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‘‘Wasted our lives’: Catholic sex abuse scandals again prompt a crisis of faith

Matthew Mangiaracina stands outside of St. Mary Mother of God Catholic Church in Washington. Mangiaracina used to attend St. Patrick’s but changed parishes this past week because he didn’t want to face Cardinal Donald Wuerl. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)
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She thought about not coming.

Disillusioned by the sex abuse scandal again consuming the Catholic Church, Claartje Bertaut considered skipping Sunday Mass for the first time in more than four decades. In fact, she even considered leaving Catholicism.

But the 87-year-old D.C. woman sat in the pews Sunday at the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament — one of the region’s most prominent Catholic churches — as a young, impassioned priest urged more than 200 churchgoers not to lose their faith in God or Catholicism amid a “period of darkness” for the church. The Rev. Alec Scott, Blessed Sacrament’s parochial vicar, apologized for the misdeeds of the clergy.

“For all the frustration this has caused you, I express my condolences,” said Scott, 31. “But without you, reform won’t be possible.”

The congregation in Northwest Washington — moved by his plea — clapped when he finished.

“I never in that church heard the audience applaud a sermon,” said Bertaut, who joined in the ovation. “This was a first.”

It has been a painful summer for faithful Catholics. First, an investigation into widespread abuse in Chile and a cardinal on trial in Australia. Then, the first-ever resignation of a U.S. cardinal accused of sexual abuse — Theodore McCarrick. For Washington Catholics in particular, last week’s Pennsylvania grand jury report dealt a second blow of the summer, by casting doubt on McCarrick’s successor, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington.

And then last week, the grand jury investigation revealed a systemic coverup by church leaders of child sex abuse. The report, in victims’ graphic accounts, detailed alleged abuse by more than 300 priests against 1,000 children over 70 years.

“This has been the summer from hell for the Catholic Church, and our sins are blatantly exposed for the world to see,” the Rev. Thomas Rosica, a Vatican adviser, wrote Friday.

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Wuerl, whose conduct as bishop of Pittsburgh was scrutinized in the investigation, has canceled his trip to Ireland for a major Catholic summit and has had his upcoming book’s publication postponed. And in the pews of his diocese, some are heartsick to read how the report says he handled the abusive priests he supervised.

Matthew Mangiaracina, 25, went to Mass every day on his lunch break at St. Patrick’s in downtown Washington, a church where Wuerl often celebrates Mass. But this week, as he read the report, Mangiaracina felt he could never go back to St. Patrick’s and face the cardinal.

This week, he stepped tentatively into St. Mary Mother of God, the next-nearest church to his job at the Family Research Council, to see whether he could find solace in the Mass there instead.

“Anything associated with the archbishop makes me uncomfortable. Everything coming out of the Pennsylvania report, it seems pretty damning. I don’t trust him anymore,” he said. “I’m at a loss.”

Paul Elie, a writer who lectures at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center, thought that after the revelation of the sexual abuse crisis in 2002 and subsequent blows in the years after, he had lost the ability to feel even more disappointment in his church. He was wrong.

“It affects me profoundly,” he said of the recent scandals. “A lot of Catholics, we have to ask whether we have wasted our lives following this model of leadership. At this point, the leadership in this country is not credible. The repeated scandals make it difficult or even impossible to pass the faith on to our kids . . . I think about it every hour.”

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The Catholic church has lost more members in recent decades than any other major faith. About 27 percent of former Catholics who no longer identify with a religion cited clergy sexual abuse scandals as a reason for leaving the church, according to Pew research in 2015. And among former Catholics who now identify as Protestant, 21 percent say the sexual abuse scandals were a reason for leaving Catholicism, Pew says.

Even greater numbers of former Catholics say that they left over the church’s teachings on abortion, homosexuality, contraception or women.

Catholic churchgoers react to the grand jury report detailing widespread sexual abuse by hundreds of priests in Pennsylvania. (Video: Reuters)

Surveys have rarely asked about the Catholic Church’s response to the crisis since 2013, when a Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 78 percent of Catholics disapproved of the way the church had handled the scandal — more than a decade after a Boston Globe investigation prompted the church to overhaul its procedures for rooting out abusive priests.

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“It’s almost unsalvageable. The church is in pieces. People have completely separated their faith from the organization,” said Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University.

As head of a Catholic institution, McGuire said she sees this summer sowing new doubts. “The fact that we thought all the worst had come out already — this is what creates cynicism. People were like, ‘Okay, it’s all cleaned up, now we’re moving on.’ . . . Now we know: The church is a fallible human organization.”

Facing the latest investigation, Catholics had a range of reactions — from those who can’t be shocked anymore to those who were newly grieved, from those who feel Catholics are unfairly singled out to those who maintain their faith in the religion but not its leaders.

“Everybody’s always lambasting the Catholic Church,” said Elizabeth Rhodes, a former Fox News producer, as she had lunch with her daughter near the campus of Catholic University of America on Thursday. “They don’t look at people in sports, the ones who are training kids in soccer. There are plenty of other religious communities, Jewish and others, where there’s sexual exploitation. Any religion, any time, it’s a tragedy, but I hate this focus [on Catholics].”

Still, Rhodes said, she’s frustrated with the church’s leadership. She thinks Pope Francis has been far too slow to respond to the crisis in Chile. She was upset by the revelations about McCarrick. She no longer trusts Wuerl, based on what she’s heard about the Pennsylvania report.

But she retains her trust in the priests she knows personally, and in her religion. “For me, church is like a hospital — you go for help. You go in times that are difficult. You need that support, just like you need to work out physically.”

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Rigo Azanwi, a 26-year-old Capuchin friar who is studying at Catholic University to become a priest, said his first reaction was much the same: sorrow and anger over the children who were hurt, but also suspicion that the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office specifically went after Catholics, even though most of the cases are too old to ever be prosecuted.

“Is this supposed to be trying to tarnish the image of the church?” he asked last week.

He said he has learned while wearing his friar habit just how deeply many people view the Catholic Church with suspicion after years of scandal. He remembers sitting down on an airplane once, then hearing a stranger sneer at him, “Which child have you abused this morning?”

Fearful of such perceptions, he is careful to never be alone with a child or touch one, even when his nieces and nephews ask him for hugs and piggyback rides. “I love kids, but at the same time I am scared of them,” he said.

On Sunday at Blessed Sacrament, John Beasley said his faith in the church was a bit shaken by what he called “insidious” behaviors detailed in the grand jury report. However, the 26-year-old said Scott’s sermon resonated with him and others in attendance.

“I don’t doubt in God, but it does make me worried about the hierarchy,” Beasley said after the service. “We’ve all been pretty well betrayed by the hierarchy and certain systemic issues that the church is refusing to get rid of.”

The church is home for some of the area’s most prominent Catholics, including Brett Kavanaugh, President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, and MSNBC anchor Chris Matthews.

Everyone who attended Mass was urged to continue supporting the parish financially.

“Some have suggested withholding all financial contributions to their parish so as to send a message to the bishops,” read a note to parishioners from Pastor Bill Foley. “Let me assure you that this action serves only to limit what the parish does to serve you; it will not in any way affect the Archdiocese.”

Beasley said it probably will take generations to undo the damage that has been done to the Catholic Church in recent months and years.

“These types of scandals are very serious and really impede any evangelistic mission we go on,” he said. “It’s inexcusable.”

Scott Clement contributed to this report.