‘If ex-Catholic was a religion…’

Why independent Catholic churches are flourishing

by Jess Rohan

On Holy Thursday, a solemn day in the most sacred week in the Catholic calendar, St. Miriam’s felt like any other Catholic church: The altar featured a crucifix draped with white fabric and a tabernacle, and the Rev. James St. George, also known as Father Jim, was preparing the Flourtown church for a foot-washing ceremony, with towels and washbasins placed on the altar.

But St. Miriam’s is not Roman Catholic, nor affiliated with the Vatican: It’s catholic — with a lowercase c.

It’s one of at least four independent Catholic parishes that cropped up around Philadelphia between 2005 and 2010, nourished in part by the advantages of social media and email. Now with more than 600 parishioners, St. Miriam’s has become perhaps the largest such congregation; like the others, drawing Catholics eager for new ways to practice an old faith.

Its pastor last week noted the sad parallels between the worldwide Roman Catholic Church and the Paris blaze that seemed to rage untouched until it had already consumed part of its historic Notre Dame Cathedral.

“They don’t admit they’re on fire until it’s too late,” St. George said. “And now the whole church is burning.”

The Roman Catholic Church is still the biggest religious institution in the United States — and the world, with about 1.3 billion adherents, according to the Vatican. But fewer and fewer Americans are identifying as Catholic. The clergy sex-abuse scandals, conversion to other faiths, and declining religiosity in general all play a role, according to polls. A Pew study found that between 2007 and 2014, the Catholic Church lost more members than any other religious institution, by a wide margin.

“If ex-Catholic was a religion, it’d be the third-largest in the United States,” said Julie Byrne, a professor of religion at Hofstra University whose book, The Other Catholics: Remaking America’s Largest Religion, explores independent catholicism.

Alternative Catholic churches have existed for centuries. The Orthodox Catholic Church, which split with the Roman Catholic Church in 1054 and today maintains its seat of power in Istanbul, has more than 100 million members.

And not all are alike. Some are conservative, offering Mass in Latin. Others are characterized by an openness to concepts and stances that the Roman Catholic Church eschews, including female priests and gay marriage — both of which a majority of U.S. Catholics support, according to the Pew poll.

But most independent Catholic churches are filled with congregants steeped in the traditions of the religion. Byrne said 60 percent to 70 percent of parishioners at the independent Catholic churches she studied had come from Roman Catholic churches.

She said such a conversion comes at a price: The Rome-led Catholic Church has made sure to convey that independent parishes aren’t “the real thing,” suggesting that joining one could jeopardize a Catholic’s salvation.

A spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia last week declined to wade into the debate, instead noting that though the church has been “uneven in fidelity to Christ and His word,” it is “the only place where Christ and His word continue to be passed on in all of its fullness and clarity.”

Monsignor James Michael St. George — “Father Jim” — the pastor at Saint Miriam Parish, and Sean Hall (left) greeting members of the congregation arriving for a traditional Holy Thursday service last week. St. Miriam’s is an independent (non-Vatican affiliated) Catholic church in Flourtown.

St. George said he encountered that sort of resistance in St. Miriam’s first year, when a listing for the church’s Catholic services in a local Roxborough paper triggered a letter from Roman Catholic clergy suggesting its use of the word Catholic might “mislead” people. Instead, attention from Roman Catholic churches only helped grow his congregation, he said.

Almost every year since, members of St. Miriam’s have worked to build its infrastructure — painting walls, restoring the stained glass windows, and maintaining the graves on the 12-acre campus along Bethlehem Pike that it inherited from a Lutheran church.

St. George began his path to priesthood at a Roman Catholic seminary, St. Mark’s in Erie, but said he had long felt unsettled by parts of church doctrine, including its positions on LGBT people and women. Such stances had even resonated inside his family’s Italian Catholic home in northwestern Pennsylvania.

“My sister couldn’t serve the altar or read at Mass,” St. George said, “and she would come home and cry.”

Now he’s a bishop in Old Catholic Churches International, part of an independent Catholic movement that split from Rome in 1870 and dates to an 18th-century Dutch separatist movement.

Mother JoEllen Werthman confronted the same kind of conflicts when she grew up Catholic on Long Island decades ago and then, in the 1980s, felt a religious calling.

“I couldn’t figure out how to have a boyfriend and be a nun,” said Werthman.

When it became clear the Roman Catholic Church would not accept women as clergy in her lifetime, Werthman began to look elsewhere, and found a seminary at the Catholic Apostolic Church of Antioch to ordain her.

