I’ve spent every one of my 40 years on this planet as a Catholic with no direct contact to the sexual abuse crisis that is currently dominating the headlines in every Catholic publication, and not a few non-Catholic ones besides.
I was an altar boy for many years, starting at a young age. I befriended my elderly parish priest as a teen and spent many of my lunch hours with him while working just blocks away. I became a lector at a young age. I taught catechism. I led youth groups. In college, I worked for the pastor of my parish as a groundskeeper and general assistant.
I even became involved with the Legionaries of Christ, whose founder is now arguably the most notorious predator priest in Church history. I went on retreats with them, participated in and led six different missionary efforts with them, attended one of their schools, taught in another, and lived in community with their priests for a year and a half. I spent part of the summer after I graduated from high school in their seminary discernment program.
Never in my life has any priest made a pass at me. Never have I been touched inappropriately or even given a hint that a priest I knew was so inclined. Neither have any family members disclosed this to me. Nor have any friends.
I’ve dated two girls who were sexually abused by family members, but nobody I have ever known personally has ever made known to me that he was molested by a priest.
I’ve known more than one priest falsely accused of improprieties. In each case, it had to do with rejection of their attempts to impose orthodoxy, and not something they were actually guilty of. Both were, in their own ways, exonerated.
In 2002, when the sex abuse crisis broke, I did not believe it at first. I thought it was exaggerated. I reacted with outrage at what I thought was just another attack on the Church. A couple of years later, I met a Catholic man through my job who had been involved in the investigation of the Church abuse accusations. He managed to convince me that there was truth to it. That it wasn’t just anti-Catholic bias.
I have friends who were close to Fr. Donald McGuire, S.J., who will serve out the rest of his life in prison for molesting boys in his spiritual care – despite his oft-cited distinction of being confessor to Mother Teresa. I met him twice – once at a retreat, once at the wedding of a close friend. Neither I nor my friends who spent so long under his spiritual direction were given any indication that anything was amiss. In fact, one friend had his life turned around for the better by Fr. McGuire. Another cited his spiritual guidance to me more times than I can count. I’ve never understood how a bad tree could bear good fruit, but some do.
The truth is, even today, I don’t really want to talk about the abuse crisis, which is now entering a second, more intense round following the revelation that nothing really changed after an initial wave of complaints, disciplinary actions, and billions of dollars in payouts beginning at the turn of the century.
But what I want doesn’t matter.
The children, adolescents, seminarians, and priests who were abused, intimidated, or harassed by Catholic clerics didn’t want to endure what they were forced to endure, either. But they did. And the ones who have found the courage to come forward, like Peter Mitchell, deserve to be heard and supported.
I suspect we’re going to be talking about this for some time to come. And it will by turns enrage us, sadden us, and make us wonder when we will ever see a light at the end of this particularly dark tunnel. It will make us question whether the Church can ever be trusted again.
But we have to face this.
In fact, it seems nearly impossible to believe that this culture of secrecy and perversion is not inextricably intertwined with the overarching problems with heresy, doctrinal error, and general ecclesiastical corruption we fight every day in our work here. For example, I never suspected the sexual perversities that riddled the founder of the Legionaries or the moral depravity that allowed his top lieutenants to cover for him, but I knew long before the full extent of Fr. Maciel’s crimes were revealed that the organization was corrupt, in some way, right to the top. The lies, the manipulation, the objectification of human beings, the corruption of spiritual direction, the rejection of any criticism, the sheer self-serving utilitarianism of every apostolate made clear to me that there was a systemic problem. It was only later that I came to understand that it was a culture crafted to protect a predator.
Some people believe that this time, things will be different. That change will come to the Church at last. I tend to think so, but I can’t explain why. It’s more gut feeling than factual interpretation and thus subject to error. Others think, just like every other time before, that things will remain the same. Platitudes and false pieties will be used to plaster over serious issues. Clerics will close ranks. Simplistic solutions will be issued instead of actual correctives.
Maybe they’re right. But we have to try.
I hope you will be patient with us as we do so. No matter how distasteful it may be, I’m not sure there’s anything more important we can be doing right now.