Macaulay remarks in his historical essays that a man can have a serious vice and otherwise be of upright character if his vice is one that is accepted and countenanced in his milieu. Slaveholders at one time could be otherwise decent people; but if someone enslaved another person today, he would be a monster. Judicial torture was accepted for centuries; but if a court today ordered the rack and tongs, it would be monstrous.

One of the puzzles about the abusers, including Maciel, is that they often do a lot of good. It may be that they are psychopaths who can compartmentalize their lives; it may be that they are false prophets; or it may be, in their milieu, that sexual abuse is accepted.

Until the civil courts and newspapers began their work, the attitude in large swaths of the Catholic hierarchy seemed to be that sexual abuse was a regrettable but minor failing, like occasionally drinking too much, and was not a serious matter. It is not that everyone engaged in abuse, but otherwise “good” priests did, because sexual failings are common to the human race.

As Richard Sipe discovered, many abusers seemed to have been initiated into sex by priests, who gave the impression this was an accepted practice, and that this is how priests dealt with their sexual needs. This allowed the abusers to compartmentalize their lives without being psychopaths, although they did as much damage as a psychopath.

We don’t know the full story of Maciel’s life. Despite his crimes, he may have also been a victim as a boy. His lack of public repentance is disturbing, but fortunately none of us is responsible for making the ultimate judgment about a sinner.

It s not that to understand everything is to forgive everything, but sometimes even the worst criminals have been damaged so badly before they commit their crimes that one has pity for them too. And Christ came to save not the just, but sinners.

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