e-mail us


Why I Am (Still) a Catholic


Editor’s Note: The University of Illinois Press has just published a revised soft cover edition of Lead Us Not Into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children by New Orleans author Jason Berry. The paperback edition features a new introduction by the author and a new foreword by Fr. Andrew M. Greeley. First published in 1992, Berry’s book, an investigation of clergy child sexual abuse, grew out of articles published in the Lafayette, La., weekly The Times of Acadiana, and the National Catholic Reporter. The book received awards from the Religion Public Relations Council and the Catholic Press Association. In this essay, Berry discusses the impact that the writing of the book had on his own faith.

Media Rites

Lead Us Not Into Temptation appeared during a storm of news reports about pedophile priests and positioned me as a critic of bishops with a fortress-church mentality. In 1992, the church had lost $400 million in legal and medical costs from cases involving 400 priests. Today more than 1,000 priests have been involved in legal action, according to Dallas attorney Sylvia Demarest, who has kept a database.

Fr. Andrew Greeley, in a 1993 article, estimated that 100,000 men and women had been abused by 2,500 priests -- 6 percent of priests in the United States. Financial losses have reached $1 billion, according to Fr. Thomas Doyle, who in the mid-1980s as the canon lawyer for the Vatican Embassy in Washington entreated bishops to form a response policy. Ostracized by church leaders, Doyle played a heroic role in the book. Today he is a military chaplain and testifies on behalf of victims against the church.

The book had a role in moving some dioceses to form review boards and to respond compassionately to those making accusations, and to see that abusers received medical treatment without being shielded from the courts. The good news, I suppose, is that most bishops learned it is dangerous to recycle pedophiles. Yet in a church desperate to ordain unmarried males, seminaries draw from a restricted pool of candidates and attract many men with psychosexual conflicts, as well as a disproportionate number of gays. (I do not imply an equation of pathology and sexual orientation.) This situation won’t change as long as celibacy is the law. A calcified power structure does not reform itself.

As the book became a reference text in newsrooms, I was much in demand for interviews. Becoming an expert, a public-anyone, answering questions posed by Katie, Oprah and others gave me a mingled sense of achievement and detachment. I was glad my work was taken seriously. Yet as I attacked church leaders for a culture that harbored child molesters, no interviewer ever asked: “With all that you’ve dug up, why are you a Catholic?”

That question followed me into green rooms, the waiting area in TV studios, as I sat in chairs where makeup artists cosmetized my face and assistant producers hovered in the wings. Was there a rush in all that attention? Sure. But I knew that in this image-besotted country it doesn’t matter what people are famous for as long as they show up at the studio. I knew that clergy sex abuse had finite limits in the flow of news. The media would eventually lose interest. I would go on to other projects.

Still, I received more than Andy Warhol’s proverbial 15 minutes of fame. I was interviewed on the three network news broadcasts; CNN; “Today”; “Good Morning America”; “20/20”; documentaries on CNN, BBC and A&E; daytime talk shows; and by satellite for far-flung network affiliates. I flew to distant airports where limousines met and delivered me to hotels where I never paid a bill.

Throughout all that, one question worried me.

You, a Catholic? Why?

Just in case it was ever asked, I had a sound bite: “Well, we didn’t give up on democracy because of Watergate, and I won’t give up on the church because of corrupt bishops.” But nobody asked the question. I finally started using the line in answering other questions. Had anyone probed the issue of my faith I doubt I’d have had the courage to express doubt. In truth I had a great hunger to believe: The betrayal I felt was disproportionately great.

Core issues

The long road of research and writing dislodged my spiritual moorings. Sexual secrets of priests and bishops leaked into my life from cops, nuns, lawyers, detectives, social workers, ex-priests, prosecutors, therapists and a small army of priests driven by moral outrage. At first, the leakage of those secrets stoked a morbid fascination with the internal dynamics of the church, “the sweating surface of a culture that is corrupting,” in the words of Chicago psychologist Eugene Kennedy, a valued source. It was a culture that beckoned a muckraking journalist. Yet as the scope of facts surfaced I, a cradle Catholic, felt a personal disgust and embarrassment about the way the church was run.

