Thursday, October 20, 2005

A Man Stands Up, Part Two

You know, sometimes I wonder if my lot would be better if I were a journalist in Venezuela. Maybe I'd feel safer. More on that in a sec.

I was sitting at the desk this morning, checking my e.mail, enjoying my first cup of coffee and Stevie Wonder on the Stern show, when I got a call telling me to tune into the Michael Smerconish show on AM radio here in Philly.

Father Bob McLaughlin -- the suburban pastor and former Newman chaplain who had the temerity to speak up about the grand jury and has been savaged by his brother priests of Philadelphia in my inbox as a dissident disobedient misinformed misformed schismatic heretic apostate priss -- was Smerco's guest. On a side note, I welcome him to the fraternity: I was Smerconish's guest on the morning the conclave opened, after I had been spat upon by the Archdiocese, which attempted to silence me after I had the temerity to say nice things about Cardinal Rigali in an interview with a national wire service.

That was the interregnum that was.

In the hot seat, McLaughlin -- a veteran media commentator on things Catholic in Philadelphia (he has a doctorate in communication) -- kept going with his tack of the last two weeks: That we were duped, that this was kept even from the priests in the trenches (which it was) and that our people need hope and affirmation for their emotions, because "everywhere you turn" it seems there was a predator priest of Philadelphia who had been kept in ministry.

Mac alone cited that his spiritual director from the Seminary, his confessor and six of his classmates were in the report, and he didn't have a clue at all about any of it. And he's always been so detached from the center of action, preferring to actually do the church's work, that I believe him.

The people came out of the woodwork -- this is what happens when about 92% of the parishes allow for no open forum for the people to vent and heal before they can find it in themselves to move on. The calls must've blown out a couple phone lines at the WPHT studios, because callers were run through at a furious clip, each one feeling angry, betrayed, furious, looking for some reassurance -- looking for some hope.

And then one of the JPII Boys chimed in, "Um, our Holy Father Pope John Paul the Great...."

Sorry, Charlie -- there's a new Pope in town. And he's much better on sex abuse than JP was. It's true -- who resurrected the Marcial Maciel case, after all?

Anyway, the choirboy (from Malvern, hmm-hmm) went on to give the stock defense that "you know, it wasn't really pedophilia, just pederasty," (good thing I wasn't in that chair, as I would've vomited) and that we have to blame sex abuse by clergy on people who support gay marriage, because JP said so.

So we should blame predator priests and an alleged cover-up on... the laity? Not the clericalist culture? Not lax fidelity? Not horrific seminary oversight?

Wonderful. Brilliant. Gag me with a crozier.

Father Mac also made a return appearance in the pages of the Daily News today (this is SO my strategy: Archdiocese spits on you, then appear on Smerconish and in the Daily on the same day. This is so six months ago for me. It's like deja vu.) Apparently, having found no comfort from many of their shepherds, the Catholic people of Philadelphia have come out to thank Fr. Bob.

Father Mac "may bring me back to Sunday Mass," e-mailed Karen P., adding that she "never realized that there are priests out there feeling the same as parish members - betrayed."

While Father Mac is reader Frank M.'s "new hero," e-mailer Raymond C. thinks Father Mac should head the Philadelphia Archdiocese.

"This man is the one who should be in the position of cardinal, so he can bring [the church] back to holiness and truthfulness," Raymond declared.

And reader Jean M. echoed others when she promised to keep Father Mac in her prayers because, she feared, "his bishop will soon try to transfer him" as punishment for being honest.

After all, if the church promoted liars and pedophiles - as maintained in the grand jury's report on the Philadelphia Archdiocese's handling of its sex scandal - is it unreasonable to assume they might demote an honorable and outspoken man of God?

Gee - is the pope Catholic?

As I've always told priests in need of a bit of reality, "Priesthood isn't what you wear, it isn't what people call you -- it's what you do for them." (Many of them still don't get it, in which cases I have to resort to the Steven Tyler strategy: "Girl, you got to change your crazy ways!" For some reason, that usually works.) By speaking up and giving people an outlet, the faithful who've turned to columnist Ronnie Polaneczky and Father Mac with gratitude are doing so because they feel that, in the person of McLaughlin, the church is listening to them, that the church understands their pain, that the church is united with its faithful.