“What will I say to God when I die?” she asked. “Did I follow the rules, or did I answer the call?”

These days, the 73-year-old cleric is married, and leads St. Mary Magdalen in Bensalem, a congregation of about two dozen people out of a building owned by an Episcopal church.

At Werthman’s church, her homily is followed by an open discussion with parishioners. The congregants appreciate being treated “like adults,” Werthman said.

“Most people have never been given the opportunity to explore their questions once they get past being a kid,” she said.

St. George said his church saw an increase in attendance after the wave of clergy sex-abuse scandals in the early 2000s. His parish, which also runs a preschool and kindergarten, has a program called KidSafe, a set of policies concerning child welfare.

Lorraine Cuffey joined the Flourtown church on Palm Sunday six years ago after learning that the church she had been attending failed to remove two priests accused of child abuse. Now, she’s the president of St. Miriam’s board of directors.

Her Episcopalian husband used to avoid Sunday Mass because he couldn’t receive communion with Cuffey. But now that they can receive communion together, “he comes every Sunday,” she said.

For Lewis Salotti and his wife, Ramona, who joined St. Miriam’s three years ago, the independent Catholic church is a perfect mix of tradition and flexibility.

“It was comforting to come here and see the same service and be familiar with it,” Salotti said. But with clergy who can marry and have families, he said, “they are living in the world just like us, and I think that really makes a difference.”

St. George says his church is about bringing everyone together under the “Catholic fold.”

“When the doctrine of the church harms people, you need to look at it again,” he said. “The church shouldn’t hurt people.”

Complete Article HERE!

How Catholic Church used treatment centers to protect priests accused of child abuse

Monsignor William Lynn was the first U.S. Catholic Church official to be convicted of covering up clergy sex abuse. After Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court vacated Lynn’s conviction, he faces another trial this year.

By Ian Nawalinski

In 1995, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops commissioned an internal church study on child abuse. The two-volume study surveyed bishops in more than 100 dioceses nationwide about their use of treatment centers to assess and care for priests believed to be sexually abusing children.

The result: 87% of bishops (127 out of 145 dioceses surveyed) reported using treatment centers for clergy accused of child abuse.

Two decades later, following the August release of the Pennsylvania grand jury report on sex abuse in the Catholic Church — one of three released by the state attorney general since early 2000  — dioceses in multiple states and at least one state attorney general have disclosed their own lists of credibly accused priests.

The Pennsylvania report focuses on many small towns throughout the state.  One of those towns — mentioned more than a dozen times — is an outlier. It’s a town you wouldn’t think to look for unless, like me, you were born and raised there.

In 2002, around the same time the Boston Globe published its bombshell report on sexual abuse of children in Archdiocese of Boston, I was a freshman at Bishop Shanahan, a Catholic high school in Downingtown, Pennsylvania.

I don’t remember paying much attention to the Boston Globe report. Nor was I aware that, during this same time, multiple priests accused of child abuse were being sent to a clergy treatment center directly across the street from my high school.

Downingtown is home to the longest-running behavioral health facility in North America still in use by the Catholic Church. It’s a place where  —  according to the reports  —  at least 50 priests accused of molesting children in Pennsylvania were referred for evaluation and treatment.

That treatment time was often referred to in their employment history as “sick leave,” and many priests were inevitably discharged and permitted to return to active ministry. Others were transferred to church-run retirement homes where they received fully paid benefits. The church commonly called that retreat a “life of prayer and penance.”

St. John Vianney Center

Founded in 1946, the St. John Vianney Center in Downingtown is staffed by clergy, psychologists, and nurses. It offers inpatient and outpatient services for behavioral and emotional issues, addiction, compulsive behaviors, and weight management. It is fully funded and administered under the purview of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

In detail, the grand jury report  — much like the 1995 USCCB study  — offers rare insight into the church’s use of “treatment” centers, the psychiatric facilities for clergy with addiction, depression, and sexual disorders, among other conditions. According to the grand jury report, the Catholic Church used these treatment centers to “launder accused priests, provide plausible deniability, and permit hundreds of known offenders to return to ministry.”

The report goes on further to state that Catholic bishops relied on three treatment centers in particular: Servants of the Paraclete in Jemez Springs, New Mexico; St. Luke’s in Suitland, Maryland; and St. John
Vianney Center. All three remain open.

Downingtown, less than an hour south of Philadelphia, is no stranger to scandal involving the church. Most recently, in 2017, a pastor at the nondenominational Calvary Fellowship Church, across the street from Downingtown East High School, pleaded guilty to institutional sex assault, corruption of minors, and child
endangerment after sexually assaulting and impregnating a teenage girl. He was sentenced to up to six years in prison.

