In the midst of last week’s long-time-coming lawsuit avalanche filed by people who say they were victims of sexual abuse by Catholic priests, a friend raised an interesting point.
Through the Child Victims Act, some of the plaintiffs were allowed to file anonymously, meaning they were permitted to keep their names a secret. But the men they accused were identified by name. My friend said that didn’t seem fair.
A two-word response immediately popped into my head. One of those words was: “Tough.” (Decorum prevents me from printing the other one.)
The Catholic Church and its leaders do not deserve an ounce of sympathy. Consider for a moment the centuries of damage inflicted on children, much of it tacitly sanctioned by the inaction of bishops and cardinals, all in the name of avoiding scandal and protecting predators, criminals who should have been in a prison, not on an altar. Then cry me a river flowing with milk and honey about “fairness.”
I say this as a Catholic. Disappointed, disillusioned and disgusted, but still a Catholic.
It took me a lifetime to get to this point. A year ago this week, The News published an open letter I wrote, in which I expressed horror that my church, which is like my family, had systematically looked the other way while countless innocent lives were being destroyed. My reason was the release of a Pennsylvania grand jury report documenting decades of despicable acts by hundreds of priests, yet another in a string of criminal and journalistic investigations that kept finding the exact same thing: abuse followed by denial followed by cover-up.
The previous year also brought to light the names of dozens of priests in the Buffalo Diocese who were accused of abuse and never made to pay for their crimes, names that never would have come out without relentless pressure from members of the Buffalo media.
Church leaders all the way up to the pope have apologized. Local pastors have read statements from Buffalo Bishop Richard Malone or issued their own mea culpas on behalf of their colleagues. I have heard so many pleas for forgiveness at church in the past year that I started to think The Apology was a part of the Mass.
But sorry is just a word, if it is not followed by action. I haven't seen action. I have seen lip service that feels an awful lot like, "We said we were sorry and we meant it. Now let's put this unpleasantness behind us and move on."
And yet unlike millions of people who saw what the church allowed and chose to walk away, I have stayed. I still go to Mass every week and have no intention of stopping because I believe in what Catholicism is supposed to be – Google “Jesus words and teachings” – not what men have allowed it to become.
For that reason, it also has been a year since I have put any money in a weekly collection, and it’s why I did not donate a cent to the Catholic Charities drive this year.
Both were painful decisions, but I don’t feel like I have a choice. I’m not going to financially support this enterprise as it is now being led. I am much like a stockholder in a once-great company that has lost its way. I still believe in the product, but I also believe the people running the business are leading it to ruin. So I’m not selling my shares, but I’m not buying any more until I see some meaningful changes. And I’m definitely speaking up at the meetings.
My decision was a personal one. But I have company.
My colleague Jay Tokasz reported in June that giving at area Catholic parishes is down since last August, the month the Pennsylvania grand jury report came out. And in July of this year, officials announced that the annual Catholic Charities appeal – at one time known as “the drive that never fails” – failed, coming up more than $1.5 million short of its $11 million goal. It was the first time since 2010, just after a national recession, that the appeal fell short of the goal.
“People are just angry, and they’ll express their anger by a decrease in their contributions,” Monsignor Robert E. Zapfel, pastor of St. Leo the Great Church in Amherst, told Tokasz.
My approach is being encouraged by Stephen Parisi, who resigned from Christ the King Seminary, partly because of his disgust over the way the sex abuse scandal has been handled in the Buffalo Diocese.
“Stop putting (money) in the basket,” he told WKBW-TV. “That is the only way the bishop and the church as a whole is going to pay attention.”
The church had better be worried that what so far has been an individual decision could turn into a movement, especially when combined with a trend that should be equally disturbing to the church hierarchy: the loss of members.
The Pew Research Center in 2014 found that the share of Americans who are Catholic declined from 24% in 2007 to 21% that year. (I don't have up-to-date numbers, but the smart money is on that number continuing its decline.) The same study found that Catholicism has experienced a greater net loss due to religious switching than any other religious tradition in the United States. Overall, 13% of all U.S. adults are former Catholics.
Some people in Western New York think the answer is to remove Bishop Malone. I get that, but I'm not sure what good it would do. If I may continue my tortured business analogy, the problem is not the manager of a branch office who is a few paychecks away from retirement. It’s much deeper than that. The changes have to be as well.
Not another committee. Not another apology. Not more listening sessions.
If I had a vote, I would push for historic changes: allowing priests to marry and finally allowing women to become priests. The same Pew study from 2014 found that roughly 60% of Catholics support those ideas. Maybe it’s time to say to the faithful, “We have heard you. We want to be a church for the 21st century, not the first.”
Spare me the emails and online comments quoting the Bible that you say forbid these radical changes, unless you can also quote the chapter and verse where it says, "Be sure to avoid scandal by protecting child molesters."
I won’t hold my breath that the church will do what it needs to do to save itself. This is the same organization, after all, that took until the 1960s to realize that having the priest say Mass with his back to the congregation and in a foreign language was not exactly moving the needle.
But it needs to do something huge and meaningful to reverse generations of damage that have been done. And it better do it soon, before the collection baskets get even emptier than the pews.