As my sense of the church changed, so did my own spiritual interior. The altars, icons, mosaics, narratives and rites of Catholicism have a grace in the mind of faith. I was excavating a second church, a shadow-church that most Catholics rarely encounter, an ecclesiastical culture honeycombed with sexual secrecy.

As I advanced the research through freelance newspaper assignments, two ideas clashed within me: the church I had known and the church I discovered.

Images of myself and others

On Mardi gras night, 1993, I sat in the ABC affiliate, waiting to be interviewed via satellite by “Nightline” in Washington. Wearing my best suit, I watched footage of the day’s parades, and thought about what to say. Finally, I gazed into a camera, unable to see the interviewer, hearing his questions in an earplug. For about eight minutes I gave answers, at one point calling him “Ted,” as if we played golf together.

The travel became surreal: I’d fly off at dawn and be back at dusk the next day, in time to watch the program just taped. One muggy night, I was standing in line at the supermarket, speed-reading The National Enquirer. “You were on ‘Donahue’ today,” said the woman working checkout.

“I was.”

“You done good, baby.”

“Thank you.”

“Phil wear a wig?”

“Not that I could tell.”

“I told my mama his hair was real.”

Camus and ‘the sinned-against’

I saw the survivors of clergy sex abuse as moral witnesses, holding a mirror up to the church. Today that notion may seem quaint, with tabloid TV’s relationship meltdowns that mock the struggle of trauma and recovery. Yet in the early 1990s, as survivors went public on talk shows, they had a catalytic impact on news coverage of the crisis.

Scores of readers contacted me, in letters or by phone, wanting their stories to be heard. I felt oddly like a confessor, or perhaps counter-confessor, hearing the sins of the church. I had no clerical training and, of course, no absolution to give; yet I felt a responsibility to listen, within limits on my time, as I began moving on with my career. The survivors wanted validation of their suffering from the church: apologies, solace, justice.

These encounters intensified the free-fall of my own spiritual life. Raised in a loving home, I felt shaped, as it were, to accept divine love as pristine and durable, despite travails in life or horrors in the world. Yet now, attending Mass, the continuity of my spiritual past sank into a gulf of sadness. I knew too many secrets. Bishops reminded me of mobsters. How does one honor a teaching authority that flouts its own rules?

In a 1986 Commonweal essay, Loyola of New Orleans theologian James Gaffney assessed the declining numbers of people going to confession and attributed it to changing perceptions of sin. Gaffney’s piece had a profound effect on my thinking. The institutional church, he argued, betrayed insensitivity to women and ignorance of married life. “Catholic moral thinking habitually understood sin in relation to sinners more than in relation to the victims of sin,” he wrote. The victims, the sinned-against, did not find solace in the confessionals. I quoted Gaffney in a chapter called “Therapy: The New Confession,” and applied his notion of “the sinned-against” to the survivors whose struggle I found myself chronicling.

My spiritual guide in those years was an agnostic, Albert Camus, the French novelist and political philosopher. His notion of resisting evil, and his emphasis on the search for an ethos of personal responsibility, had sonic boom echoes for me. I carried paperbacks of his works on airplanes, rereading essays first encountered in my 20s. Raised in working class Algeria, Camus became a clandestine journalist in Paris during the Nazi occupation. His essay “The Almond Trees” is a meditation on unjust power. “What we precisely want is never again to bow to the sword, never again to count force as being in the right unless it is serving the mind,” he wrote. I was probing a pathological power structure: Bishops, proclaiming the sanctity of life in the womb, recycled child molesters and approved counterattacks by lawyers on the victims. Theirs was a sword not in service of mind or heart.

Camus’ passionate descriptions of Algerian seas and skies touched memories of my childhood in New Orleans: the feral beauty of sun-streaked banana stalks, mammoth rain clouds, the gorgeous blue after-sky; sensuous palmetto leaves, the riotous flora of yards with Japanese plum trees, jasmine and honeysuckle. The harmony I felt outdoors folded naturally into stories of saints told by benevolent priests and nuns, vivified in stained glass windows; icons that looked like real people, mosaics conveying scenes of Jesus’ life -- all, taken together, formed a spiritual web over my impressionable years.

