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Repelled by the worst in the Church, yet held by the best

For one lifelong Catholic, a few core values still trump the ugly revelations and the hidebound dogma.

February 28, 2013|By Gale Holland, Los Angeles Time
  • A family visits the chapel at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels that Cardinal Roger Mahony dedicated to victims of clergy sexual abuse. Dozens of school photos have been left there by victims or their families.
A family visits the chapel at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels that… (Los Angeles Times )

The first time I visited the downtown Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, I found myself in a side chapel that Cardinal Roger Mahony had dedicated to "healing" the victims of clergy sexual abuse. I was shocked to see dozens of school photos left behind by victims or their families that looked just like my brother: the same shy smile, the shock of hacked-off hair.

We had grown up Irish Catholic in the San Fernando Valley in the 1960s and '70s, when the abuse was rampant. But I'd never discussed the scandal with my brother. So I called him, and he told me this story: During a trip to Tijuana to build houses for the poor, the teacher, a member of a religious order, tried to climb into his friend's sleeping bag. The friend kicked him out. Another boy probably didn't.

Chilled by this near-brush with abuse in my own family, I avoided the cathedral for months. But eventually I returned. With the latest round of revelations about Mahony working to shield molester priests from criminal investigation, friends once again are asking why? Why do I call myself Catholic?

Like most Catholics, I reject a good deal of the dogma. The ban on women in the priesthood and views on gays that drove many of my friends and family members out of the church are just as offensive to me.

But over the years I have practiced the religion on and off, on my own terms. And I still see myself as one of the faithful. Or perhaps the loyal opposition is the right term.

It's partly tradition. I grew up in a surprisingly insular Catholic world, given that the San Fernando Valley had no "Catholic" neighborhoods. In my mind, the Valley was made up of parishes — St. Mel's, St. Cyril's — not neighborhoods, each with its own character.

Families came with giant broods of nine, 10, even 13 kids. I was envious. They were so boisterous and jolly. With only four children, our family seemed meager by comparison.

I value my Catholic education. I did 12 years of Catholic school, barely. Because of my poor behavior, some years I would not be invited back and my mother would have to beg the principal to readmit me.

When I got to college, I found to my surprise that I had been fairly well educated, with the glaring exception of history class, where we spent an inordinate amount of time on the Counter-Reformation.

Like many Catholics, I love the pageantry of the church rites. The gilded censer of incense at Benediction. The altars to Mary we built in shoe boxes, lined with blue velvet.

My father grew up with Bishop Buddy of San Diego. When he came to visit our family in full medieval regalia, we were told to genuflect and kiss his ring. Then the bishop put on swim trunks and dove into our neighbor's pool. The about-face was delirious.

We were taught moral values that have faded from modern life, but have a place today, like purity and penitence. Life was full of miracles, from the lame at Lourdes throwing away their crutches to the crown of thorns plant in our backyard. My father told me the shrub always bloomed in blood-red bursts right at Easter.

As Catholics, we were also taught to help the sick and poor by performing good works. I volunteered as a candy-striper at the hospital. We wrote the boys in Vietnam and knitted them bandages. I doubt my bandages, with gaping holes where I had dropped stitches and wildly vacillating widths, were of much use. But I loved making them.

Those hand-knit bandages also went to the leper colony on Molokai. This was but one of the gothic horrors we Catholics were wont to dwell on. St. Agatha, whose breasts were torn from her chest as part of her martyrdom. St. Sebastian, who was pierced by arrows. It didn't occur to me until years later that outsiders would find the iconography distasteful; I found the stories thrilling.

My best friend and I were faithful correspondents, and when our soldier pen pals returned, they offered to take us to Disneyland. I was bitterly disappointed when the nuns forbade it.

Although they wouldn't say why, it was pretty clear what the nuns feared. We were only in middle school, but the race was on to protect our virginity.

Keeping us virgins through high school was the primary goal of the nuns and many of our parents. We girls wanted to play along, really we did, at least in the beginning. But no surprise, the boys had other ideas. They too were supposed to be saving sex for marriage. But you would never have guessed it by their behavior.

I never figured out how the girls got one message and the boys got another. In the end, we picked the boys over the nuns.

During this period, the church began to lose many of the people I grew up with. Girls were getting pregnant and trying to hide it from school and family, with disastrous consequences. The nuns suspended at least one girl who reported that her friend was in trouble, in callous disregard for both students' welfare.

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