On Politics: Were too many afraid to challenge priests and bishops?


A member of the clergy prays the rosary as he waits for Pope Francis to arrive at St. Patrick’s Cathedral for evening prayer service in New York in 2015. – Mary Altaffer | AP file photo

Like many Americans my relationship with Roman Catholicism can best be summed up by two words: “it’s complicated.”

I was the product of a “mixed marriage,” as they called the union between a Protestant wife and a Catholic husband in 1962. Non-Catholic friends teased my mother that marrying a Catholic meant she was obliged to vote for Kennedy and sooner or later America would start taking orders from the pope.

In fact, she would proudly have cast her first presidential vote for Kennedy in 1964 — had he survived — and was reasonably comfortable with many aspects of Catholicism.

Except she and my father did not get married in the Catholic church; they were wed by a Lutheran pastor.

It turns out my father wasn’t that enthusiastic of a Catholic. And while my mother — raised a Baptist — had often considered converting, she had one major sticking point: A solidly Protestant upbringing left her with serious misgivings about confession, and the idea that a mortal man had the ability to dispense forgiveness of sins.

In short, the power and influence of priests concerned her.

So the “mixed” couple were married at the Lutheran church down the street — because the pastor would do it, which was a very American compromise — and that’s where my brother and I were both christened years later.

My brother and I also attended a Catholic high school and Catholic colleges, however. This was a another compromise — with our Catholic paternal grandmother — but we were both willing and enthusiastic.

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Some of the finest educators I have ever known were nuns, priests and members of the Christian Brothers order, and I always proudly earned As in religion class.

So it’s probably no shock that most of my friends and coworkers have been Catholic, including here at the Times Leader. And yet, to this day, I am not.

Like my mother, I had some reservations. Not questions of bigotry or animosity, but theology, dogma, and periods of religious doubt that transcended denomination.

My admiration for the faith and the faithful has never waned, however.

When the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report was revealed last Tuesday, I grieved with my friends and colleagues. The news was devastating, and my mind turned back to favorite teachers and professors in New York State with the silent prayer: “I hope they weren’t like that.”

But I also had the perspective of viewing the situation as an outsider — a sympathetic and relatively close outsider, but an outsider nonetheless.

Were too many people too afraid to challenge the power and influence of priests and bishops?

As I read through decades of Scranton Diocese abuse allegations contained in the report, a troubling subplot began to emerge: Undue deference paid to clergymen by other officials when allegations of sexual abuse arose.

There were at least two instances in which police officers allegedly took abuse reports to bishops instead of the law. In one case, it involved the officer’s own child.

In other cases, complainants who had every reason to go to the police took their complaints directly to the Diocese of Scranton instead, only to be brushed off.

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Typically, the outcome was internal handling of the situation. Sometimes there was an apology and a payoff; sometimes an apology and an assurance that it wouldn’t happen again.

In far too many cases, the alleged offender was simply free to offend again in a different parish or school or hospital, the grand jury found.

Time after time, Catholics trusted their hierarchy. Time after time, those Catholics were betrayed.

Sexual abuse and cover-ups are not unique to the church, and wanting to believe in trusted leaders is not an exclusively Catholic characteristic. Lest we forget: Penn State. Ohio State. USA Gymnastics. The entertainment industry. Big-name TV anchors.

But the Catholic Church isn’t a college football team or a broadcaster. It is an essential part of our community and heritage, with important roles to play at every stage of life. It is an institution many of our families have belonged to and relied upon for hundreds of years.

Did blind faith allow these abuses to continue for so long? Were too many people, including some in power, unwilling to believe or just unwilling to challenge an organization that held such sway over so many lives?

Make no mistake, the Catholic journalists at this newspaper, and other reporters I know here in Northeastern Pennsylvania, have covered this story with professionalism and fairness.

As an outsider looking in, it appears that generations of public officials were less professional, less dedicated and less courageous — not to mention less fair to the victims.

That got me thinking about another outsider: Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who is Jewish. He is far from the first prosecutor to go after predator priests and their enablers, though he certainly has done so with zeal through this grand jury.

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Some may say Shapiro is an ambitious young politician who likely has his eyes set on higher office, or that he simply didn’t respect the church as a Catholic would.

If that’s what it takes to finally expose decades of abuse and cover-ups, so be it.

A member of the clergy prays the rosary as he waits for Pope Francis to arrive at St. Patrick’s Cathedral for evening prayer service in New York in 2015.




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