Childhood memories rolled back on me as I interviewed survivors: There, but for the grace of God, go I. More than a few survivors were like Vietnam veterans with post-traumatic flashbacks. My thoughts occasionally reeled with images of priests molesting kids in sacred spaces -- images drawn from graphic legal testimony.

Was my belief in a loving God the product of sheer fate, a happy childhood? Was faith-as-a-gift some luck of the draw?

Again, Camus: “Our task as men is to find the principles that will calm the infinite anguish of free souls. We must mend what has been torn apart, make justice imaginable again in a world so obviously unjust, give happiness a meaning once more to peoples poisoned by the misery of the century. Naturally, it’s a superhuman task. But superhuman is the term for tasks men take a long time to accomplish, that’s all.”

Recovering from severe childhood abuse is a superhuman task. There is a psychiatric term for the worst ravages of child abuse: soul murder. Embittered by the church, some survivors had no faith; others struggled to regain or redefine it, a struggle with which I identified. If one is taught to believe in a loving God, and that belief is stolen, the promise beyond life is empty. Most appalling to me was the bishops’ silence, a refusal to accept full responsibility and chart a path for change. My issue was not with God, but the men who governed the church. Then why not become a Lutheran or Methodist?

In Camus I found the beginnings of an answer.

“What is a rebel? A man who says no, but whose refusal does not imply a renunciation. … Rebellion cannot exist without the feeling that somewhere, in some way, you are justified. It is in this way that the rebel slave says yes and no at the same time.”

Implicit in my reporting was the existence of another church, a moral presence worth preserving. The problem was the power structure.

In 1990, as research took me to Chicago and Cardinal Bernardin’s attempts at a reform policy, I at last had an end in sight, a conclusion to the narrative begun in Louisiana in 1985. Yet attending Mass was hard; the serenity I had felt in the sacraments was ebbing. I visited empty churches in the afternoon, praying for a sign of God’s approval, trying to just get through it.

A muckraking cue

Lead Us Not Into Temptation is a reporter’s journey across the country, as assignments took me from Louisiana to Washington, Baltimore, Detroit, Cleveland, California and Chicago. The work that most influenced my approach was that of Lincoln Steffens, whose early-20th century exposé of corruption in big city governments earned the term “muckraking.” In his autobiography, Steffens wrote: “I had a theory of graft that I was about to put to a scientific test: that political corruption everywhere was the same.” I followed a similar geographic trail, bent on proving that the concealment of clergy pedophiles in Louisiana was replicated in other dioceses.

In many depositions -- transcripts of pretrial testimony -- church officials involved in pedophilia cover-ups were grilled by plaintiff lawyers about their own sexual activities with consenting adult males. This did not put pedophilia, a pathology, on a par with homosexuality, an orientation. But the documents charted a rationale for secrecy about a range of sexual behavior patterns: cover up, deny, counterattack. There was no shortage of duplicity about priests having sexual relations with women. Yet the perverse irony of the culture, as Andrew Greeley noted in a National Catholic Reporter article, is that transgressions of heterosexual priests drew punishment from bishops, while the behavior of actively gay clerics was quietly ignored. I found the ties between gay men and clerical life to be a kind of schizophrenia in the church’s internal culture.

As if felled by a thunderbolt

In the years I worked on the book I kept telling myself, there is a reason for this -- a reason for the despair at warring images of church within my imagination. In the early stages of reporting, as my articles drew national attention, New York publishers kept rejecting the book-in-progress. My literary agent speculated that Manhattan editors feared retaliation from the church. It was the religion editor at Doubleday, Thomas Cahill, a Catholic, who finally accepted the book. (Cahill later published How the Irish Saved Civilization, and has since become a full-time writer and lecturer.)

With the contract offer in August of 1991, I felt a great weight lifting. Events in Chicago would require some final reporting; the manuscript needed some tightening; but the book was done. I was married then, and my wife was in the final term of pregnancy with our second child. My misgivings about the church had not changed; but as we talked about names for the baby and began house hunting, a chapter of life was closing.

