Recognizing Evil

We sat across the banquet table from each other. He was a popular priest at the very pinnacle of his career. I was a brand new clergyman. At some point, I think, we shook hands, and he congratulated me on my recent ordination, but that was the extent of our interaction. However, throughout the meal and the program that followed, folks were constantly at his side, saying hello, asking questions, getting advice—and he was always friendly and focused and caring.

Seven years later, that priest fled the country after it was revealed that he had, for several decades, been abusing young boys in his parish. I believe five of his victims came forward, but, of course, that just means there were many, many more.

I’ve thought about that banquet quite a bit these past few months. Roman Catholic sexual predators like former Cardinal Ted McCarrick have been in the news lately, but, this past year, important Protestant leaders like Bill Hybels and Paige Patterson have also been forced to resign because of sexual immorality and sexual misconduct. So, this is a big problem throughout the Christian world.

And, at this point, it looks like a lot of folks are determined to actually deal with the problem. Several states attorneys general are starting to look into the Roman Catholic situation. Protestant denominations and independent congregations are adopting new policies and procedures in connection with sexual abuse. It appears that people are just fed up; they want to put an end to this evil.

And let me just go on record to say that I support this effort 100%. We have installed security cameras throughout our parish, and we just recently sponsored a seminar on how to recognize and prevent child abuse. As a priest, I make sure that someone knows where I am and who I’m with at all times. So, I’m entirely on board with this approach.

But then I keep thinking about that banquet. And what haunts me about that event is the fact that evil just isn’t that easy to recognize. I sat across the table from a moral monster, and he was likeable—he even appeared to be someone a young clergyman would want to imitate.

In that regard, I think some of our new-found awareness and some of our newly-minted action plans may end up working against us. Because, deep down, most of us really do think that we can’t be fooled. We really do think that we will be able to recognize evil when we run up against it—and when that false sense of security is combined with all of our cutting-edge programs and protocols, we could be setting ourselves up for even worse problems down the road.

So, in addition to all the other good things that folks are doing, I’d like to suggest that we also nurture a couple of ancient Christian virtues: humility and vigilance. Humility happens when we own up to the fact that we’re just not as smart as we sometimes think we are; vigilance is the commitment to constantly be on our guard against evil.

And one of the best way to develop those two qualities is to say, several times a day, the prayer that Christ Jesus taught us—with a special emphasis on the concluding line: Deliver us from the Evil One.