For nearly two decades, to be an advocate for survivors of Catholic clergy sex abuse was often to be a lonely protester, frequently ignored or sometimes even maligned as disrespectful by some Catholics and clergy.
That has changed dramatically since June, when clergy abuse scandals surfaced again in the U.S. church. Enormous energy has been pumped into the movement, with parishes around the country holding crowded listening sessions on the topic, bishops making abuse the focus of their annual fall meeting this week and legislators finding new support for measures to expand statutes of limitation for child sexual abuse.
But the victims’ advocacy movement is also being transformed by bitter ideological divides among Catholics. That chasm was dramatically on display this week at the semi-annual meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore.
Monday’s two public events were dominated by the older groups — research site BishopAccountability and SNAP — whose leaders focus on oversight and justice and participate less in the controversial debates over the perceived roles of celibacy and homosexuality in the crisis. A dozen or so people attended each of those events, and around 20 came Tuesday to stand with survivors who raised signs with words including “truth” and “reform.”
A few hours later, the right-wing advocacy group and news site Church Militant hosted more than 300 protesters under a pavilion for a revival-like rally. The profile of the group, whose leaders and web site blame abuse scandals on homosexual priests and a general falling away from orthodoxy, got a boost Tuesday as James Grein, one of two people who this summer accused ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of child sexual abuse, appeared for the first time in public at the rally.
The crowd roared as Grein singled out a pope who some on the right wing see as heretical and politically too liberal.
“Jesus’ law is much higher than pontifical secrets. It’s not Francis’ church, it’s Jesus Christ’s church,” said Grein, who says McCarrick abused him for nearly two decades, starting when he was a boy. McCarrick’s suspension in June launched the current scandal in the church.
While mainstream survivors groups declined to team up with Church Militant in Baltimore, its hefty social media audience — 200,000 Facebook followers — adopted the abuse scandals as a cause this summer.
The older survivors’ groups have shied away from Church Militant in part because it does not routinely cover female victims of clergy sex abuse or go after conservative bishops who have allegedly abused. These groups want to keep the focus on goals like identifying abusers and creating policies and practices that require transparency and help victims.
“I feel like they’re using victims for a political agenda and I’m concerned about that. They’re using this to kind of get to where they want to be,” SNAP’s regional director, Becky Ianni, said of Church Militant. “And I hate when someone uses victims. Victims aren’t conservative or liberal. We’re victims. And that’s what people need to focus on.”
At the same time, Church Militant represents a large new audience for some longtime advocates who want to keep attention on abuse— even as its approach presents land mines for long-established groups.
Referring to Church Militant and other far-right websites like Breitbart and LifeSite that have taken up aspects of the cause, BishopAccountability co-director Anne Barrett Doyle said, “I see they perform a service to some extent in that they expose predatory bishops and predatory priests that mainstream press aren’t yet covering. But at the same time, because they have a different goal, their goal isn’t simple justice and accountability and transparency — there is a bias.”
Asked for comment on the role of Church Militant, the bishops’ conference issued a statement saying the umbrella group “supports everyone’s right to a peaceful protest.”
Until this summer, posts on the Church Militant site were primarily focused on aggressively fighting advancements toward gay equality in the church, as well as some conservative secular politics. A typical headline is: “The Depth of My Anger Over Decades of Effete Priests.”
Michael Voris, a former television reporter who founded Church Militant in 2012, said the McCarrick case shifted his group’s focus.
Voris in 2016 released a video saying that for much of his 30s, he had multiple sexual relationships with men, including those with whom he lived. He portrayed himself as a victim of the devil.
Voris said the McCarrick scandal — in which many top clergy in Rome and in the United States are alleged to have known of at least rumors that McCarrick was harassing male seminarians — merges with his followers’ belief that a cabal of gay top clergy is at the core of church division.
“Since McCarrick, there is a lot more anger from faithful Catholics who feel like they’ve been duped. They feel like they’ve been lied to by the establishment,” he told the Post.
It was hard for conservative Catholics to go after the establishment, Voris said, but “not anymore.”
There was the feeling, he said: “’Well, they’re the successors of the apostle. We have to look at things in a charitable way,’” he said. “But the fact that McCarrick was the one who ran the show, and he was covered up for — that was the last straw.”
This isn’t the first time the survivors’ movement has seen disagreement, said some long-term watchers. The key division decades ago, in the 1990s and early 2000s, they said, was more about tactics. Some groups like the Linkup, now faded, were focused on healing and care for survivors, while SNAP was more about confronting the church and publicizing crimes.
