Alice McDermott has heard the clergy’s mea culpas and the Pope’s call for church-wide rituals of penitence. Renowned for novels imbued with the themes and essence of her Catholic faith, the writer can imagine the prayerful solemnity and stirring spectacle of such a healing rite.
But forgive her skepticism.
“A bunch of men in red hats and red skirts saying they’re sorry about it isn’t going to cut it,” McDermott said. “There needs to be a call for a sea change, and I’m not hearing that.”
Since the release this month of the nearly 900-page grand jury report detailing decades of child sex abuse by hundreds of priests in Pennsylvania, Catholics everywhere have been wrestling with what they see as a crisis in their faith.
“The hope is to have our voices heard,” said McDermott, who lives in Bethesda and is a longtime professor at the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars. “We need full participation, or the church will fall. It is as dire as that.”
Catholics who have worked their way through a series of scandals over the years and are wearying of defending how they can remain in the church say the latest revelations feel like a turning point, even a crucible, that demands a reckoning on every level.
Doing nothing, some say, feels complicit.
“I can’t tell you how upset I’ve been over this whole situation,” said Barbara Bury, of Ellicott City, a retired nurse and lifelong Catholic. “This has made me feel I can’t sit there anymore. My staying is saying I’m OK with this.
“We probably should have some communal penance, including me,” she said. “I’ve just sat in the pews for too long.”
And so she prayed, as she always has. But she also acted.
Bury went into her online Faith Direct account, which for her has replaced the envelopes of cash traditionally collected at Sunday Mass, and specified that her contributions go only to her own church for expenses such as its upkeep — and not to the Archdiocese of Baltimore.
“I do not want them paying for settlements and hush money for people not to talk,” Bury said. “I don’t want them defending priests that have abused children. I am done with that.”
The Archdiocese has paid at least $10.6 million in settlements related to abuse accusations in the past 35 years. That money has come from insurance and reserves rather than Archdiocesan or parish general funds, said Sean Caine, a spokesman for the Archdiocese.
In the wake of the Pennsylvania report, Caine said Archbishop William E. Lori has been reaching out to members of the Catholic community to be “present” for them during a troubling time. Starting this weekend, he will celebrate Masses at various churches, and stay afterward to speak with parishioners, Caine said. After Labor Day, he’ll have a series of meetings with auxiliary bishops, priests, deacons, school principals and teachers and lay leaders of parishes, Caine said.
Meanwhile, church members are taking matters into their own hands as well. Bury is among those who have signed a letter that has been circulating on websites and social media, asking U.S. bishops to “prayerfully and genuinely consider submitting to Pope Francis their collective resignation,” as did their counterparts in Chile after a sex abuse scandal there.
By the end of the week, the letter, which originated on the Daily Theologian website, had drawn more than 5,000 signatures — from teachers and professors, lay leaders, activists and parishioners.
Bury, whose daughter worships at St. Bartholomew’s in Bethesda with McDermott, attended an impromptu gathering on Thursday night that the author hosted in her home to brainstorm ways to effect true and meaningful change in the scandal-battered church, McDermott said. yond brainstorming how they can begin to effect true and meaningful change in the scandal-battered church.
McDermott dined last weekend with her “St. Bart’s moms,” a group of women who have been friends since their now-grown children went to the parish school together. As they vented among themselves about the Pennsylvania revelations, McDermott said, she realized who needs to drive the reform effort.
“It really is up to the women in the church, the mothers, who have to step up — the women who make this church possible and yet are barred from full participation,” she said.
She has been “beating this drum” for years, McDermott said, and the current crisis only validates her view of how the church’s ‘misogyny” is at the root of its institutional failures. The Roman Catholic church does not ordain women as priests or other clergy.
“Christianity says we’re all of equal worth in the eyes of God, and the Church says we aren’t,” she said.
“The Church is based on misogyny. You’re basing the church on the male being more valuable than the female,” McDermott said. “You don’t have a church without men. You don’t have the Eucharist without men.
“So of course the hierarchy has to protect these” abusive priests, she said.
Angela Russell Christman, a theology professor at Loyola University Maryland, also signed the letter asking the bishops to consider resigning. She said such an offer would acknowledge that church leaders allowed abuse to go on, to great damage to children and the church as a whole.
“If the bishops wanted to show they love Christ and the body of Christ, they would make the most radical act of repentance, and that would be to resign en masse,” she said.
