Twelve-year-old Katie spills out of the car, all 4-foot-7 of her, and walks to the side entrance of the imposing Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in northern Baltimore.
She passes under the “Maria Immaculata” bas-relief sculpture, pulls open the two-inch-thick door and walks up the marble steps to the sacristy, where she drapes herself in the altar-server cassock that pronounces her service to the Catholic Church. Every time she does so, my wife and I must act on faith that our daughter won’t become the church’s latest victim.
I came of age in the Catholic milieu in Washington in the 1970s and ’80s. I attended Catholic schools. As a child, I went to Mass each Sunday with my observant parents, dutifully reciting the Lord’s Prayer. I spent several years as an altar server at a time when the church’s authority was not questioned and priests were having their way with young boys and girls. In Boston. In Philadelphia. In Washington. In name-of-city-here.
Katie and her older brother, Matt, are coming of age in the Catholic milieu in Baltimore. They attend Catholic schools, just as I did. They attend Mass every Sunday, dutifully reciting the Lord’s Prayer, just as I did. They work as altar servers, just as I did. They spend hours around clergy, just as I did.
Over the past two decades, stories of children abused by Catholic priests have poured forth like congregants spilling out of church on a Sunday morning, a steady stream of betrayal and broken trust. Every time another story surfaces, an unsettling thought creeps into my mind, floating around like the incense that wafts above the altar during a High Mass:
Oh my God, as in the biblical story of Daniel, have I just fed my children to the lions?
"Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name …"
Hallowed be thy name? After thousands of men of the cloth, acting in ‘thy name,’ sexually abused young boys and girls for years?
Catholics are understandably angry, confused and conflicted, and they have every right to be. Many have left the church for good. (Weekly Mass attendance is down by more than 100 in the past year at our church, according to the pastor.) Many have called for the resignation of bishops who enabled pedophile priests by dismissing claims against them or transferring them to other parishes.
They got away with it because, for decades, the priest’s word was sacrosanct. As schoolchildren, we learned prayers by rote memory when we didn’t even understand all the words. I remember walking across the parking lot from Blessed Sacrament School to the parish church in Washington as a first-grader for school Mass. We processed quietly, single file, hands together, fingers extended upward, under the watchful eye of an old-school, black-habit wearing nun named Sister Pius. I can still recite the Act of Contrition exactly as we learned it. Yes, Sister. Yes, Father. What the clergy said was not to be disputed.
Yet now, everything about the church is being questioned. Even the pope, considered the infallible successor to Saint Peter, is being called to account, an unheard-of challenge of church authority.
The clergy here in Baltimore is starting to recognize this. In an open letter to the Archdiocese of Baltimore, Archbishop William E. Lori wrote of engaging laypeople in crafting future church policy and driving church reform. “Put simply,” Lori wrote, the faithful who fill the pews and the collection basket “don’t trust the bishops or Church leaders to address these issues on their own. I agree. Where we bishops and priests have broken trust, we have to admit we have broken trust. Where we have betrayed our calling, we have to admit we have betrayed our calling. If we want to restore that trust, we have to work hard to earn trust.
“We bishops need to hold one another accountable, but we also need the laity to hold us accountable.”
“ . . . thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven . . . “
I am as conflicted as many other Catholics. The church has been a strong fiber threading through the various stages of my life, shepherding me through the most difficult times. A late priest who was a longtime family friend of my in-laws used to say Mass at their Bethany Beach house on summer Sunday afternoons, the kitchen island serving as the altar for a sunburned congregation of a half-dozen. That same priest married my wife and me. Seven years later, a different priest sat in our living room and counseled us during a difficult pregnancy. It was he who made an emergency visit to the hospital one morning a couple of months later to baptize our baby, who died hours later.
Maybe that’s why, despite the wretched stain that pedophile priests have left on their religion, and the trauma they have inflicted on thousands, I firmly believe that the good priests far outnumber the bad ones, and I believe that through the good ones, God’s will is done on earth. Is that naivete? Hope? Faith?
Faith, we are taught, is the belief in that which we cannot see. You have seen and believed, the risen Jesus told a doubting Thomas, but blessed are they who have not seen and yet still believe.
