Oh my God, I am heartily sorry, for having offended thee
And I detest, all my sins, because I dread
The loss of Heaven, and the Pains of Hell
I recited these words for the first time in the spring of 1968, to a dark screen in a cramped cubicle at Holy Child church in Logan. I believed in the depths of my 6-year-old soul that the man on the other side of that screen could grant me absolution. I wasn’t sure what I was guilty of having done but I knew that when I left that curtain-draped space, I would be forgiven.
Catholics are big about seeking forgiveness. We are taught that humans err, but that there is always the hope of a new beginning. I always held tightly to that most precious of sacraments, fully prepared to sin repeatedly over the course of my lifetime. That spiritual insurance was necessary.
Little did I know that it was the church that would one day need to seek absolution. Philadelphia was the focus of a devastating grand jury report in 2005 and again in 2011. This week, the rest of Pennsylvania came under the critical lens of history.
Attorney General Josh Shapiro issued an almost 900-page report, two years in the making. If you love children, you must read this story of promises broken, innocence shattered and obligations violated.
It is hard for me to write these sentences through the blur of tears. People who have read what I have written in the past would not expect that of me, since I have often voiced my concerns over due process and the unfairness of a system that takes accusations and turns them into legal truths.
And yet, I am a child of a church that helps me tolerate the loss of my mother with the promise of seeing her again. I have spent decades among nuns who taught me strength, resilience and kindness. The saints are not myths or stained-glass decorations for me, but rather the embodiment of mercy (St. Francis), courage (St. Thomas More), scholarship (St. Augustine), and what I can only call “bad-assery” (St. Michael). Like Father James Martin who wrote about his own relationship with the saints, they are always with me.
And now, so is this blight on my beloved church. I spent Wednesday reading the grand jury report, and it is a sordid story rooted in decades of cover-ups, predatory men and broken boys.
I have no doubt that most of it is the truth, although we will never know for sure since many of the accused are dead. But there is enough in that report to make me shudder at the way children were sacrificed so that institutions could be protected.
There is something more, though.
One of the reasons that the church failed so miserably in its duty to the children is bitterly ironic: misplaced forgiveness. The driving desire to redeem the sins of these criminal priests played a part in the shuffling around from rehab, to Rome, and to parishes ignorant of their sordid pasts.
Despite this, good priests desperately tried to bring attention to the abuse, writing letters to their superiors, only to have the door shut in their faces.
And so the sorrow is tinged with anger.
Anger at men like Anthony Bevilacqua and Theodore McCarrick, who abetted predators.
Anger at fellow Catholics, who lashed out at Josh Shapiro on social media with veiled anti-Semitism, wondering why the “non-Catholic” lawyer is persecuting us. That is a sick echo of the attacks on Lynne Abraham over a decade ago.
Anger at the refusal to consider the role that non-celibate homosexuals played in the crisis.
Anger at advocacy groups who push for laws that will strip the church of legal protections while leaving secular institutions unscathed. Why should the wearing of a Roman collar deprive a man of his constitutional rights, as if citizenship and a certain religious identity are incompatible?
And finally, my anger extends to Catholics who, under the guise of protecting children, push for changes that are entirely irrelevant to the issue. Married priests won’t make things safer for kids in a world where married men and women commit atrocities. Nor will a female priesthood. The opportunists are using our Catholic agony to gain ground.
We can’t let them, even as we seek absolution.
I firmly resolve, with the help of thy grace
To do penance
And sin no more
Christine M. Flowers is a lawyer and columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News. Readers may send her email at firstname.lastname@example.org.