A couple of weeks ago, the prominent congregation of the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament parish stood united in its shared anger at what its priest, the Rev. Bill Foley, called “silence and inaction" on the topic of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church.
Not long after, another kind of sex abuse scandal hit much closer to home — and the response among those in the Northwest Washington parish appears to be one of quiet yet profound division.
The allegations that parishioner Brett M. Kavanaugh sexually assaulted a fellow high school student and then lied about the incident as well as about his drinking are causing a rift in the 3,400-household Blessed Sacrament congregation, a politically diverse parish which over the years has been accustomed to politely dodging conversations about divisive current events.
Parishioners love to tout celeb-members from right and left, such as liberal commentators Mark Shields and Chris Matthews, and conservative politician-writer Patrick Buchanan and former Reagan education official Bill Bennett. The mix survives, they say, through a shared focus on church life, and knowing when not to bring up the latest political controversy.
The tension today, some members say, has been fueled in part by partisanship but perhaps even more so by differences in class and social associations that Kavanaugh represents, and ideas about what the Catholic faith requires of its adherents.
Those whose children attend the Blessed Sacrament school and belong to nearby elite country clubs are more apt to support Kavanaugh, who travels in the same circles, than are those whose children attend local public schools and lead somewhat more modest lives, they say. Perhaps the biggest dividing line is between those who see no connection at all between clergy abuse accusers and Kavanaugh’s accusers, and those who view the topics as inextricably bound together.
“How can this happen in the thick of the church crisis? It just doesn’t make sense,” said a parent from Blessed Sacrament school who lives in the parish and falls in the latter camp. The man, like some others connected to Blessed Sacrament, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of concern about further inflaming tensions.
The fact that parishioners who have been so united in opposition to clergy sex abuse can so easily discount allegations against Kavanaugh points up "the tribal nature” of the divisions, he said.
“It doesn’t have to do with Catholicism, and plenty of these people are rabidly anti-Trump,” he said. “It has to do with neighborhood, school, all these people hanging around at the same clubs. . . . I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the combination of the two crises happening so close is tearing apart the fabric of the community.”
Even so, there has been no open clashing; conversations are being had quietly, carefully — or, more often, not at all — with people who hold opposing views, according to several members of the parish who were willing to talk. Many others declined to be interviewed for this article.
Parishioners say they find themselves skirting the subject during encounters at neighborhood soccer games or the Chevy Chase Lounge restaurant; some say they are more deliberately choosing which of the seven weekend Masses to attend to be among more like-minded Catholics.
Many described a passionate, vocal and well-organized group of Blessed Sacrament families supporting Kavanaugh’s innocence. Others, including Foley, the priest, said it’s not possible to gauge the true breakdown in sentiment because people are not talking openly about the culture war that has landed squarely in their church.
“I don’t hear a lot from them, to be honest,” Foley said when asked the general views of Blessed Sacrament. “When I’m getting ready for Mass, sometimes someone will comment on what’s going on. And they’ll basically say it’s confusing and overwhelming.”
For his part, Foley is choosing not to directly address ethical and religious issues raised by the Kavanaugh nomination because the topic is so divisive and so local.
To Kavanaugh’s critics (or skeptics), those issues include the treatment of abuse survivors as well as the privilege, excess and sexism of Catholic school life as described by some of Kavanaugh’s classmates. To his supporters, they include what feels like a doing away with the presumption of innocence and a rush to judgment about the actions of a totally decent man.
“Let he who is without sin cast the first stone — that’s a basic Catholic virtue meant to address hypocrisy,” said Tom Conaghan, a lawyer who has attended Blessed Sacrament for 15 years and whose older brother attended Georgetown Preparatory School with Kavanaugh. Conaghan, who describes himself as a “liberal Democrat," said he views criticism of Kavanaugh’s drinking as “particularly infuriating” because, he said, drinking is and was so common.
Kavanaugh, Conaghan says, is the victim of an obvious “orchestrated political hit,” a scenario that has nothing in common with the clergy abuse crisis. No one he knows, he says, sees any connection between the two issues. In fact, he said, no one he knows sees divisions at Blessed Sacrament over Kavanaugh.
“We’re still in the throes of the [clergy abuse crisis conversation] at the parish. They’re talking about [accused Cardinal Theodore] McCarrick. They’re not talking about Kavanaugh,” he said.