On Oct. 11, Ariel was born, with Down syndrome. I had only a vague sense of the term as the pediatrician explained that our infant daughter would be retarded. We had no advance warning; the insurance had not covered amniocentesis. In the heartache of those early hours, we decided to inform our 7-year-old daughter about the baby’s condition only later, and in gradual stages, so that she would feel joy about her new sister. The budding ballerina pranced down the hall outside the incubation cribs where Ariel slept.

After 18 hours at the hospital, amid sadness and tenderness among family members, I went home in late afternoon to shower and gather items to take back. A Federal Express driver arrived with an envelope from New York: payment for the book, the largest check I had ever received. I told God I would give back every cent to have a normal baby. And then the years of search and anguish came crashing down like a tidal wave. I was enraged at God, in a state that can only be called raw fury, bellowing profanities, cursing God as I fell to my knees, screaming Why? Why? Why? pounding the rug with my fists, sobbing and screaming until a blinding force hit like a thunderbolt, shoving me back against the bed. I realized that Ariel was life, given by God, and at that moment, wallowing in shame, flooded with thoughts of the baby and the sorrow surrounding her arrival, I begged God’s forgiveness, praying to be a good father and provider.

Ariel had a “septic defect,” or perforation in the heart; the cardiologist advised that the heart might perform a natural closure. One hole did close, but another opened. She was so frail, yet with a sweetness and resilience that achieved rare beauty. Her needs were immense. At age 2 she turned blue with pneumonia and went to the hospital. A new cardiologist recommended immediate surgery, cautioning that she might not survive. The alternative was to watch her die slowly. In March 1994, she underwent open-heart surgery at Tulane hospital.

While she was in the ICU, a 7-year-old girl there died of kidney failure. I remember offering words of consolation to the child’s father in the hallway, though I have forgotten what I said. Ariel recovered and went home after a week’s stay.

Ariel is 8 now, with a diagnosis of pulmonary hypertension -- inoperable lung disease. No physician will make a life forecast. Every cold or virus runs the risk of sinking into her chest; she takes several medications, and oxygen as needed. And yet in the last year she has grown an inch and a half, and added 10 pounds.

Her cognitive level is about age 3. In May she finished nursery school, the only Down syndrome child in her class; she begins a special school in the fall. Some Down children with her lung condition have lived into adulthood. Her pediatrician said it best: “I don’t take the view that my patient is dying. She is a child with a life-threatening illness.” The best chance for longevity, the specialists have told us, is in pharmaceutical advances, medicines fostering organic growth of the lungs.

The prayers I said when Ariel was in her infancy were lined with desperation. I went to Our Lady of Guadalupe Church on Rampart Street and the shrine of Saint Jude, patron of hopeless cases. I wanted my daughter to live and be happy. Thus far, those prayers have been answered.

I wish I could say that this child’s indomitable will to live, as more hospitalizations followed, inspired her mother and me to find a new threshold in our relationship. Raising a handicapped child strains the best of marriages, and ours had problems before her birth, which, as time passed, we were unable to resolve. In 1996 we divorced, with a shared custody agreement.

The second church I excavated is still a wretched reality in my life. Perhaps it always will be. But at some point I decided not to let a sleazy power structure rob me of -- what? Being Catholic? Yes, I suppose you could say that. Mass for me is still a complicated experience, though improving. I search for good liturgies. A year ago, I was gazing at a pond in a lovely Mississippi countryside, when a friend asked: “Why don’t you leave the church?”

“Because I haven’t found a spirituality to replace it,” I blurted.

My spiritual interior still has images of greenery, though it is parched with memories of an evil I will carry to the grave. I still get occasional phone calls, mostly from reporters seeking information or a comment when abuse cases arise. I am glad I wrote that book and glad to have gotten beyond it in my work.

In Ariel I learned how unguaranteed life can be. A sense of something primordial and eternal came upon me slowly. I kept praying because I didn’t know what else to do. Through my child I sensed a glimmer of light beyond the sky, a force that can blast you to the knees, something I had only vaguely thought about before -- in the tale of Saul-into-Paul, or in the faith-bewildered characters of Flannery O’Connor, certainly not in muckraking me -- a force outside the self that simply comes, a spirit that upsets all one’s reading and embattled purpose with the swift, sudden mystery of sheer love.

National Catholic Reporter, September 1, 2000