I Grew Up in the Catholic Church. Its Abuses Aren’t Surprising.

Note: The following article may be triggering for abuse survivors.

I grew up in the Catholic Church, attending Catholic School for the first 9 years of my educational life.

Though I do carry many great memories from those days—looking back now, signs of the almost unfathomable sins that continue to be unearthed in the larger Catholic Church, weren’t difficult to spot.

One day four decades ago, is still burned into my brain.

I was around 10 years old, and a group of other boys and I had just finished helping hand out bulletins during services. We were all promised fifty cents for our work, and were gathered in a small, dimly lit alcove of the church with the Monsignor, who was (we’d been taught) about as close as you could get to God—without meeting the Pope or dying.

When it came time to receive our monetary rewards, the elderly man looked at the first boy and said to the rest of us with a buoyant glee, “So what shall we give him for today his work? He paused. “Shall we give him—a kiss?”

He smiled, tilted his head down through thick glasses, and looked around the circle, waiting for a reaction. When there was only perplexed silence—he quickly laughed, gave us each our pair of quarters and we all dispersed to meet our parents outside.

To my fourth grade brain, it simply seemed like an awkward and badly conceived joke—and maybe it was. But as an adult looking back, it now feels like a massive red flag; a possible near miss on what could have been one of the thousands of tragic, horrifying stories adults have carried through childhood and into midlife.

As I rewinded through those days, there were other things that now seem odd; young boys regularly being taken out of class to go to the Monsignor’s home just a stone’s throw away to clean his shoes and do other menial tasks, largely unsupervised. 

To be clear, I never experienced inappropriate contact or sexual or physical abuse of any kind, and never heard stories of other students in our parish who had—but I can see now just how vulnerable young people were made by a system that defies men, and gives them carte blanche and unprecedented access to unprotected children. Even if the priests there weren’t predators—we’d have been sitting ducks if they had been.

The priests (not unlike their Evangelical pastor counterparts) were presented as conduits of God, to be treated with genuflecting reverence and unquestioned obedience—and it is this misplaced piety by the adults around children, that created and continues to create environments ripe for the kinds of sexual abuse we’re seeing exposed. 

Pope Francis recently issued a letter to Catholics, that while admitting the vile transgressions, claims they are relegated to the Church’s past (a sentiment echoed by Pittsburgh’s Bishop.) I’m not sure that is a realistic assumption, especially when its leaders are still treated as demigods and still given far less accountability and far more access to children than secular leaders ever are.

It’s time the Catholic, Evangelical, and Mainline Christian Churches faced the harmful theology of elevating flawed, failing, imperfect human beings above those they’re charged with caring for. They aren’t holy men and women. They are ordinary men and women who are as prone to greed, perversion, and sickness as any of us. We need to admit this, for their sake and for the sake of the children currently growing-up in our faith communities. We need to love our children enough not to place them in harm’s way, in the name of a God who is often invoked by adults who damage them. We need to protect them with all the practical safeguards we provide kids in schools and summer camps, but we need to go further than that. We need to stop pretending our clergy have a closer proximity to God, because that lie is so easily wielded to abuse.

There are thousands of honorable, decent, loving men and women in ministry in America’s churches, doing beautiful, life-giving work without ever considering harming a child—and this is all the more reason to supply them with a system that ensures that predators aren’t given a safe place to prosper. We need to bring the raking light of honesty and accountability into our churches, so that we don’t have a future generation looking back with despair and shame, on the ways they were failed by adults around them.

Religion at its best encourages people’s humanity. It protects its most vulnerable, cares for those most in need of care, and gives safe sanctuary to those in the tempest—but at its worst, religion leverages power, silences dissent, and provides the perfect incubator for people’s blackest darkness.

People of faith in all traditions, need to overturn the tables of false idolatry and personality cults that allow evil people to prey upon children, and to hide behind crosses and collars while doing it.





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26 thoughts on “I Grew Up in the Catholic Church. Its Abuses Aren’t Surprising.

  1. Yadda yadda yadda…yeah it’s always “in the past” even though we all know it still goes on. How many lives do these priests have to ruin before someone takes definite and decisive action? And while we are on the subject, do the Church Fathers ever THINK about what this sort of thing does to priests who keep to their vows?

