'Time Of Light?' Or 'Darkness?': Boston-Area Catholics Struggle With Resurgence Of Sex Abuse Crisis

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Father Paolo Cumin leads the noon Mass at Shrine of Our Lady of Good Voyage in the Seaport. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Father Paolo Cumin leads the noon Mass at Shrine of Our Lady of Good Voyage in the Seaport. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

On Sunday, Christians around the world marked the Epiphany — the end of the Christmas season. It's a time that's especially profound right now for many Catholics.

On the Epiphany 17 years ago, The Boston Globe published the first articles of its explosive exposé about priests in the Archdiocese of Boston sexually abusing children and church leaders covering it up. In perhaps the worst year since the crisis erupted, 2018 saw a stream of painful revelations across the U.S. that highlighted the pervasive nature of the problem and the failure of the church to properly respond.

In July, Pope Francis accepted the resignation of the former archbishop of Washington, Theodore McCarrick — effectively stripping McCarrick of his title as cardinal — because of sexual abuse allegations against him.

A few weeks later, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro announced a grand jury had accused more than 300 priests in the sex abuse of at least 1,000 children.

Also in August, Boston Cardinal Sean O'Malley launched an inquiry after two seminarians made allegations of a toxic culture at St. John's Seminary in Brighton. The men cited sexual misconduct and intimidation among faculty and seminarians. The cardinal was criticized for assigning insiders to conduct the investigation. He later hired a former U.S. attorney to lead it.

Around the same time in October, the archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Donald Wuerl — previously heralded for his response to clergy sex abuse — resigned. His decision to step down stemmed from uproar over his alleged mishandling of some abuse cases when he was bishop of Pittsburgh.

Pope Francis was lambasted for sending Wuerl a letter following his resignation praising his "nobility" and saying he had "sufficient elements to 'justify' " his actions as bishop.

Then in December, the Illinois attorney general announced that hundreds more priests in that state stand accused of abuse than the church had publicly identified.

For some Boston-area Catholics, the litany of revelations compounds their pain.

"I wish it had all come out at once. These bits and pieces are doing a job on the church, that's for sure," says Maureen Gannon, a member of St. Bridget Parish in Framingham. Gannon says she fears that all the good the Catholic Church does gets buried by the bad news. She says she prays for it all to end; and she gets angry.

"I have 14 grandchildren, and I want them to continue as Catholics," Gannon says. "And they're not going to do it if this keeps happening."

In the past 30 years, more than 100 parishes in the Boston archdiocese have closed.

St. Bridget parishioners who spoke with us say they keep their faith separate from the lapses in the universal church.

"Those who are wronged, I want them to have the justice that they seek," says parishioner Grace Mina. "And I want those who wronged them to be meted out the justice that they deserve. But it does not really affect me with my relationship with the Lord."

'Even Worse, With Even More Pain'

Barbara Thorp worked for the Boston archdiocese for 35 years. For a decade, she directed the office that provides pastoral and mental health support to survivors of priest abuse. She has been struggling with the recent resurgence of abuse-related disclosures in the Church.

"It seems like, you know, deja vu ... and even worse, with even more pain, I think. We had enough ... we knew enough to move forward and we didn't," Thorp says, referring to "the global church."

She is critical of the church overall for not reforming as the Boston archdiocese has.

Barbara Thorp and Father John Connolly helped coordinate the Archdiocese of Boston’s response to clergy sex abuse. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Barbara Thorp and Father John Connolly helped coordinate the Archdiocese of Boston’s response to clergy sex abuse. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Father John Connolly is administrator of a parish in West Roxbury. He previously worked with Cardinal O'Malley for close to a decade, coordinating the archdiocese's response to clergy sex abuse. He says all bishops should have taken Boston's lead in trying to rectify the problem.

"This thing is easy to understand how to fix if you take as your prime directive the protection of children," Connolly says.

He and Thorp credit O'Malley for helping right the ship. They cite policies the archdiocese has instituted — including yearly criminal background checks on all clergy, staff and volunteers; and abuse prevention training for employees and schoolchildren. The archdiocese mandates that all allegations of abuse get reported to law enforcement. And it publishes names of accused clergy, though it took almost a decade to do so.

"The culture of silence and secrecy that prevailed for decades ... is no longer the norm," says Connolly. "And that needs to be replicated in the church throughout the world."

Many Catholics believed the church had a chance to chart a new course this past fall, when the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops met in Baltimore. The group was planning to vote on protocols for how bishops themselves would be investigated for abuse and held accountable for proper handling of abuse complaints against clergy within their dioceses.

But Pope Francis ordered the group to stand down until after bishops from around the world convene at the Vatican next month on the issue of the protection of minors.

The Pope's action was seen as another blow to a church that's a shadow of what it was decades ago.

