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Church in Crisis

Slowly toward hope

Dear Tom,

It’s been about 30 years since we last saw each other so I won’t assume that you remember me. … In brief, I have a wonderful wife and four great children ranging in age from 22 to 7. Yes, all with the same wife. Perhaps in a near-future letter I can give you a thorough review of the past three decades. However, the purpose of this writing is to vent some of my endless frustration over the church’s handling of its current scandal.

I have long since realized that a letter like this to my cardinal or anyone in the church hierarchy would, if responded to at all, result in some spiritual directive that I pray for the victims as well as the sinners. Such counsel comes up way too short for me.

In a kind definition I would be described as a “cafeteria Catholic.” For years, I chastised myself for my loss of belief in the process of the sacrament of penance, for my agreement with the use of artificial forms of birth control and for my increasing disenchantment with many of our church leaders. In the past few years, however, I have come to realize that I am very much in the mainstream of today’s American Catholics. I can always use a little redemption, but I believe that if I try to live each day as a better person I will somehow manage to slip between the Pearly Gates even if I received Communion a few thousand times without fasting for an hour before.

It is at this crossroads in my spiritual life that I am for the first time confronted with being ashamed to be a Catholic. There have been times in the past when I was embarrassed to be a part of this Roman monarchical religion. Learning of the pope’s indifference to the Holocaust as it unfolded is an example. But not until now have I ever been totally ashamed to claim to be a Catholic. My belief in God is a Christian belief, as is my acceptance of an eternal spiritual existence. My constant desire, yet often failed actions, to treat all people equally well comes from Christ, not from Rome or Philadelphia. In short, I live to be Christian while I fill out those Catholic offertory envelopes. I have two young children to whom I want to impart a “religion.” I want to set a good example for them but cannot bring myself to assure them that being Catholic is a necessary part of their salvation. Have pedophile priests caused this change in me? No, although their sins may well have stressed my shaky beliefs in this shaky institution. What has brought me to the point of trying to trade all my old holy cards for vintage baseball cards has been the church hierarchy’s handling and cover-up of this debacle.

In just a few weeks I have been bombarded with Cardinal Bernard Law’s excuses that poor record keeping allowed a pedophile priest to move to California with a glowing recommendation from the good cardinal. I have heard the cardinal of Philadelphia split hairs over the fact that many of the victims were in their teens and therefore these acts were not truly pedophilia.

I have heard Law’s buddies declare that these errors happened “on his watch,” so he wants to stay around to correct them. The military context of the “on my watch” phrase has always been followed by a superior officer’s resignation. The general might say, “I didn’t know anything about this but since it happened on my watch, I will do the honorable thing and resign.” Since priests can’t relate to lay people, it’s not surprising that they can’t relate to the military code of honor. Law should resign immediately because he was an accessory to many molestations committed by priests whom he knew, or should have known, were pedophiles.

Bevilacqua of Philadelphia should be removed for his idiotic opinion that once you’re confirmed you’re no longer jailbait for a padre with a roaming eye. You’re sort of a semi-consenting adult, I guess.

In the midst of this mess my pastor claimed that a child is more likely to be molested at home (by his or her parents, I suppose) than by a priest. I’ll take my chances at home. Sure enough, the next week a priest formerly assigned to St. Ann’s in Phoenixville, Pa., resigned as a pastor in Philadelphia because while at St. Ann’s he repeatedly molested a then-15-year-old boy.

What’s at work here is a good ol’ holy boy network taking care of his own at the cost of hundreds of bodies and minds and several millions of your dollars and mine. There is a subconscious (at least) contempt for the laity by the all-male clergy of this organization, which I once called my church.

Our role is to contribute, to be contrite and to be quiet. What shame we all bear for those poor young men who would keep the secrets that the good fathers told them to keep. For generations we have doled out respect, not because it was earned but because it came in a collar.

So where do we go from here, my old friend? I’m checking out those Presbyterians who seem to have their act together. Perhaps I can make some great business contacts in that Calvinist setting. Or perhaps you and I can be co-popes of the new Catholic church in America. I’d have women priests (who came first, a woman or a priest?), artificial birth control but no abortion, and lay committees to handle all the money and a parish board to hire and fire pastors. This sounds so Martin Luther-esque. I do think we need a good reformation every 500 years or so.

It’s late, Tom, and I need a good rest. I pray that your white hair is from wisdom, not worry. I hope you are well. I yearn for the good old days when the sinner and the confessor were two different people. “Bless you, Father, for you have sinned.”

Our children are the greatest blessing on this earth. You and I know this as we feel that bond between father and child. How can a childless man ever know the depth of that bond? How can childish men be the judges of the depth of the hurt their brothers have caused?

Please continue to give the laity an avenue through which to vent this anguish, in which to perhaps find a solution to this destructive scandal.

Sincerely yours,
Jack Purcell

National Catholic Reporter, May 31, 2002