Growing up Catholic along the Mississippi Gulf Coast in St. Mary’s Parish in Gautier, there were things I came to believe.
I believed the rote nature and mysticism of the Catholic mass were sort of a way of “signing on” to talk to God. I believed few things went together better than a communion wafer and a sip of red wine. I believed some of the Bob Dylan songs my elementary school P.E. teacher played on his acoustic guitar each Sunday were actually hymns.
For a while I also believed all priests were taciturn older gentlemen from Ireland. We had Father Cleary, followed by Monsignor Eamon Mullen and then Father Mike Kelleher — all kind, thoughtful men who seemed just a little sad to me at times. But they were our friends. A couple of homegrown priests came along and shattered my misconceptions about all Catholic men of the cloth coming from the Emerald Isle. They were nice fellows as well, although I still preferred to hear a homily that sounded like it was being delivered by the Lucky Charms leprechaun.
Later, Spring Hill College introduced me to the Jesuits, who were quite different indeed from the quiet Irish priests of my childhood. These guys were highly educated, smart and opinionated. Some of them were masters of philosophy and religion, but others were science and math instructors. My fraternity had Father Gerald Regan as our faculty sponsor, and in his spare time he was one of the area’s experts on bottlenose dolphins. On one occasion President Paul Tipton came out of his fancy Southern home, Stewartfield, to drink keg beer with a few of us. So they were different.
I learned a lot from the Jesuits, especially about not blindly believing in anything — including religion. They were sticklers for looking beneath the surface and urged us all to examine the underpinnings of our most strongly held beliefs. Even to challenge the doctrines of the Church itself.
My lifelong experiences with the Church in general and priests in particular have been overwhelmingly positive, so it’s been hard watching over the years as wave after wave of revelations about priests sexually abusing young people has washed over the Church. Almost daily we are faced with new revelations of horrific behavior by priests, bishops and even cardinals.
And while nothing could be worse than the sexual assaults perpetrated by these sick men, it is the institutional effort to hide or justify their actions that chisels away hardest at the foundations of what most of us believed growing up Catholic. Following a grand jury report in August from Pennsylvania that Church leaders covered up the sexual abuse of at least 1,000 people by more than 300 priests over the past 70 years, the Catholic Church has been rocked. The report also said there were likely thousands of victims who never came forward or were never identified.
Attorneys general have launched similar investigations in at least five other states, meaning it’s likely five more big shoes are going to drop sometime not too far in the future. Meanwhile, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, archbishop of Washington, resigned following revelations he allegedly sexually abused seminarians and a young boy. Even Pope Francis has been accused of helping to cover up McCarrick’s misdeeds.
At the very minimum, it appears almost certain that the last time the College of Cardinals met in Rome to select a new pope, among its 224 members were not only men who helped cover up sexual abuse by priests, but also actual abusers. When that puff of white smoke poured out of the chimney atop the Sistine Chapel, it may well have been symbolic of the torching of the Catholic Church’s sacred bond with more than one billion followers.
The Knights of Columbus have called for “a full and complete investigation of sexual abuse led by an independent commission that includes laity; complete transparency by the Catholic hierarchy into all matters of criminal sexual misconduct, past or future.” It’s a good start. But it’s hard to believe the Church is likely to throw open its records so easily.
In researching last week’s cover story, it was horrifying to read about how known abusers were moved around not only the Archdiocese of Mobile, but around the country. One particular case that stood out was then-Archbishop Oscar Lipscomb traveling to St. Peter’s Parish in Montgomery in 2003 to tell them Fr. J. Alexander Sherlock was being placed on leave because a more recent accusation of sexual abuse had come up. Lipscomb had moved Sherlock to St. Peter’s after the priest admitted to three instances of sexual molestation of boys years earlier.
The Archdiocese of Mobile released a report in 2004 listing 13 priests accused of sexual misconduct, and 18 victims. They also claimed to have paid out $700,000 in settlements, victims’ assistance and other related fees. But only Brother Nicholas Paul “Brother Vic” Bendillo was ever prosecuted, after several accusations arose stemming from the molesting of boys at McGill-Toolen High School.
The diocese’s history of openness when it comes to these matters is pretty shoddy. The Church vigorously fought lawsuits and successfully claimed protection in some cases due to statutes of limitation running out on the victims. Hardly a penitent approach.
An excerpt from a 1995 deposition of Lipscomb coldly sums up the attitude the Church has often presented when it comes to acknowledging the failings of its priests and blaming of victims.
“If I were investigating this from scratch, I would want to know something of what the 14-year-old brought to the situation prior to that,” Lipscomb said. “Is he totally innocent, unspoiled and pure, or is he somebody who in his own way may have invited or even initiated these kind of … I would not know those things until I knew more of the characteristics.”
Mobile’s current Archbishop Thomas Rodi offered assurances the diocese is adhering to measures introduced in 2002, but offered little indication there would be any look back at what happened locally over the past 50 years. And in an interview with Lagniappe last week, Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall firmly passed the buck on any possible efforts to join the states seeking answers, throwing investigative responsibility off on District Attorney Ashley Rich.
One of the Catholic rites I never fell in love with was confession. It never made sense why I needed to tell the priest my sins before I asked God for forgiveness. So I understand the uncomfortable nature of confession. But it’s hard not to see the irony of a Church that places so much emphasis on confession for its adherents not being willing to confess its own sins.
The Catholic Church is engulfed in a crisis of conscience, and its followers in a crisis of faith. Personally, it’s very hard to believe in a Church that would put the perversions of its priests and its money ahead of the wellbeing of its youngest followers. It’s doubtful I, and many others, will ever feel differently until the Catholic Church makes that tough walk into the confessional.