The stories of the saints were as much a part of my childhood as the tales of Nancy Drew. I felt that I knew Bernadette. Francis of Assisi. Dominic Savio. My patron saint, St. Anne, was the mother of the Blessed Virgin Mary, so I considered my personal saint lineage extra holy. I was related by name to Catholic royalty.
For All Saints Day in the second grade, my teacher, Sister Cecily, encouraged us to come dressed as our patron saint. This was almost as exciting as dressing for Halloween the night before. My seamstress wizard of a mother was pressed into service. Mom dyed some old sheets and whipped up a suitable St. Anne costume. On November 1st, I paraded my way down Central Avenue to school in a saintly toga and veil.
To be Catholic in those days was something special, although at least 85 percent of my hometown claimed that affiliation. In my town, you were known by your Catholic geography − less by your address or neighborhood than by your parish. My parish was Holy Ghost. My father was baptized there in 1913, attended the same grade school that I did forty years later, and remained a congregant for 86 years, through to his funeral Mass.
Catholic traditions permeated every aspect of our family life. We went to 9:30 Mass every Sunday and knelt together as a family in the living room to pray the rosary every night in October, a month dedicated to the Holy Rosary. The opening strains of Dies irae, the Gregorian chant that the 7th and 8th graders sang at parish funerals, are indelible in my memory. During Lent, I kept a shoe box of candies and bubble gum that I had “given up” for the season, only to be relished come Easter Sunday. Friday nights brought a revolving menu of 101 meatless recipes. To this day, I still love tomato bisque soup and grilled cheese sandwiches.
In Dubuque, one was either Catholic or “non-Catholic.” My German Lutheran grandmother Minnie fell into the latter category, a source of much dismay to me as a child. Every night when I said my prayers before I climbed into bed, I’d throw in a hopeful “Please make Grandma ‘come a Catholic.” I wanted her to be waiting for me in Heaven when I arrived some day.
But she was as staunch in her own belief as the rest of my family was in ours, in fact, so unwilling to change that she refused to be buried next to my grandfather at Mt. Calvary cemetery, something we joke about to this day. Grandma wouldn’t be caught dead in the Catholic cemetery. She refused to vote for Kennedy in the 1960 presidential election because she feared the Pope would direct him from the Vatican, a heated topic of discussion around our dinner table. How dare she cancel out my dad’s Kennedy vote by voting for Nixon! Not only was Kennedy a Catholic, but we’d get a twofer − he was Irish too. She obviously did not understand that ours was the one true Church, the one dating back to its founding by St. Peter himself. Not by some Johnny-come-lately like Martin Luther.
Catholicism was my tribe. I felt safe, protected, and nurtured by the nuns who taught us. They were early mentors who affirmed my intelligence and stressed that I could grow up to be whatever I set my mind to – perhaps the first woman President. But of course not a priest. That was never even questioned. Priests were respected and admired at a distance. Throughout my eight years of Catholic grade school, my classmates and I dutifully attended morning Mass before the start of our school day five days a week. Sunday mornings I attended Mass with my family. I made my confession to one of our parish priests at least once a month, even those months when my sins were so lame as to forget to immediately mail a birthday card – and then lying to my mother that I had.
Beyond the rituals and the traditions of my Catholic faith, I absorbed an ethical code from my teachers and my parents. That code remains with me still. Treat others as you would like to be treated. Tell the truth. Do the right thing whether or not someone else is looking. Don’t cheat. Leave the world better than you found it. Be kind.
I emerged from my Catholic chrysalis in my early twenties and discovered that there were many ways of being in the world. Partly that was coming of age in the time of much societal, particularly student, turbulence, driven by events that questioned all authority. I entered college just a year after the massacre of innocent students at Kent State. Institutions and authorities that I had once accepted as truth were now fallible to me. The real world did not so neatly divide into the Catholics and the “non-Catholics.” The ethics that I always associated with my Catholic faith were not all that different from those of the Protestant and Jewish friends whom I met at college. Or those of the Unitarian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, agnostic, or atheist friends I later met as an adult. Catholicism itself no longer granted a cloak of moral authority that I had always taken for granted.
Through my adult eye, I began to question many of the structures and rules that I had always accepted, from the fact that women cannot be priests to the Church’s teachings on contraception, abortion, and homosexuality. Divorced Catholics were forbidden from participating in the Sacraments, which struck me as unnecessarily cruel and exclusive. These views did not agree with my own. The Mass in which I had once found comfort now seemed only formulaic. I chafed under rules for rules’ sake. Catholicism eventually lost its grip on me.
