I Found Community In The Catholic Church. Now I Feel Betrayed.
When news broke that my youth group’s founder was a serial sexual abuser, I left the church for good. Ten years later, the Catholic Church is in just as bad — if not worse —shape.
We started attending weekly Mass when I was 8. The years from conception up until third grade had remained mostly church-free. We’d simply been Christmas and Easter types. But around 1999, that all changed. Church — in the form of the Catholic Mass — became as routine as morning scuffles with my sister over who got to use the hair straightener. Within the first year of our family’s newfound Christly devotion, we had progressed swiftly, almost excitedly, from reluctant Sunday morning feet-draggers to exuberant little proselytes in Aéropostale turtle tees and sparkly Virgin Mary charm bracelets.
I’m not really sure what prompted my mother’s return to the church. Judging by the events of that first year, I think it might have been a response to my grandmother’s death from breast cancer that June. By the fall, my mother — single with two young daughters and still just in her late thirties — began longing for some sort of spiritual fulfillment. The good news was that she didn’t have to look very far.
Our eventual parish, and my mother’s own childhood parish, was just a block down from our house. Sometimes, if I craned my neck out my bedroom window, I could even see the steeple — a rusted cross perched atop an enclosed pantheon of 1950’s stained glass and yellowed buttresses. I’d watch on Sundays as cargos of families, each towing a minimum of four children, clambered out of their Honda Odysseys. I’d admire the bows in their hair, the patent leather on their feet, the coloring books in one hand and the bags of Cheerios in the other. The mothers outfitted themselves not in the pinstripe pantsuits I was used to my own mother wearing, but in satisfyingly boring and unflattering calf-length floral skirts and milquetoast cardigans. At a busy 10:30 a.m. Mass, one single church pew would contain a whole ROYGBIV of cardigans.
But it wasn’t the cardigans or even the coloring books that eventually caused me to spring from my bed every Sunday at promptly 7 a.m. It was the promise of acceptance — not the final, eternal life promise — but the day-to-day promise of belonging. I sought community, the sort that awkward preteens like myself searched for regularly with little to no luck.
I sought community, the sort that awkward preteens like myself searched for regularly with little to no luck.
At 13, I became a “teen leader” of a Catholic youth group called Challenge Girls’ Club. Once a week, I taught elementary- and middle school–aged girls about the Catholic faith. I translated scripture into stories, interpreted dogma into skits about friendship and charity. My coleaders, though older and indisputably cooler than me, became friends who accepted, embraced, and even admired me. My group members, too, were seemingly in awe of me, some to a point of excess; one girl would even ask her mom if I could take her shopping at the mall for “cool, modest clothes.” They were my fans, my cheerleaders, my pupils. They did not tease me nor shun me, like some of my eighth-grade peers. Suddenly, I had a voice — something that was not true of my school persona, nor outside of school within my backbiting circle of friends. I was happy. In my church community, I was someone. People listened to me, respected me — as a cantor, a choir girl, a Bible study member, and most of all, as a youth group leader.
Now, almost 15 years later, I am no longer a youth group leader, nor, for that matter, a Catholic. I haven’t identified as one since my senior year of high school, my final year as a youth group leader. In a span of just a few years, I went from a cheery-eyed front-row congregant to the girl in the back pew listlessly mouthing the Nicene Creed. I grew up, and my moral code changed. I began to see sex as inevitable as opposed to immoral. I saw friends fear the possibility of pregnancy in real time and considered the essentiality of expanding reproductive rights. I watched my mom wait years to get a Catholic annulment, even though she’d already been legally divorced, fearing accusations of “adultery” by older, more religious members of the church. Today, I think about the men who signed off on my mom’s annulment, verifying through whatever sort of divine intervention had been gifted to them, that she was not, by church standards, an adulteress. I think about their crimes of adultery.
I think about the men who impregnated teenage women, the men named in the hundreds of pages of the recently released Pennsylvania grand jury report, who forged signatures on marriage certificates, stowed their brides in remote estates, and divorced them just months later. For years, I’ve sat back as priests and religious leaders whom I’d admired from afar were found out to be some of the most monstrously serial sexual offenders in church history. I watched the Catholic Church turned from a font of goodness to a cesspool of hypocrisy. And somehow, I still felt utterly sad when I did finally walk away. Catholicism had at once propped me up and held me down, told me I could and I couldn’t. For a while, it had been my strongest community. But communities don’t rape their members.