It’s also not the first time the ultraconservative wing of the church was focused on the topic of abuse. Terry McKiernan, Barrett-Doyle’s partner at BishopAccountability, said some of the most aggressive reporting on the issue in the 1980s and early 1990s was by the Wanderer, a 151-year-old Catholic newspaper whose motto is “No one can be at the same time a sincere Catholic and a true Socialist.” Some of the earliest reporting on rumors of McCarrick’s behavior with seminarians in the early 2000s appeared on conservative blogs.
McKiernan said liberals and conservatives tend to focus on abusers who fall in their opposing ideological camps but that he feels it has been — until now — harder for orthodox Catholics to display leadership on the issue.
“Conservative Catholics didn’t want any activism that seemed to be counter to the power structures of the church, which they respected and felt had doctrinal valiance,” McKiernan said. “McCarrick gave them permission to be aggressive but still be thinking with the mind of the church.”
Some survivors and leaders at events in Baltimore said they see in 2018 a far greater level of interest in the topic of abuse among the typical churchgoing Catholic.
“What I’m seeing for the first time is we have Catholics joining us in droves. I have Catholic groups saying: ‘What can we do for survivors?’ ” Ianni said. While there was huge publicity in the early 2000s around the Boston crisis, the interest seemed to come and then go, as faithful Catholics believed the leadership that the problem was all cleaned up.
Then came Chile. And Ireland. And the grand jury reports in Pennsylvania And Buffalo. And McCarrick. And more than a dozen state investigations into clergy sex abuse.
Ianni said lay Catholics may be “realizing they are the church. Maybe for the first time, they’re finding their voices.”
Shaun Dougherty, a survivor originally from Johnstown, Pa., stood Monday with a sign outside the Baltimore Marriott. He said he believes it is now more comfortable for victims and advocates who speak out, but that’s not enough.
“We see so many tragedies today — Parkland, Las Vegas,” he said, citing recent mass shootings. “And people poured into the streets and marched for reforms. In Pennsylvania, we had wall-to-wall media coverage [of the grand jury report], and we couldn’t even pack the [state] Capitol for reforms. The fact that parishioner support is not there is very hard to take.”
Dougherty said the focus on celibacy or homosexuality as the solution is a distractions to the movement. “The Roman Catholic bishops have a serious problem with child molestation, and they are conferencing here to figure out how to get away with it,” he said. “A lot of this other stuff bogs it down.”
This past March, a small Catholic magazine called Women Church World ran an article titled “The (almost) free work of sisters.” In it, the journalist Marie-Lucile Kubacki described nuns who, among other menial tasks, serve meals to bishops and then eat in the kitchen, and who are paid little or nothing for the work they do. That institutional sexism pertains in the Catholic Church was not a shock, but the messenger was a surprise: Women Church World is published by the Vatican. The Associated Press ran a piece about the exposé, which was subsequently covered by the Times, PBS, and other outlets. The A.P. and the Times both illustrated their pieces with portraits of the magazine’s founder and editor, Lucetta Scaraffia, a seventy-year-old history professor who wears her white-blond hair chopped short, like a monk with a chic hairdresser, and identifies as a feminist.
Scaraffia lives in Rome, but she spends summers in Todi, about an hour’s drive from the birthplace of St. Francis. In June, I went to see her there. Scaraffia founded Women Church World in 2012. The magazine circulates, once a month, with L’Osservatore Romano, a daily broadsheet that was created more than a hundred and fifty years ago and that has a fuzzy sort of editorial independence from Church leadership. There are boundaries to what Women Church World can publish, too, Scaraffia told me, sitting in her summer home’s living room, decorated with old advertisements for Napoleon, who kept Pope Pius VII in prison for several years.
Scaraffia does not regularly see the Pope, but he has her cell-phone number. He once called it, she told me, to say that he liked a book of hers that criticized the Church for not listening to women. Scaraffia is, by and large, quite conservative: she does not want women to be priests, nor does she want the Pope to upend the Church’s positions on sexual mores, she told me. But she thinks that abortion should be legal, and she believes in a merciful Church, with doctrinal walls porous enough to welcome believers who do not conform to teachings on sex and romantic love.
She also believes that Catholic women can and should take on a larger role in Church decisions—they need to make “concrete political moves,” she told me, and to ask “for things we can actually obtain.” The Vatican is a mostly breezeless state, faithful to a heavy inheritance bequeathed by the Gospels, but Scaraffia is attentive to whatever wind there might be. The magazine’s exposé about nuns was inspired in part by comments that Francis made two years ago to a group of sisters. He said that he was troubled to see them assigned to “a labor of servitude and not of service.” “So we wrote the article,” Scaraffia said. After it was published, she heard from nuns who were relieved to see the Church acknowledge that women’s subservience was a violation of divine prescription. (“The priests said nothing,” she said.)
