Brianna Heldt is a writer, speaker, and radio show host. She blogs at www.briannaheldt.com, has been a featured guest on BBC Radio, and her work can regularly be found in other online publications as well. A convert to the Catholic Church, Brianna explores topics ranging from faith and social issues to adoption and large family life. She and her husband make their home in Denver, along with their eight children.
As a convert to Catholicism — my husband and I were received into the Catholic Church nearly seven years ago — I confess I don’t have much of a remembrance of the 2002 sexual abuse scandals. At the time the Boston Globe broke the story, I was a newly-married Protestant, not paying a whole lot of attention to what was, or perhaps more accurately wasn’t, happening in Rome.
What I could gather in the years that ensued, particularly when I started paying more attention, was that it was, to say the least, a travesty of epic proportions. Sexual coercion and abuse may happen in all kinds of institutions all around the world, but it certainly ought NOT be happening in Christ’s Church. Never again seemed to be the attitude of faithful lay Catholics everywhere, none of whom ever struck me as complicit or wanting to look the other way. Far from downplaying the matter, as has sometimes been accused, I found Catholics to be generally very concerned and troubled by what had occurred years earlier.
And yet, we are now learning of further sexual abuse, this time perpetrated by a (now former) high-ranking cardinal. There were surely additional cover-ups, because we are told that many people knew, and yet this man continued to be promoted higher and higher in the hierarchy. We have yet to discover just how far and high up the whole thing goes.
There’s a reason we use the word “scandal” to describe what went before, and what is sadly happening now. The whole matter is, without a doubt, tremendously scandalizing. Our Catholic witness to the world — let alone our own children — is profoundly damaged when the hierarchy of bishops not only includes perverted sexual abusers, but also men who apparently wish to protect and enable them.
It seems to me — and I readily admit to being nothing more than a garden variety, stay-at-home mother, and a Catholic for less than 10 years at that — that we are in desperate need of transparency from our bishops. We want to know that not only will they will be held accountable, but that they will also be willing to hold their brother bishops accountable. I believe what is ultimately needed is an external investigation, which examines the evidence and follows the truth wherever it leads, free from intimidation or influence. The problems plaguing the Church in decades past are, clearly, still finding fertile soil in the present.
My own children are still blissfully unaware of such things. I am more than okay with that for now, as the oldest is just 14 and doesn’t seem overly concerned with church drama or seedy politics. I am, however, ever careful to present a realistic picture of our faith to them — emphasizing the beauty of Christ’s bride while also helping them to recognize that it is not only a divine but also human institution. And because humans have the capacity for sin, there will always be the potential for institutions — even the very Church of Christ — to be plagued by some level of evil. It is repulsive and must be rejected and rooted out at all costs, but the reality is that it is there.
Somehow, these disturbing news stories and heartbreaking accounts serve to highlight precisely what our faith really ought to be about. And that is, simply, Jesus Christ. Present in the Eucharist, knowing firsthand what it means to suffer injustice, and ready — with His mother — to sit with us in the sorrow as readily as in the beautiful. In a world filled with brokenness, pain, loss, and horrible abuse of all kinds, Jesus is steadfast in His love and care for us. Our worldly leaders and, dare I say, even shepherds, may fail us. They have failed us. Big time. But Christ never, ever will.
I often reflect upon how I’m so glad we were drawn to the fullness of the faith when we were. It seemed on the surface, in some ways, a simpler time. I’m also glad it was the culmination of years of prayer, study and reflection. We became convinced that it was indeed the Church that Jesus founded, and that it was, above all else, true. And no matter how much needs to change in terms of the hierarchy — and yes, it does absolutely need to change — the truth about Jesus, His Church and the Sacraments remains. I will go to Mass and receive the Eucharist. I will go to Confession and be absolved of my sins. I will remain humbled by the gift of Christ’s Church, as I am simultaneously grieved by the shameful things men have done with their power and influence. Jesus came for the poor and the weak, the outcast and the vulnerable. I believe with everything that is in me that He is particularly near to the victimized.
It’s Jesus I love, and the holy saints (and especially His mother) that I look to for inspiration. I love Christ’s Church too, just like so many Catholics, which is part of why the whole matter is so utterly devastating.
As we fight (yet again) to rid our church of such grave and scandalous moral evil, there is no reason to pretend that it’s not happening. We Catholics, of all people, must shine a light into the darkest of places, exposing them for what they are. Yet as we do, we can also take heart and move forward knowing that even in a deeply disturbing era, God Himself is good, pure and true.