Melinda Henneberger

After a lifetime, the Catholic Church has finally driven me out

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, right, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, shakes hands with Bishop Christopher Coyne of Burlington, Vt.
Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, right, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, shakes hands with Bishop Christopher Coyne of Burlington, Vt. The Associated Press

For months, American Catholics had been asked to be patient just a little longer. We were promised that the church’s “summer of shame,” following only the latest revelations about the systemic cover-ups of clerical sex abuse, would finally be addressed this week in Baltimore at the biannual meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

This wouldn’t be just one more round of forced apologies, either, but would involve action — and maybe even a vote on a new standard of conduct for bishops and an outside review commission to review violations of it.

Only, to the astonishment of no one past the age of reason, that didn’t happen after all.

Instead, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the bishops conference, who has himself shielded at least one predator, opened the meeting by announcing that the Vatican had insisted on delaying any action until after a February Vatican summit on the scandal.

Let’s not be hasty, right? It would be funny if it weren’t so tragic. Yet apparently, these men need a code of conduct to know not to shield rapists. And they need time to reach universal consensus to on a proposal that would simply ask bishops to promise not to lead a “double life.”

No one can accuse me of being hasty. But after a lifetime of stubborn adherence on my part and criminal behavior on yours, your excellencies, you seem to have finally succeeded in driving me away. I’m not even sure there’s such a thing as a former Catholic, but I’m about to find out.

My hopes for this Baltimore confab weren’t ever high, because fool me 6,000 times, shame on you. But that 6,001st time, well, I’m just all out of willingness to be conned into believing you who’ve so long seen the devastation of innocents principally as a PR problem are ever going to change.

Like others who’ve had more than enough of your betrayals and arrogance and perpetual surprise about having coddled child rapists, I haven’t been back to Mass since June. That’s when a man I thought I knew pretty well, a man who unlike other church leaders amid the abuse scandals of 2002 seemed to understand the depth of the damage done, was himself disgraced.

After “credible and substantiated” allegations that the now former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick had taken advantage of seminarians, assaulted an altar boy in 1971 and even, because evil knows no shame, abused the first child he’d ever baptized, he was shipped off to the quiet of a Kansas friary — thanks so much for thinking of us out here on the prairie! — to pray, repent, and so far, stick to his story that he’s done nothing wrong.

Then in August, we got the Pennsylvania grand jury report detailing more than 1,000 cases of abuse by more than 300 priests over seven decades. Across the country, other states have launched similar probes, so all the hiding, stalling, law- and commandment-breaking ends here: Basta.

Already, in a joint investigation, The Boston Globe and Philadelphia Inquirer have found that more than 130 American bishops — almost a third of all of those still living — have been accused of failing to deal appropriately with sexual misconduct by priests in their dioceses at some point in their careers.

“I’m shocked by that number,” Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley, who really is the top clerical abuse adviser to Pope Francis, told the Globe. “It raises a lot of questions in my mind.’’

I’m shocked that he’s shocked, and his surprise answers a couple of questions in my mind: After all these years, is this really the level of understanding of how long-running and far-reaching the rot was and is? And if this is the cardinal who is most on the case on this matter, is it any wonder we are where we are?

The Globe and Inquirer found that 50 bishops have done the wrong thing in this regard even after the 2002 Dallas conference, at which they agreed to a no-tolerance policy for priests but left themselves completely free of oversight on the new child protection policies they were supposed to enforce.

“It’s inexplicable,” O’Malley said of the transgressions of so many bishops even in recent years. “I mean, anybody at this point in history who would not understand the consequences of not embracing zero tolerance and transparency — I cannot understand that.’’ The men who run the church continue to think so well of one another that I sometimes wonder if they have met.

DiNardo said it happened this way: “In our weakness,’’ he said in Baltimore, “we fell asleep.” Not so much like Peter in the garden, though. More like Rip van Winkle.

When and if the bishops do fully rouse themselves, I won’t be in the pews to hear about it.

This column originally appeared in USA Today.

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