At night, when her young daughters want a special lullaby, they ask for the Celtic Alleluia, a hymn that most any cradle Catholic could sing by heart.
But in the mornings, as she drives to work, Susan Reynolds finds herself pondering how to articulate her role in a church again battered by revelations of its own clergy sexually abusing children as its leaders hid the alleged crimes.
“One of the most painful things is this deep question I have of: Do I trust my church with my kids?” said Reynolds, an assistant professor of Catholic studies at Emory University in Atlanta. “And the answer right now is: Kinda, no.”
For observant Catholic parents charged with raising the next generation of faithful, the latest crush of horror, contained in a Pennsylvania grand jury report that details hundreds of cases of abuse over decades, doesn’t only spark questions about the church’s power dynamic and, for some, their personal faith.
It also raises practical – often terrifying – concerns about their own children’s safety, as well as whether raising a family in the church amounts to complicity with a system that let evil flourish for decades – and that still has no comprehensive plan to end it.
Compounding the distress is that while some local and regional church leaders have used the latest disclosures to revive a painful but critical discussion, others have stayed silent or offered canned apologies. Those responses, in themselves, have served to exacerbate the everyday quandaries parents now face while doing little to guide how lay people, in coordination with clergy, can carve a path forward.
It all amounts to clear and present peril for a church tradition that traces back millennia.
“Do they want to send their kids to Catholic high school if they don’t trust? Do they donate money? Are they worried that their money that they donate to church is going to be spent fighting lawsuits? These are all questions that people have,” said Tim Reidy, an architect in Pittsburgh who, with his wife, is raising a 5-year-old daughter and a 2-year-old son in the Catholic Church.
“These are questions that everybody has,” he said. “But if our pastors aren’t willing to name the ultimate problem that’s leading to these questions in the open, then how can they expect us to not scatter like chickens with our heads cut off?”
‘I can’t make it make sense’
Long before the latest evidence emerged, the scourge of systematic child sex abuse had been driving away Catholics. Nearly a third of Americans who were raised in the denomination and left it cited the clergy sex scandal as their reason for leaving, according to a 2016 report by the Public Religion Research Institute.
For some who survived sex abuse by clergy, those experiences fueled their decisions to keep their own children away from Mass, Catholic school and youth catechism classes, often dubbed CCD, for Rome’s Confraternity of Christian Doctrine.
“I didn’t make my kids go to church,” said John Delaney, who told CNN a priest began abusing him when he was an 11-year-old altar boy, then raped him regularly for years. “My kids went to public school, and I didn’t make them go to CCD and get the sacraments. Why would I do that after my experience? Absolutely not.”
Sharon Tell, who says she was abused by a priest for 20 years starting when she was 12, told CNN she couldn’t bear to take her children to services on the weekends that they stayed with her after her divorce.
“Their father always asked them, you know, ‘Did you go to church?’” she said. “They went to church. I used to drop them off in the front, they used to run up and touch the door and get back in the car and off we went. They went to church.”
Danielle England of Watertown, Massachusetts, baptized her son, now 4, in the Catholic Church she knew from holiday Masses and Catholic school in south Louisiana. But then she saw the movie, “Spotlight,” about reporters rooting out widespread child sex abuse in Boston for a 2002 exposé that ripped open the issue worldwide. The film ends with screen after black screen printed with the names, in white, of other places “where major abuse scandals have been uncovered.”
Seeing the breadth of the scandal like that, she said, “I was, like, ‘Whoa, I’m pissed. I’m pissed off now. I’m pissed.’”
The church’s handling since then of allegations of abuse, including Pope Francis’ reaction to the Pennsylvania report, hasn’t offered England nearly sufficient proof her child would be safe in a Catholic Church, even if she were to just turn her back during “donuts and coffee” after Sunday Mass.
“It’s not enough. It’s just not enough. I can’t talk to my son about how (his own body is) just for him to touch … and then send him to a place that has this reputation,” she told CNN. “It’s not one place. It is the entire bureaucracy. Even now, the Pope is still saying, ‘Oh, yes, it’s still terrible.’ But yet you still haven’t figured out how to get rid of these people. …
“You want me to risk the life and future of my child? Hell, no,” she said. “It’s not enough. Because it’s riddled with it. It was not an isolated incident. And they have a code. It’s like the dark web, but it’s – it’s the Vatican. It’s disgusting.”
England and her son now attend a Unitarian Universalist church, where “they accept everyone for who they are … and it suits us.”
“But it took me a long time to get there. I’m not going to pretend it was an easy or fast choice,” she said. “I want a spiritual home. I have to acknowledge that the Catholic Church provided me with that. … I want that for my child. But it can’t be the Catholic Church. It just can’t. I can’t make it make sense.”
‘You stayed in this church and fought for it’
For other parents – who were baptized long after Vatican II granted modern exemptions in the 1960s to church norms, then came of age in the post-“Spotlight” era – their Catholicism requires them to work to change the church from within. It’s not only a way to live their faith but also an example for their children of what they believe the church really stands for: serving the poor and marginalized, as Jesus did.
