At the end of the film "Spotlight," the audience is confronted with a seemingly endless list of locations. It’s the places around the country and globe where allegations of sexual abuse of children by members of the Catholic clergy have surfaced—from Helena, Honolulu and both Portlands to Lota, Ireland, Munich, and Medellín.
The first time I saw it in theaters, one place stuck out: Lincoln, Nebraska, the capital city less than an hour from where I grew up. The second time I saw it, I noticed Dallas, Texas, the place I had left for New York.
In my latest viewing of the film, I saw Omaha. I grew up there. It’s a small, city-ish place on the Missouri River where I went to mass and confession. It’s where I was confirmed and learned the Lord’s Prayer and all the other idiosyncrasies of Catholic worship. The Omaha Archdiocese has roughly 140 parishes! It’s not like the abuse scandal happened at my parish. It’s not like my parish was touched by this.
Or at least, that’s what I assumed.
It only took a few clicks to figure out that one of the clergymen accused of violating a student in the Omaha archdiocese was the priest in charge of leading my childhood parish, St. Wenceslaus, for a number of years.
The man led my parish when I received my first Holy Reconciliation; he might have been the actual priest that I sat across from and asked to believe my contrition for the dumb-as-fuck sins only a first grader can be guilty for, like rolling her eyes at her parents. He would take my confession dozens of times throughout the years and led the parish the years I received other sacraments.
The statute of limitations expired for his alleged abuse of a female teenager in Norfolk, Neb., in the early 1970s. He was sentenced by the Church to a “life of prayer and penance” in 2013, according to the Omaha World-Herald. He’s not to celebrate mass or present himself as a priest to the outside world. When this all went down, I was in college more than a thousand miles away and I completely missed it. Now it’s another entry on an exhaustingly long list of reasons why I dislike the Catholic Church. And yet I can’t quite let it go.
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Faith and God are private, tender things that I never learned how to publicly articulate. It doesn’t help when so many of your friends turn out to be agnostic or staunchly atheist. I take to heart the lessons in the Book of Matthew—to do things because they’re the right way to honor God, not because you want outward praise. Sometimes, though, you have to talk about the difficult things.
In a scene in "Spotlight," Mike Rezendes, the reporter looking into the allegations of sexual abuse against Boston priests, asks a former priest if he still attends mass. “No, no,” he answers. “I haven’t been to church in quite some time now, but I still consider myself a Catholic.” When Rezendes expresses his confusion, the former priest elaborates:
Well, the Church is an institution, Mike, made of men. It’s passing. My faith is in the eternal. I try to separate the two.
This is the problem I’ve been wrestling with: how to separate a love for and a faith in God within the fucked-up system centuries of Catholicism has brought us. God, the structure of tradition, and familial ties that bind me to the Church can be comforting and emotionally healing. But how do you seek grace from an institution that so lacks grace?
The Catholic Church has a long list of reasons to distrust and/or outright hate it depending on your degree of devotion. There’s the sexual abuse and consequent decades of cover-up. There’s the steadfast opposition to abortion and most forms of birth control. There’s barring women from the Holy Orders. And how can I forget the opposition to gay marriage? Pope Francis, a Jesuit, has been a breath of fresh air, but he’s still operating within the system. Progressivism is all relative. If it took the Catholic church this long to allow divorcees to receive communion and forgive repentant women (this year) for their abortions, imagine how long marriage equality will take.
I always had trouble with many of these political positions. I struggled with sex before marriage and I always called bullshit on the idea of abortion as a grave sin. I’ve never had to decide personally, but what authority do I have to deny that decision to other women? (Some people have abortions while believing in God and are just fine.) The only tithing I believe in is my retirement and savings accounts. When you spend so much of your life only believing in half of what the church is professing, going to church becomes a perfunctory affair.
I’m not sure going to Church every week for 18 years ever made me into a better person. Nor did being a know-it-all in catechetics. I don’t think knowing the stories of creation and the Hebrews flight from Egypt and the Stations of the Cross ever changed who I was.
