Losing my religion
I was born in Boston and grew up just south of the city in the suburbs. When I was younger, New England was easily 50% Catholic and as recently as 2010 45% of the population in Massachusetts still identified as Catholic. Basically, if you grew up in the north east you were surrounded by the Catholic church. For me it was more than a casual relationship. My mother played the organ and sang at many of the Catholic churches in the area as well as some of the Lutheran churches. As a result, I spent close to 10 years going to more than one mass on the weekends and being an altar server. And while as a young adult I drifted a little from the church, I was back and reconnected strongly after being married.
The Catholic faith is genuinely beautiful. It has so much history and the celebrations are deep with meaning, tradition, and a beautiful love and reverence for Christ. All three of our daughters were baptized Catholic and brought up in the faith. In the last 30 years we have belonged to three different parishes (we moved a couple of times) and in all three I have been a lector, a eucharistic minister, served on the finance councils (and chaired at all three parishes), and even taught religious education for a time. I have also sponsored someone through RCIA (Right of Christian Initiation of Adults) and it was one of the more beautiful faith filled experiences I have had. I have also been part of the Knights of Columbus for the last 15 years.
We still go to church nearly every weekend and my wife and I have even found churches to attend sometimes when we are on vacation. I am saying all this up front because I have spent most of my life being Catholic and loving it. While I think there’s always room for improvement in anything we do, I don’t feel I was leaving a whole lot of room to become even more Catholic unless I had decided to become a deacon.
When the first priest scandals were published in the Boston Globe in 2002, I was more than a little upset. As someone who was close to the church and grew up in the area I was shocked at the revelations about the sexual abuse and subsequent coverups by the church leadership. What made it more difficult was because I knew some of these people personally. But let’s face it, as a species we’re pretty darn imperfect and people screw things up all the time. What made this particularly difficult was that the same church that was trying to teach us how to live our lives and be closer to Christ, was putting in a lot of overtime in the background to lie, obfuscate, avoid, and otherwise mislead all those around them in order to avoid the horrible truth which was that some number of priest were sexually abusing the young persons in their parishes.
We were living in southern New Hampshire at the time and there was a separate report published by the District Attorney’s office in NH that I managed to get a copy of and read. I was angry and hurt because I knew some more of these people and had broken bread with some of them. I was torn and admittedly selfish because I did not want to lose my faith over this. What I did do was disconnect from the church at a diocesan level and remained active in my local parishes. I also paid attention to the additional stories and revelations that came about further reinforcing that the crisis was not limited to just New England. I also know that changes were made and new polices were set attempting to add transparency to avoid future problems. What I didn’t do was look critically as to how much was actually being done. I simply disconnected from the diocese and the only interactions I had were when I helped represent our parish to the diocese in Denver and again in Seattle as the chair of the finance council in parishes where we were building new churches.
I make my living through learning and leadership. I learn by research. It can be reading, listening, doing, or combinations of all these things. I lead by using what I have learned and sharing that with others. I lead by example as much as I possibly can. I am not perfect, and I do not expect perfection from others. I do however, expect others to behave ethically, take ownership, and hold themselves accountable for results. Mistakes that were made in good conscience attempting to do the right thing would not be something I would expect to punish. However, the inability to learn after repeated attempts indicates that something must be done, or we fail. Even if what must be done is gut wrenchingly hard. I coach leaders all the time about why it is so important to deal with poor performance head on. Otherwise by carrying those people for extended periods not only does the company’s performance suffer, but the teams resent you as a leader for making them carry the weight of those who cannot or chose not to perform.
While the Catholic church is a religion, it also has a hierarchy like most large businesses do. In fact, it is a strict hierarchy and perhaps that is what is needed when your faith consists of more than a billion people who are part of it. But the lay people who identify as Catholic did not make that hierarchy. They did not choose it, and they cannot control it. That hierarchy and leadership is chosen and created by the church itself. It is not divine, it is built and maintained by the church and the church is responsible for the results that are created by it.
While some members of the church with higher level positions have attempted to pass off the recent reporting from the grand jury in Pennsylvania as ‘old news’, it is not. Yes, there are a lot of older cases that make up most examples. But there are also newer cases and more recent attempts at burying these cases to preserve the church. I have read the main body of the report and it’s clear that as cases were brought forth, the church leadership frequently attempted to avoid being held truly accountable for these abuses. This behavior continued long after the exposure to the crisis by the Boston Globe and others. They gave much more forgiveness to the priests than they gave support and healing to those they hurt. They would use bullying tactics, payoffs with non-disclosure agreements, and even guilt about harming the church to the very families that were hurt by the church and then continue to support the priests even with active ministries.
In the Pennsylvania diocese alone, there were over three hundred priests who abused more than one thousand identified victims. This is not an aberration in an otherwise healthy church hierarchy. Versions of this story continue to play out across the country and across the world. The situations are slightly different, but one thing remains the same. The church has largely escaped true accountability for breaking the law and for its sins. It has also avoided true reform. Nobody should be above the law. If I were the CFO of a company and I knew that people were embezzling and did nothing, you can be sure I would end up in jail when it came to light because to know and do nothing makes you part of the problem. It’s against the law to not report child abuse when you know it. The church didn’t just not report it, they actively engaged in hiding it. This enabled countless thousands of additional abuses over the years. And yet, we don’t see a whole lot of priests and more importantly bishops and cardinals in jail.
At this point I have no faith the Catholic church is capable of managing itself in a way that gives the laity the same care and respect and love that it gives its deviant priests let alone putting them above them. If Jesus drove the money changers out of the temple, how do you think he’d react when faced with this? Jesus didn’t just get a little sick for our sins, he died for them. He didn’t get assigned to another parish, he was hung on a cross. This church that purports to represent Christ to us to the point where the priests can transform bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ has actively engaged in lie after lie, coverup after coverup, coercion after coercion to protect itself rather than deal with the abusers and support the victims.
If you are Catholic, THIS is your church leadership and therefore this is your church. And this church, like Christ before them, needs to die for those sins. I have loved the churches I have been a part of. I love my pastor today as much as ever which simply adds to the pain when I come to the realization that I can no longer in good conscience be a part of this church as it stands today. I can no longer compartmentalize the diocese away from my parish. The Catholic church is universal. The hierarchy and diocese are just as much a part of it, if not more so, than any individual parish. While there may well be good and blameless diocesan leadership out there somewhere, you too are choosing to be a part of all this when you know what you are surrounded by. I want to support my parish, but by doing so I am also supporting the diocesan leadership and I simply can’t be a part of that.
I can no longer remain complicit. I can no longer help keep it alive with my time, my talent, or my treasure. Some day we’re all going to die. When I die, all I can think about is trying to explain to Christ why I continued to be a part of a church that willingly and purposefully allowed so many children to be hurt by it. I could be a part of a church that makes mistakes. Even when those mistakes occasionally hurt people. I can’t be part of one that hurts so many and instead of trying to fix it, simply allows it to fester and continue by purposely hiding, avoiding the truth, and manipulating those that were hurt into silence. I resent this church leadership for asking me to carry this weight and avoiding the consequences themselves. Until the church holds itself accountable, it is no longer my church.
Tear down this temple since at this point only Christ can rebuild it.