We do not see those qualities in overwhelming amounts in this town. Even now. And this response is just proof positive of it. Ronnie continues:
Having been raised in the Philadelphia Archdiocese, I logged a lot of time in church confessionals over the years, taking counsel from men of the cloth. So it feels both weird and presumptuous now to offer them some counsel of my own.

But indulge me.

Because what I want to say to the good priests who feel the way Father Mac does but are afraid to speak out is this:

Just do it.

Your people are hungry for you to declare that you're angry that the church coldly bartered the safety of its children for the protection of its financial assets.

You know it's true. Your people know it's true. And they are desperate for you to say it for them, because they know their official church leaders never will.

If you can find the courage to speak out as vociferously as Father Mac has, your people will not throw you to the Archdiocesan wolves.

They will rally behind you.

But don't take my word for it.

Take the word of reader Ruth L., who wrote, "Our pastor is nice but has addressed this problem in a lukewarm fashion, without any courage, and I am so frustrated."

And Stephen M., who swears that "if the church was filled with more Father Macs, it would be a much better organization, worthy of our trust and respect."

And John R., who refuses to put another dime in church coffers "unless I decide to drive down to St. Basil's and hear a Father Mac sermon."

Wow - honesty in the pulpit leading to more coins dropped into the collection plate?

That's a sound that the church actually pays attention to.

And it might make them start heeding what you - and Father Mac - have to say, too.

When I got into the church journalism biz in this town, I knew it'd be tough. Little did I imagine how much of an understatement that was.

Over the years, I've had more than my share of intimidation, acid, and pure turpitude thrown at me by the institution here which has purported to act in the name of a Christ and of a Church foreign to the Christian understanding, the Catholic understanding, of what the Holy Temple is. They've spent eons trying to shut me up, shut me down, crush my spirit and run me out of the commentariat. And I haven't an answer as to why.

A priest once alluded to "your voodoo doll over at the [chancery] office." And I chuckled along, at least for the first couple times I heard it. But when I heard it from the eighth person, I concluded that there had to be some truth to it. And I've been threatened enough, spat upon enough and defamed enough within the church here that some nights I've gone to sleep thinking that "the office" won't be at peace until there's either a bullet in my head or I'm in a coma, because only then would I be silenced for good -- it hasn't helped that suspicious visitors have shown up at my house, my address written on a piece of paper, looking for me. Hence the analogy to being safer in Venezuela.

I'm dead serious. This is the environment that needs to be changed, because the church here is a church no longer.

I don't feel at home in my own church anymore, the church I've given a lot of my life to loving and studying and caring deeply about, because some within it have tried to take it from me and, by extension, away from our people. And I hope they haven't won, but they've gone a long way toward it.

I've felt a stranger here since the Holy Thursday a couple years back when I first began this work, a morning when battle lines I would've never imagined were drawn by men of God, and the whiff of judgment lingered in the air.

I felt my chest crush in on me and the sensation of great pain -- an unbearable, excruciating sense of heartbreak -- swept over me. And as much as I wanted to celebrate my favorite day of the calendar together with everyone, as I had done for years before, the message had been sent my way: "Leave or else."

I literally felt like I was about to die.

That climate hasn't changed one bit, and it won't change until its stewards are sent back into the trenches where they belong and reminded of what ministry is, what priesthood is, what Christ is.

And they might well try and break me, or my windows, or my legs -- or worse -- before that day comes, if it ever comes; they broke my heart long ago. But I'll wait, I'll pray, and I'll hope against hope that, from the ruins of human decadence and power, the church can one day return to this city again.



Blogger Dave Merkowitz said...

Keep speaking truth to power!

It is pretty clear you have your ear to the ground around the entire Catholic world. I'd be interested to hear your take on the Cincinnati, Toledo, and Covington dioceses.

20/10/05 13:46  

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