Instead, with my parents’ guidance within the Church, I learned manners, how to sing and read music, and how to focus (or pretend to) at a young age. I learned how to have empathy and how to be kind. But I may just have those qualities because my parents are good people. They would still be good people who raised good daughters if we had gone to a synagogue or the Baptist church my mother was raised in or had neglected our weekend trips to St. Wenceslaus entirely.
A lot of my Catholicism is rooted in my Latino background. It’s something that unites the Mexican side of my family and is a common thread among fellow Latinos. Each week, my family went to dinner, Saturday mass and then to the bookstore with a trip to confession added every month or so. Churchgoing and believing in God were inextricably tied up in family bonding.
When I left for college, I finally had to confront the idea of an individual faith. Being alone with God is much harder than being in even a small crowd. At first, I attended mass sporadically at a big, beautiful cathedral in Phoenix, but it never felt like a home the way the parish I grew up in did. Instead, it felt like someone else’s ornately decorated home where I was unwelcome. I stopped going to church even semi-regularly when I was a junior in college and about to start graduate school for journalism. Telling people’s stories honestly and being a present role model to my nieces seemed a better way to honor God.
Nowadays, I’m no longer fully comfortable in a mass worshipping with others because it feels like my faith is fake in comparison. I can’t bring myself to go unless it’s with my abuela or parents because I feel responsible to honor something that’s so important to them.
Still, I’ve always held onto the idea that I would baptize my children in the Church. I’d always assumed they too would have four names after the sacrament of confirmation. But life doesn’t always work the way you’ve planned—especially when you date a series of atheists and non-Christians.
At one point in "Spotlight," Rezendes finally feels he has enough proof to write a story about how the Boston Archdiocese is protecting child abusers. But his editor tells him it isn’t enough to prompt the systemic change they knew to be necessary. So Rezendes loses it. Later, Rezendes tries to explain to his fellow reporter why. Nursing a beer on her porch, he tells his colleague: “The weird thing is…I think I figured one day I would actually go back. I was holding onto that.”
I’ve been holding onto something, too.
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Despite my misgivings about Catholicism, I own a Bible. It’s white with gold lettering and it sat on my bookshelves in Phoenix, Seattle, New Orleans, Dallas, Brooklyn and now Harlem.
The first time I stepped into a New York City church with the intent of worshipping en masse was Ash Wednesday. At least on Holy Days of Obligation, everyone else seems to be slightly uncomfortable together in our supposed neglect.
“Remember, you are dust, and unto dust you shall return,” one of the priests said as he pushed aside my bangs to reach my forehead. I had only waited in line three minutes and now I had met the obligation of the day and could join all the lapsed, practicing and pretending Catholics walking around midtown with a badge of recognition. It seemed like such a New York thing to be doing — going to a church to get ashes after work, but not staying for mass because my timetable couldn’t be troubled to give any more time.
Afterward, I sat in one of the pews at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in awe of the calming nature of being in a church. I actually started crying a few very silent tears. I felt adrift both professionally and emotionally with none of the normal outlets providing solace on that Wednesday. The Lord is supposed to walk with you, but it felt like he had stopped. How do you reconcile this disbelief without becoming Peter? It’s as though the disbelief came perfectly timed because Lent is the time to begin again, to remember you are but dust.
Still, my favorite Bible verse stays with me. The Book of Exodus 14:14 reads, “The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.” I repeat it back to myself during panic attacks, during trying moments and when I feel truly alone. It reminds me God is there.
Because God is not only in a churches and their structures. Because I felt God while dancing with someone I loved at a last-minute Florence + The Machine show in Brooklyn. And as I drove across New Mexico with the windows down and the Dixie Chicks playing. The Holy See does not hold the monopoly on my, on our, devotion and faith.
I need only be still.
Caitlin is the associate features editor at Fusion. Prior to Fusion, she worked on features and national affairs at Talking Points Memo and completed an investigative fellowship at The Seattle Times. Will listen to any and all Grey's Anatomy theories.