Posted by: frroberts | January 14, 2016

Some thoughts after having watched Spotlight

When I was in college, I met Bernard Cardinal Law several times.  I attended a retreat he gave for young men discerning the priesthood and he personally invited me to study for the priesthood for the Archdiocese of Boston.  At another event with the Cardinal I attended while I was still a Harvard undergraduate, I learned that his eminence was disappointed that in all of his years as Archbishop of Boston, he had never been given an honorary doctorate by his alma mater, Harvard.  I did learn that in conjunction with one of his class reunions that he hosted an event at the archbishop’s mansion (since sold to Boston College to pay for settlements with abuse victims) and he did get some compliments for his digs.

I made my decision to enter seminary in the summer 2000.  My studies began in the fall of 2001.  The Boston priest sex abuse scandal broke in the Boston Globe in early January 2002.  In route to the Providence airport to fly back to Indiana for the Christmas holiday in December 2002, I heard on the radio that Cardinal Law resigned as the archbishop of Boston.

My path to the priesthood and my years as a priest have not been the easiest.  I am in my fifteenth year of giving my life to Church and two of those have been spent on a voluntary leave of absence.  The first came after a year in seminary.  The second time around came after the end of my first assignment.

I have to be honest that some of my struggle with the priesthood has been internal and it would hardly be appropriate to discuss the nature of my difficulties in a public forum.  Many people in a wide variety of vocations experience difficulties.  Four of my siblings have had to pick up the pieces from a broken marriage with varying degrees of success.  Based on the lives of my siblings, I should not be surprised that I have not found the priesthood to be a walk in the park. I am very much a work in progress and pray that I will reach my dying day being able to say that I kept my vows and helped more people get to heaven than I turned off.

One of the things that made Spotlight a very difficult movie for me to view was that I did not feel like the storyline heaped unjust opprobrium on the Catholic Church.  I did not see anything on screen of which I was not already aware before watching it.  It struck me as a well-acted, directed and produced film.  In a word, the ordinariness of the film gave me pause.  It seemed to be saying, “we are telling the story of a colossal injustice about which everyone knows.”  I would have felt better had I been able to identify an agenda.  I could not.

After watching Spotlight last week, I was reminded of another element of what has been a constant struggle for me ever since the Herald broke the scandal just as my second semester of priestly formation began, which is a crisis of confidence.  Cardinal Law was just one of many bishops who shuffled criminals who used their collars as a means to abuse children sexually.  In my experience, many, many people believe that most Catholic priests are sexual perverts because of what they have seen in the media.  I can’t blame them.

After I returned from my second voluntary leave to parish ministry, I met my old supervisor from the job that I had when I was on leave for lunch wearing my roman collar.  During our lunch she informed me that she thought most Catholic priests were child molesters, but that she knew that I was one of the exceptions.  This statement came from a practicing Christian and a person who I believe to be of above average moral integrity.

It is easy for a busy priest to lose sight of just how much the clergy sex abuse crisis has discredited the Church in the eyes of most Americans.  I often ask myself why I see so few young people at Mass on Sundays or why parents who were born south of the border seem to be the only ones who want to have their children baptized in my parishes.  Spotlight reminded me that the dominant narrative in the ambient culture in the Western world is that the Catholic Church and the Catholic priesthood in particular is a symbol for hypocrisy and corruption.  It finally has begun to sink in for me that my old supervisor is the rule, not the exception.

By the late 1980s and 1990s Catholicism had become so unfashionable that Harvard refused to give an honorary doctorate to an alumnus who was a member of the College of Cardinals and it seemed unfair, but the Church as an institution still had enough plausibility to impress. Today, I would not dream of attending a class reunion because I would not want to have to face my classmates as a Catholic priest.

Perhaps, being a priest, I should have more faith and not be so skittish in the face of ridicule and shame.  I have little doubt that I should.  Walking down the street and being called a pedophile just because I wear a collar has certainly happened to me more than once.  I try not to wonder how often people think that without saying it when they see me.  I pray that with God’s help I will have a greater capacity to see these realities from a more supernatural point of view.

Watching Spotlight made me wonder if one of the reasons why I have not yet done so is that I would much rather pretend that the priest sex abuse crisis had never happened, which makes me think that I should face the music for being a priest at those class reunions in order to be reminded just how much damage has been done to the Church’s image and ability to proclaim the Gospel in the past decades.  And the sad thing it is not likely to get any better in the foreseeable future.