After the Chilean bishops offered their resignations, the Pope accepted only a handful of them, which is what Christman said she would expect to happen here. But she said each bishop must allow for the possibility that his resignation would be accepted.
“They would release their hold on power,” she said. “It would be the truest form of repentance for their failure to act, which was the result of a desire to hold on to power.
“It would also be an acknowledgement that the church is not the house of bishops, the Conference of Bishops,” Christman said. “It would be an acknowledgement that the church is the body of Christ, and does not depend on any one bishop holding on to power.”
Christman said the revelations in the grand jury report were stomach-turning. All sexual abuse is by its nature violent, she said, but what happened to many of the children, such as the boy who suffered spinal injuries from repeated rapes, is truly horrifying, and demands far-reaching reform.
“My biggest fear is if bishops think they can just talk about reform and come up with a few things that are minor at best, it will damage the church’s credibility even more,” Christman said. “The pews will be even emptier in the future.
“I think that the protests of the laity, of the priests who are living in accord with their vows, they need to be heard.”
As child sex abuse scandals have mounted over the years, Catholics say they have considered leaving the church, and watched as fellow parishioners have walked.
Bury said she has been through crises of faith, after the Boston scandal depicted in the movie “Spotlight,” after the A. Joseph Maskell abuse allegations at Archbishop Keough High School in Baltimore that inspired the Netflix series, “The Keepers.” But she kept the faith — this is the church that educated her, from elementary to nursing school, it is where she was married and her children were baptized. Her son’s and daughter’s spouses converted to Catholicism, and her five grandchildren go to Catholic schools.
“This is embedded in us,” Bury said. “I really love my church. I love going to Mass. I really do like the community of it.”
Still, what happened in Pennsylvania shook her, and she needs to see “big changes.” She is heartened that her parish of 25 years, the Church of the Resurrection in Ellicott City, is having a meeting on Monday so members can discuss the grand jury findings.
Monsignor John Dietzenbach, the pastor of Bury’s church, said he understands what Catholics are going through.
“It’s extremely painful,” he said. “Even though this has happened before, it’s like it’s still raw.”
“It’s painful for parishioners, to hear their friends saying, ‘Why are you still there?’ Everyone is put on the defensive about their faith, for something that is hard to defend.
“There are so many reasons to be part of the church that are still valid,” Dietzenbach said. “The sacraments, the liturgy — those don’t change.”
He said that in the years since child abuse scandals have erupted in multiple dioceses, the church has tried to correct its mistakes.
“I don’t think we’re the same church we were 30, 40 years ago,” he said.
The report has been particularly wrenching for many Marylanders for its accusation that Baltimore’s Cardinal William H. Keeler, during his time as bishop of Harrisburg, failed to act on reports of priests having abused children. Keeler, who died last year, had won praise in Baltimore for, among other efforts, releasing the names of priests in the archdiocese who had been accused of sexual abuse.
“I loved Cardinal Keeler,” said Dietzenbach, who has spent his entire 38 years in the priesthood in Maryland.
In the wake of the Pennsylvania revelations, the Baltimore archdiocese has decided that it will no longer name a new school under construction after Keeler as originally planned.
Dietzenbach, who plans to read the entire report, said it seems harsh to drop Keeler’s name from the school, but he understands that the church has to have “zero tolerance” for abuse.
Maria Smaldone, a graduate student at the University of Maryland School of Social Work in Baltimore, said the church needs to restore the trust it has broken with its members.
Smaldone also signed the letter calling on the bishops to consider resigning.
The Pennsylvania scandal “is another sign there’s something rotten in the church hierarchy,” she said. “But it’s the institution, not the faith.
Smaldone recently completed two years as a member of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, a service group akin to AmeriCorps, but based on Catholic values. She worked on a housing program in Los Angeles, and then as a case manager for the Beans & Bread program for the homeless in Baltimore.
She and other volunteers, many of whom are, like her, in their 20s, “very much love their faith and the traditions of the church.”
“They seem to come from a background of wanting to try to reform the church from within,” Smaldone said. “People have hope for it.”
Like others, she says she doesn’t know what shape the reforms should take — only that they need to address the root causes of the abuse and subsequent coverups — and that the cure has to be on every level.
“Just as the individual survivors have to heal,” Smaldone said, “the institution has to heal on a macro level.”