and young men, he says. His answer is to recruit more mature men who understand what a life of celibacy is.
Frontline says the American seminary in Rome is a model in this respect, and we meet three young men in clerics who all say that the sacrifices of the priesthood, giving up a biological family, are worth it; service to the church is life-giving and a source of happiness. We meet another young man, ordained by Pope Benedict himself, who becomes disillusioned by the clericalism of life in Rome, meets a beautiful girl, asks for a dispensation to marry, is criticized by his peers, leaves and also loses the girl.
The scenes that may disturb viewers the most are a report recorded with a hidden camera, on the gay clergy subculture. A visibly shocked journalist attends an all night party after which a priest who has slept with a friend the previous night suits up in his vestments and says a home Mass. The tough word for this is hypocrisy, but the commentary suggests that these men have not faced the contradiction, pretending that these double identities do not really clash.
Into all this mess comes Pope Francis with his interviews, particularly with the cheerful atheist Italian journalist Eugenio Scalfari, to whom Francis describes some of the hierarchy as narcissists, flattered and thrilled by their courtiers. “The court is the leprosy of the papacy,” says Francis. “This Vatican-centric vision neglects the world around us, and I will do everything to change it.” In a most tender moment we see Pope Francis wash the foot of a young woman in prison, then kiss it and look up lovingly into her eyes.
The camera shifts to Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga in Honduras who clicks off the scandals that must be overcome, “The church must fix its own house.” Everybody knows what is necessary. One journalist wonders when the pope will address the sex abuse issue, another comments that all efforts of popes in the last century to reform the curia have failed. Cardinal Maradiaga gets the last line: “Things are not going to continue like they were in the past.”