Over the last two decades, the gulf between Christianity the faith and Christianity the system has widened to the point where they’re nearly antithetical. To a non-Christian, the spectacle is painful and deeply puzzling. The obsessive focus on secondary matters like stem cell research and same-sex marriage, pursued by some “Christian” leaders to a wildly vindictive extent, has reduced religion to an issue-by-issue political lobby, which should probably be compelled to register as such and pay taxes. As its coercive component increases, it seems to have increasingly less to do with the worship of the man who said, “Judge not, lest ye be judged” and “My kingdom is not of this world.” The politicization of the church has turned all American Christians, in effect, into un-Christians. Or at least, so it seems to an outsider.
The Catholic Church—fiscally bankrupt in Oregon and spiritually bankrupt in far too many other locales—poses a special set of problems within Christianity. Here the faith is in the hands of a large and increasingly corporatized bureaucracy, which has existed for over a millennium as an entity both separate from and revered by believers. A degree of watchful self-policing, one would imagine, would be a vital part of its day-to-day operation, especially in these transparent times. The faith of believers is a precious thing; for them to mistrust a synod of bishops is very different from, say, stockholders mistrusting the executives of a corporation like Enron or Tyco. Tragically, as we know from the headlines, the bishops have proven no more trustworthy than the CEOs, at a cost in human suffering that may be less widespread, but undoubtedly runs deeper, than the misery brought on by recent corporate disasters: Over the last four decades, we’re told at the end of Sin, at least a thousand children were sexually abused by priests in the Boston archdiocese alone.
As Sin traces the pattern of the abuse scandals, through excerpts from Cardinal Bernard F. Law’s depositions under oath in the civil suits brought by abuse victims and their families, what emerges is precisely the picture of a corporate bureaucracy that has isolated itself from both the public at large and the faithful who are supposed to be its special care. The details of the priests’ depredations don’t shock; we’ve already read all about them. What does shock are the minutiae of cover-up, evasion, the eager reassignment of blame. Like any good corporate vice president, Law plays it the company way. You have to listen carefully to avoid getting lost in a small forest of “the Cardinal has asked me to reply” (to letters Law claims he never saw) and “the Cardinal was deeply sorry to hear” (about matters Law claims not to have known of till much later).
Left at that, Sin would only be a small but fascinating feast of obfuscations. But Murphy provides the other side of the correspondence—represented by two actors (Cynthia Darlow and Dan Daily), one framed on each side of the hearing-room set, who speak the letters, depositions, and recollections of those ordinary people who, believing in their pastoral leaders, tried to tell the cardinal the truth of what was going on. For their pains, we learn, they got form replies, or no reply, or vague promises to look into the matter, while priests who had become too notorious in one parish were reassigned elsewhere, or sent away on brief medical leaves and returned to the same duties with nebulous assurances that they were, or might be, “cured.” Law’s concern for these priests, whom he views as sick souls needing spiritual comfort, is touching; only the ache left by his failure to show similar concern for the victims and their families makes it horrific. Of his personal remorse at having made these “mistakes,” we get no doubt, but you will wait vainly through the evening’s 90 minutes if you expect that remorse to extend itself into any expression of care for others.
In that regard, Sin touches our whole culture: Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, whomever. The corporate enveloping of self by those at the top, without regard for anyone or anything but their own comfort and their own deniability, is the besetting sin of our time. It is the signature sin of the Bush administration; it’s no coincidence that many Catholic bishops are now busily turning their pulpits into campaign platforms for Bush, a final step in the removal of any moral credibility the church’s bureaucracy still has left. Today, one might say, Voice of the Faithful and similar watchdog organizations are the Catholic Church; the bureaucratic apparatus of the priesthood is no more trustworthy than Halliburton’s idea of competitive bidding, and about as pious.
Delicately, with a bare minimum of finger-pointing and courtroom theatrics, Murphy’s distillation of Cardinal Law’s testimony enforces our awareness of the giant fraud being perpetrated on us all; Carl Forsman’s taut, seethingly quiet staging gives it total conviction. Thomas Jay Ryan and John Leonard Thompson, as Law’s interrogator and defense attorney, are immaculately precise. John Cullum, as Law, is apparently still struggling with his lines, as well as with the core of this deeply defended character, but his stricken silences speak monumentally. And Pablo T. Schreiber is quietly harrowing, both in his silent presence and when he finally speaks, as Patrick McSorley, an abuse victim who became a telegenic spokesman for all of Boston’s sacrificed children. McSorley committed suicide last winter. His molester, Father John Geoghan, was strangled in prison by another inmate. Cardinal Law, suits against whom were settled out of court for an undisclosed sum, was transferred to Rome. He is still a cardinal, and might as easily as any other become the next pope.