Friday, February 22, 2008

Pedophile Priests

The following blog was adapted from an essay I wrote called “My Lost Saints.” It won an award in the inspirational writing category from the Writer’s Digest 2007 annual competition. There were 19,000 entries.

About a year ago, my then six-year-old son told me how much he enjoyed Mass. I knew my little guy liked dinosaurs, Power Rangers and loud music, but Mass? I was proud and sad all at once. It was then, I realized how much I’d lost in the wake of the Catholic Church pedophile scandals. I had, as Elizabeth Barrett Browning once wrote, “lost my saints.”

When I was his age, the Catholic saints were my action heroes. Their brave lives and gory deaths fascinated and inspired me. They stood up for their beliefs against all odds. I’d played Mass, too. Lining up all my stuffed animals next to my little brother, I’d read from the Old and New Testaments. Then, I’d deliver one hell of a homily. I didn’t understand that women couldn’t be priests. I’d come to that realization during my years as a parochial school student and many much more surprising facts later as an editor for an Archdiocesan newspaper.

After having been taught through 12th grade that Noah had an ark, my boss, a priest with his doctorate in theology from the Vatican, laughed and told me the stories in the Old Testament were metaphorical. They were teaching tools to help us understand complexities of our faith. I guess I’d always suspected that, but what about those who took the lessons literally and didn’t go on to pursue a degree in theology. When would they get the straight up truth? More illuminating chats involved the distinction between doctrine and tradition. Tradition with a capital T, he said. Also, celibacy for archdiocesan priests was a promise rather than a vow.

Over the years, I wondered about confession, birth control, the role of women in the Church and the indictment of gays. But who was I to question? My rude spiritual awakening continued. So much of our religion had nothing to do with actual doctrine. Throughout history evil, greed, sexism and bigotry shaped much of what now constitutes Catholic “T”radition. And if I doubted history, then I had my days at the Archdiocese of Philadelphia as proof.

My favorite childhood parish priest ran off with the third grade teacher. The priest who renewed my parents’ wedding vows has since married a former nun. They are now both Lutheran ministers. Then came the sickening discovery that a priest, who had taken my husband, his brothers and other boys on childhood camping trips, had been a pedophile, known as such to the archdiocesan administration for decades. While my husband and his brothers were unharmed, others were not so lucky. I’m infuriated with the hierarchy who condoned a legacy of depression, suicide and depravity. I find them to be as evil, if not more so, than the priest pedophiles. To add insult to injury, the absurd apologies that accompanied recent settlements enrage me.

I now realize it is my God-given right and responsibility to question. As in politics, if I’m to complain then must I participate? But this isn’t about government. This is my soul. With whom do I register my complaint? What do I do here and now if I want to actively take part in my religion?

I send my children to parochial school and will send them through Catholic education until they reach college. Catholics do an incredible amount of good. I have no doubt God is present in what Catholic Charities and Catholic schools accomplish. There are dedicated priests tainted by the scandal of others. There are faithful followers trying to live good lives. I do separate my faith from my religion, as my mother suggests. My father would argue that Catholicism has endured centuries just fine. Who am I to argue the finer points?

But I find that lack of spiritual evolution sad. I’m by no means suggesting that other religions have it over Catholics. Having written for The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Living Religion section, I covered many faiths. Some people believe that any organized religion is going to lead to corruption. Where does that leave society? There’s a desperate need for faith and organized religion. Yet, church pews are emptier and fewer people are entering religious orders. Apathy, rather than reform, has taken hold. So much competes for our attention and, yes, sometimes we are lazy. But instead of walking away from organized religion, we need to fix it. It’s not the sins of the past and present Church that concern me — it’s the Church of the future, or the lack there of.

I want my children to experience the peace that comes with belief. I don’t want to rob them of their faith. The Church may do that soon enough.

My son deserves more. He deserves his saints — the ones I’ve lost.

No comments: