Days of Reckoning for the Philadelphia Archdiocese

“That man molested me. He knows it. He knows it. He knows it.”

So was the testimony of “Mark” on April 5, Holy Thursday, in the case of Monsignor William Lynn and the Rev. James Brennan, currently on trial in Philadelphia. Lynn is accused of attempting to hide evidence of abuse by clergy, moving pedophile priests among parishes, and of endangering the welfare of two children. Brennan is accused of raping a 14-year-old boy, “Mark,” whose abuse is described in court documents.

Mark has endured a troubled life, no doubt in part to the violation of his body and soul by someone entrusted to care for his spiritual life. What struck me about his testimony is the gut-wrenching manner in which victims of sexual abuse are crucified for speaking out. The defense’s cross-examination of Mark is not only in service of defending Rev. Brennan, it is on behalf of the institution who is paying the legal bill, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. In that sense, the cross-examination was an inquisition.

In order to receive justice, the victims must face their accusers, and are vilified by the very institution that has allowed sexual abusers to remain in its ranks. The local Catholic dioceses of Kansas City and St. Louis have upped the ante by going after the organization that exists to help the abused, SNAP, subpoenaing its records of over 100,000 people who have been interviewed about sexual abuse over the years. 

Juxtaposing the past Holy Week against the lurid details of the abuse has been agonizing. When priests pass boys around for sex at church summer camp, there is no doubt that Archdiocese of Philadelphia has been anything but a holy place. The evils that were allowed to occur and were hidden under the tenure of Cardinals Bevilaqua and Rigali in Philadelphia reads like a catalog of sexual abuse

Unbelievably, this is only the second week of testimony. Who knows what fresh hell is waiting to be revealed from the thousands of records the Archdiocese had to produce for the trial.

If Monsignor Lynn is found guilty, it will set a legal precedent to go after Catholic Church officials who moved pedophiles and abusers without notifying legal authorities. The case is the first time that a diocesan official has been prosecuted for doing what the majority of bishops told them to do: bury the sexual abuse stories to protect the Church, or to move perpetrators to an undesirable parish.

I am fervently hoping for a conviction in this trial. While the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (UCCSB) continues to rail about “religious freedom,” it cannot face the hypocrisy in its management of sexual abuse cases. Once a fetus reaches term and is born and baptized into the Catholic Church, that child has no guarantee that the Church will protect his or her body or sexuality. Sadly, it would not surprise me if the UCCSB attempted to extend the religious freedom argument to the manner in which they protected and covered up for priests accused of molestation.

It is increasingly difficult for sober-minded, intelligent people of faith to continue to participate in the complicity of a Church that in the American context has bishops, including Archbishop Chaput of Philadelphia, ranting about religious freedom and birth control, while not giving a damn about the children who have been repeatedly raped and abused in their care.

I can no longer sit back and criticize the Church without asking a big question: For those of you who stay, how can you do it? How can you sit under such perfidy?

Here’s why I ask. I walked into Old St. Joseph’s church in Philadelphia this past Holy Thursday, with a friend who asked me to attend service. I had to be honest with my friend and confide in them my absolute white-hot anger, not only with the Philadelphia case, but with the cases I have been tracking and writing about in Religion Dispatches over the last two years. I have not been to mass for a long time because of my anger about the Church and the evils perpetrated against children. I didn’t want to go, but for my friend, I did.

All I could think about during the service was who would wash Mark’s feet? Who would speak a word of repentance and healing for what had happened to Mark while he was a child, believing God with all of his heart, and believing the priest who was entrusted with his spiritual and temporal life? The Jesuit at the Thursday service did mention how awful the week had been, and how grateful he was that the congregation had come to mass. Small consolation. I did not participate in the foot washing. I did not go to communion. All I could think about was Mark saying out of his pain, “That man molested me. He knows it. He knows it. He knows it.”

Needless to say, I am not going back inside of a Catholic church any time soon. When justice comes rolling down like waters, and drowns the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the rest of the complicit leadership of the Catholic Church, and the Church begins to repair and repent for the souls they have broken, then perhaps I can consider going back.

Before anyone writes me in the comments about the theological implications of the Church repenting, miss me with that, OK? I know what the doctrine says. It is time for that BS to change.

Until then, I am going to serve by continuing to report on the Philadelphia Archdiocese case. It is more important to me to help in bringing justice and healing to those who have been wounded by the Church than to support a system of patriarchy that cares more about playing Republican politics than the lives of the very real people that have ruined by the hierarchy’s complicity in sexual abuse.

I may be catholic, but count me as a small c, not a big C, Catholic.

Anthea Butler [@AntheaButler] is a Contributing Editor to Religion Dispatches. Her forthcoming book, in’The Gospel According To Sarah: How Sarah Palinin’’s Tea Party Angels are Galvanizing the Religious Right will be out in 2013.