community, spiritual life

Is there a faith/church balance?

Readers interested in balancing individual faith and church accountability may enjoy this shortened version of a news feature I did for weelunk.com. It focuses on one young man’s regional fight to bring a global pattern of sexual abuse within one church into the light and toward an end.

Just going to the grocery store can be a challenge when your calling, your spiritual work is the pursuit of truth and justice — particularly truth about sexualweelunk spirituality catholic dissenters.JPG misconduct inside the ministry.

A breeze by the frozen green beans can yield a surprising thumbs up from a highly placed priest. Or, in another aisle, Michael Iafrate could just as likely hear the question, “Why are you attacking the church?” If not that, it could be something like, “How can you defend a church that condones criminal behavior?”

The Wheeling Jesuit grad, co-coordinator of the Catholic Committee of Appalachia, reflected on this contrast of perspectives from his unassuming office in downtown Wheeling.

“I can’t be a Catholic and not fight for a better church,” he concluded in a gentle voice that matches his John Denver-meets-Mr. Rogers vibe. “I can’t be a Catholic with my back to the people who Catholicism hurts.”

Right now, that means he, co-coordinator Jeannie Kirkhope, the committee and committee friends have a heavy focus on the sexual-misconduct revelations that are unfolding at a weekly, if not daily, pace in the news. The nearly 50-year-old, small-grant-funded group advocates for a broad variety of social-justice issues in a 20-diocese region that includes parts of Pennsylvania. A cloud of dirt from grand jury reports in that state concerning widespread priestly sexual abuse had barely settled when the scandal turned local. Really local.

The recent resignation of Bishop Michael Bransfield as head of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston under accusations of sexual misconduct toward adults and lavish living at parishioners’ expense cannot help but take center stage for the moment, Iafrate said of committee responses that have included publishing letters demanding accountability.

Since Bransfield’s resignation, more local connections to the scandal and more committee responses have followed. The nearby Steubenville, Ohio, diocese recently released a list of “credible” accusations against priests. Information about a specific Steubenville priest who impregnated an underage altar girl was also announced.

Iafrate, who had already discovered regional interconnectedness meant he knew three of the priests on the Pennsylvania lists, was on high alert. He pondered the word “credible.” He looked carefully at the story surrounding the specific priest, who was soon reported by several sources to have been volunteering with youth activities within West Virginia. He also noticed the general list had limitations he found troubling.

He specifically challenges a list detail that he suspects few outside the Catholic Church would understand. For example, in Steubenville, he said the only released names were those of “diocesan priests” attached to a specific parish. Other Steubenville-area priests — such as Franciscans, Dominicans or Jesuits serving in various capacities — were not included, he said.

That distinction had him on the phone with the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, which has promised to release a similar list of accusations made in West Virginia over the last 50 years. Will all priests be included, he asked on behalf of the committee. The local diocese, under interim leadership by a bishop from outside the state, assured him they will. Does that include priests who cross diocese borders to volunteer, such as the one associated with the teen pregnancy? Again, Iafrate was pleased with the response.

The local diocese, he said, has, in fact, already gone on to issue an announcement about that priest’s in-state activities in both internal parochial school communications and to the general church membership in recent days.

Pleased? Yes. But, Iafrate said the committee is not yet satisfied. “I would like to see the diocese be more transparent about what they know, how they handled abuse, how they failed to handle the abuse.”

“I would like to see the diocese be more transparent about what they know, how they handled abuse, how they failed to handle the abuse.” — Michael Iafrate

He would also like to see external civil investigations in addition to the internal ones promised by the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston. The committee may approach state Attorney General Patrick Morrissey to request he follow up on a recent mention of interest in an investigation.

This blend of internal and external advocacy is also expressed at ccappal.org, a website the committee manages. There, diocese news releases are available alongside secular reporting from story leaders like the Boston Globe and the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Indeed, Iafrate said he depends on such secular news, which some church officials have called “media attacks,” to give the issue broader context. He pointed to a specific joint Globe/Inquirer report printed in early November. It gave extensive details about the allegations against Bransfield that he has not seen reported elsewhere.

Iafrate — wearing a T-shirt that reads, “Be the church you want to see in this world,” and chipping away at the dissertation stage of a doctorate in theology — pauses for a deep breath at this point in the interview. Keeping that kind of advocacy in balance with his own Catholicism is what it is. He notes his “very Catholic” family includes a priest and a deacon and that he recently had his infant daughter baptized into the faith.

