The joke about my younger son, Emmett, is that at age seven he’d still crawl back into my womb if he could. He’s more reserved than his gregarious older brother, and sticks to me in social situations that overwhelm him. He worries about things that wouldn’t even occur to another child. Recently I picked him up from a birthday party and also collected the sons of two close friends to spare them a trip. Walking across the parking lot in a foursome of first-grade boys, Emmett kept glancing at another classmate who was leaving with his mother. Later he told me he worried the boy had seen the group heading to our car and thought Emmett was having a “big fun playdate” and hadn’t invited him, and that his feelings might have been hurt.
Tall, with skinny limbs and hair the color of a penny, Emmett often chooses a collection of Bible stories my mother gave him years ago as a bedtime book. One evening he asked me about “the holy cracker” he’s going to get to try soon, when he makes his first Holy Communion in second grade.
“That’s the Eucharist,” I told him. “The priest performs a miracle on the altar, and that cracker becomes the body of Christ.” Like all things to do with Catholic doctrine, it feels insane when said aloud. When it comes to religion, the only concern my kids really have is whether everyone who’s good ends up in Heaven. I’ve decided to simply say yes. Will the dog go to Heaven? Yes. The same Heaven as us? Yes. I deliver these answers with total confidence, as if I know.
“I didn’t realize you were still practicing,” a friend said to me not long ago, when I mentioned having to drive Emmett to religion class. It’s true that I’m not quiet about my frustrations with the Church. But that’s part of being Catholic, especially in recent years: exchanging complaints about the lack of progress, the treatment of women, gays, divorcées. Really, the requisite reiteration of how appalling, disgusting, and heartbreaking the revelations have been dates back to 2002, when The Boston Globe broke its story of the widespread sexual-abuse crisis in the Boston Archdiocese. For years, Catholics have been saying that hopefully the institution is finally taking a hard look at itself. And then, typically, the conversation moves on to CYO basketball or the potholes in the church parking lot. There isn’t a Catholic I’ve met who doesn’t have at least one major criticism, who doesn’t leave some rules aside while following others. The important part seems to be that we count ourselves among the tribe.
My husband and I take our children to weekly Mass only occasionally, but we were both raised in strict Irish Catholic households. And though I think I’ve always been a skeptic—I remember it dawning on me as a child that I was Catholic only because of the family I was born into—there are aspects of the Mass ritual that are meaningful to me. The Penitential Act, which takes place at the beginning of every Roman Catholic Mass, is at its heart a declaration of fault. It’s a confession made to God, but I’ve always considered it an accounting to myself, a moment out of time to explore my conscience, to call myself on my own mistakes. There have also been times in my life when I’ve sought out the comfort and solitude of an empty church, and it has felt like a homecoming, not too different from entering my childhood house after a long absence and finding everything is where it’s supposed to be.
In the suburb of New York City where my husband and I live, there are seven Catholic churches within five miles, so it was easy, when we moved here, to become parishioners and decide that we would baptize our sons and get them through Reconciliation and First Communion. These are the first of the Catholic sacraments: Reconciliation is when a child confesses his or her sins to a priest, who then prescribes a penance to cleanse the soul. First Holy Communion comes a few weeks after, the day a child is allowed to take the Eucharist—the body of Christ. There are more sacraments to come, but from that point, we thought, Owen and Emmett could decide what they wanted for themselves.
The religion classes made us a little uneasy, but we still glance at their homework now and then to make sure there is nothing homophobic or misogynistic, and when we find only crayoned pictures of Mary and Jesus, donkeys and sheep, we tell ourselves it’s all fine. I know there’s a comfort in having my children do the same things I did, the same thing my sisters did, my cousins. One day, they might want to seek comfort in an empty church, and I don’t want them to feel like trespassers. If cultural Catholic is not a real designation, as its equivalents are in other religions, then I decided some time ago that I could at least be a casual Catholic—a category that might protect me from the scandals that keep emerging. The people who are truly complicit, I thought, are the ones who choose to live in a state of willed ignorance, and that’s not me, so I’m spared.
It all seemed easy until last summer, until Catholics who live within the Archdiocese of New York woke up to an emailed statement from Cardinal Timothy Dolan about allegations of abuse that had been made against Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, archbishop emeritus of Washington, D.C. How to explain to non-Catholics how important cardinals are in the Church hierarchy? As my husband told our boys, cardinals are the bosses of the priests. Cardinals are the ones who choose the pope. The email also linked to a statement from McCarrick, who wrote that “while [he has] absolutely no recollection of this reported abuse . . . [he is] sorry for the pain the person who brought the charges has gone through, as well as for the scandal such charges cause our people.” The victim was a teenager at the time.
I read Dolan’s statement first, and then McCarrick’s, and then read secular news coverage, which included information those statements did not: that the abuse took place at St. Patrick’s Cathedral as the victim, an altar boy, was getting measured for a cassock to serve Christmas Mass. It happened again one year later. According to the victim’s lawyer, McCarrick told the boy to never tell anyone.
