Growing up in the fifties, in a small city made up of families with roots in Italy, Poland, and Ireland, the Catholic Church was a cultural touchstone. We went to mass on Sundays, attended religious instructions twice a week after school (for those of us who weren’t already enrolled in a Catholic school), and socialized on weekends at church-sponsored dances.
While my mother identified as a Catholic, she wasn’t blind to the church’s shortcomings. Quite simply: she didn’t trust the priests. She often commented on the fact that the pastor at our parish had a mistress. That he enjoyed, even demanded, the perks that came with his position – a rectory that provided him with a comfortable, even luxurious, place to live, as well as household help that cleaned and cooked his meals. And she warned me and my siblings not to be alone with one of the priests. She never told us why, but looking back I assume that her sixth sense picked up on what was happening back then with regard to priests abusing young people.
I have no evidence to back up my suspicions and my mother is no longer with us for me to question her more carefully. But after what transpired in Pennsylvania this past week, with a grand jury finding that the church had covered up the abuse of more than 1,000 minors by some 300 priests over 70 years, I think back to my mother’s concerns. I can’t bring myself to read the entire report, having found the few excerpts that have been detailed in the press to be upsetting enough. This is just the beginning. Other states may follow Pennsylvania’s example, digging into church records to reveal thousands more cases where innocent children suffered at the hands of those who were supposed to be protecting them. When New York prints such a list, will I recognize some of the priests I have known? The one who married me and my husband? The one who baptized my children? The one who gave the eulogy for my mother? I’m not sure how I would handle such betrayal.
I attended mass this past weekend with a heavy heart. The priest mentioned the report and asked us to pray for the victims. Pope Francis, before his trip to Ireland, issued a letter to all Catholics. And while he condemned the “atrocities,” as he called them, he did not get specific about what changes he would make going forward. Not exactly what we were hoping for from a pope who promised he would work to make the church care about and respect all individuals.
Over the past few decades, I have watched many of my friends leave the church. Several have joined the Episcopal church, one was for a time a Buddhist, others have given up on organized religion altogether. While I understand and accept their decisions, I can’t leave the Catholic Church. I heard my own thoughts echoed in many of the Catholics who were interviewed on TV over the past week, saying essentially: “I don’t pray to a priest. I pray to God and Jesus.”
According to the New York Times, Msgr. Thomas Shelley confronted the scandal head on during his homily. “In the past few weeks, it has not been easy to be Catholic in America,” he said. “You have every right to be angry and indignant,” adding, “your anger shows your love for the church.”
Yes, I’m angry, but right now I’m not in love with an institution that has let me, and so many others, down. The Catholic Church, and that means everyone from the pope on down through each local priest, has much to answer for. They all have to earn back our respect and, yes, our love.
Can we hope that meaningful changes will be made? That women will be given a larger role in the church? Heaven help us – even allowed to become priests? That priests will be allowed to marry? (It’s puzzling to me that protestant ministers who are married and become Catholic priests are allowed to stay married, but those who choose to become priests when single cannot marry.)
I don’t expect that radical change will happen in my lifetime. I will keep praying that steps will be taken to prevent one more child or one more seminarian from being abused. But in the short term, parents need to take a page from my mother’s playbook and make protecting their children a priority. For everyone else, that oft repeated phrase – “If you see something, say something,” should be front and center. If you stay in the Catholic Church, then attending mass and receiving the sacraments isn’t enough. We all need to get involved to hold the church we hope to love again to a higher standard.
Charlene Giannetti is the co-author with Margaret Sagarese of Good Parents, Tough Times: How Your Catholic Faith Provides Hope and Guidance in Times of Crisis
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