One bad priest can irreparably destroy a community and the parish. We have been witnessing this first hand for the past several decades. Every other week, one article appears about a felonious priest who wrought misdeeds or taught heterodoxy decades ago only to be saved by his bishop; only now do the accusations come to light. Out of politeness and piety we smile, say it was an isolated shame, and pretend that the damage does not endure. It does. Perhaps we would do well to consider an example from history that parallels our modern travails quite well.
In the early 14th century, an abbot-turned-bishop in Pamiers, Jacques Fournier, was eager to root out remnants of the Cathar heresy in his diocese in southern France near the Spanish border in the Midi-Pyrénées, a region so separate from the rest of France that its native tongue was Occitan. He was given a tip about a potentially heterodox conversation involving the parish priest of Montaillou, Pierre Clergue. Bishop Jacques launched an inquisition into Montaillou and discovered that virtually the entire town had slipped into either heresy or apostasy. While the rest of southern France had left Catharism and returned to the true faith, either by compulsion or, in fewer cases, with the help of Dominican preaching, this small town held firm to the ascetic religion which denied many fundamental doctrines of the Church, held the physical world to be evil and scorned, and which held their perfecti as the models and exemplars of human behavior. Worse yet, After years of investigation, Fourner found that Clergue himself was the root of the problem. Simultaneously, he lived off the Church and celebrated the Sacraments while giving private instruction in Catharistic ideas. Unlike mainstream Cathars, who in their scorn of the body denied pro-creative relations, Clergue and his brother were willing to have sex anywhere at any time. He leveraged his authority, his false teachings, and his lust over the women of Montaillou. Beatrix de Planissoles recounted that Clergue first approached her sexually while he was hearing Confessions behind the altar of St. Mary Magdalen in the village chapel of St. Peter. He told her that the Sacraments of Confession and Eucharist are meaningless, that the body is evil and hence God would not deign to enter it and that Confession does nothing, only Confession to God is meaningful. On these grounds, he continued his priestly ministry, saying Mass and granting absolutions, because he needed ecclesiastical revenues to support his lifestyle, but he did not believe it one bit. One villager openly professed that Christ did not pre-exist time, God did not make the world, and that Jesus came into the world by "screwing," as did everyone else. Clergue enjoyed a year and a half of sexual encounters with Beatrix and many other women in the village, staging liaisons in barns, his rectory, and even in the chapel itself. He kept them quiet by maintaining good relations with the diocesan office and threatening to report the more active Cathars for heresy. As the informant, he would enjoy credibility with the inquisition. It was not to be. Fournier threw Clergue into prison, where he rotted until drawing his last breath. Most of the town surrendered their Cathar beliefs and accepted various kinds of public penance such as wearing a yellow cross. Five remained in open, obdurate apostasy and were burned at the stake. Sixteen years later bishop Jacques was elected pope.
There will be no rescue by the institutional Church, no grand restoration that will put our many modern Pierre Clergues in prison and bereft them of their pensions. We overestimate our woes though if we assume that the modern debacle is without precedent. It happened in France in 1318. The difference is that back then, those looking from the outside inward knew something was amiss.