“We’re not going to read them the grand jury report as a bedtime story, but we want them to see that we’re doing something, that we’re fighting for the community of our church, that we’re fighting for the soul of that church,” said Reidy, explaining that he and his wife view the church as an extension of their Catholic nuclear family.
So far, Reidy says he has been disappointed, even angered, by the tacit reaction to the latest allegations by leaders in Pittsburgh, one of six dioceses accused by grand jurors of covering up child sex abuse by priests.
“What they needed to say was, ‘Guys, our church has a gaping wound. We are bleeding profusely right now. We need help, and it needs to come from you. It needs to come from everyone. We need to hear your opinions. We need to hear your voice,’” Reidy said.
To that end, Reidy, who was reared in the Catholic Jesuit and Holy Cross traditions, plans to spearhead “listening sessions” at his parish as a way to openly address – and begin to try to fix – the kind of problems the scandal has posed to families like his own.
“I don’t see any point in waiting,” he said. “I don’t think it helps to see the church bleed out.”
As for his older child, who starts kindergarten this week, she’ll attend a public school – for reasons unrelated to clergy sex abuse, he said. And when the time comes, he and his wife will tell her and her younger brother about the crimes that have stained their church.
My children are “also citizens of the United States, and they’ve just witnessed children screaming out for their parents as they were ripped away from them at the border. They witness homeless people by the side of the road being ignored by every car that passes by them,” he said.
“I think they will look at this (sex abuse scandal) as an injustice caused by the least-likely organization to do this – because it’s the organization that should be fighting against this – but I don’t think they will look at this as, ‘How could you stay in this church?’ I think they’ll look at it as, ‘You stayed in this church and fought for it.’”
‘You have to use your voice’
For Erin Brown, the mother of a 5-year-old boy and a 1-year-old girl, revisiting the reality of child sex abuse through the Pennsylvania court report “is entirely different this time, having little kids, because I can’t fathom the pain of the parents and the children.”
But she’s also sticking with the church – and holding it to account.
“You can love the church,” said Brown, who lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, “but as part of the obligation, you have to be at the table and you have to use your voice.”
Brown was poised to seek out a new parish after a priest, during Mass the day after the grand jury’s findings were issued, failed to address the topic. But she waited until the following Sunday, when, as she listened from the glassed-in room for families at the back of her church, the same priest devoted his entire homily to it.
“You could tell it was painful for him,” she recalled. His message was that “‘the church has not tended to its flock the way we should, and as a result, our sheep have gone astray, and we are not protecting our sheep right now.’ And I just thought, ‘Yes! Yes!’”
Growing up, Brown, whose mother is from Massachusetts, often heard an aunt’s suspicions that the diocese reassigned priests accused of abusing children – an inkling now confirmed by church and secular investigations there and elsewhere.
“One of the gifts that my parents gave me is that I’ve never seen priests as superhuman,” she said. “They’re not divine; they’re human beings.”
Brown, who has worked for the church, said she believes children are safer since dioceses and parishes across the United States began implementing lessons for employees and volunteers, such as a popular curriculum called “Protecting God’s Children.”
Parents and others described the typical three-hour program, which teaches rules for appropriate touching and how to recognize situations that may endanger children, as “powerful” and “disturbing.” It was created by a commercial insurance company owned by dozens of dioceses and parishes that share a risk-pooling trust and goes by the brand name Virtus.
But taking the course year after year, which many local Catholic organizations mandate, can be “sort of like TSA making you take your shoes off,” Brown said, noting that it doesn’t necessarily target people who may be likely to harm kids.
As for their own children, Brown described herself as “a little bit of a helicopter parent,” adding, only partly in jest, that her kids will have “no overnight camps with a priest.”
But more importantly, she and her husband, an evolutionary biologist, want their children to witness them living their Catholic faith. For now, that means choosing a Spanish-immersion public school so they can be better prepared to truly welcome their immigrant neighbors, she said.
It also means insisting that lay people, especially women, are more empowered as the church tries to move past a scandal that festered under the watch of a male-dominated clergy with scant external oversight, she said.
‘This is a really vital time’
Expanding and diversifying the church’s power base will be key to reform, said Reynolds, the Emory professor. A nationwide “mass resignation of all bishops, as a sign of repentance before the people,” could help, too, she said.
As Catholics – from the Pope down – work through this crisis, Reynolds and her husband, Drew, won’t stop taking their daughters to church, she told CNN, though they will tread with care.
“Everything that I bring them to … is going to be the site of tremendous vigilance,” she said. “I don’t imagine a scenario in which I would allow them to be alone with anyone. Maybe that’s just parenting in the 21st century, but we’re talking about people who are supposed to be model servant-leaders. That’s a painful thing.”
“I want my kids to be Catholic,” she continued. “But no amount of beauty is going to convince anybody to actively remain a part of something that is hurting people. That’s not an argument I’m going to make to my kids.”
For now, laying bare every facet of the abuse scandal and uniting all Catholics in an effort to address them may be the crucial element that determines the church’s survival.
“There’s this sense of: Why would I raise my family in this kind of institution? And what a loss that is for the church – and for the world,” Reynolds said. “The future of the Catholic Church depends on how our leaders act in the coming days and what happens. This is a really vital time.”