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Rev. Meg Riley

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'Blame the Gays' and Other Children's Stories

Posted: 04/19/10 07:21 PM ET

The latest clergy sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church has led to some interesting conversations with my 13-year-old daughter.

Always eager to differentiate herself from her minister mother, this teenage child/demon/Boddhisatva has been telling me for a while that she is "Churchophobic," hates religion, and is an atheist. This latest scandal gives her a lot of material to work with.

"You see?" she said to me, holding up the front page's latest allegations about the Pope's complicity in this scandal. "This is why I hate churches! The world would be a much better place without religion."

My primary parent-of-teen reflexes are shrug-and-ignore and tense-up-and-argue. Neither of these is ever effective, including now. In the tense mode, I have already told her, many times, about all of the good that religion and the church bring into the world. In this case, however, beyond my reflexive responses, I am called to a deeper listening to what she is telling me and asking me.

This is a 13-year-old child, after all. Underneath her dismissal, underneath the scorn, there is a vulnerable soul wondering about her own safety and well-being in the church and in the world. She is asking me who and what can be trusted. She is asking for reassurance.

It's hard, as non-Catholic clergy, to know what to say in response to the current scandals. Too often, those of us with verbal privilege simply keep our mouths shut. No one can be smug about clergy sexual abuse, after all. We know far too much about sexual abuse victims of any faith, including our own, whose healing process involves the added trauma of sorting out God from all of the other betrayal and pain.

Yet my own daughter's scowling countenance makes me realize that there are thousands of kids who are watching this story unfold, not because they care whether the Pope is implicated, but because they wonder if adults truly care about their well-being as vulnerable sexual people. Nothing in the current story lines they are reading would make them believe that anyone does. So I look for ways to speak clearly, with my daughter and with all teenagers, about how to keep themselves safe.

The latest development in the unfolding Catholic story gave me a new angle from which to talk to my daughter about the trustworthiness of adults. According to last Monday's Washington Post, "the Vatican's second-highest authority says the sex scandals haunting the Roman Catholic Church are linked to homosexuality ... Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican's secretary of state, made the comments during a news conference Monday in Chile. He said that '...there is a relation between homosexuality and pedophilia. That is true. That is the problem.'"

I tell my daughter: don't trust anyone who completely blames someone else, including you, and especially whole groups of people whom they label as 'other,' for problems. Though they say, "That is true," they are always lying. It doesn't matter who they are, with what kind of authority they are cloaked, or whom they blame. They are not to be trusted.

When anyone participates in this kind of blaming and distancing, I tell her, they are hurting the world and not helping it. The church, sadly, participates in that because the church is a human institution. The church is no better and no worse than all of the human beings who make it up.
I am particularly concerned by the story from Chile because it involves the Vatican's second highest authority, and because we already saw an anti-gay witch hunt follow the church's last pedophilia crisis. I know many fine Catholic clergy and women religious, including gay and lesbian people, whose loss of service would diminish the world and the good work of their church. Forcing them to serve from closets makes the church less honest and more secretive regarding sexual ethics, not a healthier place.

Cardinal Bertone's words might simply evoke my shrug-and-ignore reflex if he did not have so much power over so many people. Would that we could so easily root out evil -- always safely located in other people who are not like us -- and dismiss it. Would that we could so easily dismiss the pain that we cause by doing so.

Fortunately for the world, there will always be smart-aleck 13-year-olds to point at us and name our own problematic behavior, just exactly the way that they see it. May every single one of them be safe from harm.