Five years earlier,  Monsignor William Lynn  —  who was serving at St. Joseph’s parish across the street from Downingtown West High School  —  became the first high-ranking U.S. Catholic Church official to be convicted of covering up clergy sex abuse. In addition to three priests and a parochial school teacher, Lynn was
charged and convicted of one count of endangering the welfare of a child. He is now free after serving nearly three years of his three- to six-year sentence. He may face another trial on the charges this year.

St. Joseph’s Church in Downingtown remains the second largest parish in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. The recently renovated facade, with its towering white steeple, sits just off Route 322. Every Sunday, parishioners fill the parking lot before Mass. Every summer, the same lot is transformed into the annual Community Festival: a five-day carnival that is a hallmark of the small suburb.

On the opposite side of town is St. John Vianney Center. Unlike St. Joseph’s parish, on display as a beacon to area Catholics, the treatment center is hidden from public view. It sits at the end of a long driveway at the top of a hill, surrounded by trees and nestled between a country club and Bishop Shanahan High School across the street.

The only clue toward its existence is a small sign outside the entrance. It’s a fitting appearance for a place shrouded in a culture of secrecy characteristic of the church itself.

 A look at two cases

One of the four men charged along with Lynn  in 2012 was the Rev. Edward Avery, who  received treatment at St. John Vianney over the course of four days from Nov. 30 to Dec. 3, 1992. Following his evaluation, the treatment center recommended further in-patient care. Philadelphia Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, who had allowed Avery to remain in active ministry for nearly 11 months after his victim first reported the abuse to the archdiocese, approved the recommendation.

Avery was discharged from St. John Vianney on Oct. 22, 1993. In a memo to the church, Lynn shared the treatment center’s recommendations for Avery, which included a ministry excluding adolescents and with a population other than vulnerable minorities. The treatment center also advised that an aftercare team supervise Avery.

Yet Lynn recommended that Avery return to a parish with an elementary school, and Bevilacqua ultimately agreed. Avery would later testify before the grand jury that he continued to celebrate Mass, with altar servers, usually twice a weekend. He heard the confessions of children and was never told to restrict his activities with the youth of the parish.

The aftercare team that was supposed to be supervising Avery didn’t meet with him for more than a year after he ended treatment. Furthermore, the chaplain at St. John Vianney warned Lynn that Avery was “neglecting his duties” and instead “booking numerous disc jockey engagements” to gain access to children. Avery remained in active ministry until Dec. 5, 2003, a decade after first receiving treatment.

Avery’s case is one of many revealing exactly how the Catholic Church used St. John Vianney and other treatment centers to launder accused priests and, in some cases, return them to ministry in defiance of the treatment center’s own recommendations.

And while it’s worth noting that many of the allegations contained within the grand jury report are from decades ago, the case studies involving treatment centers cover allegations ranging from as early as the 1960s to as recent as 2004.

In a separate case, on April 22, 2004, diocesan documents show that Pennsylvania State Police searched the room of the Rev. Ronald Yarrosh  —  then assistant pastor at St. Ambrose in Schuylkill Haven  —  and found a “tremendous amount” of child pornography.

A week later, he was suspended from ministry and placed into treatment at St. John Vianney.

Across the street, I was just about to finish my sophomore year of high school.

On May 12, 2004, State Police filed charges: 110 counts of sexual abuse of children.  Yarrosh was sentenced pursuant to a negotiated plea agreement that included three to 23 months in prison. He was discharged from St. John Vianney on May 3, 2005, and was later incarcerated for nearly four months until his release on Dec. 6, 2005, as a convicted and registered sex offender.

According to the grand jury report, upon his release, Yarrosh remained a member of the priesthood and the diocese granted him residence at a retirement home for priests in Orwigsburg — only a few miles from St. Ambrose parish where he had been arrested two years earlier.

In 2006, according to the grand jury report, Yarrosh took trips to New York City with a 7-year-old. Yarrosh was also found to be in possession of pornography in violation of his court supervision. He was sentenced to
four to 10 years in state prison. In June 2007, the Yarrosh was finally dismissed from the priesthood.

The current president of St. John Vianney, David Shellenberger, did not return requests for an interview.

Time for a mea culpa

I’ve driven past St. John Vianney hundreds of times in my life. I spent four years, every day, directly across the street. And yet, I never knew what that place was until I discovered it on my own, by accident, reading the grand jury report.

