I’ve read with interest the dozens of op-eds, blogs and social media posts since the Aug. 14 release of the Pennsylvania grand jury report detailing Catholic priest atrocities against more than 1,000 children over a 70-year period. Everyone says things need to change, but no one is offering exactly how Catholics can get change in a centuries old, hierarchical, patriarchal institution — or at least they’re are not willing to say it out loud.
So, I will: Stop donating to the Church, immediately, and for as long as necessary.
I call for this radical act as someone who has tithed every Sunday since my confirmation at age 14. That’s 45 years of monthly offerings to our local parish as well as the Annual Catholic Appeal from the bishop’s office. Even when my husband and I were struggling to put shoes on our kids’ feet, I insisted we give to the Church.
I’ve also served my tail off volunteering as a music minister, lector, parish council member, CCD teacher, youth group leader, confirmation sponsor and godparent. I’ve painted Catholic preschools, trained altar servers, organized parish-wide Advent dinners, been a retreat speaker, gutted houses with youth groups in Katrina-ravaged New Orleans and listened to hundreds of Our Fathers and Hail Marys recited by tiny second-graders as I supervised their sacramental preparation.
In other words, I’m not a just-on-Sunday Catholic and never have been. Catholicism runs through my veins like blood, it defines me culturally as much as religiously. The faith saved me from a difficult childhood through the care of amazing nuns and compassionate priests, and I found my original calling as a journalist specializing in religion through first writing for the Catholic press.
But right now, the institution is pushing me over the edge, because I know (as does every Catholic with a shred of honesty in her bones) that these new revelations of cover-ups of priestly abuse are not just about Pennsylvania. It was Boston before this and Tucson and Portland and Spokane and Fairbanks and Duluth and Gallup and Milwaukee and on and on.
And so, Catholics must to have a come-to-Jesus moment with their conscience and realize that if the Church is to be saved, salvation won’t come from our leaders. It will come when the righteously rage-filled laity are fully heard, and I’m brokenhearted to say we will only be heard if enough of us withhold our money.
What normally stops Catholics from taking this drastic action is that we tend to be good people with hearts for the poor. “But the Church does such good,” we say, beating our chests, worried about schools closing and hospitals going without medicine.
If this is your concern, take your donation directly to those entities. You can give without going through a diocesan or parish fund. Cancel your donations to the local bishop’s appeal and stop giving at your parish. Write an email to your bishop and pastor explaining why you are no longer tithing so there’s no doubting your intentions. It is especially critical that large donors draw a line in the sand and not be swayed by calls from Church leaders.
And then, when we have the hierarchy’s attention, we can help lead it to difficult but necessary adjustments to prevent this nightmare once and for all. Five recommendations:
- Remove the statute of limitations for those abused by clergy. Bishops who accept this will show they truly care about the people of God more than the institution. Those who fight it demonstrate the opposite.
- Eliminate mandatory celibacy. This is discipline, not doctrine, and can be reversed. Because lifelong celibacy is often unattainable, priests violate that vow in some form or fashion and their guilt causes them to look the other way on fellow priests’ sins, including those involving minors. As one priest once told me, “It amounts to ‘I don’t call you on your sin and you ignore mine’.”
- Establish a minimum age of 30 for entering seminary. Young men who do the difficult emotional development of their 20s surrounded primarily by other men in the secrecy of seminaries rarely turn out with the balance and maturity necessary to lead congregations of intelligent parishioners. This is especially key if mandatory celibacy remains.
- Open the secret archives in every diocese. Catholics aren’t scandalized by the truth; we’re are scandalized by a false “protection” by the hierarchy. We deserve to know what happened, when, and who knew about it.
- Most importantly, get women — mothers in particular — on panels evaluating candidates for seminary and ordination, on committees examining accusations of abuse and the bishop’s response, and on diocesan priest councils. Women must be in every room where decisions are made, and their voices need to have equal weight to clergy. No more “advisory only” committees. Any woman who is nominated by her peers — not her pastor — should be accepted to these positions.
Yes, there are outstanding priests and bishops out there. But, after decades of interviewing clergy and being a confidant to more than one priest, I am here to tell you the institution bends toward a Good Old Boy Club that protects its own no matter what — and even those outstanding priests and bishops seem blind to that fact. The patriarchy simply must end.
The Sunday after the grand jury report was released, I walked out of Mass midway because I couldn’t believe it didn’t begin with prayers for forgiveness for the grand jury revelations, or that the homily didn’t mention it and that there were no prayers for victims during the Prayers of the Faithful. I was nauseated by the tone-deafness of it all — especially since the visiting priest, now retired, had once overseen a predator priest in Tucson. I was overwhelmed by grief, so I left.
On my way out, I saw two mothers with pre-teen children. It took all my self-control, everything I had in me, not to walk up to them and say, “Never, ever leave your child alone with any priest, at any time, for any reason.”
It is horrific that I felt that urge — the impulse to warn, the compulsion to protect — especially because I so love my faith and because many priests have been good to me and my family. But there is simply no other appropriate response after the grand jury report. If you’re not enraged at an institution protecting a priest who impregnated a young girl and then pressured her to get an abortion or another who instructed his adolescent male victims to rinse their mouths with holy water after forcing them into fellatio, you are sleep-walking through your Catholicism.
So, I’m with the 30-something Catholic blogger I read recently who said we need to burn it down, then build it back up. And the first step to light that fire is closing our wallets.