Friday, April 12, 2002

Church in crisis leaves Catholic mother with sad questions

Married with children

By Patricia Gallagher Newberry
Enquirer contributor

        With Easter just past and our oldest's First Holy Communion coming next month, we have been talking about God a lot around our house.

        At Easter, the Jesus story got a little less attention than the one about the Easter Bunny; the payoff from the bunny, after all, is easier to understand than the promise of salvation. And when I prompted the kids to touch the rough wooden cross in church on Good Friday, they had only two questions: Will I get a splinter? And: Can we go now?

        Likewise, as we prepare for First Communion, Frances' questions lean more to the practical — “What happens if I drop it?” “When are you going to make my dress?” — than the spiritual.

Bewildering questions

        Still, matters of religion have moved up the list as a topic of discussion in recent weeks.

        As the instigator of most of those talks, however, I am torn about how honest to be with my children just now.

        What, if anything, do they need to know about priests who molest children? What, if anything, do they need to know about the church's position on singlehood and celibacy for priests? What, if anything, do they need to know about the deep angst so many Catholics feel about the continuing crime and shame in their own house? What, if anything, do they need to know about how pained their mother feels to feel bad about the church she loves?

        Even on the eve of receiving Communion, Fran, at 8, requires answers to few of those questions. At 6 and 3, her siblings require even less.

        What they know about the priesthood is probably all they should know at their ages: That priests don't have wives. That priests don't have kids. That a priest can live in his own house and drive his own car. That a priest might invite them around the altar during Mass and they better not clown around when they get up there.

        Only Beatrice, the youngest, has any pressing questions beyond that. Each time she sees our parish priest, she asks: “Mom, is that Father or God?”

        “Father, sweetie,” I tell her. “Just father.”

Held in high esteem

        Like many Catholics my age, I grew up at a time when priests, while beginning to chafe against the church's bans on marriage and celibacy, were still held in high esteem. Whether stern authoritarian types or affable brotherly types, whether lifeless lecturers or poets at the pulpit, all were honored and revered — at least in my house.

        Criticism was cut short with my father's admonition: “Watch your tongue. He's a priest.”

        As an adult, I retain that respect for priests. But I have also learned that priests, while presenting the infallible teachings of the church, are as fallible personally as the rest of us and, therefore, not exempt from criticism.

        What's happening now, though, prompts more than the usual griping about parish policy and practices. What's happening now — with almost-daily revelations about priests who sexually assaulted boys and, less often, girls; about priests transferred from parish to parish to escape accusers; about priests allowed to remain in their orders after acknowledging their crimes; about priests not subject to the penalties other men who molest children face — prompts confusion, distrust and anger bordering on rage.

        So what do I tell my children about the current state of the priesthood and the Catholic church?

        Should I tell them to beware a man in a collar? Should I tell them to be careful if they serve as altar boys and girls? Should lectures on “stranger danger” now mention the padre along with the pedophile?

        What should I say to 8- and 6- and 3-year-old children about the man they call Father, the man representing God, the man who will hand them the bread and wine of Communion for the very first time? What can I say that will make them cautious without making them contemptuous?

        I probably don't have to say anything yet. But I will, someday — and soon, if the church is unable or unwilling to drum out priests who hurt kids. The alternative is too scary to ignore: They might just find out by themselves.

        Contact Patricia Gallagher Newberry via


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