Judas and the Priests

Unless you’ve been bunkered up in an Afghan cave the past few weeks, you’ve heard that the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston announced a settlement of up to $30 million to 86 parishioners who, over the years, have been the victims of childhood sexual abuse by their priests. Meanwhile, all around the nation more cases of alleged priestly abuse continue to bubble out of what has become an infected and hemorrhaging wound in the side of Catholicism.

At the epicenter of the roil sits Bernard Cardinal Law, Archbishop of Boston, who approved the settlement from the Archdiocese. Despite the financial gloss, Cardinal Law’s apparent and multiple acts of betrayal bring to mind another tale of duplicity, malice, and loyalty lost that might help make sense of the situation.

We’re told in all four Gospels that Judas ups and breaks rank with the other 11 disciples for some priestly pocket change — 30 pieces of silver, by one account — turning on the boss man for reasons left to our imagination. An oft-disregarded detail of the story explains that Judas is the apostle who “carries the purse,” presumably to keep track of the group’s funds. It was in this purse, I imagine, that Judas carried his 30 pieces of silver.

It takes no rocket science to notice the divergence of the two stories at hand: While Judas took 30 pieces of silver, Cardinal Law is giving his 30 (million) pieces away. Some might consider Law’s settlement an act of justice, a payment of reparation for those so grievously wronged over the years. Yet, the heart of the comparison of Cardinal Law to Judas Iscariot lies not in the accounting. The rub is in the betrayal, what is lost in the exchange.

My imaginary Judas, serving as apostolic treasurer, certainly has his eye on the bottom line. His quick peck on the savior’s cheek did wonders for his portfolio. In his mind, the benefits of the 30 pieces outweighed the benefits of loyalty.

Like my Judas, the Boston Archdiocese leadership has a keen interest in how the affairs of late will impact their coffers. The 30 million pieces they’ll pay to the 86 plaintiffs of the civil suit against the diocese makes 86 complaints go away. In the end, that’s 86 times less that the Boston Archdiocese has to pay in legal fees, court costs, full-page ads, and crisis management.

Like Judas, the church’s bottom line has probably made out for the better. In this light, the costs and benefits of the situation seem clear, and any M.B.A. would agree with the prudent financial decision made by the cardinal. Perhaps, however, there are hidden costs that elude the ledger book.

In the case of Cardinal Law, the trail of betrayal is hard to mistake. At the surface, church leaders have betrayed the abused, both in the various and sundry sex acts and the ensuing obfuscation of its responsibility. All along, the leaders also deceived their parishioners, those who trusted and depended on the structure, stillness and spirit of the foundation and faith of the church.

But the Archdiocese has also betrayed the very men who abused. Instead of anointing their heads with the chance for rehabilitation or renewal — perhaps even relieving abusive priests of their appointments — the bishops and cardinals crowned these impoverished priests with thorns of relocation and secrecy. Nobel Laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer once wrote, “When you betray somebody else, you also betray yourself.”

Indeed, the cost of betrayal is a slippery fish to weigh.

In the matrix of Judas stories, we often forget what happens to the traitor after the betrayal. For whatever reason, Judas grows a contrite conscience and returns the 30 pieces to the priests, who then put the money toward buying a plot of land for pauper’s graves. One account tells of Judas then hanging himself in a bloody conclusion that underscores the disgrace of his betrayal. In the end, Judas attempts to right his wrong, to undo the betrayal the only way he knows how. Ultimately, he fails.

Surely, the tale of Cardinal Law will not have such a dramatic conclusion, though the full cost of his betrayal has yet to be realized. While the cardinal cannot — and should not — renege on his settlement (a la Judas returning his blood money), he certainly has the opportunity to invest in the spiritual poverty of his priests, thereby defraying the ultimate costs of his betrayal. Certainly, the benefits of priestly rehabilitation, (re)education and even dismissal can be weighed against the effects of betrayal, distrust and organizational infidelity.

But, if nothing changes, then the cardinal will keep the change.

Jon Hooten is a writer and theologian from Denver who has published on religion, language, and popular culture.