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COMMENTARY

Bruce Andriatch: An open letter to my church that I never wanted to write

Dear Catholic Church:

I’ve been your staunch defender for as long as I’ve been able to speak. Credit 17 years in your schools and a family that forced me to try to live the lessons I learned.

When people would ask why I stuck it out with you when so many others had given up on you, I had a ready answer: Show me a religion founded on and dedicated to better principles than the ones you preach, to love one another, take care of the weakest among you, turn the other cheek and forgive your enemies.

Even when you let me down, when you called homosexuality a sin, refused to consider allowing priests to marry and continued to push women away from leadership roles, I disagreed with you even as I stood by you and believed in you. You are my family and that’s what families do: Even when someone screws up, you stand by and defend the family.

I won’t anymore. I can’t.

Maybe this day should have come a lot sooner. I guess it did for a lot of people. All the former churches dotting the landscape and empty pews around me every Sunday speak to that.

I kept clinging to the idea that while it was true that despicable men were committing evil with the power you gave them, the church itself was good and decent and caring. It was led by people who wanted to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, who wanted to help the sick, the poor, the lonely, the forgotten.

I was wrong. I have sadly come to the conclusion that when it really counted, when lives depended on it, you saw your mission as protecting the guilty and condemning the innocent.

For me as I suspect for others, the end came this month in the form of a searing grand jury report in Pennsylvania. It is troubling that I was not the least bit surprised to hear that it found more than 300 priests had engaged in sexual abuse over a period of 70 years. But the worse crime – or, in terms you can appreciate, the mortal sin — is that your leaders, the men who could have done something about it, knew what was happening, did nothing to stop it and then covered it up.

Given the choice between protecting monsters and helping their victims, you chose the monsters, seemingly as a matter of policy.

As reported by the New York Times, the grand jurors found a “playbook” for what church leadership was to do when one of its priests was accused of sexual abuse. It called for using euphemisms so that “rape” could become “boundary issues”; using clergy to investigate other clergy by asking inadequate questions; sending priests for “evaluations” to hand-picked centers where diagnoses could be based on the priest’s “self-reports”; transferring the priest to a new parish; and hiding the truth from the public.

And most importantly, never, ever tell the police.

“While each church district had its idiosyncrasies, the pattern was pretty much the same,” the grand jury report says, according to the Times. “The main thing was not to help children, but to avoid ‘scandal.’ That is not our word, but theirs; it appears over and over again in the documents we recovered.”

We saw the pattern play out in the Boston Globe and in the film that dramatized its work, “Spotlight,” when, for the first time, a church leader was exposed as knowing about and covering up what priests were doing. We have seen examples of it here in Buffalo, with numerous examples of priests being transferred or sent for treatment or put on leave when abuse was alleged or suspected.

I had forgotten until last week one of most compelling parts of “Spotlight,” which comes during the end credits and lists dozens of cities where allegations of abuse by priests had been uncovered.

Or maybe I didn’t forget. Maybe I was holding on to the fantasy that it was a few bad apples. Maybe I didn’t want to believe that my church, my family, could be responsible for this.

I may have made the mistake that people make when they hear that a person they know has been accused of sexual misconduct. They say, “I can’t believe it. I have known him for years and he never did anything like that to me.” My guess is it’s not that they can’t believe it – it’s that they don’t want to believe it.

I know I don’t want to. All of the important moments in my life are connected to you. You have been there for my greatest joys and worst heartaches. I can't think of my life without thinking of you.

The words I have heard in your buildings time and again have always been like a balm for my soul. The song lyrics of my youth that play on in my memory still guide me today. “And they’ll know we are Christians by our love” … “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, that you do unto me” … “Come follow me and I will give you rest.”

But this is not about what you did and do for me. It’s about what you didn’t do for so many others. You ask me to be a missionary for our faith. How in God’s name could I ever tell someone to be a part of an institution that has done what you have done?

The answer is I can’t. You want me to be Christian and forgive you? I’ll tell you what the nuns used to tell me: Being sorry isn’t enough. Actions speak louder than words.

You need to make serious, structural changes, rethink everything and come up with a church for these times and one that responds to crisis, not hides and excuses it. You have avoided this for generations, claiming that such things would go against church teachings, often quoting the Bible to justify your decisions or lack of them. But the words in the Bible didn’t prevent you from looking the other way as children were being molested, so maybe that’s not going to work anymore.

I don’t have a solution for you. And even though I understand why so many of my friends have abandoned you, I will not walk away.

It would be easy to turn my back on you the way you turned your back on countless victims of your crimes, but I won't do that. Your failure was massive, but it is no match for my faith or my capacity to forgive.

A few years ago, I made a promise that I would try to be a better Catholic. For me that started with something small, a pledge to always be at Sunday Mass, which is why even though I am this angry, you will still find me in a church every weekend.

But from now on, when I’m on my knees, I’m going to be saying a prayer for you. It’s going to be a simple one: Please help them to practice what they preach.

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