Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Lie Lives On

Two friends have sent me links to an article that appeared in the New York Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer which reports that the Archdiocese of Philadelphia has suspended twenty-one priests for the sexual molestation of children. This after the cardinal had stated that there were no guilty priests currently in the ministry in that diocese. The suspension is said to be the largest thus far in the priest sexual abuse scandal.

The report simply confirms what I and others have known for some time; namely, that the lies, the cover-up and the systematic protection of pedophiles among the Catholic clergy continue. Cardinal Rigali now brands himself as an active co-conspirator, having first attempted to deny the existence of these monsters, then having covered up for them, and only now having admitted to their crimes. As I have said before: If Rigali admits to twenty-one, then there are twenty-one more whom he has not yet exposed, and twenty-one more of whom he is not yet aware. The pattern is disgustingly consistent and predictable. The Catholic Church remains a conspiracy against the innocence of children, and the 'penitential Mass' which Rigali promises makes no difference, and only adds to the mounting hypocrisy.

Recently I wrote a screenplay on the subject of priest sexual abuse of children, and in the course of it, I found myself meditating on the extent of the clergy's criminal culpability. The Church continues to insist that the number of priest pedophiles is tiny, and their crimes, the rare exceptions. This is simply a lie, as the figures show. But there is a further lie beyond this numerical one. The character in my screenplay, a convicted priest molester, asserts that all of the Catholic clergy are guilty. His lawyer responds, surely, not all. To which the priest replies that those who did not commit the crimes covered them up, and those who did not cover them up knew about them, and those who did not know about them did not want to know. Priests, bishops, cardinals, popes, all are guilty.

I surprised myself when I wrote those lines, but upon reflection, I realize the truth of them. Catholic priests live in close-knit communities, sharing the same residence, the same meals, the same free time, the same common rooms. They eat together, pray together, play cards and talk and drive and get drunk together. In short, they live together, just as intimately and casually as does any family. Is it conceivable that in such a community, child rapists could exist unknown to the others? Ask yourself: When a community of priests finds a man suddenly transferred into its midst bearing with him the stench of scandal, watches his interactions with the boys of the parish, notes his behavior, his interests, his associations, and then sees him transferred out again just as suddenly, is it possible that they have no idea why?

To put it another way: Could you have a child rapist living in your home for months or years without knowing or at least suspecting what he was? Yet every rectory, every residence was a family, and in each and every one, pedophiles lived and prayed and ate and played and got drunk with the other priests. Those who did not commit the crimes covered them up, and those who did not cover them up knew about them and those who did not know about them did not want to know.

This last group is nearly the worst. They are moral cowards, accomplices to the molestations every bit as much as if they had lured the boys in or drugged them or held them down. Their stench almost equals that of the rapists, because they forfeited their vocation, their manliness, their morality, their humanity and their souls in turning their backs on what they knew or suspected was happening. They cannot hide behind their ignorance since their ignorance was willful. They left the innocent to their molesters, and now they claim they knew nothing. They are, in effect, like the Germans who claimed they knew nothing about the trains, about the camps, about the ovens. And, if Dante is correct, the hottest places in hell are reserved for them.

When will the scandal end? When the Church as it is currently constituted ends. When will the slate be wiped clean? For all the penitential Masses in the world, it will remain smudged with the tears and the tortured memories of violated children until the Church is cleansed of its clergy. To my mind, the only hope for the future of the Roman Church lies where it began: with the spirit of the Gospels in which Jesus said that if anyone violates a child it would be better for him that a stone were tied around his neck and he were thrown into the sea. All of the guilty lot of the Catholic clergy must be submerged beneath their collective guilt, they must be exposed, punished and repudiated by the faithful, if the Church is ever to emerge again pure and cleansed, and reclaim its right to minister to innocents.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011


When I was in high school some friends dragged me to see Phil Ochs in concert at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia. I had never heard of him and had no idea what he was about. That concert proved to be a turning point in my life.

I remember the ushers at the Academy, mostly retired men, yelling, booing and cursing as Ochs performed his songs, alone on stage, and I thought: "This is interesting. This guy must be onto something." He was. I thought then and still think that Phil Ochs was the purest, most honest and most talented of the protest singers of the Sixties and Seventies. His impact on me was profound; in a word, he radicalized me that night at the old Academy of Music.

