One of my favorite places in the Washington Park Arboretum in Seattle is an area known as ``Woodland Glen.'' This was where I came to play most often during my childhood. I used to call it ``double ponds,'' because there is a fern-ringed pond that drains, via a rock-strewn creek, to a lower pond edged by flowering cherry trees. It was the magical place to which I returned countless times, feeling so deeply a profound connection to its serene beauty.
I used to sit on one of the big stones on the edge of the upper pond watching water-skimmer insects row their way across its surface. From time to time a frog would plop into the water and demonstrate the breast stroke as he crossed the pond. And in the autumn, the Japanese maples would drop flame colored leaved that would float on the surface.
Most of the time, though, the pond was still and glassy. Sometimes its surface would reflect the trees and ferns so perfectly that it was like a mirror laid in the midst of all that greenery.
When I saw the list that the Archdiocese of Seattle released last week of priests and other religious who had acknowledged abusing children or for whom there were accusations of abuse deemed credible, I thought of those ponds in the Arboretum.
Drop a rock into one of those ponds, as I often did, and ripples flow out in all directions, disturbing the surface. The ripples travel all the way across the pond, hit the edge and return back to the center. The reflections of the trees and ferns are shattered and distorted.
The pond, it seems to me, represents the church community. It's comprised not only of the clergy and the hierarchy, but also families: adults who supported the institution of the church, and their children who were to be inculcated in its values and culture.
Members of those families were born into the pond, so to speak. Most knew of no life beyond its borders. And it was supposed to be a safe and beautiful place where all shared common goals.
But what has happened to the pond? It seems as if truckloads of gravel and garbage were dumped into its midst. And ripples are going out in all directions. There are big splashes, whitecaps even, and the once clear water is disturbed and turgid.
That's really how it has felt to me in the years since the first revelations of the abuse came to light. Each act of abuse is one pebble dumped into the pond, and the ripples it generates go out touching and disturbing all. It's not just the single child victim who is disturbed and harmed. It's that child's parents, siblings, and even that child's adult self. It's spouses and children, and even grandchildren.
The harm done by the abuse hits all generations. In addition to a loss of innocence causes so much pain, distrust, dysfunction, and out-and-out fury at the institution that enabled this abuse or simply looked the other way. Abuse is the gift that apparently never stops giving.
I know people who are so damaged by what has happened that they countenance any discussions of God or religion in any form. Others are never again capable of emotional or physical intimacy. In some cases, the victims have gone on to become abusers themselves. In others, the pain of the betrayal by the religious leaders they trusted is so severe that the victims even find it impossible to go on living. In some families, deep alienation has developed between those who have been wounded and those who still want to believe in and support the institutional church.
Maybe one of the big mistakes that has been made is for the church to try to go on with business as usual, while dealing with the abusers and their victims in secrecy. I don't think the church as institution really understands how deeply and profoundly people have been changed by the experience of being abused themselves or learning that friends or family members were targeted. And the countless apologies from pulpit and chancery -- made way too late in the game -- don't seem to do much to fix the situation.
Someone said in the past week that people who leave the church over this are cutting off their souls to spite the institution, that they are rejecting salvation because of their anger at the conduct of a few bad priests. What that critic failed to understand, I think, is that the church's mishandling of abusing priests has caused many of those once classified as ``the faithful'' to lose faith in the institution itself, particularly when it's being revealed that even some of the most revered and beloved bishops played a dangerous game of musical chairs, transferring abusing priests from parish to parish.
One of my priest friends had an issue with alcohol. He was frank about it, went to the bishop and was sent off to a center that specialized in the treatment of priest alcoholics. Over the years when I heard that other priests had taken leaves of absence for health reasons or `exhaustion,'' I just assumed that most of them were guys with alcohol problems and were sent off to what I just to call facetiously ``the clerical drunk tank.''
I've even heard priests joke about this, particularly in the era when so many of them left the priesthood in order to marry. The old saw ``first it's Punch and then it's Judy'' is one I've heard a number of times from priest's mouths. I saw this happen and I thought I understood what was going on.
