You know a tragedy has reached epidemic proportions when we start joking about it

A friend and child advocate recently emailed me a 2002 article that appeared in the satirical newspaper The Onion. The headline reads: “Pope Forgives Molested Children.”

I get it. And, yet, I wish there wasn’t something to get. After all, the reason why it’s sickeningly funny is due to the fact that untold numbers of children throughout the world have been victimized by priests, nuns, and other church authorities while the Roman Catholic Church imposed institutional secrecy.

“Humor is tragedy plus time,” said Mark Twain. And now that nine years have passed since the Boston Globe first broke news of the scandal, we are no longer shocked when we read about a criminal case involving a pedophilic priest or a lawsuit against an archdiocese accused of covering up abuse crimes. Yet we need to laugh, partly to psychologically deal with the enormity of the tragedy.

Father Thomas P. Doyle and coauthors write in Sex, Priests, and Secret Codes: The Catholic Church’s 2,000-Year Paper Trail of Sexual Abuse that revelations of abuses by the media in the last decade actually point to what is a very old problem in the church:

Clergy sexual abuse of minors and vulnerable adults has occurred from the earliest centuries. It has been known to church authorities and is a predictable but highly unfortunate feature of clerical life. It has been denied and hidden by bishops and popes who have consistently acted in a conspiratorial manner to prevent instances of abuse from becoming publicly known, especially to law enforcement authorities.

Given this history, the Catholic Church deserves the Onion spoofing. How can we possibly believe the church’s claims that it cares about children’s needs? Judging by its actions, it’s more likely that the religious institution has viewed children’s pain as regrettable collateral damage—fallout as the church has strived to fulfill its overarching agenda of maintaining power and protecting its image. Psychotherapist Simon Feuerman notes of the Onion writers in Psychology Today, “The genius of the humor is that they pick up on something felt, but not said—the possible unconscious intent.”

And perhaps not even that unconscious. The Onion piece brings to mind the allegation that the church has not, until recently, even considered child abuse victims to truly be victims. A careful reading of a 1962 Vatican document—one that establishes rules for how bishops worldwide were to handle cases of “grave delicts” by clerics—refers to sexual acts as those having been committed with minors, not against them. Houston Attorney Daniel Shea, a man I interviewed in Breaking Their Will, questioned a bishop in court about that part of the document. The bishop admitted that the language should be interpreted to mean that the minor is the sinning priest’s “accomplice.”

So the Onion is not that far off when it quotes Pope John Paul II in a papal decree; “Though grave and terrible sins have been committed, our Lord teaches us to turn the other cheek and forgive those who sin against us. That is why, despite the terrible wrongs they have committed, the church must move on and forgive these children for their misdeeds.”

louie CK

Louie CK

Ironically, the church’s attempts to maintain a pure image has backfired, to say the least. One need only look at a Youtube video by Louie CK to see just how much the church’s image has deteriorated. In the mockumentary, the comedian says he wants to unlock the mystery of the Catholic Church and find out “what it’s all about.” So he interviews a priest who serves as the spokesperson for the Catholic Archdiocese of New York (an actor). Bearing a herculean straight face, the priest explains that the church’s purpose is to sexually assault young boys and that religious worship is “just busy work.” The video uses crude language and cringe-inducing graphics, and it is, sadly—and brilliantly—funny.

Humor only works when it is based on some element of tragic truth. In the case of child sexual abuse within the Catholic Church, the truth is not funny at all. It hurts.

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