THE BLOG
06/02/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Losing My Religion: One Catholic's Crisis of Faith

I will always remember it as one of the most glorious days of my life, even though today those memories are overshadowed by sadness.

It was April 17, 2008, clear and sunny, one of the first truly warm days that spring. I was nearly finished with my second year of law school at Catholic University. And that afternoon, Pope Benedict XVI was coming to Washington to visit our campus.

For hours, students, priests, nuns, young monks, family and friends hung out on the freshly mowed lawn of the quad. Hundreds of us picnicked, played Frisbee, sang, clapped and occasionally danced as we waited for the Pope to arrive. Finally, the procession of police motorcycle escorts and black limousines came up the hill toward the campus center; there was a momentary hush; then the Pope-mobile appeared in the distance. We cheered and waved the two little commemorative flags the school administrators had given us to mark this historic occasion: one American, the other the yellow and white flag of the Vatican.

And then Benedict was standing before us, wearing simple white robes and red shoes and smiling. He looked so kind, much gentler than he did in photographs. The students, some with tears streaming down their cheeks, were by then pressed against the barriers to get just a little bit closer to him. He raised his hands high above his head as if to say a blessing over us, and our cheers became a thunderous roar.

I can only describe that moment as pure joy.

Yet this past Palm Sunday, when I saw those two little flags, still on my desk where I placed them two years ago, I wondered whether I could ever feel that joy again.

Under the best of circumstances it's hard to be a Catholic, balancing a secular life with the strictures of Catholicism: you can't have premarital sex, can't be gay, can't use condoms, can't take the birth control pill, can't have an abortion, can't get divorced. With the Church's reaction to the growing child sex abuse crisis, being Catholic just got a whole lot harder.

Practicing Catholics look to the Church for guidance, support, and most of all to serve as the moral example.

And so when we hear day after day the ever more lurid details of priests raping and molesting the children the faithful have entrusted to them, we are horrified, repulsed and heartbroken. If they the clergy can commit sins so clearly gross and deplorable and wrong, us regular lay people - the flawed but faithful - are left wondering if our leaders are not even more flawed than we.

They don't follow the rules of the Church. Why should we? After all, as much as lay Catholics sin, most won't come anywhere close to the heinous acts we hear about on the news. A priest who abuses 200 children is allowed to remain secure in the bosom of Mother Church, allowed to die and be buried in the dignity of the priesthood, presumably allowed to take communion until his last day. But a regular everyday Catholic who commits the sin of using birth control must refrain from taking communion. It doesn't make sense.

So as Holy Week began, we looked to the Pope's Palm Sunday sermon for a message of hope and humility, of penance and reconciliation. Instead we got the big brush off, when Benedict referred to this whole debacle as "petty gossip" even as the scandal reached the throne of St. Peter itself.

Criminal priests committed criminal acts against the defenseless, yet were then afforded sanctuary in the Church at the expense of the moral and emotional health of their child
victims.

Even in cases where predator priests were disciplined under church law, moved to different parishes, prevented from having access to children, or more infrequently defrocked, the Church did not report their crimes to law enforcement.

There are two systems of law at play here - the ecclesiastical and the secular - but the Church proceeded as though it does not recognize any law but its own.

In the 13th Century, the question arose of whether clerics should be imprisoned for their crimes. Pope Innocent III's response: "Publicae utilitatis intersit ne crimina remaneant impunita." It is in the interest of the public good that crimes do not remain unpunished.

That means defrocking, not harboring criminals, not shuffling them around, not merely removing them from temptation, but actively ousting them and handing them over to criminal authorities. Don't protect the Catholic Church first; protect the Catholics.

Even if these people are judged by the ecclesiastical courts, they must be made to answer to secular courts. And the Church must facilitate rendering them to the authorities.

I felt shame at being a Catholic for the first time in my life a few days ago when I heard Bill Donohue, the head of the Catholic League, argue on television that since Father Lawrence Murphy (the priest who allegedly molested 200 boys at a school for the deaf in Milwaukee) abused mostly post-pubescent boys, he was technically not a pedophile.

"You've got to get your facts straight," Donohue said to Thomas Roberts, who was abused by a priest as a teenager. "I'm sorry. If I'm the only one that's going to deal with facts tonight then that'll be it. The vast majority of the victims are post-pubescent. That's not pedophilia, buddy. That's homosexuality."

Say what?

What Mr. Donohue failed to realize as he parsed before a dumbstruck America the precise and technical definition of pedophilia is that semantics aside, the world is no less horrified by the rape of pubescent and post-pubescent children than it is by the rape of pre-pubescent children. It's the child rape part we've got a problem with. It's the defiling of the institution of the Catholic Church we've got a problem with. It's the hypocrisy. It's the hubris. It's the betrayal of the people who put their faith in these priests.

Most Easter Sundays, I make a special effort to watch the news to see the Pope emerge from St. Peter's to bestow his blessings on the amassed faithful. This Sunday, I can't help but see the Pope through different eyes - and perhaps, for the first time, through tears of anger, sadness and shame.