Nicole and I made the choice some time ago that we would not have cable television in our home, largely due to the fact that we got tired of having to pay for channels upon channels worth of spiritual, physical, social, and intellectual poison to come into our home just so that Nicole could watch her favorite cooking programs on the Food Network and I could watch football and baseball on ESPN. The internet allows us to acquire news just as we would with cable TV, and we can watch many of the same programs we like free via the internet. Most importantly of all, to me, is that we resist the temptation to spend all of our free time watching television when we can pray, read, cook, or otherwise enjoy one another's company. Indeed, I find that on most days I wouldn't have much time to watch television in the normal sense anyway. If I want to watch a football game, for example, I know the fire chief doesn't care if I go down to the fire hall to watch that game, and doing so usually means I have a chance to get some other work done aside from just watching sports.
We do have a few favorite television programs we watch via the internet by wiring the computer to the TV so that we can view them when we have the time to do so, as opposed to when they normally come on television. A favorite of Nicole's are the various incarnations of the Law and Order series. Since she happened to have the day off today, earlier I watched an episode with her of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit which got us both talking and caused me some reflection. The basic plot was that a priest was returning to his "old neighborhood" at Christmastime, and the show began with the priest accepting a homemade Christmas card from a little girl, who turned out to be a young parishioner at a parish where this priest used to be assigned. All of a sudden, a group of boys comes up and bashes the window of the priest's car in and begins to beat the priest. Father is rescued by a homeless man who turns out to be on probation, and since few saw the initial attack, the first part of the episode is spent clearing the name of the homeless man since, when Father came to he confirmed that the man was not his assailant, as other witnesses had alleged, but had rescued him. As the plot evolved, it became clear that the person who was doing the beating was the brother of a girl that the priest had allegedly molested over a decade prior, and in order to formally clear the aforementioned homeless man, the priest was going to have to confirm in court that the homeless man didn't beat him, but that this young man did, and that he knew the young man-and of course it was going to come out how he knew him.
The episode ends with a priest who had been beaten nearly to death being the bad guy, the child molester, the pervert.
We would deceive ourselves not to admit openly that the Church has done its fair share to earn its "bad reputation" in this regard. For years, we know that there were bishops who covered for those who abused children. Often this was based on bad psychological or other advice, but it happened nonetheless. Further, in the Diocese of Knoxville we know the pain of having a very real sexual abuse victim come and call out his abuser, as well he should have. Thankfully, Bishop Stika wasted no time in removing that priest from ministry as soon as the truth was confirmed by the abuser himself.
Near the end of that Law and Order episode, Nicole looked at me and said "somehow, I knew it was going to go in a direction like this." I said "just once, I wish Hollywood would portray the priesthood in a positive light."
As we have known the shock and pain in the Diocese of Knoxville of how sexual abuse can corrupt ministry and do harm to children as well as the Church that seems irreparable, we've also known of at least one member of the clergy-a deacon-who was wrongly accused and who was cleared. I personally know of a religious priest who ministered in another diocese, and who I have known for many years now, who was also falsely accused of sexual abuse and was exonerated. Unfortunately, when this priest was exonerated, the news didn't make the front pages like an allegation of abuse would do...the false allegation will follow him for the rest of his life.
We have gone from one extreme to the other as a Church and as a society. Decades ago, we often put members of the clergy on an unrealistic and other-worldly pedestal, exalting them as somehow holier or better than the people they serve. Now, the bad apples have ruined the barrel, as it were, and we have gone to the other extreme-the clergy are mocked, scorned, portrayed as perverts or worse in the popular media. Many, if not the majority, of people who consume today's American popular media aren't Catholic. They don't know, as we do, that not only are most clergy not abusers of children but that when the scale of the sexual abuse scandal in the Church became known, so many holy clergy were absolutely horrified.
What has become clear to me, though, is that Jesus' warning about those who proclaim his message being persecuted for the sake of his Name seems to be something that could be very real in America in the near future. I'm not under any illusion that life as a deacon will be a cup of good Irish Breakfast tea. I have often told my brother Aspirants (as well as Deacon Tim) that one of my favorite Scripture passages is Philippians 2:6:11, which is the normal canticle for First Vespers of Sunday "he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave (diakonia)." I sometimes may write here of the trials-the headaches, really-of formation...but that is a real part of the formation process. I have to learn how to empty myself, and take the form of diakonia.
UPDATE 11:50 pm: Nicole pointed out to me that the very end of that Law and Order episode I was talking about took place while I was letting the dogs out and that I didn't see the very end. Turns out the priest who was beaten was not the molestor-that person was the Monsignor he worked with and the beaten priest was the Monsignor's confessor. The little girl who gave the beaten priest a Christmas card was, it turns out, the man's daughter as the result of an affair. The latter priest was visiting and taking an interest in a little girl that he knew (but she did not know) to be his daughter.
Knowing that, I have to be fair to the show's producers in making this correction, and the sense of responsibility the priest felt for his daughter does give the end story some redeeming value. However, I still think the storyline reflects poorly on the priesthood, and I still think it a shame that there are so few shows that portray the priesthood positively. Remember Father Dowling Mysteries? Just my thoughts...I do have to wonder, are there men out there that would respond to a call to priesthood if it were not for the extremely negative stigma now attached to it?