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Spotlight Report

  Joan Vennochi  

For Catholics, a painful journey


SO, CARDINALS and priests are like the rest of us: They are sinners.

That is now obvious to the world. But to the ordinary Catholic, it comes at the expense of an elaborate, ages-old effort by the church to establish its clergy as something more sublime. For Catholics, the paradigm was always very basic and very clear. From age 7, we confessed our sins to priests, begging them to bestow God's forgiveness for misdeeds big or small, as defined by our church. It did not occur to us as children, although it should have as adults, that they are as capable of wrongdoing as any human being.

After all, that is what they are: human beings.

An acknowledgment of common humanity in no way justifies the criminal wrongdoing now alleged to have been committed by so many priests - and covered up by so many of their superiors, including Cardinal Bernard Law. But I think it helps explain the shock, anger, disgust and sadness Catholics experienced throughout the clergy abuse scandal, which entered a new chapter when Law finally resigned as archbishop of Boston.

As the sordid story unfolded, there was an enormous sense of betrayal. It came from knowing what we told them - and now discovering what they never told us. Once their humanity was revealed in all its evil relief, there was a passion for them to be held accountable, just like any other man or woman.

The passion was fueled by an unChristianlike but understandably human contempt for their hypocrisy, and by the bitter truth that the accused were preying on our own children.

The anger grew as the hierarchy resisted accountability. It became ever clearer that church leaders defined the church as them, not us. Their attitude was palpable and insulting. We could fill their buildings or stay away. In their minds, the church existed with us or without us. Perhaps believing in miracles, they continued to expect money to flow into collection baskets, even if people no longer flocked to Mass to put it there.

Parish priests were left to contend with the potent mixture of fury, confusion, and hurt which resulted. Like acid, the poison ate away at the fabric of the church, leaving tattered shreds. It set Catholics against Catholics, friends against friends, husbands against wives. Who was going to Sunday Mass and who wasn't became a source of friction. And it all played out before our children, on television, in the newspapers, and in the kitchen.

On its own, Law's departure cannot stitch together what was ripped apart. Those rips revealed realities about this church that will be hard, for some, to accept.

For years, I went to church with gauze over my eyes. It softened what I did not want to see and allowed me to follow the path of least resistance, the one proscribed by family and tradition. In ripping apart the Catholic Church, the scandal also ripped away such gauzy blinders. Each Catholic will have to decide if what they now see is what they really want.

Some will take it as it is. Some will make a choice on the basis of how the church deals with the victims of sexual abuse and the policies it puts in place to prevent future abuse and scandal. Others will look for something more - more listening, less dictating, more tolerance, less arrogance.

To find it, we may have to find another church. But that is another, more personal issue, for another time.

Right now, Catholics should focus on the issue that got them to this point.

In the midst of the fiercest of storms, the victims of sexual abuse stood their ground. Embraced by some, scorned by others, they lived and relived an incense-soaked nightmare in their quest for justice. They still deserve it, and Law's departure should not change that equation.

Cardinals and priests are human beings, capable of good and evil, of courage and cowardice. For their sins, they answer to God. For their crimes, they answer to man.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is

This story ran on page C11 of the Boston Globe on 12/15/2002.
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