More than one reader has pointed out to me that Dancing Prophet, the fourth novel in the Dancing Priest series, seems to be talking about the Catholic Church, even though the church is never mentioned in the book. And did I unfairly transfer the Catholic Church’s abuse scandal to the Church of England, even done for a fictional story?
And my answer has been yes, you’re right, but only partially.
I’ve noted before that the original impetus for the story that eventually became Dancing Prophet was the 2008 arrest and conviction Michael Devlin, a pizza shop manager who kidnapped and abused two boys, one of them for years. Devlin lived in my St. Louis suburb of Kirkwood; his apartment was on my route biking from my home to the beginning of Grant’s Trail. I cycled past the apartments hundreds of times. I likely saw one of the boys on his bike.
I was horrified. The only way to deal with it was to write a story, about 25,000 words, inspired by but unrelated to what happened in Kirkwood.
Devlin had nothing to do with the Catholic Church scandal involving priests sexually abusing children, but his actions were equivalent to the child sexual abuse scandal that had engulfed the Catholic Church several years before, and which ultimately led to numerous legal actions and settlements across the United States. He was a predator, like the abusing priests. And yet the situation with the Catholic Church seemed worse – men in positions of trust, responsibility, and spiritual leadership had preyed upon children, and done so for decades, often being protected by their dioceses, bishops, and cardinals.
The scandal was addressed in the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People – the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, commonly called “the Dallas Report” for the location of the meeting where the statement was developed. That report was published in 2002, and while many likely hoped it put an end to a sorry chapter in Catholic Church history, it did not, as it turned out. Just this year, the scandal flamed again, with the dismissal of a cardinal, broad accusations of abuse of seminary students, and even Pope Francis himself accused not only of participating in a cover-up but promoting of a guilty cardinal into a position of enormous influence.
There have been other scandals involving other churches and denominations, but not as broad and lasting as long as that of the Catholic Church. The root cause, like the root cause is so many institutional scandals, often seems to be what a hierarchy will do to protect itself. Circumstances, specific acts, and outcomes may be different, but similar kinds of stories can be found in government, business, non-profits, and other institutions. Hierarchies and bureaucracies can make bad situations far worse when their first thoughts and actions are to protect themselves.
As I was finishing the manuscript for Dancing Prophet, a second wave of scandal unfolded – the Pennsylvania grand jury report on the abuse by church officials and the coverup. Because it involved reports over an extended period of time, this one reached well into the bishop and cardinal ranks in the U.S. And then Archbishop Vigano’s letter went public, citing the abuse of seminary students by Cardinal Ted McCarrick and including the claim that Pope Francis was told of this some five years ago.
It’s still be sorted out. The media have tended to portray this as a conservative versus progressive theology debate within the Catholic Church, largely missing that the scandal is about the hierarchy and the steps it takes to protect one of its own and itself.
I didn’t precisely transfer the scandal to the Church of England in Dancing Prophet, although there were certainly influences. The C of E is enduring its own pedophile scandal, which appears (at this time) to be smaller in scope but is no less serious. Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby has taken responsibility to a greater degree than Pope Francis, but investigations are continuing. Prince Charles has been asked to provide a statement regarding what he knew (or didn’t know) about an offending bishop.
Dancing Prophet asks the question: what does it look like when a church leader takes responsibility for a scandal like this, and acts decisively to deal with it?
Top photograph by Michael Beckwith via Unsplash. Used with permission.