Challenge Girls’ Club was founded almost 20 years ago. Its goal was to provide effective and accessible resources for young women and girls (ages 9 to 18) as they sought to learn more about their Catholic faith within the context of their high-pressure adolescent lives. For two hours a week, under the guidance of “teen leaders” (including myself), the girls were encouraged to trust in Mary as if she were their own mother, treat every person with genuine respect and charity, and love Jesus like a friend, acknowledging that he, too, was once in their shoes. This mission was shared with Conquest, the corresponding boys’ youth group. On paper (all leaders had actual guidebooks with outlines for how to instruct each youth group session), it may have looked like a whole lot of unpromising kumbaya.
But to me, it was much more than that. These were the two hours I looked forward to most each week. I would begin planning my meetings as early as Thursday night when I got home from school. Each meeting would have a theme: social justice, charity, modesty, friendship, self-love — topics which did not feel overtly “Catholic” or tied to any specific canon. From my glossy purple binder, I’d read my prepared discussion questions aloud: “What do you do when you feel sad or alone?” “How does doing good unto others make you feel better about yourself?” “Does it make you feel closer to God?” I would rarely mention God, but sometimes I’d slip one question in at the end. The girls ranged in age from 10 to 13, about three to five years my junior. They mostly hailed from my parish, though a few came from neighboring parishes around our county. All were Catholic, with the exception of one Episcopalian, though some were already old enough to consider themselves nonreligious — “anti-religion” they’d say. These were the girls who were simply attending out of obligation because their parents had made them.
I watched the Catholic Church turned from a font of goodness to a cesspool of hypocrisy.
After the discussion, I would announce an activity. Sometimes it would have nothing to do with the theme of that night’s meeting and I’d organize a fashion show or a game called freeze dance in which everyone would dance until the music stopped (and I yelled “freeze!”). Other times, we’d write commitments to ourselves on strips of paper, fold them up, put them in balloons, and send the balloons up into the sky. Sometimes I like to imagine where the notes all ended up once the balloons popped — what someone must have thought when they picked up a paper and saw “I will be more respectful to my parents,” “I will not hit my sister,” “I will pray each night before bed,” written in a 12-year-old’s chicken scratch.
I myself did not pray each night before bed, but I did relish most evenings on which Challenge meetings were held. I thought of how much all the girls admired me, how my faith made me a paragon of goodness. I thought about how girls who reminded me of those who had scared me and bullied me when I was their age now saw me as a leader, their leader. I was building my own little community based on Catholic teachers who had been rendered so secular they were almost cool.
My teachers, the “consecrated women,” as they were known, did not appear to be much like the sisters who’d taught at my Byzantine all-girls high school. They did not wear habits of dusty navy. Their heads remained uncovered. They could, if they wanted to, be funny and deploy references relevant to popular culture. They lived in two gender-segregated mansions in Rye, New York, and came to visit us in the suburbs of Philadelphia often, usually on Sunday nights when Challenge meetings were held in our church basement. They helped the leaders deal with difficult group members, counseling us through our own personal crises and brainstorming last-minute group bonding activities; they gave us pre-meeting pep talks, reminding us that Christ had chosen us specifically to spread his mission of love. While the consecrated women remained my spiritual guides, my counselors and my “pray the rosary” prescribers — two to three younger women who functioned as de facto assistants and were around my age — became my friends. We watched movies together, talked about friends, about boys, and exchanged music.
I can remember sitting in my mother’s kitchen at our old Dell desktop computer with one of the female coworkers. “Do you know Spoon?” she asked me. I didn’t. She searched “the O.C. soundtrack” on YouTube (I thought she was so cool) and there was Spoon’s “The Way We Get By”: “We go out in stormy weather / We rarely practice discern / We make love to some weird sin / We speak out the taciturn.” We bobbed our heads along together. I looked at her, she was pretty — pretty and demure. I wondered if she knew that we weren’t doing any of the stuff from the song— embracing our sins, rejecting discernment. I wondered, and then I looked away.
