When I was just a boy, a bishop slapped my face and made me promise to abstain from alcohol until I reached the age of 21. I tried and failed, and laboured under guilt throughout the four years of my failure. That's the way it was.
Which is to say that understanding the significance of Bishop Raymond Lahey's fall from grace requires an understanding of where it happened. The diocese of Antigonish in Nova Scotia is a place where even now, even after scandalous behaviour by the clergy and serial betrayals by their leaders, a clergyman still occupies a pedestal of unusual prestige. The prestige derives from the legendary service of priests such as Jimmy Tompkins and Moses Coady, men who, in their time, were social revolutionaries; from priests who also shone as poets, and musicians, athletes and scholars; and nuns who ran the better schools, and hospitals; men and women who, notwithstanding private burdens, were public servants of a higher order than any civic functionary.
They defined religious life by giving human dignity a status equal to medieval nostrums of salvation. Their message about life's incalculable value was delivered not in sterile platitudes, but in their daily struggles to improve the lives of people who were lucky, in the long run (they would reassure us), to have been born. To be sure, there were bullies, drunks and bigots in the priesthood. But their foibles were invariably obvious and generally accepted as evidence of their human nature and of a kind of mortal solidarity with the rest of us - a fallen species, but capable of redemption by a miracle that hardly anyone could understand.
This legacy has served the institution well, enabling the faithful to shrug off the recent, more incendiary scandals as the product of pathologies among a few bad actors. There have been recriminations, but also some constructive questions. If good women could be priests, might bad men be more easily excluded? If priests could live as normal men and women, socially and sexually complete, might they be healthier and happier, more hopeful people?
It has been more difficult to understand, and to forgive, the bishops who, arguably, exacerbated the abuse by their compassion for abusers, a worthy impulse, but cheapened by crass motivation: to protect the image and prestige of an institution at the expense of the most vulnerable of the most faithful. The bishops, in concealing crimes of priests, demonstrated an extraordinary lack of faith in the resilience of the faithful.
An older generation will come through it best, people who have long ago surrendered their delusions about sanctity in human form.
But this, too, seemed an aberration. And Raymond Lahey emerged as an exception to this pattern of denial and concealment. Especially for those who had been abused, Bishop Lahey became the harbinger of renewal, of reconciliation and recovered honesty. And that was good enough for the 130,000 faithful souls who simply wanted all the ugliness to go away - even if it was going to cost them $13-million that they can ill afford to pay.
A diocese that, in a single generation, has seen the decline or disappearance of three economic mainstays - coal, steel and the fishery - was willing to dig deep in diminished pockets to compensate the victims of abuse in the name of justice, a word that many of us learned from priests.
Now, Raymond Lahey stands accused not just of a vile form of sexual abuse - possession and importation of child pornography - but of living with a lie. The man who briefly stood for truth may turn out to have been another bishop with a talent for deception, concealing sordid secrets behind the walls of his episcopal authority.
It is an unanticipated trauma for people who have already been sorely tried, in their faith and in their pocketbooks.
An older generation will come through it best, people who have long ago surrendered their delusions about sanctity in human form. Their faith is in an idea that cannot be diminished by the behaviour of the people who sometimes badly represent it. It will be more difficult for younger generations with a cultural reluctance to accept the legitimacy of any authority that seems rooted in credulity.
The coming days will be most difficult of all for a small group of men and women, numbering fewer than 400 - the priests and nuns and deacons of the diocese of Antigonish. They're the front-line workers who will have to manage the fallout from this catastrophe. For, regardless of the outcome in the courts of law, there has already been a verdict in the court of public opinion.
Raymond Lahey is found guilty of assault on faith and theft of optimism - the precious assets of a troubled people in a vulnerable place.
Linden MacIntyre is cCo-host of CBC's the fifth estate and author of The Bishop's Man . He grew up Catholic in the diocese of Antigonish.
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