Faith holds in spite of scandals

John Swales, pictured, despite suffering years of abuse at the hands of a priest, doesn’t think Catholics should turn their back on their Church. (Photo by Michael Swan, The Catholic Register - CCN)

By Michael Swan, The Catholic Register

[Toronto – Canadian Catholic News] –  John Swales, survivor of years of horrific sexual abuse at the hands of London, Ont., priest Barry Glendenning, doesn’t want Catholics to walk away from their Church over another round of abuse revelations emanating now from France. He wants the Church to change.

“This doesn’t feel good,” Swales told The Catholic Register. “It doesn’t feel good that people are asking, ‘Why am I listening to this person preach?’ That’s a terrible thing to have to (ask yourself). ‘Why give them your money? Why publicly identify yourself as Catholic?’ ”

Though Swales himself is unlikely to occupy a pew on Sunday morning given his altar boy experience and then his years of fighting Church lawyers for a settlement, he doesn’t think faith should be sloughed off.

“I’m a bit of an agnostic today. However, I accept and remind myself that people are entitled to believe what they believe and there is a value in that. It actually fills me with great sadness,” he said of the idea that people would exit the Church over abuse scandals.

There are podcasts with names like “How to Leave the Catholic Church.” There’s a constant stream of Twitter advice counselling Catholics that it’s time to leave. Were they a Church, ex-Catholics and disengaged Catholics would be Canada’s largest Christian denominations — larger even than the 25 per cent of Catholics who regularly and publicly worship.

In 2019 Angus Reid asked Canadians, “What kind of a job do you think the Catholic Church as a whole has been doing in addressing this Catholic clerical sex abuse issue?” Catholics were divided. Fifty-two per cent said a poor or very poor job. Former Catholics were not divided. Ninety-three per cent said the Church was failing to meet the challenge.

A recent tsunami of clerical abuse scandals enveloping Italy and France, and reaching right into the College of Cardinals is not about to change any minds in the ex-Catholic camp.

Cardinal Jean-Pierre Ricard, a high-ranking official in the Dicastery for Doctrine of the Faith where abuse cases are investigated and punishments meted out, has admitted he abused a 14-year-old girl when he was a 43-year-old priest, 35 years ago (see: Vatican News item)

One of Ricard’s French colleagues was thought to have resigned in 2020, two years before the mandatory retirement age of 75, because of ill health.

It turns out Bishop Michel Santier was ordered into a life of prayer and penance after a Vatican investigation into him for pressuring two young men into sex. When Santier told Catholics in the Diocese of Créteil, in the suburbs east of Paris, that he was leaving because of ill health, nobody at the Vatican contradicted him.

French bishops’ conference president Archbishop Eric de Moulins-Beaufort earlier this month revealed that 11 French bishops, including Ricard, have been accused either of sexual misconduct themselves or of covering up the misconduct of others.

Related: Diocese of Saskatoon historic case review released in July 2021 (LINK)

Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon safeguarding and Covenant of Care (INFO)

As excruciating as it is to hear the stories coming out of France, it’s not going to change anything for Opus Dei member Isabelle Saint-Maurice.

“I am not following these people who did soil the message of the Gospel. I am following Christ through the Church,” said Saint-Maurice. “The Church is not these singular people, even if they are numerous. I am not following these people. I am following Christ and I’m following the message of Christ. If I follow this message, I will do good. I will sow good. This is what the Church needs.”

As a teenager growing up during Quebec’s Quiet Revolution, Saint-Maurice remembers a time when people all around her were deciding the Church didn’t deserve their trust.

“But, I saw my parents. I saw them strong, happy, solid. This is what they gave us. We received a nice unity in the family. We had a lot of fun. We learned how to live and how to struggle in life,” she said.

Saint-Maurice’s parents were also members of Opus Dei. Of her six brothers and sisters, only one has drifted away from the Church. For Saint-Maurice there is no alternative to the Catholic Church.

“It is because we receive the sacraments. Christ left us the means to be united with Him through the Mass, the Communion, the sacrament of Penance. This is something I am looking for,” she said. “I am looking for Christ, who is there and maintains His presence through the Church.”

Growing up in the 1990s, Archdiocese of Regina theologian Brett Salkeld has never known a time when there weren’t sex abuse scandals attached the the Church. And the stories of predator priests weren’t remote, far off news stories either. The priest who baptized him in Gerald, Sask., was a serial abuser who targetted his uncle.

For Catholics of Salkeld’s generation, the Church is a choice.

“By the time I made a genuine commitment to my Catholic faith in my later teens I had already lost any sense of innocence around this question,” Salkeld said in an email. “My commitment to the Church was, I guess you could say, made with full knowledge. I have never had any of my illusions on this point shattered by subsequent revelations.”

Salkeld is not shocked by the revelations in France.

It seems to me highly probable that any country that has not had a reckoning yet has one coming,” he said. “The problem seems more or less universal, inside and outside the Catholic Church. It is my hope that every revelation gets us closer to a world that is safer for potential victims everywhere.”

While Salkeld’s attachment to the Church is not dependent on the moral character of priests and prelates, he points out that child abuse and sexual predation do not define the clergy as he knows them.

“I have had great friends and mentors among the clergy, both pastorally and academically. I know that, however widespread this rot is in the Church, the vast majority of the clergy are good and faithful servants,” he said.

Why stay is a question Concerned Lay Catholics co-founder Cathie Pead asks herself often.

“I stay because it is MY Church,” she writes in an email. “I stay because lay people are the ones who are going to fix this. And I stay for Pope Francis and for the good priests who liberated me from clericalism.”

Swales recognizes there are good priests who have suffered through the decades of sex abuse convictions since the Mount Cashel stories hit Canada’s crime pages in the 1980s.

“The shroud of oppression that they have to carry is just incredible. It’s huge,” he said. “When priests say, ‘This is (B.S.), it has to stop,’ that’s when accountability will take place. The present approach isn’t working, so there has to be a different way.”

Swales would be happier to see the Church changed, rather than the Church diminished.

“Ignoring the problem and pretending that somehow the Church is holier than thou, it’s problematic. How about just accept the reality of the situation. This is bad stuff. It’s been going on forever,” he said. “My life was ruined. I’m now at university at 63 years of age, trying to do what I should have done when I was 20.”

Swales is a fourth-year King’s University College student, finishing out a Bachelor of Social Work degree. He hopes to pursue a Masters of Social Work and continue work he has begun helping other abuse survivors.

He’s tempted to cheer on the diminishment of the Catholic Church, but resists the temptation. “There’s an angry side of me that might say, ‘You know, what did you expect?’ But I’m not sure that that’s helpful,” he said.

Intuition tells him what needs fixing in the Church.

“When power and control is the focus of the Catholic…” But he leaves that thought unfinished, tired of re-stating old arguments.