Editor’s Note: Father Edward L. Beck, C.P., is a Roman Catholic priest and a religion commentator for CNN. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
There is a line in the Leonard Cohen song “Anthem” that reads, “There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.” Kobe Bryant had some cracks, but there was bright, redemptive light there, too.
Bryant was a practicing Catholic who took his faith seriously, walking the talk. He attended Mass on Sundays – and some weekdays, too. He supported multiple charitable causes, including his own family foundation dedicated to improving the lives of youth and families in need.
He said his faith is what got him through the tough times. These would include a grave and hurtful one of his own making: a rape allegation against him in 2003 by a 19-year-old Eagle, Colorado, hotel employee.
At the time of the alleged sexual assault, in a troubling series of events, Bryant claimed that he thought the sex was consensual (even though he admitted to police that he had not explicitly asked for consent); his legal team tried to discredit the accuser by portraying her as promiscuous, and said her name in open court multiple times; and the court system leaked it to the media.
Ultimately, prosecutors dropped the criminal case, citing the woman’s unwillingness to continue to cooperate. She did however file a civil lawsuit against Bryant that resulted in an undisclosed settlement.
At the time of the accusation, Bryant had been married to Vanessa Laine for two years and had recently celebrated the birth of their first child. After being charged with felony sexual assault, he held a news conference at Staples Center in Los Angeles with his wife by his side and said, “I sit here in front of you guys furious at myself, disgusted at myself for making a mistake of adultery.”
But, again, he denied that the encounter wasn’t consensual, saying, “I didn’t force her to do anything against her will. I’m innocent.”
Over a year later, on the day the criminal case was dismissed in 2004, Bryant issued a statement surprisingly different in tone: “First, I want to apologize directly to the young woman involved in this incident. I want to apologize to her for my behavior that night and for the consequences she has suffered in the past year. Although this year has been incredibly difficult for me personally, I can only imagine the pain she has had to endure. I also want to apologize to her parents and family members, and to my family and friends and supporters, and to the citizens of Eagle, Colorado. … I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter.”
Wow, how rare — especially in cases such as this. Kobe said he was sorry and took moral responsibility for his behavior and the consequences of it. While some questioned the timing of his apology — made after case dismissal — many witnessed instead a self-professed sinner who had been humbled and had recognized his need for mercy and forgiveness. And thus the redemption of Kobe Bryant began — in the eyes of God, his Church, his family and many of his fans.
In 2015, Kobe Bryant told GQ magazine, “The one thing that really helped me during that process – I’m Catholic, I grew up Catholic, my kids are Catholic – was talking to a priest.” Bryant said that after telling the priest that he was innocent, the priest said, “Let it go. Move on. God’s not going to give you anything you can’t handle, and it’s in his hands now. This is something you can’t control. So let it go.” Kobe said that moment was a turning point for him.
Adultery and alleged rape weren’t Kobe’s only public sins. In 2011, in the middle of a game, he called a referee a “f–king f-ggot.” He was fined $100,000. But once again, realizing the error of his ways, he apologized, and two years later tweeted of the incident, “That was ignorant on my part. I own it and learn from it and expect the same from others.” He won praise from GLAAD and the gay community.
In the wake of his tragic death, Bryant has been feted as a loving father of four daughters and a husband who fought for his marriage, even through a rocky period of separation and near divorce. He was loved and forgiven by so many because they perceived an indefatigable man who accepted responsibility for his shortcomings. As a result he has been celebrated as one of the most prodigious and upstanding athletes ever to compete in a sport.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus confronts an angry crowd intent on stoning a woman caught in adultery by saying, “He who is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone at her.” (John 8:7) The point, of course, is that we are all sinners. We all fall short, some more publicly and perhaps more egregiously than others.
But our faults never define the totality of who we are. Catholic theology teaches that forgiveness is within reach for anyone who professes true contrition and has an earnest desire to do better. Kobe was that man. He tried harder than most, on the court and off, and his efforts were rewarded.
Last Sunday, two hours before he boarded the helicopter for that ill-fated helicopter flight, Kobe Bryant prayed before the 7 a.m. Mass at his parish church, Our Lady Queen of the Angels, in Newport Beach, California.
We don’t know what Kobe prayed in the stillness of that morning, but at Mass each week he prayed, “Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy.” Kobe’s life is testimony that he meant the words of his prayer, and that his prayers were answered. Yes, his cracks were surely visible, but they were engulfed by the light shining through them for all the world to see.