A week after the World Trade towers in New York fell to the ground on that brilliant September morning, I sat in a diner in Boston across from my good friend Abyan, who was also an imam. He was staring at his lunch with what I can only describe as disgust—only it wasn’t because of the food.

“This is not who we are,” Abyan spat, pushing away his plate. “These attacks…they violate all Islamic law, all its teachings, its values…these terrorists insult Allah and bring shame upon our religion. I fear that Muslims around the world are now doomed to carry that shame.”

A few months later, I felt Abyan’s disgust, only it wasn’t about Islam; it was about my own tradition. In early 2002, the Boston Globe broke the now infamous story of rampant child sex abuse by Catholic priests and its cover-up by the church hierarchy. Should I have been surprised? Probably not, given that the issue rose to national attention after the Diocese of Dallas settled a number of cases of abuse at the hands of one priest. “By the time you see a leak, there is likely a lot of rot,” my grandfather used to say. I am a Jesuit priest, and there had been murmurings among my brothers that the “rot” within our institution was deep. Just how deep, many of us never fathomed. For a decade and a half, we watched in shared in disbelief as each new scandal came to light: boys, girls, as little as three; teenagers, adults; every sordid act imaginable. Thousands of priests guilty or plausibly accused. Tens of thousands of victims in countries around the world. Then came the systematic cover-up in Pennsylvania, revealed in 2018 through a grand jury investigation—which, in turn, sparked a nationwide disclosure of a thousand plus more abusive priests. And as I write this a year later, and on the eve of a new decade, after so much bearing witness and apologies to victims; and settlements upwards of billions; and entire parishes bankrupt; and calls for a much needed conference about major church reforms, it has come to light that even more bishops nationwide are culpable in yet another cover-up—this time, failing to disclose the names of hundreds of new clergy members accused or convicted of abuse.

“This is not who we are,” I spat like Abyan, one day in prayer. To be sure, this isn’t what Christianity is. But it is seemingly what the authoritative “we” have devolved into. I became a priest because I wanted to be a part of something bigger than myself, something true, but the truth is that now I am ashamed. I am ashamed that people who were appointed to represent Christ on earth would defile his name in such a heinous way; that those who elected to pay homage to God in the name of society would exploit, for their own pleasure or deviation, the most vulnerable in the community. I am ashamed that nothing in the litany of reports over the years is new; rather, it is that again, the church has chosen to protect the institution over the individual—the mortal sins of those in power over those sacred souls who make their existence extant.

I am ashamed that this wanton behavior has been allowed to persist for decades, despite its flagrant disregard for Christian teachings and Catholic doctrine. I am ashamed that clericalism has drowned out the sacred “call” to serve—that the authority granted to clergy, solely for being ordained, has been mistaken as service. I am ashamed that as these crises persist, parishioners are losing trust in Church leadership and faith in God. I am ashamed that because of the weak response to these scandals, it has changed the way others look upon us and caused a meaningful loss of creditability.

I am ashamed that many honorable priests are now bearing the weight of these sins; as one of my brothers recently said, “If you wear the collar on people think you’re on the hunt for children.” I am ashamed that many feel like they have been thrown under the bus by the hierarchy. That they are having to do more work with less resources. That many are burning out and descending into depression and substance abuse. I am ashamed that these scandals are causing clergy to question whether they really know each other anymore, and that this doubt is causing many to live in fear and isolation. And I am ashamed that while I have not committed these acts myself, I am still a part of the system.

There are six things the Lord hates, seven that are detestable to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that are quick to rush into evil, a false witness who pours out lies, and a person who stirs up conflict in the community. (Proverbs 6:16-19.)

If this is true, then the Lord must be as disgusted as I at what the system has become.

For more than two decades the Church has been the air that I breathe, giving life to my being—body, mind, and soul. But now I am, as many Catholics are, being suffocated by this contamination. The abuse of these innocents is depraved enough, but the abuse of power—the betrayal of the most sacred trust between priest and parishioner, is nothing less than abominable; to say nothing of the failure of institutional leadership—another betrayal to those for whom they have a fiduciary responsibility.

Bringing light into darkness is what the Church is meant to do, but that is difficult when it is its own institution that has turned black. I have loved the Church as my mother since I was a young boy, but in its abdication of such essential duty, it is as though that beloved parent has abandoned its children. For a year, I stumbled around as if in a claustrophobic fog, toggling between apathy and outrage, wondering how to hold out hope and hold on to that love. I met Abyan again one day for another lunch, only this time it was me who couldn’t eat.

“You must swallow your food, not your disgust,” said Abyan, pushing the breadbasket towards me. “Your outrage, like mine after the attacks on 9/11…it is simply Allah’s voice speaking to you. This is not okay. If you turn away from that voice, then you are turning away from God. You must use your voice, to speak out against what is wrong, like these despicable acts, while also standing up for what is right, like the beliefs, rituals, and community that hold all Catholics together. Jesus instructed his followers to turn the other cheek…but not a blind eye, am I right? My friend, silence that comes from fear is the greatest sin of all.”

Abyan was right. We must use the moral outrage we feel for good, otherwise it corrodes the soul. While God is transcendent, human beings are not. That they make mistakes is not ultimately the problem; that they fail to admit those mistakes, or worse, cover them up, to the detriment of others, and refuse take redemptive action, is the problem. And we all must do something about it.

G.K. Chesterton wrote, “The difficulty in explaining ‘why I am a Catholic’ is that there are ten thousand reasons all amounting to one reason: that Catholicism is true.” That is how I feel. But the institution that sustains it must learn to speak and do truth—no matter the cost, because as our sacred text says, it is that which sets you free.

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