I was an infant when baptized a Roman Catholic. Went to Catholic grammar school, was married in the church, sent my only child to Catholic grammar school (and three of his four years of high school), was extremely active in my parish (particularly when it came to fund-raising) and went to mass faithfully almost every week (contributing generously), until the current cardinal got so ugly over gay marriage in Illinois. It was only in late 2012 that I stopped attending mass because I did not want to give any money to that mean-spirited effort.
Why am I telling you all this? So you realize that I am not and never was someone who is out to “get” the church, as critics of the sexual abuse tragedy and what we saw as the mishandling by the Archdiocese of Chicago often have been labeled. I loved the church and participating in it. But I could not be silent on the abuse of children and what I always felt was a massive effort to hide the problem. And now, after reading through the documents detailing sexual abuse by priests that were released on Wednesday, it makes me sick to see I was right, though I had no idea how widespread was the archdiocese’s efforts to hide the problem and protect the abusing priests rather than the children.
While many Catholics (among them Catholic priests) appreciated that I would write candidly about the situation, others (particularly those within the hierarchy of the archdiocese) took great issue with what I was writing. Why do you have to stir up old wounds, I would hear repeatedly. There was enough of a backlash that I stopped being a lector at my parish, something I found very fulfilling, because I did not want my outspoken columns to cause a problem there.
There were hours of soul-searching. I’d stand in front of my favorite statue of Mary and pray, concerned that I was doing wrong. Many times I’d prepare a column from home late at night, because I knew there would be tears streaming down my face as I wrote. But I’d put the self doubt aside because I’d think of the innocent children who were harmed and remember the words that rang in my ears from one victim: “As a result, I lost faith.”
Oh, to lose your faith, really to have it taken from you, an innocent child, was to me such a tragedy. Someone had to be their voice, and since I had a column, I knew I had to write about this terrible situation and hope that somehow my words would have a role in correcting it.
After one column appeared, I was invited to archdiocese offices to hear from a group of laypeople who work with the victims of abuse and who now have very specific programs in place to make sure there are safeguards so the sexual abuse of children does not occur anymore. An editor asked, you sure you want to go to this, and I decided, yes, I did. Let them have their say.
It was an off-the-record conversation, and they were a sincere group, dedicated to getting help for people who had been harmed by Catholic priests. Often what is pointed out as safeguards put in place are from 2002. The only time it got really uncomfortable was when I asked, ‘then how did Father Daniel McCormack happen?’ (He was arrested, eventually charged with abusing five boys, in 2010.) While I remember getting one very hateful look across the table, we then had a discussion of that particular case. (Documents from the McCormack case are not included in the documents released Wednesday.)
When it was all over they asked if I wanted to write something about their work with abuse victims. Maybe. And I came back to the office and did start writing something. But in the end I shelved it.
Why? Because as much as I believed they were sincere, I couldn’t shake the thought that despite their best efforts the laypeople in these jobs were not the problem. The cardinals, bishops, priests were the problem. In all of this, what has bothered me most was the cover-up by the religious men of my faith. And I know I am not the only Catholic who feels this way. Why oh why did you leave our children in harm’s way? We trusted you, our children looked up to you, and you let them be hurt in a way that can and often does last a lifetime.
You look at these documents, and it is very hard to believe the defense the archdiocese has used over the years: we didn’t know what we were doing was wrong. Baloney. Over and over you see in these documents how they moved the priests in question from this parish to that one and always after something else had happened. That pattern was repeated over and over again at the expense of children.
I remember how I adored our parish priests. I’ve written before in columns about always running up to Father Matthew as a young child and begging him, bless me, Father, bless me. My affection and trust of the parish priests was the feeling the poor victims most likely shared. For after all, sexual predators of children work first to gain their trust. These abusive priest had that easily and not only did they abuse it, so did the church leaders that let these actions continue over and over again.
That underlying feeling that they were more interested in saving the church’s reputation and cared more, as these documents show, about how the abusers might be impacted by the revelation of what was done, always was with me.
I was right. And it feels awful to know that.