In 2002, during the months in which the The Boston Globe released the findings of its investigation into wrong doing on behalf of the Catholic clergy in the Diocese of Boston, I was a high school junior preparing for confirmation. The investigation exposed a widespread pattern of sexual abuse from several Catholic priests, five of them ultimately convicted of criminal charges and another — covered up on behalf of church leaders who knew about or at least suspected the abuse and hid it — for allowing it to continue. The initial investigation garnered national and international attention, and ultimately led to additional investigations in several other dioceses and in other countries like Canada and Ireland.
I remember being heartbroken for the victims and, as someone preparing to be fully initiated into the church, personally humiliated. Many of my classmates, especially those who had been Catholic and who had chosen to leave, sneered at me and asked how I could choose to be part of an institution that supported rapists. I remember sobbing in adoration for the victims, both because of their unfathomable pain and because I felt powerless to help them, powerless to do anything but be a punching bag for the community I loved due to the crimes of men I hated.
My classmates demanded to know how I could continue to support the institution and I realized that to me, the church was not an institution. It was a family. A family I loved. And my family was in trouble. The family homestead was on fire. It turns out that some of my fathers were deadbeat dads … to put it mildly. They weren’t really my fathers at all … they just dressed like they were. They pretended to care for us kids, but instead they violated my brothers and sisters and then set the house on fire. It was burning down around me.
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I remember leaving adoration one night at 2 a.m., standing in front of my parish building with all of this on my mind thinking, “The church is on fire. The only response is to run.” But the question was: which way? “Do I run from the flames, or do I run toward them?”
In the time since that night I have become a youth minister, partly because I have seen how deadly serious, how incredibly important the preparation and protection of our young people is. I have become a facilitator of “Virtus: Protecting God’s Children.” It’s a program responsible for training volunteers in the creation, implementation and enforcement of safe standards for children and youth programming. As part of those training sessions, I show a video that includes confessions from child abuse perpetrators and testimonies given by their victims. It is incredibly hard to watch. I have led dozens of such training sessions … enough times that I have the videos nearly memorized. And so I could do other work while those videos play. I could busy myself with emails or calendaring activities. But I don’t. I watch every time. And every time I burn.
I burn with sorrow for their pain. I burn with anger at the injustice. I burn with conviction that I will do everything I can to build a world of safety and security for my kids, both for the son and daughter who live under my roof and for my little brothers and sisters who live with me in the shared house of our faith.
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I’m not sure why I watch. Perhaps it’s to remind myself of how important this all is. Perhaps it’s a form of self-inflicted penance – not for any crimes I have committed, but on behalf of the wider church and the ways it’s failed. Perhaps it’s that the sheer power of the testimony that calls out for continual witness. But it’s always hard, and I find myself praying, “Holy Spirit, fill me with your fire, so I can stand in these flames of tragedy, until every last one is put out.”
The men who have betrayed the church by victimizing those who trusted them, either in outright abuse or by protecting abusers, are not the church. As Father John Lankeit said in working through his own thoughts on the subject, they are to priests what Judas was to the apostles or the devil himself to the angels … at the moment of their crime they amputated and scarred the body of Christ. They scarred my family. But I love my family, and I’m not going to abandon them – especially in times of trial. They mean everything to me. They introduced me to the Lord, to the Gospel; they have given me a peace that surpasses all understanding, a joy beyond all telling. I will not allow criminals to take from my children the chance to find that same joy and grace, the chance for them to know the church that I have known – the community of quiet saints who don’t make headlines but who serve the poor and live lives of mercy and work every day for justice. I have seen religious sisters save the lives of abandoned orphans, I have watched a priest give food and medicine to a homeless man dying of neglect, and I have seen a thousand small acts of heroism by normal people who are sincerely trying to live and love like Christ. I have seen what the church can and should be. I will not concede my family to monsters, or my house to the flames they set.
I don’t write these words to defend myself or to assure you that I am part of the solution. I write these words only to say what I am absolutely convinced of: the Church of Christ is worth too much to let its betrayers define it. I cannot step away and let that happen. I would rather burn.
Steven Cottam serves as youth minister at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. He lives in Mechanicsville, Virginia, with his lovely wife, precocious daughter and adorable infant son. He is an active member of Common Change, a group which seeks to gather and distribute tithe money in a relational and collaborative way. He has been friends with Sister Julia ever since they were students, coworkers, and cooking club members together at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. His interests and passions include language learning, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.