I have become an angry Catholic. While I have been a faithful, life-long member of my church, and a long-time parishioner within the Archdiocese of Baltimore, I don’t think I could get any more cynical about my church’s leadership.
Like a lot of Catholics, I’ve been waiting for church leaders to do something meaningful in response to the sexual abuse crisis. I had high hopes for the Vatican summit earlier this year, which I thought might result in real reforms to address the culture of abuse that has infected the priesthood over the past several decades. Unfortunately this summit offered nothing — not a single concrete step to address this massive problem. During mass that weekend, neither the crisis nor the summit was mentioned, but the Archbishop of Baltimore thought it appropriate to ask for more money as part of the Diocesan Annual Appeal. The timing of this request was tone deaf to say the least.
Last Fall I attended a “town hall” at my local parish. During this meeting, I learned how the Archdiocese of Baltimore is now handling abuse allegations. Their process is admittedly a transparent one, with over 120 abusive priests currently listed on the diocesan website. But that’s 120 priests credibly accused of sexually molesting children, in our diocese alone. The diocesan response, while transparent, is also purely reactive. It does nothing to address the fundamental, cultural problem in the priesthood, that is, for whatever reason, the Catholic clergy over the past several decades has attracted or produced a disproportionate number of men who are inclined to sexually assault children. This is not a societal problem, as the pope tried to characterize it earlier this year. It is a problem with the priesthood specifically. It is also not a problem from the ancient past. The Vatican’s own records suggest that there have been hundreds of abuse cases every year since Francis became pope. This is an ongoing, massive, systemic problem that church leaders have proven themselves incapable of addressing.
Despite this, I have continued to attend mass, and I have continued to donate money to the church. Now, however, I am faced with news of the former Bishop of West Virginia, Michael Bransfield, who improperly used church funds to make payments not only to seminarians whom he had abused and molested, but also to prominent members of the church hierarchy. Among those receiving payments was Archbishop Lori of Baltimore. The archbishop not only accepted these cash payments, but in overseeing the investigation against Bishop Bransfield, he chose to remove his own name from the final investigation report. Let me say that again: Archbishop Lori improperly received these gifts, saw no conflict in overseeing the investigation of these gifts, and removed his own name from the investigation.
By what ethical or moral code could this ever be OK? The archbishop has since expressed regret for this “error in judgement,” but frankly, his actions reflect the same tendency toward cover-up that is at the heart of the church’s sexual abuse scandal.
So I have a question for Archbishop Lori. Given the multitude of serious transgressions by you and your fellow church leaders, why should I listen to you? This is not a rhetorical question — I am actually seeking an answer. Why should I continue to attend mass? Why should I continue to give money to this diocese? The church hierarchy has covered up years of heinous sexual crimes and has done nothing to change the culture that gave rise to these crimes. Now we see a cover-up of financial crimes as well. Jesus himself was not shy about rejecting the authority of religious leaders when it was clear they had lost their way. Why shouldn’t I follow his example now?
I have been inspired by and am close friends with many wonderful priests, and I know they are even more pained by these crises than I am. But if there’s one thing we have learned in recent months, it’s that church leaders are incapable of taking meaningful action to police themselves. They will continue to ask for money while doing nothing to address the culture of abuse and corruption that exists within their ranks. Church leaders are not “gatekeepers” to Christ. I can follow Christ’s teachings with them or without them. Unless something changes, the latter option sounds increasingly appealing.
John A. Ralph (JohnRalphAnnapolis@gmail.com) is a retired Naval Officer and licensed clinical psychologist.