Jennifer Fulwiler is a writer and speaker who converted to Catholicism after a life of atheism. She’s a contributor to the books The Church and New Media and Atheist to Catholic: 11 Stories of Conversion, and is writing a book based on her personal blog, ConversionDiary.com. She and her husband live in Austin, TX with their five young children, and were featured in the nationally televised reality show Minor Revisions. You can follow her on Twitter at @conversiondiary.
When people hear that my husband and I began exploring Catholicism in 2005, one of the first questions they often ask is, “What about the sexual abuse scandals? Didn’t that scare you away from the Church?”
They’re usually surprised when I report that the answer is no; in fact, the scandals and the negative media coverage actually increased my faith in the Church. Here’s why:
Getting the Facts Straight
One of the first things I did was to look into the numbers behind the sexual abuse cases. Was I heading into an institution that was filled with sexual predators, as the media would have me believe? I was shocked to find that, by even the most anti-Catholic organizations’ estimates, only about 2 percent of Catholic priests had even been accused of sexual misconduct. And certainly the cover-ups by members of the hierarchy were deplorable, but my research led me to see that that was common in all organizations, not just the Church. To list just one of the many examples, in Washington there were 159 coaches accused of sexual misconduct with minors over a 10-year period. Ninety-eight of them continued to coach or teach. And how did the school hierarchies respond? To quote this article:
When faced with complaints against coaches, school officials often failed to investigate them and sometimes ignored a law requiring them to report suspected abuse to police. Many times, they disregarded a state law requiring them to report misconduct to the state education office.
Even after getting caught, many men were allowed to continue coaching because school administrators promised to keep their disciplinary records secret if the coaches simply left. Some districts paid tens of thousands of dollars to get coaches to leave. Other districts hired coaches they knew had records of sexual misconduct.
In another example, Carol Shakeshaft and Audrey Cohan looked at 225 cases of abuse by educators in New York City. Shakeshaft reported:
All of the accused admitted sexual abuse of a student, but none of the abusers was reported to the authorities, and only 1 percent lost their license to teach. Only 35 percent suffered negative consequences of any kind, and 39 percent chose to leave their school district, most with positive recommendations. Some were even given an early retirement package.
I could go on, but you get the idea. After investigating the issue, I found that, sadly, there is nothing different going on in the Catholic Church than in any organization where men are in contact with children, and that it’s an unfortunate fact of human nature—and not something unique within the Church—that people in hierarchy tend to look the other way when it comes to bad conduct by the people who report to them.
However, unlike the coaches or the school teachers, the Catholic clergy were supposed to be men of God. What are we supposed to make of it when even they commit atrocities like sexual abuse? Pondering that question was one of the key things that led me decide to become Catholic.
Understanding Who Guides the Church
While I was researching Catholicism, I seemed to be surrounded by the message that the Catholic hierarchy was corrupt to the core. Not only were negative stories about the Church splashed all over the media, but I’d happened to pick up some historical biographies from times and places that were heavily Catholic, and many of those books gave the impression that every bishop who ever lived had a personal harem that he only left long enough to go steal from the poor and kick puppies. I knew that these were heavily biased accounts that not only exaggerated a lot of the bad deeds, but that also overlooked all the incredible priests, bishops and popes throughout the ages who radiated the love of Christ. However, being surrounded by all this negativity did remind me that not every Catholic is a saint, and that sometimes even people in the hierarchy do bad things.
I found myself in a strange place: On the one hand, I was blown away by the wisdom I’d found in this Church. Reading the great works of Catholic theology left me feeling like I’d discovered the secret owner’s manual to the human life; the Catholic worldview was like the box top that made all the puzzle pieces of the human experience come together in a coherent whole. In the Catechism I saw a seamless, perfectly consistent moral code that was as compelling as it was counterintuitive—and when I tried following it, I found a peace and joy that I have never encountered before.
Yet on the other hand, I had all these reminders that Catholics are sinners too sometimes—that, in fact, even their leaders aren’t exempt from committing some of the most deplorable sins known to man.
It was when these two things collided that I realized: I don’t think people can do this on their own.
Ironically, the more the culture tried to paint the Catholic Church as full of sinful people, the more convinced I became of its truth. I didn’t believe that ordinary people could come up with a set of teachings that contained unparalleled wisdom; maintain them consistently across all times and places, even despite tremendous pressure to recant; and then keep it all going for two thousand years. And even if the media had been right that the priesthood and episcopate were full of corrupt and immoral people, that would have only made the situation more inexplicable in purely human terms—corrupt and immoral people are always the first to sell out and preach whatever message the culture wants to hear in order to get more power for themselves.
In short, I saw something divine at work here.
The Catholic Church has claimed all along that this is an institution “powered by” God, so to speak. It was founded by Jesus Christ, not humans, and a divine Force continues to guide it to this day. Just as he did with Sacred Scripture, God uses imperfect people to proclaim his perfect truth. It’s a crazy claim, particularly hard to believe in this age when atheistic materialism dominates the culture. But I think that the constant negative portrayals of Catholics in popular culture can be a boon to our faith in this department. Because every time the world reminds us that our natures are no less fallen than anyone else’s, it’s a reminder that our Church, its sacraments, and its teachings could not exist without Someone helping us out.