Much like the abusive priests written about in the reports, the truth was always hiding in plain sight. If the Catholic Church is serious about reform within the priesthood, it will do more than simply condemn the accused.

The church must acknowledge and recognize that bishops across the country have, for decades, institutionalized a culture that not only fosters abusive priests but also aims to protect the accused and silence victims. Simply put, the only reason child abuse has become an epidemic is because the Catholic Church has allowed it to happen.

What the #MeToo era revealed, beyond a litany of heinous acts committed by sexual predators, is that the allegations themselves rarely tell the full story. Instead — whether it be the Catholic Church or Michael Jackson or Jeffrey Epstein — the full story often involves those in power exploiting their influence and privilege to circumvent the criminal justice system and maintain the appearance of infallibility.

Perhaps the first step toward reform in the Catholic Church is a collective confirmation that members of the clergy are no more pious than anyone else. They are, in fact, only human — some of them deeply flawed — and all of them in need of self-reflection.

Perhaps, a life of prayer and penance is in order.

Complete Article HERE!

The Terribly Tiny God of MAGA Christians

By

I feel sorry for professed Christians who support this President.

They have a profound and fundamental spiritual problem: their God is too small.

They passionately worship a deity made in their own image: white, American, Republican, male—and perpetually terrified of just about everything: Muslims, immigrants, gay children, Special Counsel reports, mandalas, Harry Potter, Starbuck holiday cups, yoga, wind turbines, Science—everything.
Their God is so laughably minuscule, so fully neutered of power, so completely devoid of functioning vertebrae that “He” cannot protect them from the encroaching monsters they are certain lurk around every corner to overwhelm them.

MAGA Christians sure put up a brave face, I’ll give them that. They shower this God with effusive praise on Sunday mornings, they sing with reckless abandon in church services about Him, they brazenly pump out their chests on social media regarding His infinite wisdom, they defiantly declare this God’s staggering might at every opportunity—but their lives tell the truth: They believe He is impotent and scared and ineffectual. You can tell this because they insist on doing all the things that a God-sized God would simply do as part of the gig.

They need to be armed to the teeth at all times because they don’t really believe God will come through to defend them in a pinch—and will always be outgunned.

They want to change gay couples and transgender teenagers themselves, because they don’t trust God to work within people as He desires. (Apparently God keeps making LGBTQ people, which really pisses them off.)
They want to stockpile and horde wealth, health insurance, and opportunity—because this is a zero sum game; because the God they claim turned water into wine, and fed thousands with a few fish and some leftover bread—can’t make enough for everyone.

They are obsessed with building a wall and defending a border and turning way refugees—because their God isn’t generous or smart or creative enough to help them figure out how to welcome and care for everyone who requires it.

They want no other religious traditions to have a voice, because their insecure and terribly tiny God is mortally threatened by such things.

MAGA Christians’ daily existence testifies that their God is a microscopic, myopic coward, who has appointed them to morally police a world He cannot handle or is not equipped to direct and renovate. That’s pretty sad.

In short, their God isn’t a God worth believing in or worshiping—which is why they have to play God while they’re alive. It’s why they are furrowed-browed and white-nuckling their journey here—not content to let Jesus take the wheel for fear he’d drive them outside their gated community and into the hood and ask them to get out and care for the people they’re so used to condemning.

If you’re going to have a God, it may as well be right-sized. The world deserves this.

People deserve a God who is bigger than Franklin Graham’s God and Mike Pence’s God and Sander’s and Jerry Falwell’s God. Their God is small and terrified—and it suspiciously resembles them.

People deserve a God who so loves the world, not a God who thinks America First; whose creation begin without divides and borders and walls, because there is only a single, interdependent community.
People deserve a God who touched the leper and healed the sick and fed the starving and parted the seas and raised the dead—not a quivering idol who drafts bathroom bills and social media crusades against migrant families.

People deserve a God who is neither white nor male nor cisgender-heterosexual, nor Republican—because any other God isn’t big enough to bear the title or merit any reverence.

MAGA Christians believe in God earnestly, pray to God passionately, serve God with unflinching fervor. The problem is their God is too small, and as long as they are oriented toward such a tiny, useless deity—they will continue to be compelled to do for God what they believe God should be doing, but can’t or won’t.

I feel sorry for them and for the world that has to be subjected to their pocket-sized theology when there is an expansive space waiting.

I hope and pray that these people soon find a God who is big enough so that they stop living so small.

For their sake—and for ours.

Complete Article HERE!

