When I travel cross country from New York to visit my mother, I go with her to Mass every morning at 6:30. The couple dozen worshipers mostly range from old to very old. Some I’ve known my whole life, others are new to me: a Marine or two from the military base a few miles away, an anomalous mom with a brace of children, like the von Trapps. It’s informal. Lou, a retiree with a lovely baritone, picks the songs and leads them from his pew. A Filipino priest with pomaded Jesus hair and sandals presides.
Within that chapel, for those 30 minutes, you can feel like a tiny part of something bigger and more beautiful than anything else you know. How disturbing to realize that that something — the Roman Catholic Church in the United States — seems to have been run like a criminal racket for longer than most of us have been alive. The evidence got stronger with the release Tuesday of a report by a Pennsylvania grand jury detailing sexual abuse accusations against more than 300 priests , with more than 1,000 victims and a coverup that lasted 70 years.
There will be new letters from bishops and policy changes to try to quiet the uproar and keep the lawyers at bay. The apologies and prayers will keep flowing, as they have for the past 15 years. But as the conflagration consumes the church’s moral authority, I’m left to wonder what comes next for regular Catholics — good ones like my mother and fitful ones like me. What is the church going to do for the people in the pews, who go to Mass every morning of every day? How will the bishops and priests who haven’t been accused or sued step up?
The priests, in particular, are going to have to meet this emergency on the front lines, in church, with something other than the canned-platitude homilies they could dole out in their sleep and seem to do each Sunday. Because even churchgoers like me, who are not abuse survivors, who are party to no lawsuits, now see that this scandal has surrounded us our entire Catholic lives.
My hometown church, St. Anthony’s in Kailua, Hawaii, with its gentle weekday Masses, might seem miles removed from the sex abuse wildfire. But it’s one of the worst-affected parishes in the state. Its founding pastor, Joseph Michael Henry, was beloved for decades until he was exposed as a serial predator. I knew none of this as a kid, although I realized later how he had caused unwitting children to grope him with his little game of find-the-keys-in-the-cassock at recess. His name was taken down from the parish hall, and people don’t talk about him anymore.
Nor do they mention the pastor after him, who later became a bishop and was one of the first of those to be accused.
My all-boys high school, run by the Irish Christian Brothers, imposed strict discipline so we would grow up to be good cops and dentists and salesmen. We kept our heads down and made sure the top buttons of our dress shirts were fastened and our hair didn’t touch our collars. We tried to follow the school motto, “Act manfully,” which now hits the ear like a sick joke.
The entire North American branch of the order seems to have doubled as an international predator ring, with two principals and various teachers from my school implicated in a long history of reported physical and sexual abuse at the order’s schools and orphanages in the United States and Canada. The Christian Brothers shuffled abusers from school to school for decades, including a monster named Brother Thomas Ford, a sick sadist who served prison time for an assault in a Canadian orphanage that nearly killed a boy and who, thank God, is dead.
When I moved to New York, it was into a diocese run until recently by a bishop, William Murphy, who was once near the top of the Boston church hierarchy and who has tried, without credibility, to deny responsibility for that archdiocese’s sickening treatment of people it abused. My first parish in New York was home to a priest who was accused of abusing a young man who then grew up to be a predatory priest himself, assigned to my second parish. That priest was convicted. His name was Father Hands.
There are about 17,000 parishes in the United States, with an average of one active priest per parish. I wonder about them — the majority of priests who are good, and their parishioners.
At what point in this institutional catastrophe do you change your Catholic outlook or practice? When the faith you were raised in, that is a part of you at the cellular level, is — what is the word? infiltrated? corrupted? — by a criminal enterprise? When you are living in a house that’s rotted to the eaves, where do you start repairs, or when do you move out? Maybe you hunker down with the sleepy habitual Catholics, the ones for whom God is their autopilot, among whom things like this are not discussed, because nobody is really listening.
I’ve never been sure what to do about it myself. I don’t know how to reconcile the conflicting images of church as refuge and as betrayer. I’ll tend my own garden, I guess. I can try to remove the sinful planks from my own eyes. Maybe I’ll parish-shop, go over to a neighboring church whose members, unlike me, are poor and who (also unlike me) sing and pray like they mean it. Help those who feed the hungry, who care for the sick and dying, like those amazing missioners, the Maryknoll Sisters, many of whom are sick and dying themselves. I’ll make a donation to their fundraising gala, because they need the money.
I’ll pray for health and long life for the Catholics who live simply and walk the walk, like the underpaid lay teachers at my hometown’s Catholic grade schools. The sisters who bring mangoes to my mom. The parishioners who did all the church told them, who tithed and paid school tuition and raised children and went to Mass and never raped anybody.
And I’ll curse the darkness: the damage done by generations of men who turned a blind eye to child-brutalizing and placed avoidance of scandal above all other values.
I’ll mourn how they squandered their moral authority. The church wants to tell us that the death penalty is always wrong, that immigrants are to be welcomed, that God’s creation is being destroyed by climate change, a consequence of greed. That is all fine, Father, Bishop, Pope, I believe you, thank you for that. But what gives you the standing to tell us anything?
I’ll pray and wait for more priests and bishops and cardinals to go to prison, for state legislators to suspend statutes of limitations and throw the courthouses open to civil suits, so survivors can take the attackers and the enablers for all they’ve got.
I will wait for acts of public penitence by the leaders of the church, for them to kneel in front of their victims and beg forgiveness, starting with my own recently retired local bishop, William Murphy.
And I guess I’ll go to Mass. I’ll be there on Long Island on Sunday morning, at 10:30, with my sister-in-law and all us other sinners. Some of us will be listening, waiting for the priest to confront what is surely the worst crisis in this church in his and our lifetimes. We in the pews are all part of the body of Christ, but he is the one up front, God’s representative on Earth and the bishop’s employee , the one with the paycheck and the uniform, the one who runs our weekly meetings, 52 times a year, to celebrate the sacrament and guide us on issues of faith and morals.
It’s his job to lead us through this, to help us understand the church’s failings, to explain what happened and how justice will be done — if it will be done — and to tell this to our faces. What is he going to say?
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