When I was a boy, the only child of a hard-working single mom, I spent a great deal of time with family friends, an Italian couple and their three kids who ran a bakery in a part of town called “The Lake.” The neighborhood was Italian right to the bricks, a small version of Boston’s North End. The center line down the main street was painted the colors of the Italian flag, as were the fire hydrants. Everyone knew everyone, and this small enclave even had its own language: If you thought someone was acting the fool, you’d say, “This mush is a real divya.” Before I decoded the slang, it was like trying to talk to a blender stuck on puree.
The center of the community was the church at the top of the block, Our Lady’s, a vast brick structure that dominated three streets. Whenever my family friends and I drove past it, everyone in the car would say, “Hi, God!” and wave. I was born Irish Catholic, but it was in the beating heart of this Italian community that I gave my first confession, and received my first communion in a natty white suit wearing white shoes with little gold buckles.
It was at Our Lady’s that I attended CCD class – that’s Bible study for the uninitiated – exactly once. I sat in that classroom with maybe a dozen other kids and listened to this sallow, pasty priest drone on about I don’t remember what … and I got a bad feeling. I have a vivid memory of him, in his priest’s robes with a Bible in his hand, standing in a shaft of sunlight that was coming through the window. He looked like a ghoul, and it frightened me. I never went back; when I left our friend’s house ostensibly for CCD from then on, I went to the arcade, or the bookstore, or just walked around the neighborhood. I never saw that priest again.
His name was Father Paul Shanley, and he is in prison now, convicted of indecent assault and rape. He is one of many Catholic priests in the Boston area responsible for nearly 600 documented cases of rape and molestation, none more notorious than Father John Geoghan. During the thirty years he spent ministering to six different parishes, Geoghan is alleged to have sexually abused more than 130 boys. Rather than deal with him appropriately, the Church just shuttled him from one parish to another. After he went to prison, Geoghan was stomped to death by another prisoner in the cell they were sharing.
Bernard Cardinal Law, the former Archbishop of Boston, presided during a fair segment of this crime spree. He fled to the Vatican when the story broke wide open, where he lives now in comfort in an apartment building called the Palazzo della Cancelleria, which is owned by the Church. There is no controversy regarding his presence, and he remains untouched by the rule of law or the necessity of consequences.
More than ten years ago, my mother asked me to have dinner with my elderly grandmother. She and my grandfather were profound Catholics very involved in the Boston-area Church, and that night, the other dinner guest was a high official in the Archdiocese. The sex abuse scandal came up, and this priest blamed the media, blamed the victims, blamed people who hate religion, blamed everyone and everything except the many Catholic leaders who knowingly allowed reported abusers to stay in power and molest children. I remember thinking very clearly to myself as I listened to him, “This is what it must have been like to dine with Emperor Honorius as the Visigoths surged over the seventh hill of Rome.” He had no idea what was about to happen to him. He was a pitiful, pathetic small fraction of a man.
I have many such stories – the Jesuit priest who dropped dead while presiding over my grandparent’s 50th wedding anniversary celebration, the Jesuit professors I knew who didn’t believe in God anymore and drank freely the booze and beer confiscated from students, the Catholic junior high school I attended where confession was mandatory every Thursday and your confessor was the headmaster, a priest – because the Church has been a part of my life since before I was even born. I know the Bible coming and going, and can still recite the Lord’s Prayer in Latin: Pater noster, qui es en caelis, sanctificetur nomen tuum …
I turned my back on the Church many years ago because I believe women are my equals, because I believe LGBTQ people of every stripe are my equals, because contraception is important and a right, because abortion is a legal and legitimate choice, because no one is infallible, because the rape of children and the cover-up of same is a crime of staggering and nauseating magnitude.
Other Catholics have taken a different path: Catholic feminists have been working for decades from within the institution to confront sexism within the Church. LGBTQ Catholics are preparing their rainbow rosaries and online petitions in attempt to shift the Church from within during the Pope’s visit.
The Berrigan brothers proved that the Church and its adherents are not a totality of hypocrisy. The Paulists do the same, as does the liberation theology movement. Speaking personally, I received an extraordinary education from a Jesuit school that serves me to this day. The problem in the main is not Catholic people, who by and large, as Katie Klabusich explains with excellent clarity, disagree with most of the Church’s teachings on women, LGBTQ people, abortion and so forth. The problem lies within the authoritarian, patriarchal, secretive institution of the Church itself.
I dodged a priest pedophile by an eyelash as a boy, attended Catholic junior high and later a Catholic college, and taught at a Catholic school for several years. A favorite saying of mine is, “People can teach you two things: What to do and what not to do.” The Church, and its servants, are among the most important teachers I have ever known, for good and ill.
Bear all this in mind when Pope Francis comes to town and is heralded as some kind of liberal hero. He says all the right things about climate change, social justice and economic injustice, but then again, so does the President and the front-runner for his chair. The trick is the follow-through. This Pope believes in, and actively enforces, the old brutal doctrines that shun women and LGBTQ people while helping to cover up one of the greatest crimes against children in history. Anyone can talk a good game. Actions are what matter.
Francis is the Pope, leading representative of that institution and “infallible” avatar of its intentions. He has spent a lifetime espousing a catechism that spurns a great many people I greatly respect. If you believe in women’s rights, gay rights, children’s rights and the basic concept of proper justice, this fellow – for all his flowery pronouncements – is not on your side.