Twenty years ago, I wrote an article for America magazine titled “My Church is Dying”. It offended some people and got me into some trouble within the El Paso diocese. Sadly, I am not convinced that the phoenix has risen from the dust since I wrote that article. The Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report gave me some painful insight as to why.
To be clear, I was never molested by a Catholic priest. There was the time as a teenager I was visiting at a seminary and roomed with a seminarian who, during the night, tried to fondle me. I put an end to that by yelling “What the f–ck do you think you’re doing?” That apparently scared him off. It was an early contact with the dark side of the Church.
In El Paso in the late 1980s I began to treat persons who had been molested and even assaulted by priests. During that time, the mother of one of those victims referred me to a book titled Lead Us Not Into Temptation. This book focused on incidents of clergy abuse and was a further eye-opener. The diocese of El Paso at that time was doing nothing to identify perpetrators or to help victims. I played a role in creating a response but paid the price of being labelled “an enemy of the Church”.
I have seen the film Spotlight several times and been moved by by the pain of the victims and by the appalling arrogance of the Church hierarchy. Most diocese now have in place some form of outreach to victims. Many dioceses also now screen diocesan employees and volunteers for any sort of criminal background. In many parishes, there is increased attention to liability.
Yesterday I learned of the report of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury on the clergy abuse issues. The stories of cover-ups were appalling but unfortunately not new. One of the diocese discussed was the Scranton diocese, the one in which I grew up. A list of priests found to have committed acts of abuse in that diocese was included. I knew 4 of the names on that list. One of the priests was well-known to me. He had enlisted me to teach younger boys how to be altar boys, a role that was a big honor. He also found me a summer job. He never laid a hand on me but the news that he was a convicted pedophile undercut my memories of him. What I often thought of as kindness was now undermined by the thought that he was grooming me. I don’t know that for a fact but I wonder. What I do feel today is that much of what I experienced as positive as a young Catholic has been undercut by patterns of lying and distortion by the Catholic powers-that-be.
Mind you, I have been blessed with knowing many fine priests — dedicated, deeply spiritual men who wanted only to be of service. Some of these men I actually regard as saintly. And I understand that offending priests are a minority. My problem is with a hierarchy that acted out of self-protection, in flagrant violation of Christ’s teachings, thereby undermining their message.
Victims of clergy abuse have suffered betrayal at multiple levels. The damage, however, goes beyond those victims and touches all of us who are Catholic. We too feel betrayed, not so much by the perpetrators but by the hierarchy that covered up the crimes and that now is often guided by “damage control”. As one Catholic friend observes, the Church is now run by lawyers.
As an institution, we have lost our way. We are all at fault. We laity rely too much on clergy to guide us on the spiritual path. We need to respond to betrayal by taking responsibility for our own spiritual paths and moral compasses, viewing clergy as resources but not final words. We need to decide what if anything being Catholic means to each one of us at this point. Are we Catholic out of habit? Out of fear? Or is there something still there for us?
Sadly I continue to believe that my Church is dying. Yet I continue to hold onto the hope that we must first die to something to be renewed. That renewal, however, needs to come from we laity. After all, the Church starts with us.