I believe — I must believe — that the priests I am allowing to interact with my children are honest, pious men.
One of those is the priest who served as the assistant pastor and chaplain at my children’s school for the past four years. Father Andrew, as he’s known, has a round face with soft features and black hair that is beginning to recede atop his 5-foot-10 frame. One minute he will light up the room with laughter, and the next he will close his eyes tightly, furrow his brow and pray with deep conviction. His younger brother is also in the process of becoming a priest.
We attended Father Andrew’s first Mass as a priest. He has been on school field trips and to our house. He has taken altar servers to Hersheypark in Pennsylvania to celebrate the end of the school year. He has hosted the high school teen group at the parish center.
These interactions probably sound downright horrifying to clergy-abuse victims. After all, did they not have similar encounters with their priests?
The truth is I can never be absolutely certain about Father Andrew. I must trust. Virtue isn’t something that can be worn like a cassock or placed in the collection basket. I can’t physically see the virtue in Father Andrew, yet I still believe.
Last August, when a Pennsylvania grand jury released an explosive report detailing child abuse allegations against hundreds of priests in the state, I sent a text to Father Andrew. I told him that my heart ached for a good and kind priest such as him.
“Thank you,” he replied, “all my love to your family. Please, Lord, purify our church.”
“ . . . give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us …”
Both my children became altar servers in fourth grade.
By the time my son Matt had put on his cassock and served his first Mass, the church sex abuse scandal had already mushroomed like a nuclear bomb. Yet my wife and I never hesitated when the invitations came home from school in 2011 for Matt, and then in 2016 for Katie, to become altar servers. It seemed like a logical extension of the faith that has guided us through our most trying times and that we had instilled in our children since baptism.
Did we owe it to Matt, and later to Katie, to hold a frank discussion about the scandal, even in cleansed terms a fourth-grader could grasp? Or would that immediately impugn Father Andrew and his colleagues in their eyes?
In the end, we didn’t have that talk, and I’m not sure whether that was right. Were we being too obtuse? Too protective? Isn’t that what we do as parents? In not bringing up the clergy sex-abuse crisis to them at that age, maybe we just wanted their innocence to last as long as possible.
But were we being misguided in downplaying the church’s sins by avoiding this sordid truth? Were we being selfish?
“It’s always in the back of your mind,” Jeanne said recently as she sat on our living room couch. “But this had never happened to me, or to people we had known. I had told Matt from a young age that if anything unusual happened, he could and should tell us. And I trusted Father Andrew.”
The truth is, even by age 10, Matt had read about this issue. He has always been a voracious reader who would sit at the kitchen table and read about the latest Orioles loss but also about unrest in the Middle East, a drug-related killing in East Baltimore, an investigation into pedophile priests.
Still, I decided to broach the issue with him recently. Now 17, he has a paid position at the church as a junior sacristan, a sort of assistant site manager. He continues to spend hours around clergy every week.
As he took a break from his homework, I asked him if he ever worried about anything improper with Father Andrew or other priests with whom he interacted. He thought about it for a minute and said, “I don’t assume someone is guilty.”
“Besides,” he added, “most of those were from so long ago. We’re talking like 1970. I mean, that’s when you were a kid.”
“ . . . and lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil, Amen.”
Was I just one of the lucky ones back in the 1970s, when the problem of abusive priests appeared to be at its height? An online database of publicly accused priests in the United States shows 27 from the diocese of Washington, with most of the alleged abuse, as Matt suggested, taking place when I was a child. Like a tornado ravaging a neighborhood, did that phenomenon somehow just skip my house? (The database does not include priests from my childhood parish.)
By the grace of God, I was delivered from evil then, and it informs my faith today.
The church remains a positive force in my children's lives. Through their service to the church, they learn about responsibility, about showing up when you are assigned, about loving your neighbor and helping those in need.
So this Sunday, my children will once again enter the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in northern Baltimore, they will dip their hand in holy water, make the sign of the cross and offer their service to the church.
My wife and I will sit in the pew and hope and pray that today, tomorrow, always, the church will remain a safe place for them. It is a huge act of faith.
And I will think of Daniel, who was found the next morning, amid the lions, unharmed.
Bo Smolka is a writer and editor in Baltimore.