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  3. Absolutely! This can not, should not, be “relgated to the past.” It needs to be addressed head on, with action. Those who enabled these acts over decades need to be removed. They do not have the moral fiber to be leaders in the church, any more than those who allowed it within medical and sports professions. It’s time to learn from our past, and act, not just talk. (Of course, this means we need to do something about our broken political system as well, so corrupt and immoral.)

  4. My loudest Amen. Bless you for writing this. As someone who was molested as a child (to be clear not by anyone in the church) you are forever changed. You are told it is your fault by your molester, that somehow as a little 8, 9 or 10 year old you did something bad to turn them on. And you believe that nonsense. This is one of the most evil things that can happen to a child. I often wonder who I was meant to be and I miss her. I can’t change what happened to me but we sure can change what happens to children now. Everyone dismissed the abuse years ago, no one wanted to deal with it. I have been told to just get over it, other people have. I doubt that anyone gets over it, they just lock it away. Only you can’t lock it away far enough away, it still affects who you are and changes who you were meant to be. We all need to stand up and yell at the top of our lungs, no more. I am not a Catholic, nor have I ever been, but I grew up in an area with many who were. We all heard the stories and unfortunately most Protestants thought it wasn’t their problem, shame on them, it was then, it is now. Once again thank you. Peace and Love,

  5. Well said. Possible typo: … by a system that defies men, and gives them carte blanche … Should that be “deifies”? Doesn’t seem to make sense with “defies”.

  6. So when He had washed their feet, and taken His garments and reclined at the table again, He said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? 13 You call Me Teacher and Lord; and [a]you are right, for so I am. 14 If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you
    John 13:12-15

    It is hard to harm others when there is a spirit of mutual service.

    When someone has an abscess or infection, the treatment is to drain and disinfect, not maintain – and draining and disinfecting is what the Christian Church needs to do

  7. You nailed it. Using church hierarchy to keep congregants at arms length away from God, preferably in a constant state of sin, and this hierarchy as a necessary conduit to get closer to God is THE inherent evil and corruption from within the Church.

  8. I grew up Catholic (no longer practice), but I want to express my appreciation that you included other types of Christian religions in this article. As bad as this recent revelation is, I truly believe atrocities happen in all religions, but none have a more tightly structured hierarchy than the Catholic Church, so the others will not make as big a splash. Anyone who thinks this is exclusive to the Catholic Church is sadly mistaken. All should be made to answer!

  9. Love your post, Pastor John. I too grew up Catholic and though I did not experience any abuse, working with the priest, I was able to see and feel when something did not seem right although I was too young to understand. It was looking back years later, things became clearer to me. Even now, too many parents are willing to hand their sons and daughters off to mentors, priests, youth leaders, coaches, doctors, etc. without oversight and even without teaching children about inappropriate touch or what to do when something doesn’t feel right. Some parents who hand their children over have experienced abuse themselves and can’t seem to grasp these things could happen to their children. Perhaps, institutions should never allow individual leaders to have access, without accountability, to impressionable young men and women. Avoid the appearance and the opportunity for things like this to happen. I could say more but I won’t. Thanks again.

  10. “system that defies men…”. I think you mean “deifies” men, turns them into gods. I think the problem is exacerbated when institutions are deified as well.

  11. I grew up in the RCC before Vatican 2 and whenever we saw one of the priests we were supposed to ask him for his blessing. It was truly tedious having to kneel down on the asphalt and get that grit ground into my knees while the priest muttered, “In Nomine Patri, etc.”

    I would get to my feet as quickly as possible because I wanted to ask the priest a question about the Catechism that Sister wouldn’t or couldn’t answer and no matter what my question, the priest would pat me on the head and say “there, there, my daughter, you don’t need to understand, just believe” which was not at all a good enough answer. But the priest was the final authority.

    Many of us are horrified at the idea of the suffering of the children. I hope we would be although I have seen some cartoons in very poor taste.

    I can’t help wondering at the suffering of the priests who perpetrated these evils upon so many kids. Surely when they entered the priesthood it was in answer to a call from God. What happened to them?

    Is it the unreasonable demand for celibacy? Is it that theology of elevation? Because it is not only the RCC which teaches that. Any time a human being is considered to be greater than human, there is going to be trouble. We saw this in the Roman Emperors, we saw this in various tyrants and dictators.

    My heart hurts for all the victims and equally so for the perpetrators. May all of them receive the help they need to heal, recover, and those, who must, to repent.

