Since writing my two articles about the ongoing scandal in the Catholic Church, I’ve been having some interesting conversations by email and phone with Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Some people have emailed me to say “right on.” Others, like some of my relatives, are just hurt, scared, and wondering if they can trust anything about their local priest, diocese, or bishop. I’ve received invitations to come and join the Episcopal Church (are you listening, Father Balmer?) but I am not quite “there” yet.
Yet there are others, who either feel that I am not giving the church a fair shake, or that my manner of writing about the scandal was rather inflammatory, for want of a better word. It is to that audience that I want to address these remarks, although I suspect it will serve as a balance to what has passed, and what most likely will come of my future writing on the subject.
It is apparent that there has been a pile-on in the media about the Catholic Church, much of it deserved, some petty, and some just plain old wrong. But it’s hard not to take on the church when its response to the growing scandal is termed as gossip, not once, but twice, and the criticism of the Pope or the church compared to attacks on Jesus and the extermination of the Jews. I jumped into the media scrum, partly because it is a topical story and I write about religious history, but primarily because I have dealt with this issue off and on for nine years, in one way or another.
My first public writing about this was with a colleague at the time, Rosemary Carbine. We jointly wrote a piece that was published in The Marty Center’s Sightings, a publication dealing with religion and public life. It was the beginnings of the American child abuse scandal, and essentially what we were asking for was an accounting, repentance, and programs to help those abused. I’ve read it several times since the European scandal, and I could write the same thing today. Since that piece was published in 2002, in the American church, some of those measures were taken, and although there are many cases that still need adjudication or resolution, the path to rectify the sexual abuse has, and continues to be addressed. As Thomas Reese, S. J notes, it took seventeen years for the American church to address the sexual abuse scandal properly. I recommend his article for its judiciousness in explaining just what is wrong with the Vatican’s current handling of the European cases.
Yet, those who are “church folks” find it difficult to hear hard words about the clerics who have perpetrated and sometimes perpetuated the abuses. That scripture “touch not God’s anointed” doesn’t just count for Pentecostal preachers, but for Catholic priests as well. I am continually stunned by the fact that it is hard to find out what exactly has been done to children who were abused in most news reports, but once you have read personal accounts or read reports, it is very difficult to remain calm or unbiased.
In my case, I have heard accounts of sexual abuse by priests either from friends, acquaintances, or those whom I have had occasion to assist, most notably in a parish I attended in Los Angeles. The parish had to deal with the arrest of a former priest who had molested multiple children, one on the day of their first communion. The new priest wanted to provide a forum for healing for parishioners, but realized his position perhaps was not the best one from which he could provide solace or healing given this particular situation. So he asked me and another colleague to intervene. It was a tough but rewarding experience, one I carry with me whenever I speak or write on this issue.
So understand, when I criticize the church and its authorities harshly, it is because I feel the pain of those who suffered abuse, and I don’t take lightly what has happened to them. I’ve been admonished to be more reasoned, measured, perhaps more “analytical,” in my writings, so that I can be an agent of change. Frankly, that is very difficult to do. After spending a lifetime in a church that wants to regulate everyone’s sexuality, while allowing a good deal of their own clergy and orders to defile children sexually, well, I just can’t be nice. As a matter of fact, I am righteously angry about it. Maybe for those who have critiqued my tone, it’s also about a woman’s voice being in the mix. Lord knows there aren’t women in the Vatican hierarchy who could provide a balance to the high male clericalism. I also doubt anyone is telling Christopher Hitchens to tone it down.
Besides, it is important to remember that many other Catholics are hurt deeply by this. It’s hard to realize the place you looked to for spiritual solace and intellectual vigor, that taught myself and many individuals how to have a preferential option for the poor and those in need, is being shown through press reports as a hopelessly corrupt institution, with many of its leaders bereft of human decency. It would go a lot easier for the millions of Catholic if the church hierarchy would speak up, rather than hiding behind empty rhetoric. So before anyone judges the tone of my writings, or those who have been abused, imagine the tremendous breach of trust this really is. It is a spiritual rape, and I’d have to say, whether physically or psychologically, this unending litany of sexual abuse has violated all Catholics, whatever side they are on.
I do, however, want to be fair. So my next major article for RD will be about the organizations that work to help the abused find justice. I will spend some time talking about SNAP, Bishopsaccountablity.org, Voice of the Faithful, and the myriad of other organizations that help those who have been sexually abused. Make no mistake, I will continue to report on the Catholic church’s organizational malfeasance. I don’t think every bishop or priest is guilty, but seriously, attempts to stall off the press and the faithful with comparisons to the sufferings of Jesus or the righteousness of the current Pope are a smokescreen at best, and perfidious at worst.
I don’t know what the rationale of the Vatican or its spokesmen is right now, but I do know that these denunciations of the media ring hollow to many members of the Catholic Church. It rings hollow to me. It also calls into question my continued affiliation with an organization that has institutionalized sexual abuse. Trust me, my conscience is working overtime to decide “Should I stay or should I go?”