In the past 30 years, more than 100 parishes in the Boston archdiocese have closed. And the number of people in the pews has steadily declined, locally and nationally. According to the archdiocese, about 12 percent of Catholics here attend Mass. Three decades ago, more than twice as many people went to church as do now.

Noon Mass at Shrine of Our Lady of Good Voyage in the Seaport. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Noon Mass at Shrine of Our Lady of Good Voyage in the Seaport. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Walking Away Versus Keeping The Faith

Daphne Collins of Newton has family roots in Catholicism going back centuries — all the way to Spain.

"I started as a deeply religious Catholic, coming from a family of deep culture. My mother carved saints," Collins recalls. "I know my prayers in Spanish and English."

Collins has long wanted the church to allow women and married people to be priests. But the abuse disclosures of last summer brought her to the breaking point. She stopped going to Mass.

"I really believe that our purpose in life is to know God and to serve others," Collins says. "And yet, here I belong into this organization that is no reflection to all the humanity that belongs to this organization. They say, 'Well, it's going to take a long time for these things to change. It's such an old institution.' Well, you know, I'm an old institution. I'm 61 ... And it's time for me to just be authentic to myself."

Collins now worships with Quakers in Wellesley.

Keri Rodrigues of Medford, on the other hand, still attends Mass several times a week at St. Anthony Shrine in downtown Boston.

The shrine's mission is rooted in social justice. Rodrigues and her children are part of a church group that hands out food, socks and scarves to people who are homeless.

"This dysfunction that happens in the Catholic Church — the overarching organization — that's a million miles from what is happening in this building," Rodrigues says. "The church and the Roman Catholic organization ... that was created by men. What happens in this building ... is faith in action every single day ... [It's] the work that we have been called to as Catholics."

That sense of connection to people who are suffering helps keep graduate student Angelo Jesus Canta in the church. He studies theology at Boston College. He only knows a Catholic Church in crisis.

"I think there's something to be said for having grown up in a church — for as long as I can remember — that has been riddled with scandal," Canta reflects. "But I will say, when the Pennsylvania grand jury report came out, when the revelations about Cardinal McCarrick and sort of the depth of the corruption and the abuse came out, I was very angry. ... But the struggle and the anger has not given me enough reason to jump ship."

A Pew Research Center survey in 2015 found more than one-quarter of adults who were raised Catholic have left the church completely. And even more are not involved with the Catholic Church, even though they still identify as Catholic in some way.

A young man prays in a pew at Shrine of Our Lady of Good Voyage in the Seaport. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
A young man prays in a pew at Shrine of Our Lady of Good Voyage in the Seaport. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

A 'Time Of Light'?

Helen Drinan is staying with her religion. But she doesn't trust the church.

"I think that trust, once lost, is an extremely difficult thing to regain," Drinan, president of Simmons University, says.

Drinan used to work for the archdiocese hospital system. She left in a dispute with the Cardinal O'Malley, over allegations that the system's CEO was sexually harassing women staffers.

Late last year, Drinan wrote an op-ed in the Globe titled, "This Catholic has lost her patience with the church." She questioned why it takes attorneys general in the U.S. to uncover criminal activity by priests — as opposed to the church itself doing it. And her anger at the church as an institution extends further.

"So much of the church is male dominated," Drinan says. "Women are — I'll use the phrase second-class citizens. I'm not even sure if second class addresses the real status of women in the church."

Parishioners stand in pews at Shrine of Our Lady of Good Voyage in the Seaport. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Parishioners stand in pews at Shrine of Our Lady of Good Voyage in the Seaport. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Drinan believes the Catholic Church would run better if it had women in leadership positions.

"We know, for example, that diversity in decision-making makes for better decisions," Drinan says. "In public companies that have women in the lead, their performance in the marketplace goes up."

Many Catholics express hope that as wrongdoings of the church continue to unravel, they'll lead to a kind of epiphany and re-birth of the church.

Boston College theology professor Tom Groome hopes disheartened and dismayed Catholics hold on to their faith.

"I think they have to recognize that yes, their Catholic Church and the structures of it have made dreadful mistakes, but that this faith is a deeply life-giving faith," Groome reflects. "It's the largest educator in the world ... a huge social service system ... And to simply let go of all of that because our institution has failed us, I think that would be sad."

Barbara Thorp, the woman who worked with abuse survivors in the archdiocese, finds reason to be hopeful.

"As bad as this new moment is ... I think we are in more a time of light than in darkness, because it is the light that's exposing these things that have been hidden and in secret and need to be addressed."

This segment aired on January 7, 2019.


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Lynn Jolicoeur Producer/Reporter
Lynn Jolicoeur is the field producer for WBUR's All Things Considered. She also reports for the station's various local news broadcasts.


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Lisa Mullins is the voice of WBUR’s All Things Considered. She anchors the program, conducts interviews and reports from the field.



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