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.

11 comments on “Losing my religion”

  1. Rich P. says:

    Chris, I have a very similar story. When the Boston story broke I thought, this is it, I left. I also started have nightmares about past abuse and realized that most cities in the world were Boston and the number of cases, while horrifying, were also grossly understated. I reported my experiences related to more than one priest. I was contacted and told they were either defrocked, dead or removed from service. My own research with SNAP revealed that one had been charged criminally and money was exchanged but none had ever spent a night in jail.

    I felt a God sized hole in my heart and struggled to fill it. I tried other churches. I learned to meditate, which helped, but I deeply missed the fellowship. After many years I reached a place of forgiveness and went back to the Catholic church. The vast majority of religious people I had known were amazing christians and I took a leap of faith. I also protected my children, who were now in public schools and my wife and I would not allow them to serve at mass or be unsupervised at church.

    I pray that this time the Catholic church can change the internal structures that allowed this to occur, but I am not optimistic. It moves slowly. It is huge. Those in power are not part of the problem, they are the problem.

    I remain committed to the Catholic church today theologically. The more I study religion, the more I realize they got that right. But leaving the flock out of the hierarchy cannot continue if it is to continue. If this doesn’t change I will need to leave a second time.

    May the peace of Christ be with you brother!

  2. Annette Hicks says:

    I believe you have written what many Catholics are thinking and just not able to say out loud. Years ago my folks left the Catholic church as well because of lies. My mother and father always said you don’t have to go to church to be a good Christian. I appreciate your thoughts and remember how the Church treated my folks. You are not alone in your feelings. Sincerely, Annette

  3. Anna says:

    Well said Yeti. I feel the same way as you but you’ve been far more patient and forgiving than me. I left I long time ago.

  4. Tim Dawson says:

    I too grew up Catholic. It was the only religion I knew. I grew up in Kansas City area, went to Catholic grade school and high school. Both were wonderful and fortunately the priests, nuns that taught us were outstanding, committed, servants who invested in us with love and their knowledge. As an adult, I participated in other non-denominational churches and have felt more spiritually fed than when I went to the Catholic church.

    We all have different needs in our life. We all have different belief systems that drive us. I too was disappointed in all the allegations, which if true, will stain all religions and churches.

    Fortunately, I’ve found a church where I live (Charlotte, NC) that I’m involved with (I run the food service for the homeless shelter with a group delivering meals and spending time with them) and they encourage all sorts of ministries. If they don’t have a ministry you want to get involved in, then start your own and they will help fund it.

    From what I’ve learned over the last couple years is that there is great power in prayer. I’m going to pray for you and your family right now that you are guided to where you need to be spiritually. That your faith in our savior Jesus Christ is strengthened.

  5. Nancy Koket says:

    I enjoyed reading this post and will share it. You have a beautiful writing talent. I was part of the other 50% while growing up in Boston and it’s suburbs,though still cristian, not specifically catholic. Not by choice because let’s face it we were all born into a specific religion. Not until later in life do we make our own specific choices about belonging to a specific religion or not. I married a man born into the Jewish faith. As we raised our children there were many discussions about what would be the right religion for our children and as parents we were both blinded/sided by respecting our parents dreams and wishes for their grandchildren. I always held on to the belief that I knew religion carried with it , no matter what religion, the basic goodness of the world. You might wrap that up in the 10 commandments. Though I know today there are other religions that’s don’t carry those beliefs. I knew I wanted my children to have those basic good beliefs and the “it takes a village “ approach might help. Teach them at home and surround yourself with others who are also teaching them, a religion. Raising my children in the south, The Bible Belt, believe me they were surrounded maybe even drownded.
    Religion today is different and the need for it not as it was when it held the laws. Separation of Church and state changed that yet too many have not separated. I serve on a board in my small town and we still pray after the pledge at every meeting.
    Today church, and all religion, has become a big business and corrupt in many, maybe every way. It’s purpose is lost, gone, skewed, hypocritical, illegal and too many more bad words. That being said we still need more kindness in this world and more support in helping those who are suffering. I used to think religion was were that was taught but I realize now that’s not the place. I am proud to say somehow I have raided two of the most amazing young men in this world. They would help give and care for anyone who asked of them. They are truly ashamed of both church and government not helping the sick hungry and destitute. They know there are consequences for doing wrong and sometimes rewards for following a better path. Sometimes I feel bad for not truly instilling one specific religion on them while they were being raised (one of my sons would say “you mean brainwashing us” BTW that’s the one that attended Texas Christian University for part of his college career ) and then I remember I did pretty good anyway. While I strayed from the religion my parents forced upon me I was always searching for what might be right for me and my family and I instilled that in my children as well. Continued discovery and a constant drive to education is so important. I believe being part of the solution when we know something is wrong is most important.
    I admire you for sharing these thoughts and standing up for what’s MOST important in this awful beautiful life!

  6. Bill Mitchell says:

    For those of us “Losing Their Religion” and contemplating “Should I Stay Or Should I Go” and when we go “Where Do We Go From Here?” the next steps are not clear for too many reasons to type in here.

    I believe it is incumbent upon us to keep the sabbath as we are compelled to keep our faith in every day and hour of the remainder of the week. It is written that “For Wherever Two Or Three Are Gathered Together In My Name, I Am There In The Midst Of Them…” Somewhere else in the bible I remember reading that we are to WORSHIP TOGETHER for some obvious reasons – especially realizing and remembering all the good this church has done. Leadership by example counts – on crosses or not.

    Maybe reform is possible. I was reformed from some of my wayward ways and I regret leaving the church that visits a personal schism across my soul. Lost sheep come in all colors, size, sex and numbers. Perhaps you are correct – only Christ can rebuild this thing we called a church and a one true religion. Perhaps as well Christ calls us to find lost sheep wherever they may be.


