South Park, which is two episodes into its 22nd season, is on a scorched earth campaign against those that aid or abet perpetrators of harm to children. The show’s premiere, which dealt with school shootings, was followed this week by an episode about the Catholic church’s long history of covering up (if not facilitating) sexual abuse. The episode features the perpetually maligned Butters befriending the town’s priest and delivers on South Park’s reputation for shock and controversy. But the most brutal aspect of the episode is not a constant flow of pedophile priest jokes — though that’s there — it was in which the local priest is portrayed as both a hero and a representative of a morally dubious enterprise.
The big spoiler here is that Butters is not molested by the priest. And the fact that this constitutes a spoiler is the most damning indictment of the Catholic Church possible. It’s unexpectedly transgressive and unexpectedly kind. Trey Parker and Matt Stone, fathers both, remain unpredictable two decades later.
The episode, called “A Boy and His Priest”, finds the town’s father demoralized by his congregation’s zeal for heckling him with pedophile priest jokes during his sermon. He is being savaged every Sunday. But after a service, meek and earnest Butters arrives to offer support to a fellow victim of bullying. At this point, the two are whisked through an unlikely-friendship montage. They go camping, canoeing, and read the bible together in the library. Butters puts his hand on the priest’s knee. The priest puts his arm around Butters shoulder.
Viewers are primed for the relationship to take a terrifying turn. After all, this is the show that birthed Mr. Hankey and built an entire episode around people shoving food into their butts. But minute after cringe-worthy minute, nothing happens. The gross pedophilic love story fails to develop. This is a priest that simply wants to be pals with Butters and act as a spiritual guide and mentor — you know, be a priest. And this forces viewers to confront their expectations. South Park didn’t have to make the priest a villain because he was assumed to be a villain. That’s where we’re at.
Finally, South Park reveals the real bad guys — a literal Catholic clean-up crew from the diocese, dispatched to cover up what they expect to be wholesale pederasty from the town’s priest. In attempting to cover up a crime (which, again, doesn’t exist) the clean-up crew becomes creepy and predatory in its own right. At the climax, they confront the town’s priest, only to offer him a cushy transfer to a church in the tropics, saying “Don’t worry. They don’t even speak English!”
Appalled, the priest murders the clean-up crew in a distinctly South Park manner, telling the children that his job is to protect them, from inside the church. This is beautiful and righteous and absolutely bizarre. It’s amazing that the show still designs plots specifically to make no one happy.
And with that turn, South Park offers its deepest cut. In portraying a priest as he should be, the show provides a disturbing contrast to what priest have been revealed to be all over the world. But the moral of the story, according to South Park, is that there may in fact be good apples in the Catholic church. There are heroes. The problem is that it’s hard to recognize them and that the people they work for are not to be trusted.