Despite drastically different statuses in the church, she and I were there at that desk, worshipping the same God, largely because of one man — a Mexican priest and massive church figurehead, Father Marcial Maciel. In 1941, Maciel, then just 21, established a religious institute, known as the Legion of Christ, made up of young priests and seminarians studying for the priesthood. Shortly after its founding, Legionaries began operating centers of education in Mexico, the United States, and all throughout Europe, South America, and Asia. By 2006, the priestly order of Legionaries had recruited hundreds of young men, topping out at more than 700 priests and 1,300 seminarians. After allegedly subjecting its members — both consecrated men and women — to controlled contact with their families, critics began to deem the movement a cult. It was this alleged “cult” that, in 1971, formed a youth contingent called ECyD, the teachings of which were rooted in “experimental methodology based on the 10 basic needs of adolescence.” This group, too, was designed by Maciel, the man whom Pope John Paul II once called “an efficacious guide to youth.”
It was ECyD that gave way to Challenge, my second home from age 13 to 17. And Maciel — totally invisible to me and steering a ship of a hundred thousand followers from his base in Mexico — was head of the household. Although I didn’t know him personally, I knew him through the prayers he wrote, which we recited; I knew him through the videos we’d watch, wherein he seemed to adore, embrace, and cherish flocks of gawking youth, where he’d sweetly inaugurate new priests and consecrated women with the pat of a cheek or the touch of an arm.
He was a hero, a reinventor of obsolete methods of worship, a maverick, reinterpreting religious dogma for a generation of skeptics and deniers. But he wasn’t actually any of those things.
In 2005, Father Marcial Maciel was found out to be a serial sexual abuser, one of the most egregious in all of church history. Later that year, amid what at the time may have been the most overdue trial in the history of Catholic Church abuse scandals, Maciel finally stepped down as leader of the Legionaries, which, in effect, meant he was no longer the leader of Regnum Christi, nor Challenge, nor Conquest. Over the course of six decades, he had been accused of using church money to fund his morphine addiction; courting, and in one case, privately marrying, much younger women while posing as a wealthy oil entrepreneur; fathering six children with three different women; and abusing and psychosexually traumatizing more than 20 (possibly as many as 100) former seminarians and young boys, including his own sons. The Legion, along with Regnum Christi, maintained allegiance to the man who once contended that he had permission from Pope Pius XII to engage in sex acts in order to relieve stomach pain. The investigation, launched in Pope John Paul II’s final days, was reopened in response to accusations of at least eight men who alleged Maciel had abused them between 1943 and the early 1960s, when they were young students. Still, these men accounted for only a sliver of the damage Maciel had wrought on dozens of seminarians, teenage men, young women, and children. “The idea that there were all these victims and nobody said anything to these investigators is beyond belief,” Jay Dunlap, a spokesperson for Maciel and the Legion told the New York Times in 2005. “The Legion is entirely confident that any full investigation will only serve to exonerate Father Maciel.”
He was wrong. And in May 2006, via a communiqué from the press office of the Holy See and without addressing specific allegations, the Vatican declared Maciel guilty of sexual abuse. The Vatican, mindful of Father Maciel’s “advanced age and delicate health,” (he was in his mid-eighties at the time of the trial) decided to forgo a canonical hearing and asked him to retire to a private life of penance and prayer, giving up any form of public ministry. Maciel was never tried in any sort of civil court, not in his home country of Mexico nor in any other country in which he’d abused, raped, or threatened the lives of those who followed him. He died in 2008, still a priest.
In 2005, Father Marcial Maciel was found out to be a serial sexual abuser, one of the most egregious in all of church history.
After his death, the stories began to emerge. It was easier to talk about after he was off the planet, I guess. But for me, nothing got easier. Only worse. I could go on Facebook and find a fellow youth group leader posting about abuse allegations against Maciel and how we must remain “strong, faithful servants of God and the church during this difficult time.” But I didn’t want to be strong, not for the church. I wanted to run away. Already completely unnerved by the news of Maciel’s abuse, I became agitated, angry, and frankly devastated that the church would go so easy on a guy who had not only abused and ruined lives but duped so many of us into falling for his youth-focused recruitment plan.
Despite Maciel being found guilty in 2006 and garnering a reputation as a serial abuser since the early 1940s, the Legion of Christ remained stone-cold quiet until 2010, when it updated Maciel’s biography on its website to say: “In May 2006, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith invited Father Maciel to ‘a reserved life of prayer and penance, renouncing all public ministry.’” Acknowledging the delay, the leader of the Legion wrote in a press release, “It has taken us some time to assimilate these events of his life. For many — above all the victims — this time has been too long and painful.”
But by that time, Maciel had been dead for two years, and I, a second-semester college freshman trying to weasel my way into a 400-level philosophy seminar on Nietzsche, had already decided to turn away.
