WASHINGTON — It has been a summer of anguish and shame in Washington, and some of it has nothing to do with politicians.
The summer solstice had only just begun when news detailing sexual abuse allegations against the Archdiocese of Washington’s retired archbishop, Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, began quickly spreading from news sites and into the pews of the area’s Catholic parishes.
Weeks later came a grand jury investigation out of Pennsylvania that offered a mixed view of how Washington’s current archbishop, Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl, handled some sex abuse allegations before him when he was serving in one of the six dioceses named in the report incriminating church leaders in a possible cover-up of alleged crimes.
“The proximity of the crisis is definitely acute here in D.C.,” said John Gehring, Catholic program director at the Washington-based nonprofit Faith in Public Life and parishioner of the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle, home of Washington’s archbishop. “These are men who you see at events, that you might see on the Metro. They are part of the Washington landscape.”
Both cardinals were constant presences at fundraisers for the area’s Catholic organizations, as well as guests and sometimes players in the capital’s political power circles, and quasi-celebrities at popular religious celebrations important in the life of faith of the area’s immigrant Catholics.
“Washington Catholics have certainly experienced whiplash,” said Gehring, from watching the two cardinals, one of them since stripped of that title, under such scrutiny.
“There’s a sense that the crisis is close to home,” he said.
Even though none of the alleged events took place in what’s locally known as the DMV area, which stands for the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia, Catholics say they still feel the weight of the recent crisis because it involves the two cardinals in their midst.
“People were really disturbed” about the initial allegations surrounding then Cardinal McCarrick, said Margie Legowski, a parishioner at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Washington’s tony Georgetown neighborhood. The parish hosted a prayer service for those struggling with the news about a church leader some personally knew and many of them admired for his work on social justice issues.
But then shock and sadness compounded after a report out of Pennsylvania Aug. 14 made claims about what the current archbishop did and did not do when handling sex abuse claims while he was the bishop of Pittsburgh, his last assignment before Washington.
Esther Reyes, of St. Camillus Parish in Silver Spring, Maryland, just outside of Washington, said she was shocked but more than that, the news caused great pain because of the suffering fellow Catholics experienced at the hands of those whom others, including her, respected.
“It’s a painful topic,” she said.
Archbishop McCarrick was an “affable” figure who didn’t shy away from mingling with the area’s burgeoning Latino community of faith, before and after his retirement, Reyes said, and was even recognized with an award one year because of his commitment. Learning about the allegations against him was a “blow” because he wasn’t just a representative of the local church, but a leader, even in retirement, she said. And when the mixed views in the grand jury report on Cardinal Wuerl became public, that blow felt stronger.
“As a member of the church, if affects you,” Reyes said.
As the end of summer winds down, there’s less talk than in summers past about getting ready for the upcoming session of Congress, when locals begin organizing to defend causes of importance to the church and its members, and more chatter about how to deal with the fallout of the summer’s sex abuse revelations is abundant.
“My faith is strong,” said Reyes, adding that in no way have the revelations given her pause about her religious beliefs or the Catholic Church. She said she has started thinking about ways that she, as a layperson, can do something to help her local community of faith wounded by the revelations, particularly older members who were raised to place blind faith in leaders they saw as “infallible.”
But she said she wanted to see the church as a body address “the undeniable pain of the victims, our brothers and sisters.” She said she wanted to offer her closeness to victims of abuse in the local area, as well as to clergy who did nothing wrong and now are under a cloud of scrutiny because of the sins and crimes of others.
“I believe we can do something as a flock. Why wait for it to come from above?” she said.
Holy Trinity parishioner Legowski said she was struggling with the revelations, especially because of “the duplicity of the institutional church, making and enforcing rules about sexuality, particularly benign things … while this was going on.”
Even if some of the allegations took place 70 years back, “it made me so angry at the institution,” she said.
“The first phrase that comes to me this summer is that it’s been one of spiritual exhaustion,” said Gehring. “It’s just now completely taking over the narrative of what it means to be a Catholic right now.”
In conversations with family and friends, “the temperature is set at boiling,” Gehring said.
“We’re really at a breaking point and are not going to be satisfied unless there’s a change,” he said. “For too long we’ve had church leaders operating as if they were above the law. That mentality has to end.”
In a place where the people in the pews are no strangers to grabbing a placard and protesting in front of the White House or outside the U.S. Capitol or testifying before Congress, there’s a sense that the laity have to be the ones that drive the change of an institution whose recently revealed sins and crimes are viewed as the result of its hierarchical structure.
“I still have hope,” said Gehring. “If not, I would have left the church years ago.”
Those who are still willing to remain in the pews, like Gehring and Reyes, say they need to see the hierarchy’s willingness to change, to move away from a top-down structure that allowed an environment of abuse of power and secrecy to fester and one that resulted in the abuse of human beings. It’s important to talk about how things are going to change, and that can begin as early as this fall when the country’s bishops meet in Baltimore in November and they can signal change by not having closed meetings, Gehring said.
“We need to put everything on the table and let in light,” he said. “This has been a difficult summer, one that has made a lot of Catholics do deep thinking and discernment about ‘what is this church I’ve been a part of for so long?'”
But it’s also made some reaffirm the beliefs at the center of it all.
“My faith is still strong,” Gehring said. “But I have lost a lot of trust in those leading (the church).”