He sang about the war in Vietnam, America's imperialism, economic injustice,the hypocrisy of liberals, the numbing effects of mass media and the individual's alienation from society in a voice that was clear, delicate and, to my ears, pristine and powerful in its warbling timbre. The consciousness his singing and his earnestness engendered in me remained a part of my psyche and my identity for decades.

Phil Ochs set me on a journey into political activism, social consciousness and radical thought that helped define me as a person in my young years. I joined the student protest movement, inspired by his song, "I'm Gonna Say It Now," I enlisted in the Civil Rights struggle under the influence of his "Mississippi," and I threw myself headlong into the anti-war movement, singing his "Draft Dodger Rag" and "I Ain't Marchin Anymore." Having heard him sing "Small Circle of Friends," I wrote a play about the disease of detachment which was plaguing society in those days. The play was put on television, launching my career as a dramatist, which I follow to this day. And I still find myself singing his lovely ballad, "Changes," and his haunting signature song, with which he closed that concert, "While I'm Here," to my little boy.

I saw Phil Ochs once more in person, at the Vietnam Moratorium protest rally in Washington D.C. A fully committed student radical by that time, I caravanned with friends down to the capital and camped out by the Reflecting Pond. There was a big elevated stage on which speakers harangued the crowd and bands performed. I can still see Phil Ochs in a capacious plaid Jeff cap singing "Mississippi," the refrain modified to make it a condemnation of President Nixon: "Richard Nixon, find yourself another country to be part of." As he sang, I glanced up past the Lincoln Memorial to see a regiment of National Guardsmen marching towards us in perfect alignment. We were soon surrounded, hemmed in by bayonets and tear-gassed by taunting D.C cops. Hundreds of kids were rounded up and crowded into RFK Stadium. I narrowly escaped arrest - I was on the back side of the stage hoping to meet Phil Ochs as he exited.

The other night I saw the new documentary about Phil Ochs, and it was both an informative and emotional experience for me. I went in order to learn more about this young man who played such a large part in my life, and I was not disappointed. I did not know, for example, that he was a Jew, that his father was a failed physician and manic depressive, that Phil Ochs never intended to be a musician and acquired his first guitar by winning a bet with his college roommate who taught him to play. I did not know how he hungered for fame, about his intense rivalry with Bob Dylan, and the details of his untimely death.

The last time I saw Phil Ochs perform was on a children's television program about poetry. He sang his version of Poe's "The Bells," which had been a favorite poem of my childhood, and "The Highwayman," a maudlin little saga, but one that lent itself well to his musical setting of it. It must have been near the end of his life, and I thought as I watched him that his career must be in sorry shape. However, the film made it clear that Ochs was always available to sing for a good cause, no matter how humble, and I suppose he could not resist the opportunity to bring his music to a new generation of children.

I lost track of him as I graduated from college, lived in Europe, volunteered in Africa and returned to Paris to attend grad school. It was then, while I was studying at the Paris Film Conservatory and working part-time in a grocery store, that, on my way to work I picked up the International Herald Tribune, and read of his suicide at the age of thirty-five. I was deeply struck by the news, and I could not help but mention it, as I held the paper, to my boss, the owner of the store. "Quelle idée," he remarked, genuinely unable to understand why such a talented young man should kill himself. I supposed, as many people did, that Ochs had found himself increasingly irrelevant, a rebel without a cause. And while that is undeniably true, the film made it clear that there was more to it than that. Though I am far removed from the politics of my youth now, I found this rediscovery of Phil Ochs oddly moving. Indeed, I choked up as the film recounted his gradual descent into manic depression, drunkenness and despair. He was, as he says in his song, "the victim of the vine of changes." As I myself have been.

In a real sense, Phil Ochs' music was my youth, my vocal vibrancy, my political consciousness, my social conscience, and my conviction that all that was wrong about America had to and could be put right if only enough of us joined together in a spirit of righteousness and hope. I suppose it was for the memory of that belief that my throat tightened and I had to fight back tears during the film. Those days, that spirit, are gone, but my re-encounter with Phil Ochs makes me realize that I, and my country, were permanently changed by the experience which he sang and we lived. Changed for the better I think; at least I hope, for the better.