  7. Candi says:

    I grieve for the people that have gone through such horrific stiuations! I assure you this is not only. catholic problem ! My Christian church was the sMe way!
    When we found out our beloved pastor was a pedophile it crushed me ! I couldn’t believe it!
    This man married me, ran a fathful flock of people down a rabbit hole!
    He ruined lives he ruined our faith,, he ruined our trust, he ruined many peoples faith in God, he treated people like he was the king and could do anything he wanted to anyone no matter if it was legal or not legal faithful not faithful wrong or right .
    I also went to another Christian church that the pastor was a crook and stole all the churches money, after kicking people out of “his” church for being too poor!
    I am a very strong Christian and now go to a different bible teaching church , that hold people accountable for their actions in a good way .
    I feel blessed to know the Bible and know I don’t have to be part of all the Horrible acts!

  8. Rich Johnson says:

    Well said Chris! As a boy, I was surrounded by the Church. I can remember having to walk away from hockey games under the lights to attend Mass during lent. This is a big deal because that was the time when Bobby Orr and the Big Bad Bruins were tearing it up. We had a lit rink in the yard and the entire neighborhood would be there to play. You can imagine what a sacrifice it was. I would have preferred to give up candy for lent.

    At that time, a neighbor of ours was contemplating a life in the priesthood. He had a number of friends with the same intentions. My neighbor never made it to the seminary because he was caught molesting a couple of boys in the neighborhood. Some of his friends attended the seminary and became priests. It is my hope that they became model priests. I don’t wish to indict them based on their association with my neighbor. It is speculated by many that during that time, the seminary became a sanctuary for men of questionable moral virtue. I think the scandal you speak of demonstrates the level of truth in that speculation.

    After the scandal broke, my mother had a gathering of friends at my house. She lived in an apartment and couldn’t host a large group. At some point during the event, the conversation turned to the scandal in the Catholic Church. Several of the people in the group, including a Deacon from my mother’s Parish and a Past Grand Knight of the local Knights of Columbus, spoke of their admiration for Cardinal Bernard Law. They spoke of him being a good man and they couldn’t understand the criticism being leveled at him. This infuriated me. I asked them if a good man would knowingly hide an accused pedophile by moving him to another parish, thus endangering the lives of more children. Shouldn’t he have given more consideration to those who follow him and trust in him to do the right thing? Shouldn’t he have protected those who were not old enough or wise enough to protect themselves?

    As more details were uncovered and the extent of the scandal was revealed, what did the Catholic Church do? Cardinal Law was moved to Rome, beyond the reach of prosecution.

    Chris, I was done with the Catholic Church long ago. I still have faith, but my faith does not lie in humans or human institutions. I found that I don’t need to be told what to believe, how to worship and how often. I don’t need rules telling me what I can eat, who I can confess to and what I must wear. None of that comes from God. No God that I know would give us the beauty and magnificence that exists in this world and in its inhabitants, then tell us we can’t enjoy it. As you say, the Church is a hierarchy and its leaders are put in place to protect and preserve it at all cost. That is their job. We all have our jobs too. I found my job to be at odds with theirs. As you wrestle with this, always keep in mind your personal integrity and beliefs formed through a lifetime of experience. It’s your life and it’s your eternity.

  9. It’s simple – it isn’t “God’s church”.

    The only claim they have to “God’s church” is if you think that GOd is so stupid that only a chain of popes is important. Jesus said, “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them” (Matthew 18:20). Pick any church that isn’t a known, filthy rich, organized child rape syndicate, and you’re in a more Christian church.

    It is the 100% policy of the Catholic church, in 100% of cases, to hide pedophile priests and fight the victims. They are doing the EXACT opposite of Jesus in Matt 18:6-14. They do exactly what creepy, cowardly satan would do as he is trying to lower your standards, and he has succeeded with Catholics.

    It is an unforgivable sin EVERY DAY that they do not punish the pedophile priests and get help for the victims. Satan tries to spin it that “most of this happened years ago”. That makes it worse. That means they had years to fix it, and decided every day to defy Jesus.

    When you go before God, you no longer have to use the lies and excuses that Catholics use. When they get in front of God, and find out the Catholic church isn’t “God’s church”, and that all the statements that the church was telling about their child rape were lies, and their filthy riches were unforgivable (Matt 19:21-25), there is no forgiveness, and they will go to hell as God promised in the very first commandment.

  10. Virginia Irwin says:

    Well said brother. I know how you must have struggled with this. You have my full support, heartfelt sympathy, and utmost admiration.

  11. Deb Covey-Fuglie says:

    I have known you for years and always enjoyed your writing as both soul searching, insightful, straightforward and beautifully done. This is no exception. I know the struggle that you detail not because I am Catholic, as I am not. I struggle with the inhumanities that we place upon our brothers and sisters not just in the name of religion, but in many cases. After my first trip to Rome, I left with a sense of rage at the publicized improprieties and the Church’s reaction and continual lack of action. I wondered about my Catholic friends, far and wide, and their sense of betrayal. I wondered about how they deal with the blend of their life long faith and these revelations. I never had the guts to ask. I did not want to intrude on that most private of turmoil. Your blog resonates with my fear and concern for them as well as for all of those impacted.

    Thank you for your raw honesty. I know that you explored your thoughts from all angles prior to publishing this writing. I admire your respect for the institution but mostly, I admire your strength to take a stand for what is right, for true Christianity and for the love and protection of all above any institution. These are the teachings of Christ in their truest form.

    With continued respect,

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