On Aug. 14, several state attorneys general released the results of a massive investigation into six Pennsylvania dioceses exposing a 30-years-long history of abuse. The details of the reports were disturbing — priests abusing young men in hospital rooms, men coming forward about having been abused 15 times only to be told “only 15 times?” when they’d reported the incidents to religious higher-ups, young women impregnated by priests and then forced to have abortions, bishops absolving these men of their sins, even expressing sympathy for them — sympathy for abusers, for rapists. This in addition to the July resignation of former archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who, succumbing to allegations that he had sexually abused a teenage altar boy 47 years earlier as well as several other seminarians, became the first cardinal in history to step down from the College of Cardinals as a result of abuse allegations. The barrage of allegations continued even after McCarrick’s resignation, with an unending stream of charges issued by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò against Pope Francis, implicating the pope as a conspirator in the decadeslong cover-up of McCarrick’s abuses. Like Maciel, McCarrick’s only punishment (thus far) has been a Vatican-issued sentence to “a life of prayer and penance.”
Over the past few weeks, I’ve watched friends and acquaintances post online en masse. “Monsters,” “Hypocrites,” flashed all over my Facebook feed. I saw the most zealous, the most pious among my old church friends express sadness and confusion, some suggesting we stay the course, some suggesting we demand justice. To me, it sounded all too familiar, like a 10-year anniversary commemoration from hell.
Looking back, I wish I’d walked out of church in a blaze of fire.
Looking back, I wish I’d walked out of church in a blaze of fire. I wish I’d knocked on my pastor’s door and screamed in his face, that I’d screamed in the faces of the women who counseled me, who invoked Maciel’s syllabi for teaching youth. Had they known that all along he’d been a predator to the very youth he’d been preaching to? Either way, I wanted to know why they hadn’t told us, why they kept things so quiet, why I had to find out everything on my own. I wish I’d organized young people, who like me felt betrayed by a faith, which, while advising its followers to act with grace and goodness, had led itself to a state of disgrace. But that’s not how it went.
As an almost 18-year-old still very much formed and guided by my Catholic faith, I was incapable of retaliatory action. I was paralyzed, not ready to be mad. Today, though, I feel an obligation to be mad — mad for the young people, who, like me, did not have contact nor interact with the accused priests, yet still feel violated.
Like Maciel, these priests, these abusers, scouted young men and women like me — teenagers who felt alone and scared, who found God in liberation theology, who found Mary in teachings on modesty, in teachings that said it was okay that I wasn’t ready to make out in movie theaters or drink vodka at parties. These were men who took kids under their wings, who made them feel like there was some sort of promise, some sort of salvation to work toward — and then they ruined them. They fucked up their lives. And I didn’t want anything to do with it.
I do not believe that the actions of these men merit full-blown rejections of the church and its teachings. I ended up at a Jesuit college and loved it. I met men and women whose faith was guided by a will to do justice, a will to bring a sense of peace to the world. I met twentysomethings who prayed the rosary every damn day but also believed that gay marriage should be legalized. I couldn’t hate them. They talked about Mary like she was a close friend; she was their “homegirl.” Sometimes I found it all a little weird, a little weak, a little...un-Dionysian, especially after I took that Nietzsche seminar, but I never hated them for believing. In fact, I sometimes wished I still believed. But I couldn’t.
Religion, especially when accompanied by the safety, security, and secularity of a youth group, offers a sense of community that is more often than not unavailable to most teenagers. It was a massive part of my life — a void-filler during a time when filling voids was no easy task. Parting with Catholicism meant saying farewell to the very first community to welcome me as one of their own, the very first source of my own confidence. These days, I rarely talk about my time as a devout Catholic. When asked my affiliation, I divert to my father’s religion, Judaism. My mom jokingly calls me “Jew-ish.” It’s an apt description, by the by, but on a fundamental level, it’s made me realize that I don’t really want nor do I need religion in my life anymore, that I’ve found plenty of community elsewhere, that I’ve found confidence elsewhere.
For the first few years after walking away from the church, I tried to go back, to be a part of that community again and again, each time feeling less and less welcome, more and more angry. Once on a retreat in college, I decided to go to confession. I approached the converted broom closet, sat down, looked up at the priest, and confessed my sins. I wondered in anguish if he was confessing his.
Leah Rosenzweig is a New York City–based writer. She has covered the arts, culture, and entertainment for Slate, Paste, LA Weekly, and more.