  12. Type in “To be clear, I never experienced inappropriate contact or sexual or physical abuse of any kind, and never heard stories of other students in our parish who had—but I can see now just how vulnerable young people were made by a system that defies men”

    Should be “deifies men”.

  13. When I was a kid, a woman was ushered into the good pastor’s office by a nun. The woman closed the door behind her at which point the nun immediately made her way directly on her clomping pumps to the door and opened it, not just for the protection of the woman, but for the priest and the church as well. There would be no possibility of scandal. That was how it used to be back when people had common sense. That was how it was when people used to read their bibles and take God’s instruction to heart.

    Let’s not forget that one doesn’t have to be a priest or pastor to be a pedophile. Many pedophiles are able to marry and have a family that they then molest. The family unit provides the perfect leverage for power over one’s own family members. How do we protect children from their own parents, siblings, etc.?

    I had sixteen years of instruction and discipline from Catholic nuns, priests, deacons and Christian brothers. Homosexuality was effectively condoned while I was in college. But then so was heterosexual fornication as well so at least they weren’t discriminating. Drinking and drug use was also quite commonplace, but then none of this is an exclusively Catholic phenomenon. I spent quite a lot of time partying on numerous college and university campuses that had no affiliation whatsoever with the Catholic church, and the homo and hetero sexual activities along with drugs and alcohol were no different.

    To find depravity one need look no farther than their own heart. Religious or non religious denominations or labels are nothing more than fancy wrappers or brands to distinguish “us” from “them”; one brand of depravity from another.

  14. I, too, grew up Catholic, and if you remember, there was the belief that the act of ordination was a sacrament, called Holy Orders. We were told unequivocally that the Holy Spirit came into the priest at that moment, and from that moment on, he was considered more than a mere man. We were taught to believe that on the threat of sinning against God if we didn’t. It would be considered a lack of faith. It was that lesson which put more children in harm’s way than probably anything else.

  15. so did i. i found the violence of the nuns who were wearing gold wedding bands signifying their marriage to jesus astounding. and i would guess that an awful lot of little altar boys were surprised too! what is the most surprising is how catholics protect and defend these abusers. just do not understand that, it is always surprising.

  16. Hi, John, if you haven’t already seen the essay at Hullabaloo (Digby) by Tristero on
    “A Question for Christians” this morning, I highly recommend it. I’m sending the site because I think more “stuff” needs to be said about whatever the “Christians” are referring to.
    I grew up in a fundamentalist church but with a family who believed in all “the others”.
    That didn’t help me stay there, because 50 years later apparently I’m an atheist.
    Thank you for the stuff you write, and thank you for visiting El Dorado County next month
    So we can hear you in person!
    It’s not necessary to print this. It’s just an FYI.

  17. We also need to stop teaching abject obedience. In was a pre school teacher in Los Angeles public schools during a raging scandal at private daycare centers. We had “safety discussions” with kids as young as two about their “personal space”. We let them know they had the right and the power to say “no”.
    My brother was an alter boy in the early ’70s. He said he was too stubborn and naughty to be asked to stay late and ” help” the priests.
    He considers himself lucky. I said I was sure he would have hit, bit, scratched… But never submitted. I think the priests knew that.

  18. I think famous former IFB Pastor for 25 years and now atheist humanist Bruce Gerencser said it best (paraphrased):

    “When are all these pastors going to learn to keep their dicks in their pants and their hands out of the collection plate?”

    No truer words ever said Batman!!!

  19. I also grew up Catholic. Nothing even close to this ever happened to me. That said, I keep hearing about these stories and FUMING as I reflect on how nobody wants to believe it…and YET…the lie that transgender people like myself are predators is SO READILY BELIEVED WITHOUT QUESTION.

  20. I’ve been a Catholic all my life, still am, Jesuit college trained (Ok, indoctrinated). I’m older than you and I never witnessed anything close to a predatory practice by a priest. In my grade school days I’d considered the seminary. When I learned the requirements (educational, physical, mental) I abandon the idea. BUT, as I grew into a teen (high school age) in the mid-to-late ’50’s there was a significant increase in the number of Catholics and thus, a shortage of priests. The requirements that previously turned me off, I learned, were being waved. Seminaries were offering tuition assistance while churches were begging for seminary education offerings. I suspect that was when things turned ‘south’ for the priesthood.

    I was aloof to it at the time but now looking back I can see the potential.

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