"When I was growing up, just about every parish had its pedophile priest and everybody knew who it was," said my friend Carrie, who attended Roman Catholic schools just outside of Pittsburgh in the 1960s.
She proceeded to name the suspect in her parish, who happened to like young girls. She may have forgotten a lot of details about her childhood, but his name leapt immediately to mind.
All the kids knew what he was, she said, but if any adults -- parents, nuns, other priests -- allowed the obvious to sink into their consciousness, they never did anything effective to protect the children from him.
She thinks they preferred not to know, but it's possible they tried to act quietly and were shut down. The end result put the church's image ahead of the children's welfare. In any case, she said, it was a conspiracy of silence, and the kids got the message: Keep quiet, don't bring shame on your family, don't rock the boat.
I should note that Carrie is a long-lapsed Catholic with primarily negative feelings about religion in general and the church in particular. Even so, in addition to her anger on behalf of the victims of pedophile priests whom we now realize were shielded by higher-ups and knowingly passed from parish to parish, she feels sorry for the majority of good priests who have steadfastly honored their vows.
They sincerely dedicate themselves to the flock, but now they often get painted unjustly with the same brush as their child-abusing brethren. If they were the ones in charge at the highest levels, she said -- or if women were admitted into the priesthood to bust up the old boys' club -- this sordid mess would have been nipped in the bud. But somehow, these good people didn't tend to wind up in the nerve center of the Vatican.
"How many really good priests do you think ever rise to the top?" she asked. "The Catholic Church is no different than any other closed system. The people who become the most powerful are the ones who know how to manage problems and make them go away."
Not by fixing them in this case, she added, but by shoving them into some dark place where they would not be discovered. This is the only way the stain of child sexual abuse within the church could have spread so far for so many years.
"If they're right about Heaven and Hell," she said, "the guys who let this go on are going to burn for all eternity."
I don't know how representative she is of Catholics current or lapsed. Certainly there are many believers every bit as horrified as she is. There are also defenders who see these cases as tragedies that have been exaggerated by enemies of the church or by those seeking to exploit them for their own ends.
Yet watching this argument from the sidelines as more secrets come to light, I keep hearing echoes of Watergate: What did the pope know, and when did he know it?
Not that the answer necessarily has any bearing on the longevity of Pope Benedict XVI's tenure. But it certainly matters for the church's worldwide prestige, not to mention the believers who feel betrayed.
Any organization can have predators within its ranks. But decades of systematic denial, cover-up and enabling allowed the virus to multiply in the Roman Catholic Church. Now it seems to have reached all the way to the Vatican.
A New York Times investigation revealed that before he became pope, then-Cardinal Ratzinger knew about the Rev. Lawrence C. Murphy, who molested up to 200 deaf boys in Wisconsin, but declined to defrock him after the priest pleaded for leniency. At the time, the cardinal was in charge of the Congregation for the Doctrine of he Faith, the enforcement arm of the Vatican. And just Friday, the Associated Press uncovered another smoking gun -- a 1985 letter signed by Cardinal Ratzinger in which he resisted removing from the priesthood the Rev. Stephen Kiesle, a California child molester. The cardinal wrote that he was concerned for "the good of the universal church."
My friend believes this is a Nixonian moment for papal infallibility, similar to the ex-president's assertion that "when the president does it, it's not illegal."
Church officials are circling the chariots. The pope himself, in his Palm Sunday service in St. Peter's Square, declined to address the scandal, but took aim at critics. Faith in God, he said, would give believers "the courage of not allowing oneself to be intimidated by the petty gossip of dominant opinion."
Add the Wisconsin story to scandals that have emerged all over the United States, costing the church tens of millions of dollars in settlement money, as well as confirmed tales of widespread abuse emanating from Ireland, Germany and Brazil, and it looks like a lot more than petty gossip is at play.
The church was already suffering from a decline in men entering the celibate priesthood, and the pedophilia scandal has not been a great recruiting tool. In addition, church attendance has fallen in much of the developed world, especially in the West. During a visit to Dublin in 2007, a guide told us that the beautiful church before us was primarily a tourist attraction at this point, as most Irish Catholics don't go to services.
One-third of Americans raised in the church no longer consider themselves Catholic. Still, thanks to immigration, Catholicism remains the largest single faith in the United States. If the church wants to hold onto its majority, not to mention its moral authority, something will have to change.
This pope is unlikely to throw open the Vatican windows for a blast of cleansing air. But if someone doesn't do it eventually, it's a fair bet that more members will see a church turning its back on them and elect to return the favor.
Sally Kalson is a staff writer and columnist for the Post-Gazette ( firstname.lastname@example.org , 412 263-1610).