While Conaghan perceives a “massive amount of support for Brett," he noted that the Supreme Court fight is taking place in a politically charged national environment in which people can’t always say what they feel. “Speaking your mind these days is complicated. You stick your head over the parapet, and it gets shot off.”
But Jim Zogby, a longtime parishioner and activist on liberal causes, said the divisions around the nomination are being talked about “constantly” — although in ideological silos.
“What exists in the country exists in our neighborhood, and in our church. And now you kind of wonder when you see people: ‘Where do they stand?' ” Zogby said.
Partisan differences were long present at Blessed Sacrament, he said, but the Kavanaugh case has exposed “a whole raft of issues” — class and social divisions as well as different visions of Catholicism, some of which prioritize the antiabortion fight while others focus more on health care, immigration and the environment.
Several congregants said they had not seen Kavanaugh at Mass since the controversy began. He normally worships at the 5:30 Sunday service and occasionally serves as a lector, or reader of Scripture.
Foley said he tries to keep his homilies focused on the role of the church, which “is simply to keep their eyes focused on Jesus, who is the way and the truth and the life. And to pray that whatever is the truth will come out and whatever is best happens,” he said. “The only thing I do is talk about what scriptures reveal. Sometimes they reveal there is the divisive element that is of the Evil One. We have to keep our eyes focused on the Lord and be united as a people.”
Yet in the pews, some parishioners see messages through the silences.
Foley on Sunday preached from the Book of James, a passage that warns the privileged: “Come now, you rich, weep and wail over your impending miseries.” He warned about how tempting it is to embrace the values of the larger society — particularly pleasure, power and pride.
Some parishioners heard in Foley’s homily a warning about privilege and about Kavanaugh. Foley said his words were unrelated to the controversy.
Another weekly Mass-goer who spoke on the condition of anonymity agreed that the nomination battle seems to be exacerbating social divisions between people who are part of the church school and those whose children attend local public schools.
“If you’re not part of the school, you’re on the outside,” the person said. Dividing lines about Kavanaugh “are about social circles. That’s a common feeling. Many parents have felt that.”
To this person, the court battle raises a glaring ethical issue: "How do we, as a church, respond to people who come forward with sexual abuse? And we’re in the middle of trying to shift that dynamic,” the person said. “When I saw some of the public reaction to Dr. [Christine Blasey] Ford’s coming forward, I thought: ‘Wow, how hypocritical are we Catholics?’ Men who come forward, we say: ‘We believe you, we want to help you heal.’ But you woman who might keep Brett Kavanaugh from a Supreme Court seat? It’s: ‘Shut up, we don’t believe you.’
“Some of these same women who were adamant about McCarrick are now supporting Brett Kavanaugh. How do you do that?”
Kavanaugh has also been accused by a former college classmate named Deborah Ramirez of exposing himself to her while they were at Yale. And a woman named Julie Swetnick alleged in an affidavit that he was present at a high school house party in 1982 when she was the victim of a gang rape. Kavanaugh has strongly denied both women’s charges.
Foley said he saw no parallels between the two abuse-related issues.
“You’re dealing with experiences in the Brett Kavanaugh case that go to his past, his high school career, and when you’re talking about abuse in the case of clergy or any trusted adult, you’re dealing with a child and a trusted person who represents their church. I don’t see them as the same thing,” he said. “With regard to the judge, the accusation has to do with youth; it seems very cloudy as to what happened, it’s not as clear.”
Blessed Sacrament intersected with the court fight in early September, when the judge brought girls he had coached in basketball, wearing their Blessed Sacrament uniforms, to sit in support of his testimony on Capitol Hill. It was Sept. 6, before Ford came forward publicly. Kavanaugh has been praised as a popular, well-respected coach in the Catholic league.
A photo of Kavanaugh that day shows him with the girls, them in navy blue shirts and plaid jumpers, beaming with Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, (R-Utah).
The appearance of the girls in Catholic school uniforms incensed some Blessed Sacrament families, a few of whom said they complained.
“I coached there for 17 years, and I never would have thought of asking them” to wear uniforms on his behalf, Zogby said.
Zogby wistfully contrasted the parish climate right now with the feeling of unity when Vice President Pence moved in temporarily, and a wide swath of people from Blessed Sacrament put up signs supporting gay equality, and then signs opposing the entry ban on people from majority-Muslim countries. He also recalled the unity at a parish town hall last month about the clergy abuse crisis.
“This is now more personal, because it’s right there in our face,” Zogby said. “Unlike other issues that occurred, this one is visceral.”