Now it's personal. A name in a wire story hit me in the gut. Bill Urbanski, a friend for more than a decade, said he had been victimized by a Catholic bishop in Florida.
It's no secret that the church is suffering an ungodly meltdown. But until I saw Urbanski's name, it hadn't struck home that with as many as 1,500 priests nationwide implicated in pedophilia, and with the even more horrifying revelations that the church covered up the crimes of the monsters, this was a story that touched most Americans. These are our children or our friends' children; our church or a church that even if we don't embrace it, we have respected its unique place in society.
Now we find that the church has harbored legions of the most despicable of criminals, and vast amounts of wealth and power have been expended to conceal the crimes. There is a church code of silence that makes the Mafia's seem, by comparison, a model for openness.
The revelations aren't the result of a repentant clergy purifying itself. Rather, the church, with Boston as ground zero, has been rocked because a Massachusetts court ruled that the bishops could no longer conceal information they had long hidden about criminal acts committed by priests. Boston Cardinal Bernard Law finally admitted, after years of stonewalling -- and after calling on God to send his wrath on the media and other critics -- that a priest who had fondled or raped 130 children, maybe many more, was covertly shuttled from parish to parish to hide the crimes.
Looking at my friend, Urbanski, from one angle, I see a man of privilege. Born into a prominent and affluent newspaper family, Urbanski had always found helping hands and soft landings. But, I had known him as a guy struggling hard to overcome deep personal problems.
When, five years ago, he landed a job as spokesman for the diocese of St. Petersburg, I cheered. Every so often, I'd see Urbanski's name in a press report, and I'd say, "Good for Bill."
What was happening was anything but good, however. Urbanksi didn't want to talk to me in my journalist's persona, other than to say that Bishop Robert Lynch "knew I was a guy with low self-esteem, and he gave me power. He introduced me to many important people. I got to meet the pope. And then Bishop Lynch took advantage of that. I became one of the church's dirty little secrets."
Lynch's prurient interest in Urbanski's tri-athlete physique is at the heart of the scandal. The bishop, who has refused to resign, has maintained that he didn't violate his vows of celibacy. Maybe so, but his unsolicited attentions were, at best, seamy.
It took Urbanski's case -- someone I knew -- to give the church's corruption three-dimensional reality to me. No, he wasn't a child. But he was the sort of person, damaged by personal crisis, who would have been easy to take advantage of -- much like a child -- and that's what a bishop did.
What broke the whole thing open was that Lynch paid Urbanski $100,000 in what was clearly hush money -- dollars that came from church coffers, money given lovingly by parishioners who undoubtedly believed their sacrifice enabled good works. The story nonetheless leaked to the media.
I feel nothing but compassion for the millions of good Catholics whose faith is tested by the roiling sexual scandal afflicting the church.
Equally, I feel nothing but cynicism and disdain for the church hierarchy, which for half a century has been complicit in the scandal. Jesus said suffer the little children, but the cardinals and bishops have decreed that the kids can suffer at the hands of pedophiles and perverted priests in order to protect the church bureaucracy's wealth and power. This utter failure is beyond explanation and excuse.
Atlanta Archbishop John Donoghue has been largely unscathed by the calamity -- he's even perceived as being tough on pedophilic priests. That, incredibly, there are degrees of toleration of priest/sex criminals is at the heart of the church's problems, of course.
But even with Donoghue's commendable "zero-tolerance" policy, the church's cancer is illustrated by an attitude that oscillates between indifference and hostility toward victims and their families. Jan Larango, a Lawrenceville woman whose two sons were both abused (that's far too neutered a word for unspeakable acts) by a priest, has formed a group where victims can seek help. "It only took us two-and-a-half years before the diocese began paying attention to us," she told me with sad irony.
When the magnitude of the sexual predation eliminated denial as the church's preferred response, Pope John Paul II was forced last month to summon America's cardinals to Rome to confront their own self-immolation.