But then I began going over the documents. And interviewing the victims, scores of them. I discovered that the term "sexual abuse" is a euphemism. Most of these children were raped and sodomized by someone they and their family believed was Christ's representative on Earth. That's not something an 8-year-old's mind can process; it forever warps a person's sexuality and spirituality.
Many of these victims were molested by priests with a history of abusing children. But the bishops routinely sent these clerics to another parish, and bullied or conned the victims and their families into silence. The police were almost never called. In at least a few instances, bishops encouraged molesting priests to flee the country to escape prosecution.
I couldn't get the victims' stories or the bishops' lies -- many of them right there on their own stationery -- out of my head. I had been in journalism more than two decades and had dealt with murders, rapes, other violent crimes and tragedies. But this was different -- the children were so innocent, their parents so faithful, the priests so sick and bishops so corrupt.
The lifeline Father Vincent had tried to give me began to slip from my hands.
I sought solace in another belief: that a church's heart is in the pews, not the pulpits. Certainly the people who were reading my stories would recoil and, in the end, recapture God's house. Instead, I saw parishioners reflexively support priests who had molested children by writing glowing letters to bishops and judges, offering them jobs or even raising their bail while cursing the victims, often to their faces.
On a Sunday morning at a parish in Rancho Santa Margarita, I watched congregants lobby to name their new parish hall after their longtime pastor, who had admitted to molesting a boy and who had been barred that day from the ministry. I felt sick to my stomach that the people of God wanted to honor an admitted child molester. Only one person in the crowd, an Orange County sheriff's deputy, spoke out for the victim.
On Good Friday 2002, I decided I couldn't belong to the Catholic Church. Though I had spent a year preparing for it, I didn't go through with the rite of conversion.
I understood that I was witnessing the failure of humans, not God. But in a way, that was the point. I didn't see these institutions drenched in God's spirit. Shouldn't religious organizations, if they were God-inspired and -driven, reflect higher standards than government, corporations and other groups in society?
I found an excuse to skip services that Easter. For the next few months, I attended church only sporadically. Then I stopped going altogether.
SOME of the nation's most powerful pastors -- including Billy Graham, Robert H. Schuller and Greg Laurie -- appear on the Trinity Broadcasting Network, benefiting from TBN's worldwide reach while looking past the network's reliance on the "prosperity gospel" to fuel its growth.
TBN's creed is that if viewers send money to the network, God will repay them with great riches and good health. Even people deeply in debt are encouraged to put donations on credit cards.
"If you have been healed or saved or blessed through TBN and have not contributed ... you are robbing God and will lose your reward in heaven," Paul Crouch, co-founder of the Orange County-based network, once told viewers. Meanwhile, Crouch and his wife, Jan, live like tycoons.
I began looking into TBN after receiving some e-mails from former devotees of the network. Those people had given money to the network in hopes of getting a financial windfall from God. That didn't work.
By then, I started to believe that God was calling me, as he did St. Francis of Assisi, to "rebuild his church" -- not in some grand way that would lead to sainthood but by simply reporting on corruption within the church body.
I spent several years investigating TBN and pored through stacks of documents -- some made available by appalled employees -- showing the Crouches eating $180-per-person meals; flying in a $21-million corporate jet; having access to 30 TBN-owned homes across the country, among them a pair of Newport Beach mansions and a ranch in Texas. All paid for with tax-free donor money.
One of the stars of TBN and a major fundraiser is the self-proclaimed faith healer Benny Hinn. I attended one of his two-day "Miracle Crusades" at what was then the Pond of Anaheim. The arena was packed with sick people looking for a cure.
My heart broke for the hundreds of people around me in wheelchairs or in the final stages of terminal diseases, believing that if God deemed their faith strong enough, they would be healed that night.
Hinn tells his audiences that a generous cash gift to his ministry will be seen by God as a sign of true faith. This has worked well for the televangelist, who lives in an oceanfront mansion in Dana Point, drives luxury cars, flies in private jets and stays in the best hotels.