Acknowledgement, of course, is not the same as change. This past summer brought new disclosures that clerics had molested and raped thousands of children, from Germany to Pennsylvania. Earlier this year, cardinals from four continents were summoned to answer either to the Pope or to the courts for abusing minors or for protecting those who did. One archbishop has accused Pope Francis of knowing about sexual-abuse accusations against Theodore E. McCarrick and elevating him regardless. (McCarrick resigned as the archbishop of Washington in July.) The revelations have led to additional calls for women to take on greater authority in the Church: perhaps if women occupied more positions of power, the argument goes, these men would not have been able to act with impunity for so long.
A few days after our first meeting, I met Scaraffia for dinner on her porch, along with her husband, who is also a historian, and a translator. The lights of the region’s medieval castles, both authentic and faux, were bright in the evening. At one point in our conversation, over pasta and a plate of mozzarella, Scaraffia said, “I would like for women to become cardinals.” After the comment was relayed in English, I paused. A woman who doesn’t think that women should be priests, or take birth-control pills, believes that women should be cardinals, and occupy the rank just beneath the Pope, whom cardinals elect and advise?
Yes, Scaraffia said. It’s true that the Vatican prohibits women from ordination into the clerical hierarchy—though nuns take vows, they are not ordained, and so they are laypeople, not clerics. Priests, who consecrate the host at Mass, must be ordained to do so, but Catholic theology does not mandate that cardinals be ordained. So, theologically speaking, laypeople, including laywomen, can be cardinals. Pope Francis “would have everyone against him” if he named a female cardinal, Scaraffia said. “Everyone.” She laughed. “He might do it just before he dies, or renounces his papacy,” she went on. But “he could do it,” she added. “He might.”
Growing up, in Turin, Scaraffia went to mass with her mother, who took her less out of piety than out of concern for her daughter’s social well-being, Scaraffia told me. Her mother was beautiful, she said. “It became a weakness for her, not a strength. Working outside of the household was a nightmare for her.” She married at twenty years old and resigned herself to a quiet life. Scaraffia would later come to feel that her work, as a feminist, and then as a Catholic, was, in part, “to spare other women of what my mother had endured.”
Scaraffia stopped going to mass during her first year at college. She got married at twenty-three and divorced two years later. While studying women’s history, she met a professor who was separated from his wife; they had a daughter together but never married. When they broke up, six years later, Scaraffia became a single mother. She taught at Sapienza University of Rome and lived behind Rome’s Basilica of Santa Maria, in Trastevere. One day, in her late thirties, she saw worshippers carrying an icon of the Madonna into the church. She was struck, she said, by “a very powerful physical feeling of awe.” She went back to Mass.
She began contributing to L’Osservatore Romano in 2007, after Pope Benedict XVI asked its incoming editor, Giovanni Maria Vian, a philologist, to give women more space in the paper, which had no female reporters. “I wouldn’t dare call myself a feminist,” Vian told me, but, he said, in the church, “there has to be more space for women.” When Scaraffia asked Vian for a magazine of her own, for women, he relayed the request to Benedict, who gave his approval. (Scaraffia sees Benedict, who is now the first-ever Pope emeritus, rarely, but more often than she sees Francis, she told me. “As a woman, you really feel like he’s treating you just like a colleague,” she said, of the former pontiff.)
After meeting Scaraffia, I went to a gathering of Catholic women in Rome that was organized by Paola Lazzarini, a sociologist based in Sardinia, who described Scaraffia to me as “a point of reference for all of us.” Lazzarini, together with about thirty other women, co-authored a document called “Manifesto of Women for the Church.” (The authors originally connected on Facebook.) She e-mailed it to Scaraffia, who published it in the March issue of Women Church World, opposite the report on the servitude of nuns. Lazzarini has since begun setting up public forums across Italy, at which she hoped that women, especially in more socially conservative regions like Calabria, where she hosted the first meeting, would become “conscious of their condition in the Church.”
This particular gathering was held in a parochial room behind the Basilica of Santa Maria, the church where Scaraffia had returned to Catholicism three decades before. About a dozen women, and a few men, gathered in a semicircle. A woman in her fifties told the group that she had taught religion in a school until she got divorced, at which point the local bishop ordered her to be fired. A schoolteacher told the group how frustrating it was that Catholic parishes don’t seem to know what to do with women who aren’t sweet.