For two decades, I had no formal spiritual home. Mostly this did not bother me, yet through my hospice work, I often found myself ministering in some way to people at the end of life. I was still interested in the big questions of life and meaning. A part of me still searched.
A minister friend who is Quaker asked me about this apparent vacuum of a spiritual home during a soul-searching lunch conversation. I told him that as a child I had always believed in the concept of grace, but that grace had apparently left me. I no longer had a faith community to which I belonged. He challenged me – that I still clung to a child’s view of God, suggesting that it was perfectly acceptable to explore other faith traditions and practices that might prove to be a better fit with my adult self. He recommended that I check out a Unitarian Universalist (UU) congregation in my community, one that is especially well-known for its home in a landmark Frank Lloyd Wright-designed building.
From my very first experience there, I knew that I had found kindred spirits. Unitarian Universalism strongly focuses on living one’s values in the world through a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Social justice activities and personal spiritual journeys are emphasized − rather than dogma, sins, and commandments. It pleased me that esteemed figures such as Thoreau, Emerson, Clara Barton, and Pete Seeger had all been either Unitarian or Universalist. Soon I had claimed a new tribe.
But Catholicism will always be a helix in my spiritual DNA. Even though I identify myself as Unitarian, when asked, my first inclination is to say that I grew up Catholic – not in a mocking way, but with a respect for my tradition as well as the realization that my own spiritual path diverged. However, when I’ve read about the recently publicized horrors inflicted on vulnerable and trusting children by predator priests, it has shocked me to my core. Not only did these abuses continue over decades, sometimes by priests who were shuffled from parish to parish, unleashed on unsuspecting parishioners – but the Church as an institution knew about it, actively sought to conceal it, and silenced its victims.
Recently I read with outrage the Grand Jury report of child sexual abuse that occurred over seventy years in Pennsylvania. Over one thousand victims were identified. Many more were suspected. Over three hundred predator priests. Suicides were noted in the report as tragic outcomes – of both victims and their perpetrators. Church officials followed a “playbook for concealing the truth,” the Grand Jury said, minimizing the abuse by using words such as “inappropriate contact” instead of rape. Priests untrained in sexual abuse cases were assigned to investigate their colleagues. Communities were not informed of the real reasons behind removing an accused priest.
One case cited in the Grand Jury report involved a priest who raped a seven-year old girl while visiting her in the hospital after she had her tonsils removed. Another priest forced a nine-year-old boy to give him oral sex, then rinsed out the boy’s mouth with holy water to purify him. One victim was tied up and whipped with leather straps by a priest. Another priest was allowed to remain in the ministry after impregnating a young girl and arranging for her to have an abortion. I was so horrified that I could not continue on, even though there were hundreds of pages in the report left to read.
The Pennsylvania cases stretched back to the 1940s, with some victims still alive and able to finally speak openly about the abuse they endured. Many of the cases occurred in the 1950s and ’60s, during the same time that I was proudly walking to school as St. Anne. To my knowledge, I’ve never personally come into contact with an abusive priest. However, a national database of clergy accused of sexual abuse includes a priest who served at Holy Ghost parish during the time my older brothers attended school there. Even Dubuque was not immune.
These were not the actions of just a few bad apples who managed to slip through. It has been a systemic culture of patriarchy, abuse of power, secrecy, and cover-up. The price has been enormous, both individually and collectively. Thousands of suffering victims, reported and unreported. Lawsuits by abuse victims have so far forced dioceses and religious orders in the United States to pay settlements totaling more than $3 billion. Nineteen dioceses and religious orders have filed for bankruptcy protection due to the financial burden of settlements. About 27 percent of former Catholics who no longer identify with a religion cite clergy sexual abuse scandals as a reason for leaving the Church, according to Pew Research in 2015.
The affection and warmth with which I’ve looked back on my Catholic childhood now seems increasingly distant. I remain torn between a desire to still claim those parts that I’ve always appreciated – my ethics, my education, my teachers – and my rage at the horrendous dark side that was permitted to fester like a hidden abscess for generations. But perhaps some part of me still wants to cling to a kernel of good that exists in the Church – like some children search for elusive love from an abusive parent, a parent who violated others but not them.
I have dear friends and extended family that still practice the Catholic faith with devotion. I do not question their sincerity. I say only that for myself, I no longer make excuses for the Church’s legacy of complicity, destroying the trust of thousands of innocent children. I want a divorce.
St. Anne has finally handed back her toga and veil.