LET What other commandments were broken?

I don't know which is more sickening: the proliferating reports of rape and depravity by Catholic priests or the corruption of the cardinals and bishops who covered up for these abusers and made it easy for them to keep finding fresh victims.

The law -- man's law -- has begun to deal with these scandals in its slow and grinding way. But perhaps this is an appropriate moment for some thoughts about God's law as well.

Last week I read Cardinal Bernard Law's shocking 1996 letter to the Rev. Paul Shanley, an open advocate of sex with minors whose long history of molesting young boys and teenagers reportedly dated back to the 1960s.

"For 30 years in assigned ministry," Law gushed to this predator, "you brought God's word and his love to his people …; All of us are truly grateful for your priestly care and ministry to all whom you have served during those years." Less flowery but no less dishonest was the letter of recommendation for Shanley written in 1990 by Law's top deputy, Bishop Robert Banks. He assured a California parish that there were no allegations of misconduct against Shanley -- a claim flatly contradicted by the information in Shanley's file.

Those letters were as untruthful as the testimony of a mobster on the stand. And what went through my mind was I read them was: You shall not bear false witness.


If anyone should be scrupulous about the Ninth Commandment, it is a priest -- one whose very purpose is to bear witness to the truth of his faith. Yet the Ninth Commandment didn't stop Cardinal Law and his bishops from deceiving others. It didn't keep them or other church leaders from repeatedly concealing, denying, or ignoring evidence of sex crimes. And it had no sway over the hundreds of priests who lied, cheated, and conned their way into sexually degrading some of their most vulnerable parishioners.

And it isn't only the Ninth Commandment. In this ugly saga of sexual abuse and coverup, most of the other commandments have fared no better.

You shall not commit adultery.

If infidelity to one's spouse is a grave sin, how much graver is infidelity to God, to whom these men took a vow of chastity? The Seventh Commandment prohibits more than just adultery; it is an admonition that sexual behavior must be restrained by the bounds of law and decency. And what could be more unlawful or indecent than sex forced on a youngster by a man he has been brought up to revere?

You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.

God's name is disgraced whenever religious people, and especially clergy, behave immorally. Time magazine reports on Frank Martinelli, who was molested in his teens by the Rev. Laurence Brett: "Martinelli claims that while Brett was driving him home, the priest urged the boy to give him oral sex, blessing it as a way to receive Holy Communion." What was that if not a monstrous and profane taking of the Lord's name in vain? What were any of these ecclesiastical molesters and enablers doing if not bringing God's name into contempt?

You shall not steal.

Theft is not only the stealing of money and property. It is also the stealing of innocence. The stealing of trust. The stealing of faith. "Because of all this," says Howard McCabe, whose son was allegedly molested by the Rev. Joseph Birmingham in the 1960s, "I've become an atheist. I just don't believe in anything." A young person violated by a sexual predator has been robbed of something he can never replace. Could any theft be worse?


You shall not covet your neighbor's wife.

Or your neighbor's sons or daughters, either. The crimes of these men didn't begin with improper fondling or risque suggestions. It began when they let their lust for the forbidden dominate their thoughts. The Tenth Commandment doesn't ban human desire. It does ban letting desires become cravings that can overwhelm good judgment. Before these disgraceful priests raped and molested, they had to allow themselves to become the sort of people who can be tempted to rape and molest.

But before ignoring any of these commandments, they had to ignore the words with which the Ten Commandments begin. I am the Lord your God is not a thou-shalt or a thou-shalt-not. It is a statement of fact -- the prerequisite for everything that follows.

The foundation of moral behavior is awareness of God. To be "God-fearing" in Judeo-Christian tradition is to be ethical, to lead -- or at least try to lead -- a decent and holy life. There is no doubt that the Catholic clergy still includes countless persons of great character and God-fearing goodness.

But it also includes scum -- men for whom I am the Lord your God is holy-roller talk, not the starting point of a moral code. And until all of them are exposed and uprooted, the crisis in the church will go on.

Jacoby is a columnist for the Boston Globe.

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