Last month, media outlets around the world reported that Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the highest ranking Catholic official in the U.S., deliberately hid assets to keep them out of the reach of sexual abuse victims.
I’m not surprised. It’s hard to imagine a new insight into the immorality or even criminality of Catholic Church leaders that can surprise me now.
Perhaps a little context is in order.
I’m the eighth-born from a very Catholic family. My father volunteered for the Church for more than 50 years and taught law at a Catholic university. My mother was head of the Altar Society. And yet, for as long as I can remember, I have mistrusted Catholic priests and the Catholic hierarchy.
For a long time, I didn’t understand why. Long before the abuse scandals exploded across the country I knew men in frocks were not to be trusted. I can’t name a priest at the Catholic school I attended or associated with the Catholic parish we belonged to that I didn’t eye with suspicion.
As the youngest of eight children, I also knew that my suspicions about the priests were not mine alone. Comments about “weird” priests were as common to my understanding of the Catholic Church as Catechism, hymns and prayers.
Like most of my siblings, I left the Church as soon as I could. I found lots of reasons to be angry with the Church. The homophobia. The moral judgments. The crazy condemnation of birth control.
I decided the healthiest approach for me was to get as far away from the Church as possible. Because my parents, though progressive in many of their beliefs, found community in parish life, I tried to be tolerant.
But then news of the abuse scandals started to appear in the press. Initially, my mother, like most good Catholics, assumed the victims were lying. But the wave of scandal soon overwhelmed and she struggled to understand the why.
Then, just over a decade ago, the Oregonian published the names of the worst known priest pedophiles in Oregon. On the list was Father Louis Charvet, a serial abuser of both boys and girls.
Father Louis was someone we knew well. He was someone my parents trusted. Twice a year during my early childhood, for a week before and after Girl Scout camping season, my parents and several other Catholic families rented a large summer camp in Oregon known as Smith Creek. Father Louis was the camp priest, coming over from the seminary nearby.
Smith Creek provided a cheap, wonderful way to vacation. A cook was hired (giving the exhausted moms a break from one task at least), we slept in simple screened cabins, and we washed up at the outdoor communal sink each morning and night. Father Louis said Mass in the outdoor chapel and took kids for hikes, and we played softball and swam and then sang around the campfire at night. Family Camp was a highlight.
When news about Father Louis first surfaced, one of my brothers said, “Father Louis was always strange.” Everyone agreed though we didn’t talk about it much. And yet, my mother quietly insisted to me the allegations couldn’t be true.
Then, one day, when she was in her eighties, Mom called to tell me what had happened after Mass. She was driving along slowly in her Volvo, when a woman she knew and admired, a Smith Creek camper and the daughter of longtime friends, knocked on the car window and motioned for my Mom to roll it down.
“Mrs. H., she whispered, “I have something to tell you…. I’m one of Father Louis’s victims. I just wanted you to know.”
Finally, my mother had no doubt.
We talked often about the Church after that. Neither of us were surprised when the Portland archdiocese became the first in the nation to file for bankruptcy in order to protect church assets from abuse victims.
When Mom died, her service was held at the Madeleine Church. Since mom was bedridden and suffering from dementia in her final year, the new priest didn’t know her. But he knew a few things. She had been a good Catholic, her family loved her, and all of us had attended the Madeleine School.
So, toward the close of the service, when the priest invited family to come forward to accept Communion, he was surprised by the long and painfully awkward pause. No one moved. Finally, members of the Parish community stepped forward to fill the void.
We were at mass for our mother, but not as Catholics anymore.