The crisis in the Roman Catholic Church is hitting close to home for members of the Our Lady of Lourdes congregation neighboring B-CC. In a recent community meeting, parishioners grappled with the latest revelations to emerge in the sex abuse scandal that has plagued the church since the 1980s.
“This has rocked me for the past month. It has seriously rocked me,” a community member said, facing an audience of concerned peers.
The Bethesda congregation is among countless Catholic churches, schools, and institutions confronting what has become a crisis in the Catholic church. In a scathing report published on August 14th, the Pennsylvania grand jury detailed 70 years of sexual abuse by hundreds of priests across the state. The release of the report came just weeks af
ter the resignation of former D.C. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, following allegations that he sexually abused seminarians for decades.
Monsignor Edward Filardi, pastor at Our Lady of Lourdes and former secretary to McCarrick, organized the meeting to give community members an outlet for their concerns.
“I had a woman here from the parish, a lifelong parishioner, who just felt very frustrated about it and upset, as anyone who has a conscience would,” Filardi said. “She felt she had no voice to speak, and to express her anger and her opinion. So let’s do it, let’s hold this forum.”
Nearly 100 parishioners packed the pews of the church on August 29th, listening intently as their peers expressed opinions on the sex abuse crisis and the clergical response. At play were tensions between some who defended the integrity of the church, and others that condemned its lack of transparency, both at the highest levels and in their own congregation.
In an interview with the Tattler, Joseph Capizzi, a professor of moral theology at Catholic University and a B-CC parent, said he was “struck” by the divide at the meeting.
On one hand, he said, a “minority of people who spoke that night approached it the way I might—with real anger about both what has happened, how it has been dealt with by the bishops, and an ongoing lack of forthrightness” by officials in the Catholic Church.
On the other, Capizzi said a majority of people voiced an “enabling” opinion. “People seemed to want to diminish what happened, either by reference to history, by reference to how long ago these things seem to have happened, or by reference to alternative social forces,” Capizzi said.
Some of the more traditionalist views vocalized at the meeting could come as a shock to many members of the greater Bethesda community. Numerous attendees pointed to the gay community as the root of the sex abuse issue, and in an interview with the Tattler, Filardi said that churches “need to be assertive in vetting out or filtering out men with homosexual tendencies.”
Filardi said the history of sexual abuse “was all part of the sexual revolution that kind of unbound people from traditional strictures of sexuality” in the 1970s. In his view, the magnitude of the scandal is diminished by the fact that it occurred decades ago.
“It is basically a revelation of old news,” Filardi said. “One of my frustrations is that 20 years ago, this was all timely and it made sense. Now, it is almost like what would have been news 20 years ago is what is reported now. It undermines people’s confidence.”
Rather than focus on past “instances of impropriety,” Filardi hopes to distance the church from that era and redirect public attention toward reforms that root out sexual misconduct within the church.
But at the meeting, parishioners refused to overlook the far reaching impacts of the scandal. Individuals not only questioned their adherence to the church, but voiced doubts in the ability of the institution to safeguard their children.
One mother said she now hesitates to entrust the education of her children to Catholic schools. Another conveyed her incredulity at the continued secrecy of higher-ups in the church.
Filardi, however, continued to defend the trajectory of the church, pointing out reforms implemented in 2002, after a Boston Globe investigation uncovered a systemic problem of sexual abuse throughout the Boston Archdiocese.
“Reforms have been in place, and even strengthened, since about 2002,” Filardi said. “There is no safer place for minors in schools than in the Catholic church, because no one is doing as much as we are to fingerprint, to conduct background checks on anybody who works with youth…and to know what to do if there is such a concern.”
In contrast, Capizzi “never quite thought the 2002 scandal was handled well,” he said. In his opinion, the very reforms Filardi praised failed to address the heart of the issue—the clergy—and instead unduly targeted the laity.
“In 2002, the message was not that the laity was the problem; it was something different,” Capizzi said. “We addressed it by training of the laity, fingerprinting of the laity, and so on—well that does not quite get to the issue.”
Several attendees said the root of the ongoing crisis lies in the secretive nature of the church, and demanded an improved flow of transparency between laypeople and the clergy. Capizzi expressed disappointment that, to his knowledge, Our Lady of Lourdes had not put out any statement condemning the scandal.
“Some people want to hear more forthrightness about this, and they sense that has not happened yet,” Capizzi said. “Right now, we should be erring on the side of transparency, because people are suspicious of moves to be secretive.”
However, transparent processes may be difficult to implement within the church, Capizzi said, because of the “inside-outside” mentality of hierarchical institutions.
“If you are inside the institution, you are going to be privy to certain things that people on the outside would not be,” he said. “You try to protect and maintain that exclusion, and also maintain the good that the institution serves.”
For Filardi, who worked four years in the office of ex-Cardinal McCarrick, that balance—between maintaining privacy and informing parishioners of the inner workings of the church—may be difficult to strike.
“Monsignor Filardi is in an awkward position,” Capizzi said. “He was very close to Cardinal McCarrick.”
One young woman at the meeting questioned Filardi on his knowledge of the scandal, asking, “Monsignor, I have nothing but respect for you, but what did you know? I want to know the details from you.”
Despite the speculation, Filardi maintained that he was not aware of past sexual misconduct by McCarrick.
“I know there are many of you that might not believe this, but in the years I worked with him, I never saw anything immoral, illegal, anything but a priestly demeanor,” Filardi said. “Whether out of prudence or repentance, whatever had happened in the past he had addressed, and was not part of his life here.”
As the forum wound down, and parishioners vacated the pews of the church, many questions remained. Community members wondered how to separate religious beliefs from allegiance to the church as an institution, how to restore their trust in the clergy and its guiding principles, how to protect their children while raising them in the Catholic faith.
“If anything I heard that night was helpful to me, personally, it was what the church can do [to reassure people] that their children are safe here,” Filardi said. “I didn’t become a priest to misuse it…That the church should be a place where someone is harmed, and not helped and healed, is a great tragedy.”