Lazzarini and I had coffee the next morning. A former nun, she is now married and has a young daughter. She wore pearls, and her hair was buoyantly arranged. She left her congregation after five years, she said, frustrated by how often women were underestimated by the Church’s male leaders. While patriarchal attitudes persist in the secular world, she said, in the Church, women’s obedience “is presented as if it was God’s will.” But what if women felt “strong enough to give the Church what they know?” she said. “What they can do? And not submit themselves in order to please men?” She finished her espresso, then added, “It’s our turn to speak not only for ourselves but to speak for the Church.”
Two years ago, Pope Francis convened a commission to study the possibility of female deacons. A deacon can perform many of a priest’s tasks, including baptisms, but can’t consecrate the host. In October, Women Church World published an op-ed, by the editor of the prominent Jesuit magazine America, reporting that a majority of Catholic women in the U.S. want the Church to ordain female deacons. But Scaraffia told me that she believes Francis will not accept female deacons—that he does not want women to be ordained as clerics of any rank. (This past summer, not for the first time, Francis explicitly ruled out the possibility of female priests: only men can be priests, according to the Holy See, because Jesus chose only men as his apostles.) Other Catholic activists are more optimistic. Kate McElwee, the executive director of the Women’s Ordination Conference, told me that she finds Pope Francis’s “openness to dialogue” encouraging. “We know there are women who are called by God,” she said.
Cardinals, in any case, need not be called by God—only man. “Cardinals are an invention of the Church, to govern itself,” Massimo Faggioli, a professor of theology at Villanova, told me. In the first millennium, the title was an honorific for respected men, without specific duties or power. In 1059, the Church gave cardinals the exclusive right to elect the pontiff. Fourteen years later, Pope Gregory VII began to reduce the number of laymen in favor of clerics. (The idea was to excise corruption by replacing ethically suspicious laymen with good, and loyal, holy men.)
Still, there was no prohibition, earthly or empyrean, on laymen entering the ranks, and, here and there, they did. But, after the Italian kingdom fully conquered the Papal States, in the nineteenth century, the church became “more priestly,” as Faggioli put it. Cardinals had lost much of their temporal power, so they were increasingly seen less as secular diplomats and more as religious men. Pope Pius IX selected the last unordained cardinal, in 1858, an Italian lawyer named Teodolfo Mertel. In 1917, the Holy See changed canon law, restricting the cardinalate to the ordained. (In the nineteen-eighties, the law was updated to restrict candidacies to bishops alone.) Canon law, however, is not gospel. If the Pope wants to change it, Faggioli said, “he can do that with a stroke of the pen.”
Scaraffia says that the Catholic anthropologist Mary Douglas gave her the idea that women could be made cardinals. The Spanish newspaper El País revived the notion shortly after Francis was elected, speculating that the new pontiff might include a woman’s name in his first selections for the College of Cardinals. Francis’s spokesman at the time, Federico Lombardi, told that press that it was “not remotely realistic.” But, he conceded, “theologically and theoretically, it is possible.” Francis is the first Jesuit Pope and the first Latin American Pope; he has alarmed conservative clerics by suggesting that people who are divorced, and women who have had abortions, might be welcomed back to take communion.
Yet women still hold none of the highest or second-highest positions in the Vatican’s government, the Roman Curia. Pope Francis “is not a feminist,” Scaraffia told me, in June. But he is, she believes, a “good politician,” an adaptive realist who can see that the Church, in its present form, is disappointing and wounding many of its members. In September, Francis’s council of cardinal advisers issued a statement announcing that it would ask the Pope to evaluate “the work, structure and composition of the Council itself.” As Chantal Götz, the managing director of Voices of Faith, another group advocating for women’s rights in the Church, put it to me, when I asked her about Scaraffia’s suggestion, “What a symbolic gesture it would be if the Pope named women to the cardinal slots emptied by cardinals implicated in the coverup of sexual abuse.”
In August, I wrote to Pope Francis’s spokesman, Greg Burke, to ask him if his boss would name a woman to the rank of cardinal. “It is an interesting debate,” Burke replied. “But the Pope is not going to name women cardinals.” I e-mailed Scaraffia and reported his reply. Was Pope Francis’s answer definitive, in her eyes? And what did she make of the summer’s clerical meltdown? She did not regard Burke’s reply as final—and my two questions, she added, are related. “I think we are experiencing a serious and profound crisis of the Church,” she wrote, adding that it would result in real change. Perhaps, she continued, such change might include, “who knows, maybe even women Cardinals!”