“I don’t think the truth is an attack. Jesus said the truth will set us free,” he said. “I love the church as the people of God. The Catholic faith is beautiful. It orients my life. I think it changes the world when it’s operating the right way. … But, when the church is hypocritical (it) actually hurts people through the way it behaves.”

spiritual life, writing

Life 101: 4 lessons from the news

“A good newspaper, I suppose, is a nation talking to itself.” Arthur Miller, American playwright

Watching the news in the last few weeks has been sobering. No matter how you look at it, America and, indeed, the world are not in their finest hour. As writing news is what I do for a living, however, I may look at the unending mayhem in a different way. One, news reports can give direction to our prayers. Two: News offers continual talking points for parents.

The latter is what has particularly been on my mind lately. Mid-life mom and church lady that I am, I’ve come up with four news-illustrated truths I hope will sink deep into our daughters’ souls and minds.

  1. We live in a fallen world; so don’t expect life to be “fair.” Hurricanes can sweep your house down. You might not get the job, the man, the situation you want, or at least not when you want. There is way more illness and injury, abuse and neglect than you will ever want to know about. Justice is not always served. Sometimes, in fact, the guilty go unpunished and the righteous are murdered in the street. (God knows exactly what happened to you and who did it, my slain fellow journalists! Your blood cannot be silenced.)
  2. Some people will take a bullet for you; others are not even safe to be around. There is often a very sad backstory and God is able to deliver, but some people are just not safe. Wise people will take this into account and not put themselves or their children into situations in which their well-being is dependent on the goodwill or lawfulness of unproven acquaintances, particularly those who are drunk or high.
  3. God is able. No matter how corrupt the official, the organization or even the church — God is able. No matter how violent, how hellbent the offender — God is able. No matter how sick, how disabled, how unemployed, how tragic, how hopeless, how suicidal, how loveless the situation appears to be — God is able. Therefore: Don’t try to keep Him in a tiny box. Set God loose in your life and see for yourself that He is good.
  4. And so are you. Because He is good, your hope is pinned on something that will not fail or disappoint — no matter how impossible the news makes such a thing seem. You can make wise choices. You can rise above this troubled world. You can hope. You can help. You can shine with joy instead of living in fear. So, go. Shine on and on and on!
community, spiritual life

SEO, Patagonia & dogs

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Theodore Parker, American transcendentalist, abolitionist

A bit of internal research revealed an amusing trend at Outside magazine. Staffers report they have found headline keywords associated with stories that go viral on the internet. Among them, “Patagonia” (the outerwear company) and “dog” were nearly guaranteed to light a fire in readers that could not be quenched without sharing on the ether.

It seems we each have an internal search engine not unlike those used by Google, Bing and shadowy others. Certain words, images, personalities and ideas capture us.

In the internet world, this means simply using words like “Kardashian,” can get search engines’ “spiders” to “crawl” a website’s text, making the kind of connections advertisers and others with an agenda could only dream of in the past. Webmasters making use of such techniques even has a name — SEO, or search engine optimization.

I’m going to assume the good people of Outside don’t have much of an agenda other than making a living while producing a first-rate periodical. Writers and photographers do have to eat, after all. The shadowy others crawling, scraping, phishing, spamming, scamming and trolling the internet are surely not as guileless.

Blessedly, the story doesn’t end there. Worthy politicians and others who would fight the good fight might appear to be wielding little more than a fly swatter, but there is a God who is the search engine to end all search engines. And, He sees it all.

It is He who heard the blood of a murder victim crying out to Him from the soil into which it had soaked. (Genesis 4) It is He who was well aware of King David’s adultery and murderous betrayal of a loyal soldier even though the rest of Israel was not. God sees. God knows.

This all-arcing awareness has a flip side, as well. God also sees the unnoticed acts of love and kindness that go on everywhere and every day. He’s looking for them, in fact, according to 2 Chronicles 16:9a. “For the eyes of the LORD run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to show himself strong in the behalf of them whose heart is perfect toward him.” KJV

An example? It is God the Son who hand picked Nathanael, a man Jesus said was entirely free of guile, to be on His dream team. (John 1) What happened under the fig tree that sparked Jesus’s admiration may remain a mystery to us, but God knows.

So, even in the internet age, we need not live in fear nor rage. There are those who lurk in shadow, just as there have always been. Justice may be slow coming. Reward may feel even slower. But, both surely will arrive.

God sees. God hears. God knows.