The latest revelation of sexual misconduct by a priest at St. Benedict Parish in Southwest Baltimore brought what has now become the usual bout of emotions: anger, sadness, depression, a sense of betrayal and the ongoing question — how many more skeletons will come rattling out of sacristies in the archdiocese and elsewhere?
Sometimes it seems hard to remain a Catholic, given the scandals that have hurt so many of our younger and more vulnerable people during the past decades. The Maryland attorney general’s report in April, which found more than 150 Catholic priests and others associated with the church abused more than 600 children, was bad enough. One would think we’d come to the end of the line.
We clearly still haven’t. It hasn’t even ended at St. Benedict’s. The archdiocese and the Order of St. Benedict, which operates the parish, have said Masses and sacramental ministry will end in mid-November.
So why, amidst all of this, do I remain Catholic, and a very happy one at that?
Well, I have confidence in the archdiocese. While cases continue to surface, the archdiocese has worked hard to address them. The 2002 Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, which then-Bishop William E. Lori helped to draft, laid out a set of mandatory child protection policies for every diocese in the United States that included a zero-tolerance policy for anyone credibly accused of child sexual abuse. Since the document was issued, the archdiocese has trained nearly 27,000 adults and nearly 36,000 children to prevent and report abuse and paid about $364,000 in fiscal 2021 for counseling and other support for survivors and their families. In addition, it has conducted nearly 4,800 screenings for clergy, others in the church, and employees, as well as roughly 25,000 screenings for volunteers.
The archdiocese also established an interfaith Independent Review Board to review allegations of abuse and to help shape child-protection policies. The board is made up mostly of lay people from the legal community and law enforcement, health care, academia and social work.
Is this sufficient? No system is perfect, so cases are likely to crop up at least periodically. But the archdiocese has put in place a strong infrastructure for preventing and dealing with misconduct cases as — and if — they arise.
But there’s more to it than that. I’m sure many are familiar with the saying “once a Catholic, always a Catholic.” That’s true because the church is more than some institution with a religious veneer. The Church is an organism — it is a family, and whatever one member does affects every other member. Yes, victims, families and perpetrators are affected most directly and seriously, but there’s a ripple effect that hurts the whole church. Parishes and schools close. Friends and communities fracture. But I can no more turn my back on the church when it faces times of brokenness than I can turn my back on my family because of wrongdoing by some of my relatives.
And then there are the examples of the love and healing that the church can do. One of the most recent has to do with Mother Mary Lange, whom Pope Francis declared venerable in June because of her virtuous and heroic faith. Raised in a French-speaking community in Cuba, she came to Baltimore in 1813, where she saw how desperately the large community of Haitian immigrants needed an education. She started by educating girls in her Fells Point home and eventually went on to work with the Rev. James Hector Joubert to establish a religious congregation for educating African American girls. The Oblate Sisters of Providence are still educating children in Baltimore nearly 200 years later.
But I’m also encouraged and, quite frankly, filled with hope for the future of the church. While in Rome in September, I met with four seminarians and one priest studying to serve the archdiocese at the Pontifical North American College. The seminarians I met were thoughtful, joyful and determined to serve their future parishioners, qualities they’ll need when they finish their studies and return to serve in Baltimore-area parishes.
I think Rachel L. Swarns, the New York University professor who wrote “The 272,” put it best. I asked her how she could retain her Catholic faith as she researched her latest book on the sale of nearly 300 enslaved people owned by Jesuits in Maryland to save what is now Georgetown University. Swarns noted that those freed from slavery after the Civil War had a choice: They could have remained Catholic or left. Those who remained understood that the church is bigger than the people who had owned and mistreated them.
“It doesn’t belong to those sinful men,” they realized. “It belongs to us.”
Indeed. The church is much bigger than the sinful perpetrators who have hurt and devastated the lives of children and others in the archdiocese. It belongs to us, and it is waiting to help us heal.
Susan McInerney is a freelance contributor to the Catholic Review and a longtime Washington journalist who covered a host of policy issues for Bloomberg Industry Group and the Bureau of National Affairs.