There was a time, during the Middle Ages in Europe, that the vocation of becoming a Roman Catholic priest — whether a genuine calling of God or just a career move — was something similar to becoming a doctor or lawyer today. Not only would it be of benefit to the called, but to his family also, especially if a priest were to move up the Church hierarchy. Not only would he enrich himself, both spiritually and physically, but his family, too.
Today, it’s a bit different.
To a devout Catholic family, a son going into the priesthood or a daughter becoming a nun is, to them, a sign of God’s blessing on the family. To the son who decides to become a priest, he has become “alterus Christus,” another Christ; a man who can forgive sins. And to accuse such a man of heinous crimes involving sex acts with children, to a devout Catholic, would be like accusing God of such wickedness. It-just-doesn’t-happen.
On the grounds of St. Edward’s Catholic Church Cemetery, there is a plot of ground dedicated to the priests who served that church. On the dedication stone there is an inscription taken from the Catholic Bible. Allow me to use the Douay-Rheims Version, Psalm 109:4, which reads, “The Lord hath sworn, and he will not repent: Thou art a priest for ever according to the order of Melchisedech.” This does not explain everything about the issues surrounding the Catholic priest sex abuse scandals that are filling the front pages of the nation’s newspapers, but it may explain some things.
First off, who is Melchisedech? This Old Testament character is found in Genesis chapter 14, verses 18 to 20 of the same Bible, which reads, “But Melchisedech the king of Salem, bringing forth bread and wine, for he was the priest of the most high God, Blessed him, and said: Blessed be Abram by the most high God, who created heaven and earth. And blessed be the most high God, by whose protection the enemies are in thy hands. And he gave him the tithes of all.” These are the only passages in the Old Testament where Melchisedech is found. After that, the only other place this person is mentioned is in the New Testament Book of Hebrews.
Bible scholars believe that Melchisedech is one of three possible people: 1. An Old Testament pre-incarnation of Jesus Christ; 2. One of the early patriarchs, such as Shem, a son of Noah; or 3. Exactly what the Bible describes him as, king of Salem, a former name for Jerusalem, and, as the word Salem indicates, “king of peace.”
But this Melchisedech was so important that the patriarch Abraham was not only blessed by him, but Abraham gave Melchisedech tithes (i.e., money, goods) of all the items he recovered after defeating the confederacy of eastern tribes. As the Scriptures say in Hebrews 7:7, “And without all contradiction, that which is less, is blessed by the better.” Abraham, the patriarch of the Jewish people, a man who walked with God, was blessed by this ancient king.
Now we come back to the priests.
Do you remember Jim Bakker? He was a televangelist who was involved in one of the 1980s’ biggest church scandals, which involved his Praise The Lord organization. In 1988, Bakker was found guilty of eight counts of mail fraud, 15 counts of wire fraud and one count of conspiracy. The judge sentenced him to 45 years in prison.
Forty-five years for wire and mail fraud and conspiracy!
Bakker only served six before being released in 1994. But what if, along with those counts, Bakker was found guilty of child sex crimes? Molestation of children, sodomy, etc.? The judge would have probably placed him in front of a firing squad. If not to that extreme, he might still be sitting in prison. But not the priests? Why?
Having an errant priest sent to a home so that he can “live out his days in prayer and penance” does not sound like punishment of any sort to a victim seeking justice. Will that priest be brought before the Inquisition? Will he be put to the rack to confess his crimes? Will he have to take part in daily flagellation like the monks of old did? Probably not.
Quite frankly, the priests who were accused of these sex crimes against small children should have been arrested, found guilty by a jury after a court trial and sent to prison — just like Jim Bakker. But penance and prayer? The convicted priest can also do those things in prison.
When a man becomes a Roman Catholic priest, he is a priest — just as the Church hierarchy interprets that Scripture — forever. Outside of unrepentant heresy, a priest will not find himself excommunicated from his office or the Church.
I’m sure there were/are other reasons as to why accused priests were/are shifted around to other churches or dioceses, both practical and religious, rather than be hauled off to a state prison with the other sex offenders. However, perhaps the explanation that a priest of the most high God is a priest of the most high God — not until he dies, but forever — is why the Church was and is reluctant to give those men up to justice.
(Humes is an assistant editor at The News-Item.)