“[Jesus said], In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”  John 16:33

 


Responses

  1. Prayers, my heart aches reading this.

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  2. Father, you have convinced me not to watch the movie (the trailer is sufficient). I will attend Holy Mass today thanking God for your dedicated life to Holy Mother Church. Speculum iustitiae, ora pro nobis.

    Henry

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  3. Nothing has changed. The gay mafia still controls things in America. The hierarchy here have been faithless. And we wonder why the churches are empty. Thank God for faithful priests. See you in church, Father.

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  4. You are loved, respected and necessary.

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  5. Hi Father, Thank you for writing this down as I really enjoyed reading your words today. Have a terrific Thursday!

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  6. Dear Father Roberts — I also saw this movie and thought it was very well done. I don’t have a sense from the people I know that they believe all Catholic priests are pedophiles or perverts. And I take comfort in the fact that of all the priests I have ever know in my entire life as a Catholic, there was only one who had inappropriately approached a woman parishioner and was later arrested for child pornography. This was back in CT where I come from.

    All the priests I have known have been great examples of God’s love, kindness and wisdom and great models of the spiritual life — certainly yourself included.

    While the scandal has been disheartening and a shadow from it hangs over our church and of many people’s views of it, I do not think it is hopeless and I do think that Pope Francis has helped restore the image of the church that many of us would like to see restored in all hearts and minds.

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  7. Father- I have been subscribing to your blog for more than a year now. I know that the Holy Spirit speaks through your blog entries. They have made a big impact on my spiritual life. I appreciate your blog so much and it inspires me to deepen my Catholic faith. I just wanted to thank you and to tell you that if I were one of your Harvard classmates I would be proud of you for becoming such a good priest! You may not personally see the fruits of your work every day, but you are impacting a great many souls. Thank you for responding to your call and for sharing all of your spiritual thoughts and tidbits that have encouraged me and so many others.

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  8. Padre Cristobal. No crea que todos piensan que los sacerdotes son pedofilos. No es asi. Sientase seguro de que usted atrae almas al Señor. Se lo dije desde hace mucho. Usted es un sacerdote que subira. Dios lo siga iluminando en todas sus homilias y en todo el arduo trabajo que realiza y sepa que habemos muchos feligreses que rezamos por nuestros sacerdotes. No esta solo. Nos tiene a nosotros o al menos mis oraciones y admiracion. Gracias Padre Cristobal. Aida Uriarte

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  9. Father Christopher,

    Be encouraged; what you do matters.

    Your intelligent essays about faith in God, the teachings of the Catholic Church, and the meaning of our daily struggles have helped me directly. I feel certain they have helped many others in the same way.

    You write that you have come to believe that most people assume all Catholic priests are molesters. IT’S NOT TRUE! Such thinking seems to me to be distorted and unnecessarily negative.

    My experience is that most Catholics, at least, while acknowledging that a small minority of priests have been guilty of child abuse, know that most priests live their vows faithfully and would never consider harming a child or adult.

    I can only imagine how insults from unthinking people who know nothing about you other than that you wear a Roman collar must hurt, but in the end, they matter little.

    What will count is your integrity, which as a former parishioner of yours, I know to be intact. What will bear good fruit is your continued faithfulness in all your priestly duties. What will convert the doubters are all the efforts you and the many other good priests make daily to help others.

    Thank you for all you have done to shepherd us.

    Persevere!

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  10. I too, as another expressed, feel tremendous sorrow reading this- you have humbled yourself, Father, by opening up a little window into your soul. Thank you for that.

    While the situation can indeed make us sad, it should in no way bring us to despair! We all can help by taking every “little” opportunity to share with others the herculean efforts being undertaken by the church to protect children- PROTOCOL TRAINING is MANDATORY for every adult who comes into contact with children in their church activities, clergy, religious AND laity alike! Can others testify similarly?

    Another thing we can share with great joy is the good news of these wonderful young men who have freely given their lives to God, in service of the very people who may view them withe disdain and suspicion. What GOOD NEWS this is!

    Yes, it is an incredibly painful period in our history, but alas, nothing new in a church replete with sinners!

    Let us place our faith and hope in God, his Son and Holy Spirit- and in HIS church!

    Be of good cheer, Father Roberts, there is much to give us hope. So go to your reunion, give them your cheek, ask forgiveness, then turn to offer the other with a dimpled smile, and share the reason for our hope!!!

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