On October 3rd, Pope Francis delivered a homily at the opening of the Synod of Bishops, a month-long conference on Church matters. (This one was focussed on the Church’s relationship with its younger members.) “A church that does not listen . . . cannot be credible,” he told the assembled clerics, which included fifty cardinals. At the synod, participants vote on proposals for Pope Francis; this time, the Vatican invited a few dozen women, but they did not have voting rights. Eleven advocacy groups, including Lazzarini’s organization, created a petition insisting that women vote at the synod, which was delivered to the synod’s office with more than nine thousand signatures. The rules were not amended. On Saturday, the synod adopted a sixty-page final document that highlighted “the absence of women’s voices and points of view” and recommended “making everyone more aware of the urgency of an inescapable change.”
Meanwhile, the latest issue of Women Church World includes an article under Scaraffia’s byline. There are those who think that a “ ‘good’ Pope” will eventually “open the doors to women,” appointing them to top positions in church government, she writes. But, she goes on, women can’t wait for that Pope. Women, too, were complicit in the church’s sexual-abuse crisis: made to play the role of “obedient daughters,” they served the clerics who protected one another. “The condition of women in the Church will only change if women have the courage to begin to change it from below,” she writes. Two days before the Synod of Bishops began, a symposium, put on by the group Catholic Women Speak, was held in Rome. There, Scaraffia was even more explicit. “Why don’t we become a nuisance in every place where women are not present?” she said. “I am leading a war against the patriarchy of the Church.”
During this month’s Synod of Bishops, an international gathering at the Vatican, Deborah Rose-Milavec and Kate McElwee, who lead groups dedicated to advancing women in leadership roles in the Roman Catholic Church, made sure that Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, the synod’s general secretary, was presented with a hefty pink folder.
Inside was a petition with more than 9,000 signatures and one specific request: Allow female religious superiors at the synod to “vote as equals alongside their Brothers in Christ.”
The petition’s request, said Ms. Rose-Milavec, the executive director of Future Church and Ms. McElwee, who holds the same post at the Women’s Ordination Conference, was a minor volley in what has seemed to be an insurmountable battle to get the male-centric Catholic Church to pay serious attention to women, who represent about half the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics but count for little where it matters.
Vatican synods are held every few years. Women have emerged as a major concern of this one, which opened earlier this month and focuses on how the church can better minister to today’s youth in an era of emptying pews.
“The presence of women in the church, the role of women in the church,” has been repeatedly raised, in the synod’s plenary meeting and within smaller working groups, said Sister Sally Marie Hodgdon, the superior general of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Chambery, and a synod participant. “The youth bring it up, as have some of the bishops and cardinals.”
“Clearly,” she added, the issue of women will be in the final document, which will be voted on Saturday.
But women, who make up about a tenth of the 340 or so synod participants, won’t be among the voters. Until this synod, only ordained men were allowed to vote on recommendations to the working document, whose final draft is given to the pope, who can include as much as he wants in his own post-synodal reflection.
This year, though, two men who are not ordained but are the superiors general of their respective religious orders have been granted the right to vote. Sister Hodgdon, too, is a superior general, but she has no voting rights.
For some Catholics, the difference clearly smacks of the sexism that “underlines the grave marginalization of women in the church,” said Lucetta Scaraffia, the editor of a monthly insert on women in the Vatican’s newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano. “It’s a clamorous injustice. It demonstrates that the criteria they use is not between priest and lay people, but between women and men,” she said.
The cover of the October insert, “Women, Church, World,” depicted a woman shouting angrily. The intent of the issue, Ms. Scaraffia said, was to encourage debate and to get women “to protest every time there is a reason to protest.”
“What are they afraid of? One woman voting, honestly!” said Ms. McElwee, of the Women’s Ordination Conference, who helped to draft the petition and was an organizer of a protest that coincided with the synod’s opening, on Oct. 3.
Standing outside the gates that lead to the synod hall inside Vatican City that day, several dozen women and men chanted: “Knock, knock.” “Who’s there?” “More than half the church.” The protest was peaceful — “a prayer groups is more disruptive,” Ms. McElwee said — but still drew the attention of the police, who brought the protest to a halt, identified all the protesters and forced some to delete footage of the demonstration from their mobile phones
The petition to allow female superiors general a synod vote was a “strategic” move toward their more equal participation in church matters, Ms. McElwee said, adding that she realized it confirmed the “ultimate fear” of some clerics who see it as a step down a “slippery slope that could eventually lead to women’s ordination” as priests.
Such ordination, Ms. McElwee said, was “the last door that’s closed to women,” though there are many doors in between. Church teaching says that women can’t be priests because Jesus chose only men as his apostles.
Those numbers have not raised the loud warning bells in the Catholic Church that they should have, critics say.
“For the first time in history women are leaving at greater rates than men,” said Ms. Rose-Milavec. “That is a deep dive.”
Pope Francis has spoken often of a more-incisive presence for women in the church, and six women occupy senior roles in the five dozen departments that make up the Catholic Church’s governing body, the Holy See. Critics say he needs to do more.
In 2016, Francis appointed a commission to review the place that female deacons had in the early church, a move seen by some as possibly opening the way to female deacons in the modern era. But the commission has not made its finding public, and the cardinal who heads it made clear last June that advising the pope on modern-day female deacons had never been on its agenda
“Through his positive statements, Pope Francis has really raised women’s expectations about the changes that he plans in order to bring more women into leadership roles,” Petra Dankova, the advocacy director of Voices of Faith, replied in a written response to questions. “But concrete actions have followed slowly and without an overarching plan.”
Voice of Faith, based in Liechtenstein, is pushing for women to gain full leadership roles in the Catholic Church. It has urged the close-knit group of cardinals who advise the pope on various issues that it should establish a special advisory board for women, Ms. Dankova said.
The question of their involvement in the church, she added, “is too complex and it cannot be expected to be somehow solved on the side without a concentrated attention and without the collaboration with women themselves.”
That suggestion has fallen on deaf ears, although some top prelates at the synod have been vocal in their support of women.
On Wednesday, speaking to reporters at a daily Vatican briefing, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, chairman of the German Bishop’s Conference, said that the issue of women’s roles in the church was “important for the entire church,” which must understand the evolution of women’s equality as a gift from God.
“We would be foolish not to make use of the potential of women,” Cardinal Marx said. “Thank God we are not that stupid.”
Male religious superiors at the synod have also been supportive, and the umbrella groups of both male and female superiors general have drafted a concrete proposal to allow women superiors to participate as voting members in future synods. If ratified by their respective boards, the proposal would be presented to the pope, Sister Hodgdon said.
After living in Rome for eight years, Sister Hodgdon, an American, said she has learned that the ways of the Church took time. Female superior generals were not likely to get the right to vote in this synod, she conceded. “But do I believe it will happen for the next one? Yes, I really do believe that.”
The next synod is scheduled for October 2019, and will focus on issues related to the Amazon region.
In a yellow townhouse just steps from Georgetown University on a recent evening, members of the campus group Catholic Women at Georgetown talked about how the Virgin Mary strengthens them in hard times as they shared a dinner of Domino’s pizza.
In between swapping thoughts on homesickness and avoiding sin, the conversation turned to new allegations of sexual abuse by clergy in a church under siege.
The group’s president, Erica Lizza, asked the dozen students seated in a circle how they lean on Mary as the faith they’ve relied on for spiritual sustenance faces a crisis.
“I still do feel a level of disgust and betrayal by the Catholic hierarchy,” Lizza, a 21-year-old senior, said after the weekly dinner discussion. “As someone who cares a lot about her faith and who is very involved in a campus ministry organization, it’s something that there’s no escaping from.”
Similar conversations are playing out in dining halls and campus ministry centers across the country as college students wrestle with what it means to be Catholic at a time when they feel disappointed and angered by the church.
The church has seen multiple scandals in recent months: former U.S. cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s resignation amid accusations of abuse and a sweeping grand jury report out of Pennsylvania that implicated more than 300 priests in abusing about 1,000 children.
Then, Pope Francis accepted Cardinal Donald Wuerl’s resignation from his position as Washington’s archbishop after the Pennsylvania report described Wuerl as having a mixed record on responding to sexual abuse in his former diocese of Pittsburgh. Wuerl remains in charge of the archdiocesan administration until the pope names his successor. Clergy sex abuse scandals have also rocked Chile and Australia.
In an era when the church is frequently perceived as behind the times on matters of importance to them, some young Catholics have responded to the latest setbacks by pulling further away from the beleaguered institution, while others have drawn closer.
This generation of Catholic college students has grown up amid the stain of the sexual abuse crisis, which was first exposed by The Boston Globe in 2002 and has since implicated clergy around the world. Most can’t even remember a pre-scandal church.
At the same time, they and young people generally are a critical demographic for the future of Catholicism, which has an aging parishioner base and has struggled to attract and retain young people.
Catholicism has seen the largest decline in participation among major religious groups, according to a report in 2016 from the Public Religion Research Institute. Almost one-third of Americans said they were raised Catholic, but just 21 percent currently identify that way.
At a gathering this month of several hundred bishops to discuss the church’s ministry to young people, Pope Francis acknowledged those who have stood by the church, despite its failings.
“I thank them for having wagered that it is worth the effort to feel part of the Church or to enter into dialogue with her; worth the effort to have the Church as a mother, as a teacher, as a home, as a family, and, despite human weaknesses and difficulties, capable of radiating and conveying Christ’s timeless message,” Pope Francis said to open the synod, according to a copy of his remarks released by the Vatican.
Increasing disaffiliation with religion
Disillusionment over clergy sex abuse is not the only force pulling younger generations away from the Catholicism, particularly in the United States.
Increasingly over the past few decades, young adults have realized they can choose their own faith or combination of faiths, apart from those of their parents — or affiliate with none at all, said Theresa O’Keefe, a theology professor at Boston College who specializes in young adult faith. A growing distrust of institutional leadership of all kinds also means some students respond rather jadedly as more allegations of clergy abuse come to light, O’Keefe said.
William Dinges, a professor of religion and culture at Catholic University, said people who feel distant from the church are more likely to be affected by the abuse crisis than those who are devout. Many young adults are already frustrated with what they view as Catholicism’s less inclusive stances on topics such as same-sex marriage and gender equality, Dinges said.
“The young person has to have a good answer: ‘Why am I here?’ ” O’Keefe said. “The church, particularly the leadership, has to come up with a good answer. Why should people show up? Membership is not inevitable, and meaningful membership isn’t inevitable.”
Caroline Zonts, a 19-year-old sophomore at George Washington University, said she had started to feel put off by the Catholic Church long before the abuse crisis reemerged.
Raised “strictly Catholic,” she said the socially liberal political views she developed in high school made her feel less connected to her faith. When she arrived at college, Zonts said she stopped practicing Catholicism, although she still considers herself Catholic.
The recent abuse crisis has become another reason she doesn’t expect ever again to fully immerse herself in the church. It hurts her to think the priests she’s built relationships with may have committed abuse.
“They were mentors for me, they were role models, they were people I went to and talked to about my faith,” Zonts said. “That’s really hard — to know that hundreds of people like that have just abused their positions of power.”
Like Zonts, George Washington University junior Evelyn Arredondo Ramirez felt her more liberal political views were at odds with some parts of her Catholic faith. But even as a supporter of same-sex marriage and abortion rights, the 20-year-old still attended Mass most Sundays during her first two years of college.
Her perspective recently began to shift. Already annoyed with homilies that expressed the priests’ political opinions, her frustration was compounded by the Pennsylvania grand jury report and accusations that Pope Francis had knowingly shielded McCarrick from accountability.
Ramirez doesn’t go to Mass anymore and said she worries about her younger brother’s safety around priests in his home parish.
“I still have my Virgin (Mary) on my desk table, I still have the cross hanging in my room, and I will sometimes just pop into a church and just sit really with God,” Ramirez said. “But I’ve just developed my own idea of what it is to have that connection.”
Questions about the institution, not the faith
Many young Catholics who still consider themselves devout have responded not by turning away but by striving to force change from within the institution. For them, the current crisis is infuriating and heartbreaking, invigorating and empowering, all at the same time.
These young Catholics are among the more than 1,500 Georgetown students who have signed a petition calling on the university to rescind an honorary degree it awarded to McCarrick in 2004 and another it gave to Wuerl in 2014.
A Georgetown spokesman, in a statement, said the university was reviewing the honorary degrees in an effort “to address the deeply troubling revelations about Archbishop McCarrick and those contained in the Pennsylvania grand jury report.”
Among the students who feel unnerved by those revelations is Ana Ruiz, an 18-year-old member of Catholic Women at Georgetown, who said the scandal has made her doubt both her faith and her devotion to the church because the faith itself is closely tied to the institution. Catholics believe the church was founded by Jesus Christ.
“To just kind of see people who definitely do not embody those values that we hold so sacred really makes me question if the institution is working for the good of Christ and the good of the people,” Ruiz said as students cleaned up after the Georgetown discussion dinner.
Although still committed to Catholicism, Ruiz said she could imagine walking away from the institution if she no longer believed it cared about the best interests of lay people. Right now, however, she still feels like God is at the center of the church’s ministry.
“In that sense, I feel like I could never really break away,” Ruiz said. “But everything else that surrounds it, the humanly aspect of the Church, there could be potential for me to be like, ‘No, I can’t deal with that anymore.’ ”
Lizza’s childhood was steeped in Catholicism, with Sunday school and family Mass attendance and her mother reading to her from a children’s Bible. Even so, she was unsure how much she wanted to engage with her religion when she got to Georgetown because she was concerned about how her devout faith would mesh with that of her peers. Then a friend convinced her to join the Catholic women’s group and Lizza found a home.
Three years later, shocked and disgusted by the magnitude of the clergy sex abuse problem, Lizza said she started thinking maybe all bishops should resign. She fought to reconcile the idea of clergy who claim to stand for selfless love and a pursuit of justice with the knowledge that many had failed to live up to that promise.
Lizza said she never considered leaving the church. Rather, she felt stronger in her conviction that good people needed to stay involved in the institution to correct its course.
She still wants more lay people involved in the Church, despite how hard it was for her to attend Mass after the McCarrick allegations and the Pennsylvania report. She also wants people to be less skeptical of abuse victims.
“Covering it up sure as heck doesn’t work,” she said. “And the only way to really address it is to look at it square in the face and make some hard choices.”
The manual, published by the Archbishop’s office of Santiago, Chile, said that it was inappropriate to “pat the buttocks or touch the genital area or chest” of minors.
It recommended that members of the clergy refrain from a host of actions, ranging from “laying next to or sleeping with children or adolescents” to giving massages, wrestling and “hugging from behind.” Also on the list of prohibited activities: “kissing on the mouth.”
The guidelines, detailed in a document posted to the church’s website last week, were withdrawn two days later, on Sept. 29.
Chileans were outraged, in part because the guidelines never described the behavior as sexual abuse. They have watched the Catholic Church hierarchy struggle to atone and regain the trust of the faithful after decades of sexual abuse and concealment.
To many, the guidelines were evidence the church still does not understand the difference between criminal actions and “expressions of affection,” as the document called these acts.
Patricia Muñoz, who leads an agency created by the government in January to protect children’s rights, told reporters that she was “in a state of shock” after reading the manual.
The guidelines reflect “a brutal lack of understanding of the limits that a pastoral guide must have regarding children and adolescents,” she said.
Over the past few months, the Chilean Public Prosecutor’s Office has raided church offices in Santiago, the capital, and across the country, uncovering files with accusations of abuses that were never turned over to the authorities. This evidence has led to the opening of 119 cases involving 178 potential victims.
In the past two decades, 44 Chilean clergy members have been condemned for abuse by the Vatican or the courts.
An additional investigation into clerical abuse was ordered by Pope Francis in January.
Earlier that month, he had visited Chile and mounted a spirited defense of Bishop Juan Barros Madrid, whom abuse victims accused of protecting the country’s most notorious pedophile priest, Fernando Karadima. This set off a storm of recriminations
In an about-face that was welcomed by his supporters, Francis issued an apology and then the following month sent the Vatican’s leading sex crimes investigators to Chile to look into the accusations against Bishop Barros. The investigators probed more widely and found evidence of a decades-old “culture of abuse” and concealment within the Chilean church.
In April, Francis invited three of Mr. Karadima’s victims to the Vatican and a month later summoned the entire Bishops Conference to Rome, where they all offered to resign.
The timing of the publication of the guidelines against sexual abuse by the office of the Archbishop of Santiago could not have been worse. Signed by Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati, the document was posted online just a day before Pope Francis defrocked Mr. Karadima.
Cardinal Ezzati himself is being investigated on accusations of covering up abuses. This week, prosecutors in the city of Rancagua summoned him for questioning, but Cardinal Ezzati exercised his right to remain silent, on his lawyers’ recommendation. It is unclear what the next steps will be in his case.
In issuing a brief apology, the archbishop said that the nine-page manual was intended to prevent clerical abuse by detailing behavior that was unacceptable for lay or ordained members of the church toward children, teenagers or people with disabilities.
The document also warned priests against offering money or gifts to children without parental consent, transporting minors in a vehicle without the presence of another adult and looking at or taking photos of children or teenagers when they are nude, taking a shower or getting dressed.
“Any sexually explicit or pornographic material is absolutely inadmissible,” said the guidelines.
The manual also covered a variety of other matters, like the safety and supervision of minors, assistance to the vulnerable, the use of technology and spiritual guidance.
The archbishop’s office said in a statement that the guidelines, which were drafted by the church’s Council for Abuse Prevention, had followed international standards but it also acknowledged problems with the text.
“We will correct certain contents that were translated too literally and are inappropriate or may be misinterpreted,” the statement said. “We apologize and will publish a new version promptly.”