At a trial in Dallas, Texas, which concluded last week, the court heard that one altar boy had been abused for nine years, up to four times a week. He was 22 when it stopped. This might remind some people of the unpleasant joke about the woman who was asked in a rape case when the offence took place: "Well, judge, it was rape, rape, rape all summer long."
Now if something goes on four times a week for nine years, outside a prison or a public school, a degree of consent is surely involved. In the only directly comparable case I know of in this country, the managing director of a distinguished British religious publishing house only came unstuck when the object of his affections tried to blackmail him on reaching the age of majority. Before then there seems to have been a fairly simple exchange of favours for money and treats. I have no doubt that the relationship was exploitative and wrong: but the exploitation and the corruption must have been mutual, even if the responsibility was all on the adult side.
But the publisher represented a peculiarly English and Anglican pathology of snobbery and homosexuality. In the end he got off with a suspended sentence, and is still in Who's Who, with an address in north London. They do things differently in Dallas. The court there last week awarded record damages of $146m against the local Catholic diocese after concluding that it should have known that the priest involved, Fr Rudy Kos, was a paedophile. The diocese had argued that it could not act against him without proper evidence, and had suspended him as soon as evidence came to light. This seems to have been formally true. But they were hardly looking for evidence.
Before he could be ordained, Kos had to have a marriage annulled. Given that there have been anything up to 100,000 men leaving the priesthood to get married over the last 30 years, you would have thought that the seminary authorities might have found something unusual in a candidate travelling in the opposite direction. But they seem to have been too excited to perform any of the customary checks.
Had they enquired of his wife why the marriage ended, she might have told them that he did a year in a youth prison for paedophile offences before marrying. She was not even told that an annulment had been granted. His brothers would also have told the diocese about his past, but were not asked. After his ordination, at least two of the priests who worked with him warned their superiors about his behaviour. One wrote a 12-page letter to the bishop, only to be told that Kos had been cleared by psychiatrists, so that no action could be taken.
At one stage, Kos had a boy living with him for two years: the curious were told, according to the American National Catholic Reporter, that the priest had legally adopted him. In one final grotesque detail emerging from accounts of the trial, it appears that the vicar-general of the diocese, the bishop's staff officer, was told that Kos had boys sleeping overnight in his room, and responded by warning him he would be suspended if it happened again.
Conservatives will argue that this story shows a distressing lack of discipline, liberals that it shows a harmful subservience to authority. Both may be right, for systematic hypocrisy leads in the end to a position where you can neither face facts nor act on them. But the one thing that the case does reveal with absolute clarity is a church quite desperate for priests, and prepared to take almost anyone on board. The consequences of that desperation may shape its history for as long as the consequences of Kos's need will shape the histories of his victims.