When I was young I knew God and the devil were fighting a battle for my soul. This was not a spiritual battle; it was a physical one, a tug-of-war with my body as the rope and my soul as the prize. In 1987 or thereabouts, I was an altar boy at a church in Gas City. Every Easter and Christmas I would proudly do my duty, passing bottles to the priest, swinging the smoking brazier of incense, helping pass out communion wafers. And at every Easter and Christmas mass of my teen years, the devil tried to get me to quit the church. I was sure of it. During the service, I would feel intense physical pain - like a scaly claw stabbed my chest and gripped my heart and lungs with sharp demonic pincers, a message from hell or maybe heaven commanding me to get out of the church. To this day I can think of few experiences more painful. I never let on, merely kept soldiering on, gritting my teeth and hoping nobody would notice. Nobody did. I never said a word about it to anyone, not even my priest; what would they think? That I was weak? Perhaps, I pondered, it wasn"t even the devil. Maybe I was a bad person, so bad that my presence on the altar was an affront to Christ, and the nearness of the holy Eucharist on one of the high holy days was anathema to my evil-infested soul. I really believed all that. Some years later I was diagnosed with asthma. And severe allergies. One of them was to incense. I stayed quiet and struggled with my conscience for years because I was allergic to incense. And because I was crippled by fear of the church and of opening my mouth. I trust the GODDAMNED IRONY is not lost on anyone. I recall clearly the scandals of the late 1980s, when the church was first rocked by a series of pedophilia revelations. I heard the same excuse over and over again as a young Catholic expecting answers. "We didn"t know. We didn"t know how bad it could be. We thought they could be counseled and transferred." We believed all that. We really thought the church had everyone"s best interests at heart. It was another decade before we learned who the church was really interested in protecting. It"s not just that the sex scandals right now are so bad. It"s that they"re worse than most people imagine. Consider. A priest marries a woman, he"s out. He performs a marriage of two gay people, he"s out. He comes out as gay himself and moves in with his new lover, he"s out. He rapes half the altar boy staff and he gets a secret free pass, a transfer to another church and ANOTHER building stuffed full of impressionable future victims who think he"s the voice of God. Dozens of times, in some cases. The perfect crime and the perfect enabling system. I swear, if I put this stuff in a book, people would dismiss it as unrealistic. I don"t normally ascribe moo-hoo-ha-ha villain motives to truly evil people, but I just know that someone, somewhere in Rome, got a lot of hysterical giggles at how completely the people had been suckered. Because it"s the old boy"s club, at heart. These things aren"t about right and wrong. They never are. They are about POWER and SUBMISSION. A pedophile priest may be doing bad things in the eyes of Rome, but at least he"s not out in the public eye making a big mess. Which is why this whole scandal has Rome so frightened. It"s because they got CAUGHT. Watching the cardinals and bishops and Rome play their Keystone Kops routine in the last few months has been even crazier. The cardinals insist there"s not a problem and it"s the media"s fault; Rome exhibits great surprise that anyone"s questioning the church at all; the American bishops issue a statement of remorse and new policies that are probably going to get shot down by Rome anyway; and nobody"s waking up the pope. The bishops" message in June is an exercise in grim hilarity. It boils down to "We no longer believe we"re a law unto ourselves; and by the way, we express a stern discouragement of the serial buggering of boys." Does it strike no one as odd that this is the first time in the history of the Catholic Church that anybody has bothered to write this down? I"m not even mad at the church. Not anymore. It"s hard to be mad at an organization like that once you recognize the inherent absurdity of a bunch of old male virgins in Rome telling a billion people what to do with their sex lives. Most Catholics in America don"t even realize how ridiculous it is. You should have seen the look on my brother"s face at the age of 25 when, even though he was a lifelong Catholic, he was told for the first time that masturbation is a sin. "I feel like I"ve taken my crazy pills!" he cried out. You"re not the only one, bro. I"m not mad. Just disappointed that a young boy, who believed so completely that he bulldozed his way through burning chest pains out of love for the church, could be so completely let down by it. I was right about one thing with the pains, though. They were telling me to get out of the church. They were right.