On any given Friday night, my family and I close out the week with dinner at Fashion Island's Atrium Court. Our kids exhaust themselves running around the fountains and hopping the koi pond. One night I ventured off alone to shop and wandered into a housewares store. I couldn't help but eavesdrop on the conversation in progress.
"I have seven children and five grandchildren, so kids are no problem for me," said the cashier to a male patron in his 50s.
"Oh? What religion are you?" asked the customer.
There are certain things I have come to swallow, albeit reluctantly, as a Roman Catholic. The rush to stereotype Catholics is very typical but nonetheless hurtful. Comments like "Oh, you have a big family; you must be Catholic" are offensive because they imply that Catholics look to the church to determine how many children to have.
Never being favorably portrayed in the media is another price we Catholics pay. We'll never be referred to with the correct titles--we're always "antiabortion" rather than "pro-life." It's frustrating, but I have learned to accept this.
So the recent spotlight over the allegations of sexual abuse of minors by priests is not at all surprising. And while yes, there is a lot yet to uncover as these cases unfold, I can't help but feel that no matter what the outcome, the criticism will continue.
As a mother of three, I have to take into account regularly the risks involved with my children. If they're invited to a friend's house, I have to determine that the adults there are "good people."
Which is why I'm scratching my head over all of the now-grown coming forward alleging abuse, in some cases 20 years after the fact. One woman claims her priest molested her as a young girl when he headed up her teen group. "My parents thought nothing of a priest driving me home at 2 a.m.," she insists.
My response as a parent is, "Why the heck not?" Back when I was a teen, Pope John Paul could have brought me home at 2 a.m., and my mom would have seen this as a red flag. She might not have suspected him of sexual abuse, but she quickly would have put a stop to the late-night outings.
What I also don't get is why young people were raised to stay silent if indeed they had been abused. For as much as we're ready to tar and feather the bishops for not handling the allegations correctly, I say the same applies to the parents who were clearly out of touch with their teens. There were also other people in the teens' lives who might have overlooked signs of abuse--the school counselor, the gym coach, the doctor.
One friend of mine who has three teenagers offers this explanation: "The problem is the celibacy vow, and I think priests should be allowed to have relationships."
Allowing priests to marry can be problematic. I personally think you have to choose one profession, similar to deciding to be either a doctor or a lawyer but not both, in order to be effective. A priest who is constantly ministering to the community would be compromising his presence at home, much in the same way families of rock stars, politicians and military personnel live for months on end husband- and father-free. Yes, celibacy is a tall order, but I don't think "Honey, why can't you take off work this Sunday?" or "Growing up, my dad was always gone" is a viable option either.
The truth is we'll never achieve perfection in finding ways to make sure priests never fall from grace. Members of the clergy, like all of us, are flawed human beings, and while I'm not trumpeting the sexual scandal, I think there's room for some--but not total--benefit of the doubt.
In many ways the bishops' mishandling of the complaints or knowingly transferring offenders to other parishes compares a lot with the sexual harassment issue in the workplace we saw in the early '90s. I don't believe there was the intent to endanger children; I think the church didn't know how to handle it. It's like the boss who knows the foreman sexually harasses female employees but hasn't been given the education or the support to remedy the situation. We're so ready to condemn, rather than saying, "You're right; this hasn't been dealt with effectively. Let's put clear guidelines in place."
When you get right down to it, the outrage isn't so much about an interest in justice or children's well-being as it's about wanting to see the Catholic Church down on its knees. We like to see the big guys fall. Pointing to corrupt priests and aloof bishops, and assuming they played the only errant role, is the essence of this tragedy.
Everybody was asleep at the wheel when our children were in distress--teachers, parents, anyone who knew better and did nothing. I say we put down our stones, step away from our glass houses and rebuild with stronger material.