I want you to know, even though I and many others are very angry right now, I was brought up to trust you. To revere you. To see you as intrinsically worthy of respect and honor. Even of obedience.
There is no memory I possess, no matter how far back, in which I was not taught to treat you as another Christ.
As an altar boy, I watched my pastor — now deceased — closely, carefully. Within the context of the new Mass, at a time when the sense of the sacred throughout the Church seemed in rare supply, I nevertheless saw the reverence he showed to the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar. I watched the care, the profound love, with which he cleansed the paten of every particle of the consecrated host. (It was because of this that I noticed when other priests didn’t take similar care.) The next pastor added a little Latin to the liturgy, much to the chagrin of our largely Protestant-convert parish. He also asked the people to genuflect before receiving, at a time when such gestures were almost unheard of. It made an impression on me that the Mass, and the Eucharist, was something worth caring about.
I don’t know when I realized that I should stop receiving Communion in the hand, or why I had the intuition when serving to never touch the chalice without using its veil, but it probably didn’t happen without inspiration from the reverence I observed from various priests.
When I was 16, I got a job at the local hardware store, but I spent most of my lunch hours, alone, with my elderly pastor at the parish, just a couple short blocks away. He told me, half joking, half hopeful, that if I liked ice cream, it was a sign I had a vocation. But he never pushed me. And he certainly never did anything untoward. He was one of the old guard stuck in the modern Church, doing the best he could to live his priesthood and encourage other young men to consider doing the same.
When the Legionaries of Christ got their hooks into me, they ultimately manipulated and lied to me, even in spiritual direction. They pressured me toward a vocation I didn’t have. They slandered me when I moved on. But they never laid a hand on me, no matter what crimes their founder was guilty of. And when, years after I had become entangled in their web, I began to recognize that they were not looking out for my best interests, it was again my parish priest — a man I didn’t even know — who came to me after Mass, invited me out to breakfast, and told me that he felt that God was prompting him to tell me that I needed to leave, for my own well-being. He helped me break the spell, and later employed me, giving me an opportunity to earn more money in a summer than I ever otherwise could have. We spent countless breakfasts and lunches together, with me on the clock, and not an inappropriate word was spoken. Later, when I met the woman who would become my wife, that same priest helped her make a break with her difficult past, and welcomed her into the Church.
I could tell many stories of the priests I know, or have known. Priests who have helped me. Priests who have taught me. Priests who showed me the truths of the Faith and the centrality of the sacraments. Priests who did these things long before I ever discovered the majestic beauty and ancient wisdom of Catholic Tradition. I’m sure others can, too.
Thank God, in my experience, none of them was a monster. None a predator. I’ve met some who turned out to be, but I never got close enough to them to see it first hand. Most of the priests I’ve known were and are good men who simply love God and seek to serve Him and His people through their priesthood. There are clearly many victims out there with a different, far more devastating experience, but theirs is not a story I can tell. I can only speak for myself and for those who have never had to endure a priest acting in a way that compares to anything in the horrifying Pennsylvania Grand Jury report released yesterday.
Even so, even with my relatively positive experience of the Catholic priesthood, I nevertheless find myself in a position where I feel that it is impossible for me to fully trust any member of the clergy. Not with my daughters, and especially not with my sons. I’ve heard too many stories. I’ve heard too much about priests whom everyone thought were great — orthodox, wise, and holy — only to find out that they were living a secret double life as a creature of darkness. I’ve heard about gaslighting and manipulation that leads children not to believe that they can tell even the most open parent about something they’ve experienced. I look at my four boys and wonder, every time they’re invited to an altar boy practice or a summer camp, whether they’ll really be OK. I wonder which lines I have to draw, where I have to establish my boundaries, and how scrupulously I have to keep watch over even the most innocuous of interactions.
And I simply cannot imagine sending any of them off to a seminary, most of which appear to be where the institutionalization of homosexuality and abuse in the clergy have so often been intentionally perpetuated.
Fathers, I’m sorry. I hate this. I want to trust you like I once did — naturally, uthinkingly. My heart aches to trust you. I know that if you’re really one of the good guys, none of this is your fault. But I have no way of knowing that with certitude, because I keep seeing evidence that the worst priests, no matter how satanic their proclivities, were remarkably skillful at convincing the faithful — and even the families of their victims — that they were on the side of the angels. So I can’t take the risk. I can’t be the guy who says I thought I knew who I was sending my boy off with to camp, only to find out I was terribly, tragically, irrevocably wrong. I don’t want to think these things about you, but I don’t know how I can avoid it.
It only takes being wrong just one time to change a life forever.
For those of you guilty of nothing, those of you who have truly given up your lives and the natural desire for marriage and family to do an often thankless job full of sacrifice and loneliness, I can only imagine how it must feel that the weight of your cross has grown heavier with the unearned suspicion of unspeakable things. That it is worsened by bishops who shift the blame to you when the responsibility is theirs. I know you endure all of this out of love for God. I’m sure you seek to emulate His Passion, when He, too, was martyred for things for which He bore no guilt. Nevertheless, I know that what you are enduring is heartbreaking.
I recognize that this is unfair. That it is unjust. But the rot, the malformation, the disease we face is systemic. Our Lord warned us of the deadliness of scandal, and we are seeing first-hand what He meant.
To those of you true priests of God who have striven for purity and holiness and are innocent of the crimes so many of your brothers have committed: I am thankful for your sacrifice of self. For your persistence in the face of suspicion. For your service to God and His children.
I am praying for you. And I will do the best I can to get to know you, to be your friend, and extend you every reasonable benefit of the doubt. I hope that the generations of Catholics to come can find reason to reverse this tragic epidemic of suspicion, fear, and doubt, and return to a healthy relationship with the clergy again.
But I cannot put my children in your hands without reservation. I hope, though it causes both of us great anguish, you can understand.
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher and Executive Director of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. His commentary has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Crisis Magazine, EWTN, Huffington Post Live, The Fox News Channel, Foreign Policy, and the BBC. Steve and his wife Jamie have seven children.