Sixteen years of Catholic education. A family life infused with the rich traditions of Catholicism. A Lynbrook parish where we worshipped and witnessed the Sisters of Mercy serve unselfishly alongside a faith-filled laity and dedicated clergy. Grace was laced through all of it and the desire to devote my life to ministry led to a 35-year career in the Diocese of Rockville Centre.
I’ve worked in our schools, parishes and diocesan offices as an educator, psychologist and director of youth ministry, always with talented teams of priests, religious and lay men and women dedicated to the mission of the Gospel. I married a high school religion teacher and our kids went to Catholic schools. I wrote a syndicated column for the Long Island Catholic newspaper, served on dozens of diocesan committees, gave retreats and parish missions, and took Long Island teens on service trips to meet impoverished people, those whom Jesus loved.
I was all in, until I wasn’t.
In 1995, a vulnerable, anxious adolescent struggling with his sexuality told me things about our parish priest that no one wants to hear. He asked me to help him because his parents wouldn’t, couldn’t or didn’t know how. I brought the boy’s story to the diocese, naively assuming that appropriate actions would be taken to help the priest and protect the boy. That didn’t happen.
I was devastated to discover that the priest’s abuse of a minor came without consequences. I grew despondent while the priest grew more brazen. He took his young victim to a gay bar where, at age 14, he was served a martini and molested by men unknown to him. The priest continued to sexually abuse the boy in his rectory and at his lake house.
The torment continued until a suicide attempt brought the boy and his horrific history to a hospital where a psychiatrist listened. The Suffolk County district attorney listened, too, and that led to a grand jury investigation of sexual abuse and corruption within our diocesan clerical system. Its findings, published in 2003 on the heels of shocking revelations of similar episodes in Boston, showed an established pattern of abuse and cover-up in the Diocese of Rockville Centre. The notoriously inadequate statute of limitations that existed then prevented criminal prosecution of abusers and their protectors.
So here we are, 16 years later. The crimes of the church’s hierarchy span the globe and reach the highest levels of episcopal power. I wonder how many of the people left in the pews will consider joining millions of Americans who identify as former Catholics.
The temptation to flee institutional faith is real, but I can’t give up on a church that offers what we call “the good news of resurrection” and real hope, a church that feeds, clothes, educates and cares for more people on this planet than perhaps any other nongovernmental institution.
Like so many others, I’ve been hurt by the hierarchy, but healed by the Gospel and the God it proclaims. Faith isn’t about the clergy; it’s about Christ, community, shared prayer and discipleship.
So I’m still Catholic.
This week on Ash Wednesday, the remains of burned palms blended with oil will be pressed into my flesh in the shape of a cross, connecting me physically and spiritually to all the saints and sinners of my church, and to the God who loves us all. Somewhere deep in this simple ritual lies the unmatched mingling of mystery and the utterly mundane.
Brought together are ash and oil, the often disengaged and the most devout. We are all promised the possibility of change through Jesus. We are hopeful. We are cynical. We are eager. We are reluctant. We are God’s. We are church. And I’m not leaving.
Reader Pat McDonough lives in Manhasset.