The decision was one of the toughest, but also best that I have ever made. I described growing up in a devout Catholic family in a Pittsburgh suburb, first in Ingram and Crafton, Pennsylvania, and later moving to another neighborhood that surrounded Our Lady of Grace Church in 1969. We attended church for about six months but soon afterward, my father, brothers, sisters and I started volunteering in a nearby county nursing home, Kane Hospital, assisting patients in wheelchairs to and from the Masses. The priest was one of the most compassionate men I have ever met - and in the essay, I described his tolerance and kindness. "We trusted and admired him completely and he never took advantage of that trust," I wrote, adding that many young Catholics had been less fortunate.
So I have only the vaguest memories of the parish priests assigned to Our Lady of Grace parish. The 900-page grand jury report released by the Pennsylvania state attorney general references Leo Burchianti at the church from June 1968 to May 1973: "Burchianti was alleged to have had inappropriate contact with at least eight young boys," reports the Grand Jury report, page 600. "These allegations included but were not limited to Burchianti: having anal or oral sex with them; inappropriately touching them; making suggestive comments to them; providing alcohol to them; allowing them to use drugs in the rectory; and inviting some to stay overnight to sleep in his bed with him."
Because of our volunteer work at the nursing home, I did not know Burchianti other than to watch him preside over a few Masses. I heard no stories of abuse. I had already come to view religion as more a practical means of reaching out to help others and less for personal introspection and prayer.
I left the church years later while living in the suburbs of Boston. In 1992, the former Catholic priest James Porter was accused of molesting more than 100 children in Massachusetts New Mexico and Minnesota. Church leaders in the area did not respond well to criticism that they hid the actions of a pedophile by transferring him to new locales. In May of that year, Boston's then Cardinal Bernard Law lashed out not at Porter, but at the journalists covering the priest's crimes: "By all means, we call down God's power on the media."
That was the moment I lost all trust in the Roman Catholic Church. The leaders sought to protect an institution rather than little children. As a parent, I was immensely grateful for the media reports.
My essay for the Courant was published a decade later, March 24, 2002, when the entire nation and church reckoned with another more far-reaching scandal. I wrote about how religion, like everything else in the United States, must compete under the free-market system: "In this country, we have the privilege of free thought and speech, and we can decide which 'moral" rules imposed by religious leaders, mere mortals, should be kept and which are meant to be broken."
At the time, I was confident the Catholic Church would change: "I have no doubt that within this century, priests will be free to marry and women be encouraged to value life by using birth control." I also concluded that "if the Church waits very long, it will only be a shadow, a minor religion in this country, as it loses credibility and more Catholics discover that other religions can offer both spirituality and truth."
Ultimately, my books about religion, women and life in rural Afghanistan, Fear of Beauty and Allure of Deceit, were based on my own experiences with Catholicism and religious controls.
Once again, the church must change.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.