07/03/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Apr 04, 2013

Molestation, Matthew 18, and Magnolia

Reports this past month of alleged sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests read like a sequel. Settings from the 2002 original have changed (Ireland, Germany, Austria, Spain, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Brazil, Mexico, a deaf school in Wisconsin), but the script remains eerily similar: priest abuses child, and if there is a complaint, it is either ignored or addressed by transferring the priest to a new location. In either case, the result for the priest (and his victims) is the same: molestation, sodomy, rape. Church officials, it appears, repeatedly provided sexual vultures with a steady supply of young flesh.

Jesus of course spoke about children, and in Matthew 18 they are a primary focus in his discourse to the disciples: "If you do not become like children, you'll never enter the kingdom of heaven ... Whoever humbles oneself like a child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven ... Whoever welcomes a child in my name welcomes me ... " (Matt 18:3-5).

Jesus' following saying seems especially pertinent to the current Vatican sex abuse scandal. Referring to children as "little ones," he warns, "If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea" (Matt 18:6).

To those who might hurt a child, Jesus offers suicide as an alternative and perhaps surprising course of action. The intent of his instruction here is not retributive. The goal is not punishment of the abuser but protection of potential victims. Taking one's life is preferable, he claims, to harming a child. So, too, it seems, is self-mutilation. Jesus considers harming children so vile that he claims hell awaits those who "put a stumbling block" before them. One can, however, avoid this "eternal fire" by cutting off one's body parts that might damage a child (Matt 18:7-9).

Allowing Matthew 18 to speak meaningfully today does not require a literalistic insistence that (potential) abusers take their own lives or mutilate themselves. But the text insists upon exploring every possible option before harming a child. Thousands of children's lives could have been saved if abusers had explored alternatives. They explored instead the lives, bodies, and souls of vulnerable little ones.

Why the focus on children? In Jesus' day, children occupied the lowest rung on the socioeconomic ladder. (In descending order, this ladder looked something like this: wealthy men, men, slaves, women, children.) Children were the least powerful; they had no public voice, and they could not advocate for themselves. They were consequently the most vulnerable to violence and abuse. So Jesus charges his disciples to provide for children what they themselves cannot: protection from abuse.

Jesus envisions Church as the one place where children should be safe, as a refuge where leaders defend the defenseless. The Vatican has inverted this vision; male leaders protect themselves at all costs, even when the casualties are the destroyed and dismissed lives of little ones. Envisioned as a sanctuary for the vulnerable, the Church has instead become a den of molesters where children are left to fend off predators.

Matthew 18 is also germane to the current crisis because of the audience (Jesus' disciples) to whom it is addressed. By the time Matthew's gospel is written (ca. 50-60 years after Jesus' death), Jesus' disciples are recognized as the first leaders of the Early Church. The charge Jesus gives these first and future leaders of the Church is to protect the most vulnerable members of society: children. It is not a charge to guard doctrine, police morality, or selectively delegate salvation. It is rather to protect the most vulnerable.

Sexual abuse of children is therefore more than a legal crime and a violation of basic human trust. It is a betrayal of the specific charge Jesus gives future Church leaders. The failure of the Vatican leadership is thus not only moral and ethical; it is, at its core, religious. Child abuse, as a flagrant disregard of Jesus' command, is sacrilegious. It is an incarnation of the profane.

Like Matthew 18, Paul Thomas Anderson's film Magnolia (1999) can speak to the Vatican scandal. The film features two old men who are succumbing to cancer. Earl Partridge confesses on his death bed to cheating on his first wife, abandoning her when she was dying of cancer, and leaving their teenage son Frank to care for her. Jimmy Gator (halfheartedly) confesses his marital infidelity, but he refuses to admit that he molested his daughter Claudia when she was a young girl. While Earl's confession precedes a brief but poignant reconciliation with his estranged son Frank, Jimmy's refusal to confess leads his wife Rose to abandon him. She goes to Claudia's apartment where, during the embrace of mother and daughter, the camera zooms in on a corner of a painting where one brief line reveals Claudia's painful truth: "But it did happen."

Magnolia proposes that factually accurate and authentically remorseful confession is a prerequisite for relational healing. Those who confess in this way have the possibility (however slight) of reconciliation. Such restoration is forbidden to characters like Jimmy Gator who deny that "it did happen," and that they caused it to happen.

The Vatican has regrettably followed the lead of Jimmy Gator. Their stubborn refusal to admit wrongdoing has been shrouded in a litany of denials and blame-shifting that would be comic if not for the destroyed lives left in their wake. The number of culprits identified by the Vatican is legion and grows almost daily: the media; America; the devil; and the reliable scapegoat: homosexuals (optionally pronounced in five syllables for maximum rhetorical effect).

We have yet to hear a factually accurate and authentically remorseful confession regarding the systemic nature of abuse, secrecy, and cover up. Such confession may not bring healing, but healing might be impossible without it. The Church hierarchy has instead demonstrated a consistent commitment to protecting its male leaders, preserving its image, and portraying abusers as victims (though even some recognize that drawing parallels with anti-Semitism is a bit of a stretch).

Magnolia makes another important contribution to the Vatican scandal. Jimmy Gator, after being abandoned by Rose to die alone, tries to kill himself. His attempt is unsuccessful, and writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson's commentary on this scene is revealing, "It's the first time when I've been able, at the end of a film, to hate one of my characters. There truly is a sense of moral judgment at work with this character. I can't even let him kill himself at the end -- he's got to burn ... With this character, I'm saying 'No.' No to any kind of forgiveness for him."

In addition to suggesting that forgiveness be withheld from those who refuse to confess, Anderson proposes that there are some for whom suicide is too easy of an out. In contrast to Matthew 18, Magnolia demands something more than suicide for those who concealed sexual abuse and were complicit in its continuation. Something like justice; something like jail.

Referring to sexual abuse, a character in Chuck Palahniuk's Haunted claims that it is impossible to "unfuck a child." I am not qualified to assess the degree to which healing is possible for survivors of such abuse. Magnolia shows in Claudia's character both the long term damage of child sex abuse, and a sliver of hope that such damage may not have the last word. Easter is indeed suggestive (theologically and otherwise) of the potential for life to spring from gruesome tragedy. But it is tragedy nonetheless. And it is the Vatican's stubborn and repeated denials to own up to their responsibility for the scope of this tragedy that is so appalling.

The psychologist Erik Erikson once remarked: "Someday, maybe, there will exist a well informed, well considered, and yet fervent public conviction that the most deadly of all possible sins is the mutilation of a child's spirit." We still wait for that day.