‘As Catholics we have to ask if we have wasted our lives’
After Washington’s archbishop pulled out of his planned World Meeting of Families address amid fresh controversy over alleged covering up of clerical sex abuse, his flock is struggling to cope, writes MICHELLE BOORSTEIN from Washington
She thought about not coming. Disillusioned by the sex abuse scandal once again consuming the Catholic Church, Claartje Bertaut considered skipping last Sunday’s mass for the first time in more than four decades. In fact, she even considered leaving Catholicism.
But the 87-year-old District of Columbia woman sat in the pews last Sunday at the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament — one of the region’s most prominent Catholic churches — as a young, impassioned priest urged more than 200 churchgoers not to lose their faith in God or Catholicism amid a “period of darkness” for the church.
Rev. Alec Scott, Blessed Sacrament’s parochial vicar, apologised for the misdeeds of the clergy.
“For all the frustration this has caused you, I express my condolences,” Scott said. “But without you, reform won’t be possible.”
The congregation in Northwest Washington — moved by his plea — clapped when he finished.
“I never in that church heard the audience applaud a sermon,” said Bertaut, who joined in the ovation. “This was a first.”
It has been a painful summer for faithful Catholics. First, an investigation into widespread abuse in Chile and a cardinal on trial in Australia.
Then, the first-ever resignation of a US cardinal accused of sexual abuse — Theodore McCarrick, Washington’s former archbishop.
And then last week, a Pennsylvania grand jury investigation revealed a systemic cover-up by church leaders of child sex abuse. The report, in graphic victim accounts, detailed alleged abuse by more than 300 priests against 1,000 children over 70 years.
“This has been the summer from hell for the Catholic Church and our sins are blatantly exposed for the world to see,” Vatican adviser Rev. Thomas Rosica wrote last Friday.
Paul Elie, a writer who lectures at Georgetown University’s Berkley Centre, thought that after the revelation of the sexual abuse crisis in 2002 and subsequent blows in the years after, he had lost the ability to feel even more disappointment in his church. He was wrong.
“It affects me profoundly,” he said of the recent scandals.
“A lot of Catholics, we have to ask whether we have wasted our lives following this model of leadership. At this point, the leadership in this country is not credible. The repeated scandals make it difficult or even impossible to pass the faith on to our kids ... I think about it every hour.” The Catholic church has lost more members in recent decades than any other major faith. About 27pc of former Catholics who no longer identify with a religion cited clergy sexual abuse scandals as a reason for leaving the church, according to Pew research in 2015. And among former Catholics who now identify as Protestant, 21pc say the sexual abuse scandals were a reason for leaving Catholicism, Pew says.
Even greater numbers of former Catholics say that they left over the church’s teachings on abortion, homosexuality, contraception, or women.
Surveys have rarely asked about the Catholic Church’s response to the crisis since 2013, when a Post-ABC poll found that 78pc of Catholics disapproved of the way the church had handled the scandal — more than a decade after the Boston Globe investigation prompted the church to overhaul its procedures for rooting out abusive priests.
“It’s almost unsalvageable. The church is in pieces. People have completely separated their faith from the organisation,” said Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University.
As head of a Catholic institution, McGuire said she sees this summer sowing new doubts. “The fact that we thought all the worst had come out already — this is what creates cynicism. People were like: ‘OK, it’s all cleaned up, now we’re moving on.’ ... Now we know: The church is a fallible human organisation.”
For Washington Catholics in particular, last week’s Pennsylvania grand jury report dealt a second blow of the summer, by casting doubt on McCarrick’s successor, the current Washington archbishop Cardinal Donald Wuerl.
Wuerl, whose conduct as bishop of Pittsburgh was scrutinised in the investigation, cancelled his trip to Ireland for the World Meeting of Families and has had his upcoming book’s publication postponed.
And in the pews of his diocese, some are heartsick to read how the report says he handled the abusive priests he supervised.
Matthew Mangiaracina (25) went to mass every day on his lunch break at St Patrick’s in downtown Washington, a church where Wuerl often celebrates mass. But this week, as he read the report, Mangiaracina felt he could never go back to St Patrick’s and face the cardinal.
This week, he stepped tentatively into St Mary Mother of God, the next nearest church to his job at the Family Research Council, to see whether he could find solace in the mass there instead.
Anything associated with the archbishop makes me uncomfortable... It seems pretty damning. I don’t trust him anymore. I’m at a loss”
Scandal: Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, is the first-ever US cardinal to resign due to sexual abuse allegations
Damning report: Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington