— Some Catholics at a crossroads about religion amid sexual abuse allegations against priests
By Jasmine Vaughn-Hall
Allison Dietz loves to hear the children laughing and enjoying the playground at St. Mark School in Catonsville, within an earshot of her house. But these days, after the release of a report that detailed decades of sexual abuse within the Archdiocese of Baltimore, the laughing triggers somber thoughts.
“You can’t help but think about all the children who were not protected,” she said.
Dietz, a Catholic since birth, said the release of the attorney general’s report was the final straw for her devotion to the Catholic faith. It was a “kick in the gut” to find out that a dozen sexually abusive priests had served at St. Mark Parish next to the school and playground, she said. She no longer identifies with the religion or supports the church. She’s separated herself from everything she’s known in religion to trek her own path and spiritual journey.
Many Catholics seem to be at a crossroads following the release of the report in Maryland and allegations of other such abuse across the country. People are leaving organized religion completely, converting, or continuing to observe only certain parts of their Catholic heritage. Others are sticking with it, choosing to blame the people, not the religion.
This is happening as people are already generally moving away from organized religion.
In the U.S., roughly three out of 10 adults are unaffiliated with religion, according to the Pew Research Center. Since the research center started measuring religious identity in 2007, the percentage of adults who said they were atheist, agnostic or otherwise unaffiliated grew from 16% to 29%.
At least 63% of the nation’s population identified as Christian, which includes Catholics and Orthodox. In a separate study, people who did not identify with a religion said they didn’t believe in the business-like and hierarchical nature of religious groups and question religious teachings. Some also mentioned the clergy sex abuse scandal as a deterrent from organized religion and opposition to social and political stances of churches.
Dietz said separating herself from Catholicism hasn’t come easily. She’s having a tough time coming to grips with disowning the teachings and beliefs that have been ingrained in her since she was a child. And, how at one time, she accepted many of those teachings and beliefs as true.
Marlene Winell, a licensed psychologist in the Boston area who works with those recovering from religious harm, said she thinks the sexual abuse scandal within the Catholic Church is “far and above” any other scandal in religious groups.
“It’s shocking, so people will sometimes get disgusted with the church and not want to be a part of it. The hypocrisy is something people don’t like very much,” said Winell, who wrote the book, “Leaving the Fold: A Guide for Former Fundamentalists and Others Leaving their Religion.”
Mary Joseph “Mary Jo” Rogers once loved seeing the children line up to donate toys for less fortunate families at the Christmas Eve Mass at her church. Catholicism is all she’s known, and she’s learning that you can’t fully separate from it. She came from a very devoted Catholic family. She even jokes that every good Catholic family needs a “Joseph” and a “Mary” and she got both names. When she was growing up, it wasn’t uncommon for her parents to have dinner and sip Southern Comfort Manhattans with a monsignor who was a longtime family friend. She went to Catholic school from first grade to high school and even a few years of college.
She was in the choir and hosted Bible discussions at her house. She enjoyed Sunday Mass and the elaborate services for Easter and other holidays. She still gets mail from St. Ursula, a church she attended for over 25 years, filled with color-coded envelopes to support the church with a request to “try to give 5% to God.”
But today, she can’t walk into a church. She’s afraid she might start yelling at a priest.
“How can I go in and have someone like that guide my spiritual well-being? They’re only there to protect themselves and their money. There’s no such thing as a poor priest,” she said.
Rogers said she started to feel a shift in her thoughts about the church after watching the Netflix docuseries, “The Keepers,” which explored the murder of Sister Catherine Cesnik and its suspected link to a priest accused of abuse. Rogers said it’s not only the abuse that’s unsettling for her, but the pervasive cover-up involved. The initial Maryland report released in April had redacted names throughout, several of which The Baltimore Banner has since identified through independent reporting.
As a mother, grandmother and a former police officer, Rogers said, she feels betrayed and duped. She has no plans for it to happen again.
She misses her church, the traditions and being a part of a place to practice her faith. She still keeps a brown scapular, a small statue of Blessed Mary and a baby-blue beaded rosary by her bedside for protection. Catholicism isn’t something she can just throw away, she said.
“I lost a large part of my life, my history,” she said, reflecting on how her involvement with the church dwindled.
Rogers and her daughter are considering converting to the Episcopal Church, she said. It was her mother’s denomination before she converted to Catholicism and a denomination in which women can reach the priesthood.
Leaving or sticking with Catholicism sparked complex conversations and debates on Facebook recently. Betrayal. Guilt. Loss. Hope. The emotions people said they felt over the issue were mixed. Some say they are still cultural Catholics, drawing a deep line in the sand between their faith and the institution. Many cannot turn a blind eye to how the sexual abuse cases were handled. Many high-level officials in the church are accused of covering up abuse and moving accused priests from parish to parish.
People also shared that they left even before major details were released about the sexual abuse because they didn’t agree with the church’s stance on abortion, the LGBTQ community and the way women are treated. The report just reaffirmed their decisions.
But some say it is unfair that the whole church has been tainted by the scandal. They are disappointed that the sexual abuse is taking over the identity of the religion, especially since there’s still charitable work being done by good people who are Catholic.
Ann Zelenka doesn’t deny that the church has a lot of work to do. She is still an active Catholic, going to Sunday Mass with her husband. Her faith, she said, transcends the institution and is at the core of who she is.
“If they took the institution away tomorrow and there was no public Mass, I would still do something to honor the day,” she said.
As someone who was homeschooled most of her life, she grew up in a niche Catholic community. The Communions, going to Mass, the sacraments and feast days were all special to her growing up. However, she doesn’t think the institution and its followers can move forward without acknowledging the damage and harm that’s been done. Certain “figureheads” have gotten in the way, she said, of practicing the religion “authentically.”
Zelenka said an apology isn’t enough, that the church needs to rectify and mandate change.
“For anyone in the Baltimore community that feels alone and wants to remain Catholic, there is hope beyond this travesty that has existed, but we must fully acknowledge the travesty to move forward,” she said.
Dietz said she feels a sense of freedom since she decided to leave Catholicism. It’s a religion she said is built on fear where “you’re made to feel you can go to hell for even the smallest transgressions.”
Initially, she thought she would convert to another denomination, but she’s content figuring out what she wants to do day by day without the pressure of someone telling her how to connect with God, she said. It’s an opportunity she never saw for herself.
“Removing the veil of shame, fear and guilt that the Catholic doctrine so often espouses has been peace-giving for me,” Dietz said.
Catholics, she added, are taught to be afraid of going to hell. For those considering parting ways with Catholicism, it’s not so much about leaving Jesus than it is leaving the church because “salvation in the Catholic Church is through the church,” she said.
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