But now it appears that many of these ``reasons-of-health'' leaves had much more to do with the sexual abuse of children than the treatment of a substance-abuse problem.
The Vatican's initial response to the snowballing abuse problem was to blame it on gays the priesthood. Programs were set up in order to root out the homosexual priests and seminarians. I think this program is misguided at best. Many of the priests have been equal opportunity abusers, targeting children of both genders. They've just had more opportunity with boys because, until recently, girls didn't serve mass or take part in a lot of parish and youth-group athletic activities.
The Archdiocese has released a list of 77 names. Does anyone seriously believe that the problem has now been dealt with and that there are no more abusers out there, yet to be identified? According to the most recent figures on the Archdiocese website, there are 298 priests and 109 male religions (Christian Brothers and the like). Estimates on the Bishop-Accountability.org website are that between 5.9 and 10 percent of the priests in any given diocese have been accused of abuse. I expect a lot more names to surface in the future, and, regrettably, I suspect many of the names will be of younger men. (So many of the names on the recently released list are of priests who are dead or well into their dotage).
Yes, I know this problem is not unique to the Catholic Church. I've read about hideous cases within various Hasidic Jewish groups, abuse by leaders in the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints, and certainly abuse of children of both genders that happens in just about every school system in the nation.
But I don't come from Hasidic or Mormon roots, and I didn't go to school in the public school system. The Catholic Church is the milieu in which I grew up. It's where I worked, lived, celebrated, marked the significant life events of myself and my family, and, finally, it's the institution to which I entrusted my own children.
A few years ago I was in Oaxaca. One of the places I visited was the Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca, which is housed in a former monastery adjacent to the Santo Domingo Church. It's a beautiful old building, with arcaded cloisters and walls that are at least one foot thick.
Besides the art of the indigenous Zapotec and Mixtec people of that region of Mexico, the museum also has a collection religious statues, some carved from stone and some from wood. Many are life-sized or even larger and have been in Oaxaca since some of the earliest days of European contact. These statues had to have been carried up the sides of the mountains on horses, burros or the backs of human beings. So great was the faith of those who were attempting to promulgate Christian Catholicism to the indigenous people that no task was considered too difficult, including the transportation of these massive statues.
I found myself standing in front of those statues, thinking about how my mom's side of the family had been Catholic for as far back as anyone knows. And of how precious the Catholic faith and culture had been to my very religious family over the years.
I realized that I was probably the first person, at least the first person in my generation, to vote with my feet and to say I could no longer support the institutional church. There was a momentary hesitation, with my asking myself how dare I turn away from something that had been so central to and valued by my family.
But it was only momentary. I remembered so much of the rest: the sexual abuse by and of people I know, the institutional misogyny I banged my head against time after time. I remembered the creepy Jesuit on the campus of my university who could spot an engagement ring from 50 yards and who loved to sidle up to the newly engaged girls and ask ``so tell me about the problems you must be having with chastity.''
So, to return to that pond in the Arboretum. For me, it is irrevocably changed. It's fully of muddy, even filthy water. Its surface will never be calm enough again to reflect perfectly the overarching trees or the big cumulous clouds that sail across a Seattle sky. Its banks have crumbled, and the plants it once nurtured have been poised by its toxic runoff.
Your mileage may vary. You may still be able to find that pond to be a place of beauty, peace and even joy. But please understand and accept that for some of us, this will never again be possible.
So where do I go instead? The magical place in my memory is Klapatche Meadow, on the flanks of Mt. Rainier. It's filled with myriad wildflowers of every hue. Here and there the meadow is dotted with Christmas-card perfect alpine firs. And over it all presides Mt. Rainier, Tahoma, the sacred mountain. At night it glistens in the moonlight, it's golden in the dawn, and the setting sun turns it into a great mound of strawberry ice cream.
I dance in that meadow with my sisters. I bow to no man's authority. I stand in the full light of the sun where there are no secrets and no shame.