There’s No End to the Cost of Abuse to the Catholic Church

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- My mother, Rosalie, grew up Irish Catholic in Providence, Rhode Island — with the emphasis on Catholic. She went to parochial grade school and Catholic high school. She never missed Sunday Mass. She said the rosary, memorized her catechism and prayed every night before bed. She was very devout.

Her own mother believed that if her children entered a religious order, God’s grace would shine down on her family. So after high school my mother dutifully entered the convent. It didn’t take her long to realize that she was ill-suited to being a nun, and that there were other ways to serve God. (When her parents drove her home from the convent, her mother told her to put her head down so the neighbors wouldn’t see her.)

My mother then got a job answering phones at the Providence Journal. There she found other religious-minded women, who became her lifelong friends. She met my father, who had recently left the monastery, at a meeting of something called the Third Order of St. Dominic, an organization for laypeople who were drawn to the teachings of the Dominican friars. For their honeymoon, my parents stayed at the Trapp Family Lodge in Vermont. They went on to have nine children in 12 years. (Talk about God’s grace!) We Nocera kids also went to Catholic grade school, and on Sundays our family would march into St. Pius church two by two for the 10:15 Mass. The first two rows were unofficially reserved for us.

My father never stopped being devout. Late in his life, with his legs in bad shape, he still limped every day to the bus stop so he could get to a midday Mass downtown.

But Catholicism’s hold on my mother loosened over the years, the combination of reading Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” and becoming a full-time college student at the age of 37, when my youngest brother was 11 months old. Still, she kept believing, even if she became more casual about practicing her religion.

Until, that is, 2002, when the Boston Globe published its extraordinary expose of the sexual abuse by priests, which had run rampant in the Boston archdiocese for decades. The horrendous tales of abuse, which wrecked the lives of so many people; the way predatory priests were quietly moved from parish to parish, where they found new victims; the complicity of Bernard Law, the archbishop, in covering it all up — my mother wasn’t just upset or disillusioned when she read the Globe’s stories. She felt utterly betrayed. One of the foundations of her life had been ripped away. How could she believe in anything a bishop or a priest said anymore? She couldn’t. From that point forward, she was done with Catholicism. Even worse, she was done with God.

What brings this to mind, of course, is the stunning, infuriating, heart-breaking report issued Tuesday by a Pennsylvania grand jury. The group spent two years investigating seven of the state’s nine dioceses, exposing over 300 predator priests who abused at least 1,000 victims — and probably many more.

“We, the members of this grand jury, need you to hear this,” it begins. A few paragraphs later:

Most of the victims were boys; but there were girls too. Some were teens; many were prepubescent. Some were manipulated with alcohol or pornography. Some were made to masturbate their assailants, or were groped by them. Some were raped orally, some vaginally, some anally. But all of them were brushed aside, in every part of the state, by church leaders who preferred to protect the abusers and their institution above all.

Although there have been 10 previous reports by grand juries or attorneys general, nothing comes close to this one for its bristling anger and its willingness to name the abusers and describe their abuse in the most gruesome detail. It is likely to cause prosecutors — and maybe even the Vatican — to seek ways to punish those church leaders who covered-up the abuse. The report singles out, among others, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who as Pittsburgh’s bishop for nearly 20 years is alleged to have allowed some known predators to remain in the ministry. He is now the archbishop of the Washington diocese. The report will also likely stir up questions, yet again, about what it is about the culture of the Catholic Church that allowed sexual abuse to fester.

But the report caused me to think back to my mother — and how destructive the sexual abuse scandal has been to the church’s credibility, to its finances and to the belief system of its once faithful flock.

The Boston archdiocese alone has sold off over 70 properties to help pay tens of millions of dollars in settlements with victims, including not only churches and schools, but also the archbishop’s residence, the chancery and a seminary. Sales like that have taken place in dioceses all over the country, many of which are broke or close to it.

Nor can the archdiocese count on collections to make up the difference. In 2016, the archdiocese was $6 million in the red. The year before, the archdiocese reported that it saw a “significant decline in operating income for parishes, a deficit in central operations, and a loss in our self-insurance program.” Yes, there have also been years since 2002 when the archdiocese has seen an increase in revenue, but the point is that its finances are now an annual struggle.

And it’s not just because of sexual abuse settlements. Fewer and fewer affluent Catholics send their kids to parochial school anymore. And while I can’t quantify this, my own observation is that longtime Catholics like my mother simply stopped going to church — which also meant they stopped putting money in the offertory basket. According to the Pew Research Center, the church is growing primarily in Hispanic areas, and declining in the Northeast, where most Catholics are white ethnics. Not surprisingly, the number of American Catholics overall is in decline.

Maybe this might have happened without the sexual abuse scandal. I lost my faith decades before, as did many of the baby boomers I grew up with. I couldn’t abide the church’s stance on birth control and homosexuality, among other things. But people of my mother’s generation were more or less willing to let those teaching go in one ear and out the other while still attending Mass and praying to Jesus.

For millions of Catholics, the sexual abuse scandal destroyed whatever connection they still had to Catholicism. “As far as priests and nuns being believed,” a Boston nurse told the New York Times after the release of the Pennsylvania report, “that’s gone.”

I grew up surrounded by Dominican priests — my uncle was one — none of whom ever did anything remotely inappropriate to me. Yet when I see a priest today I invariably wonder if he was — or is — a predator. It’s terribly unfair, I know, but that is how corrosive this scandal has been.

As for my mother, as I mentioned earlier, she didn’t just stop believing priests, she stopped believing in God. Last summer, as she approached her 90th birthday, she began to quickly fade. Once she was confined to her bed and approaching death, my family asked a hospice worker my sister knew to come and help her during her last days. The woman was a believer, and at one point, when we were gathered around the bedside, and my mother was complaining of pain, the woman said, “Don’t worry Rosalie. You’ll be with Jesus soon.”

My mother opened her eyes and pulled herself up as far up as she could. “Oh, puleeze,” she replied. “Gimme a break!” Then she plopped back down and closed her eyes.

Those were her last coherent words. She died the next day.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Joe Nocera is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He has written business columns for Esquire, GQ and the New York Times, and is the former editorial director of Fortune. He is co-author of “Indentured: The Inside Story of the Rebellion Against the NCAA.”

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