When I was 16 years old, my parents told me one night at the dinner table that my eldest brother was sexually abused by a Catholic priest. It happened some 25 years earlier, when he was a teenager. I had grown up singing in the children’s choir, serving as an altar server and attending Catholic school, completely oblivious of his abuse. The revelation hit me like a sucker punch.
My dad quietly recounted how this priest had abused my brother for two years before being re-assigned to another parish in the archdiocese, where he went on to abuse a little girl. Years later, after the statute of limitations had passed and the first abuse suit in our archdiocese had been made public, my brother likewise sued the archdiocese and won a nice fat check.
He bought a Porsche and crashed it.
I have always thought a wrecked Porsche is a perfect metaphor for how useless money is in the face of such trauma. It is a pile of twisted metal, both enormously expensive and utterly worthless.
My brother sued the archdiocese and won a nice fat check. He bought a Porsche and crashed it.
This sort of revelation does not just weigh on your mind for a few days, muddling your thoughts and quieting your laughter. It seeps into your bones. It is with you in every breath, piercing your lungs with each inhale, clambering to escape with each exhale. And yet, for years, I hardly told a soul. A handful of times it would come up—when a friend defended an archbishop who had been accused of covering up abuse or when another questioned my strained relationship with my brother—but mostly I kept it locked away, close to my heart, this maddening unspeakable weight I brought with me everywhere I went.
The thing about trauma is it doesn’t always have a rosy afterglow. I would love to be able to say that this horrific event brought my family closer together, that it united us in love and together we faced a brighter tomorrow. But it didn’t. It tore us apart.
My brother suffered greatly from his abuse. I am not a psychologist, but it doesn’t take one to see how it tainted his entire life. For a long time he struggled with addictions and holding a steady job. When my dad not only began practicing his Catholic faith again but had his younger children baptized, it drove a deep wedge between father and son. And my brother, for his part, intentionally caused us a lot of suffering. How terrible it is to admit that someone who has lived through such immense pain has turned and inflicted a lesser pain on his family. Working through decades of hurt, toward forgiveness and love, is an ongoing struggle for all of us.
I have every reason to hate the Catholic Church. My brother does, and I would never dream of criticizing him for it.
I have every reason to hate the Catholic Church. My brother does, and I would never dream of criticizing him for it. And yet, next Sunday you could undoubtedly find me in my usual pew.
This new horrific wave of the abuse crisis has Catholics around the world confronting a question my family and other families affected by clergy abuse have been struggling with for years: Why, exactly, are you Catholic?
Frankly, I, too, hate a lot of what most people hate about the Catholic Church. I hate the corruption, the abuse of power, the hypocrisy, the lies and the pain it has caused innumerable people. I hate that so many men of the hierarchy have fallen that I do not know whom I can trust anymore. I hate the infighting among Catholics that this scandal has caused or perhaps simply brought to the surface. But these are all sickening symptoms of a deep-seated disease; they are not intrinsic to the organism itself.
To be a Catholic is to accept the teachings of Jesus Christ and to believe that this is his church. It means trying to love God with all your heart, soul and mind and your neighbor as yourself. It means believing that same God is truly present in the Eucharist. It means knowing you are a sinner while striving to be a saint. In the words of Simon Peter, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
In the wake of this scandal, I do not blame people for leaving their Catholic faith. We cannot pretend to be a field hospital when we are crippled by malpractice. But I am committed to helping rebuild the church in whatever way I can. I support gutting all that is rotten with exhaustive, independent investigations and concretely showing that systemic violence and corruption is not what Catholicism is about. The church does not belong to these heinous men. It is the church of Christ. And it is our church, too.