Pope: Women have ‘legitimate claims’ for justice, equality

By Nicole Winfield

Pope Francis said in a document released Tuesday that women have “legitimate claims” to seek more equality in the Catholic Church, but he stopped short of endorsing recent calls from his own bishops to give women leadership roles.

In the text, Francis also told young adults they should try to help priests at risk for sexually abusing minors in what a Vatican official said was a great act of trust the pope has for today’s youth to help “priests in difficulty.”

Francis issued the document, known as an apostolic exhortation, in response to an October 2018 meeting of the world’s bishops on better ministering to today’s young Catholics.

The synod took place against the Church’s clergy sex abuse crisis and included demands for greater women’s rights. The bishops’ final recommendations called the need for women to hold positions of responsibility and decision-making in the church “a duty of justice.”

In the new document reflecting at length on the October meeting, Francis did not echo that sweeping conclusion. Instead, he wrote that a church that listens to young people must be attentive to women’s “legitimate claims” for equality and justice, as well as better train both men and women with leadership potential.

“A living church can look back on history and acknowledge a fair share of male authoritarianism, domination, various forms of enslavement, abuse and sexist violence,” Francis said.

He continued: “With this outlook, she can support the call to respect women’s rights, and offer convinced support for greater reciprocity between males and females, while not agreeing with everything some feminist groups propose.”

An organizer of last year’s synod, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, was asked at a news conference Tuesday about Francis’ lack of reference to women in leadership positions and the need to welcome gay Catholics. Baldisseri replied that Francis couldn’t rewrite everything from the final synod recommendations.

Francis’ new document, a 299-paragraph booklet entitled “Christ is Alive,” covers a wide range of issues confronting young people today. In it, he notes that many feel alienated from the church because of its sexual and financial scandals, and are suffering themselves from untold forms of exploitation, conflict and despair.

A hefty chunk of the document focuses on both the promises and perils of the digital world and dedicates ample space to the plight of migrants. It uses millennial lingo, calling the Virgin Mary an “influencer” and describing relations with God in computing terms: “hard disk,” ‘’archive” and “deleting.”

Francis wrote that he was inspired by all the reflections from the bishops’ synod and refers readers to the 2018 recommendations. He said he wanted to use his new text to “summarize those proposals I considered most significant.”

Throughout, he urges young people to be protagonists in rejuvenating the church.

On the topic of child sex abuse and cover-ups in the church, the pope called for the “eradication” of traditions that allowed child sex abuse to take place and for a challenge to how church leaders handled cases with “irresponsibility and lack of transparency.”

He urged young people to call out a priest who seems at risk of seeking affection from children and youth, “and remind him of his commitment to God and his people.”

Asked if that message wasn’t putting young people in potentially dangerous positions with potential predators, another synod organizer, Monsignor Fabio Fabene, said it was the contrary.

The pope’s words showed Francis wanted to entrust youth with “showing closeness to priests experiencing difficulty” in their missions and for young people to help “rejuvenate the heart of a priest who is in difficulty.”

Such terms have long been used by church officials to minimize the criminality of priests and bishops who rape and molest children.

Asked why there was no reference to Francis’ frequent call for “zero tolerance” for abuse, Baldisseri said the pope doesn’t need to repeat the phrase in every document.

“You don’t need to say ‘zero tolerance’ every time you go to lunch and dinner,” he said.

The document acknowledges the importance of sexuality in the development of young people. As with the roles of women in the Catholic Church, Francis did not repeat the bishops’ wording in recommendations for deeper anthropological, theological and pastoral study on sexuality and sexual inclinations. The term “homosexuality” appears once in Francis’ text.

Women have often complained they have second-class status in the church. History’s first Latin American pope has vowed to change that, but he has done little that is concrete and counts no women among his own advisers.

Just last week, the founder of the Vatican’s women’s magazine resigned with members of the editorial board, citing what she said was a climate of distrust and de-legitimization in the Vatican. The editor of the newspaper that distributes the magazine denied efforts to undermine the women.

Nine nuns were invited to participate at the October synod on Catholic youth, alongside 267 cardinals, bishops and priests. None of the women had the right to vote on the final recommendations. The nuns publicly made clear their displeasure before, during and after the meeting.

The recommendations advocated making women a greater presence in church structures at all levels while respecting church doctrine that the priesthood remains for men only.

The Women’s Ordination Conference, which advocates for a female priesthood, blasted the pope’s document for ignoring the synod’s recommendation to make the whole church aware of the “urgency of an inescapable change” to put women in decision-making roles.

The document, the group said in a statement, “offers only lip service to the movement for women’s equality in the Roman Catholic Church.”

Complete Article HERE!