But what troubled me most were not the details of the abuse, as upsetting as they were, but the fact that every sentence of Cardinal Dolan’s statement aimed to minimize the fact the allegations were found credible, and congratulate the Catholic Church for looking into it in the first place. The reader is reminded of how long ago the abuse occurred, and that McCarrick is retired now. The subtext, of course, questions whether this is still relevant, asks, “Haven’t we all gotten past these complaints? He’s an old man, after all.”
In the months since, the story has grown larger and much darker. Further allegations have been made against McCarrick, also claiming that the highest members of the Church hierarchy, all the way up to Popes Benedict and Francis, knew about the accusations at least since 2013. The inner machinations of the Church—conservative hardliners versus moderates—are the subject of a longer essay, but the point is that no one can be trusted. Sure enough, in the middle of the McCarrick scandal came the most harrowing revelations of all: a grand-jury report from Pennsylvania concluding that Catholic officials systematically covered up the abuse of more than 1,000 children by a network of 300 priests over the past 70 years. The detail that makes my heart pound hardest: that abuser priests gave their favorite victims gold crucifix necklaces to mark them for other predator priests. The revelations are so enormous that they’re almost incomprehensible, and so I’ve forced myself to sit with them, think of all the day-to-day deception that must have been required to make this network hum. I’ve thought back on other dark periods of Catholicism’s 2,000-year history and feel a jolt when I realize the most shameful may be right now, during my lifetime. And this is just what has come to light. This is just Pennsylvania. Since this report, the attorneys general of twelve more states and the District of Columbia have begun collecting records from local dioceses. The Department of Justice recently announced a federal investigation and, late in October, issued a request to every Roman Catholic diocese in the United States not to destroy documents related to sexual abuse. Is there a Catholic in this world who honestly believes they won’t find anything?
Yes, many of the abuses in question took place a generation ago, but the way we discuss them happens now. I attended Mass after the Pennsylvania revelations just to hear what our local priest would say, but his references were so vague they were easy to miss (prayers for victims, prayers for the abusers). Most of the priests who committed these crimes are still alive, still unpunished, even promoted. When I read the extremely guarded, carefully vetted statements from the archdiocese and measure them up against what’s being reported in the news, I know that not a single thing has changed except that the Church has a better public-relations team than it did in 2002.
Approximately two years ago, our local parish in Pearl River, New York, announced its participation in an arch-diocesan-wide, four-years-long “Renew and Rebuild” campaign to raise money that would go toward improvements in church buildings, struggling Catholic schools, and support for clergy, among other things. At meetings and in church communiqués about everything from basketball to the annual picnic, parishioners, particularly those with young children, get chastised for registering our sons and daughters for expensive activities, for taking pricey vacations. We’re getting shamed for lives that are frivolous, according to Church leaders, and we’re reminded that God should come first. But what they mean is that the Church should come first. And when I’m in the audience during one of these speeches, where grown men and women with jobs and mortgages and a plethora of worries get spoken to like we’re still a group of children wearing our school uniforms, or when I get an update about the new church roof or some other meaningless thing in the mail, I feel such cognitive dissonance that I’m left near speechless. I simply can’t set aside the fact that priests just like the ones at the parishes near my home, men who were held in the highest regard by their communities, were grooming little children and that their bosses’ bosses’ bosses likely knew it and, worse, helped them hide it. To me it’s like being asked to go about my normal business even after noticing my neighbor burying bodies in the backyard. Oh, that, more than one fellow Catholic has said in a tired tone when I want to talk about Pennsylvania or McCarrick or the Vatican a little more. Yes, that. That is the headline. That’s the only thing that should be discussed from the altar until the Church heals itself. Isn’t it? How can any person sit through lectures about how to be and how to think when all of this was just sitting there, below the surface, covered up by the same people who were telling us we were sinners?
And I realized: It’s simply no longer possible to be a casual Catholic in the way I used to imagine myself. Probably it was never possible. To be in this Church, even in a small way, is to be party to abuse. I can’t solve the Church’s problems, obviously. Likely, no one can. But I can do the one thing within my power: leave and take my children with me. Maybe if more leave, and those pews (and coffers) are finally empty, then the Church will do a more sincere self-examination.
So now I have a little boy, and a hand-me-down suit in a closet, and the burden of telling him that he’s not going to taste that holy cracker after all. He knows this is big, and it worries him. I can see it. For a year now everyone in his life has been making references to his Communion day, whether we’ll have a party, who we’ll invite. Mostly he’s envious of his brother, who got to find out what that cracker tastes like.
“It tastes like nothing,” Owen offers.
Emmett wonders if not making Communion will hurt God’s feelings, and if he’ll still get into Heaven. “Yes, you’ll still get into Heaven,” I tell him. I list all the people he knows who are not Catholic, not Christian, not anything, and ask him if the God he imagines would exclude such great people.
“But are you sure?” he pushes. “How do you know?”
For a second I’m rattled that he’s questioning me, but then I’m overwhelmed with relief. Yes, I want to cry, ask the questions, examine the answers, decide for yourself what to think of things.