“Fight from the inside”: Young Catholics in Colorado try to keep faith amid latest sexual abuse allegations
By Elizabeth Hernandez
September 20, 2018
|Top row, clockwise from left, are Karl Gunselman, Paige Arellano, Britton Frodine, Frank Trujillo, Ben Bettinger and Jamie Bjornell. |
Denver Archdiocese stresses that Catholic Church has come a long way since abuses of past decades
Katie Lacz ruminates over her Catholic faith, wondering if she’s finally hit a breaking point strong enough to tear her from the religion she’s wrapped herself in her entire life.
“I know how much is wrong with the church, and yet I love it because of its tradition and history,” said the 34-year-old Lacz, who lives in Louisville. “I am in this institution that I know is really, really sick and sinful, but, at the same time, I feel like it’s so important to stay and fight for what I think is good about it.”
As another round of sexual abuse and coverup allegations cloud the church, young Catholics in Colorado like Lacz are grappling with whether they can stay devout within an institution that continually defies their faith and its own foundations.
A grand jury report released in mid-August found that hundreds of Roman Catholic priests in Pennsylvania molested more than 1,000 children, possibly more, since the 1950s, with senior church officials covering up the abuse. Less than two weeks later, a former top Vatican diplomat claimed in a letter that Pope Francis helped cover up the clerical sexual abuse scandals. The letter called for the pope’s resignation.
And this week, four men who suffered repeated sexual abuse as children by a religion teacher at a Roman Catholic church reached a $27.5 million settlement from the Diocese of Brooklyn and an after-school program, according to The New York Times. The settlement is one of the largest ever awarded to victims of abuse within the church.
Favorability of Pope Francis has been dropping since August, when the new allegations first started coming out, according to a Gallup poll. On Tuesday, 53 percent of Americans said they viewed the pope favorably, down from 66 percent last month.
Denver Archbishop Samuel Aquila recently joined a growing list of Catholic leaders calling for an independent investigation into what the church knew about the most recent controversy.
“Better the community through church”
While the allegations have made some young parishioners double down on their devotion and defend their church’s honor, they have inspired others to embark on a social justice rebellion from within.
“I don’t feel called to leave the church,” said 21-year-old Catholic Elise Horning, a senior at Denver’s Jesuit-Catholic Regis University. “But I do want to fight from the inside and really pay attention to where information is coming from and who we’re trusting as our authority figures in the church. As a young person in college, there are a lot of ‘me’ things I’m working on, but I also want to to work on how I can better the community through church.”
According to the most recent Pew Research data from 2014, 64 percent of Coloradans identify as Christian, and 16 percent say they’re Catholic. The two religious categorizations with more people than Catholics statewide: evangelical Protestants at 26 percent and the unaffiliated “religious nones” at 29 percent. In 2007, 63 percent of Coloradans had an “absolutely certain” belief in God. That had fallen to 55 percent by 2014, according to the Pew data.
The Denver Archdiocese has estimates of year-by-year mass attendance, but would not publicly release the numbers because “they aren’t official or with any sort of context in regards to population growth,” spokesman Mark Haas said.
Haas said he wanted to clarify that the “vast majority of the alleged abuses occurred in the 1960s-1980s, and (have) steadily declined over the last few decades.”
The website promise.archden.org has resources and information on the Denver Archdiocese’s commitment to preventing sexual abuse.
“I am in no way trying to excuse what happened in the past or downplay it, but it is sad to me how many people (Catholics included) think that sexual abuse is still rampant in today’s church,” Haas wrote in an email. “We still have plenty of work to do in terms of addressing the issues of the past, and making sure we can get our numbers even lower today, but the Catholic Church has also taken a lot of very positive steps in the right direction since the (church’s) 2002 Charter (for the Protection of Children and Young People).”
Conservative tendencies don’t always appeal
Lacz, a mother of two young children, has a graduate degree from the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University. She works as the program associate for the Women’s Ordination Conference, advocating for women’s equality within the Catholic Church. The organization has worked on a movement called #CatholicToo, an offshoot of the #MeToo movement that highlights sexual abuse.
Lacz finds comfort in the church’s emphasis on caring for those living in the margins.
“There are so many good people faithful to God who are doing powerful work in the world tackling difficult issues through a fidelity to the Gospel and through the Eucharist,” Lacz said.
At the same time, Lacz said she worries if staying in the church is the right decision for her 4-year-old son and 10-month-old daughter.
The Boulder County religious scholar thinks some young people may be turned off by the Catholic Church’s more conservative tendencies — which she says the Denver Archdiocese is known for focusing on, including abortion, same-sex marriage and birth control.
“I’m not sure that resonates with what young adults are seeing as the real needs around them right now,” Lacz said. “Many youth are concerned about poverty, racism, immigration, and I’m not sure they always see the church responding to those as much as they’d like.”
For other young people, this adherence to conservative values can be a draw, she admitted.
On an unusually warm September night, the St. Elizabeth of Hungary Roman Catholic Church’s steeple stood its ground against the backdrop of the Denver skyline. The church, constructed in 1898, sits on the Auraria campus and beckons students and surrounding community members with a sign reading “welcome home.”
On Monday night, a half-dozen students were gathered in one of the church’s rooms eating pizza and listening to missionaries describe their journey overseas. For Britton Frodine, a 21-year-old junior at Metropolitan State University of Denver, the stomach-turning abuse allegations seem far away when he’s with members of the Auraria Catholic Club in the church that feels like home. Frodine said he’s been defending his Catholic faith his entire life.
“The horrors of the actions from a priest do not define our salvation or relationship with God,” Frodine said. “I don’t understand why people completely abandon Christ because this guy was completely awful.”
“Being willing to help with the repairing”
After 21-year-old Regis University senior Alex Gallegos heard about the most recent sexual abuse allegations, he stopped going to Mass for a while to reflect. When he returned, he chose to attend a Mass held at his Jesuit university and was pleased to hear the priest actively denounce abuse within the church.
“I don’t really know where I’d be if I hadn’t heard those homilies,” Gallegos said.
A week later at a Mass in Colorado Springs, Gallegos said the homily had a different tone, talking about the abuse while accusing the LGBTQ community of causing it.
“I found myself disillusioned again,” Gallegos said. “But if I leave the church now, it’s me not being willing to help with the repairing or the healing.”
In the bespectacled eyes of 22-year-old Jorge Palacios Jr., being Catholic is a constant work in progress.
“There should be something difficult about being Catholic,” said Palacios, a recent graduate of Regis University who earned his undergraduate degree in religious studies with a minor in music.
The perplexity is a struggle he knows well, having left the church as a preteen after feeling discontented with the community. The Fort Lupton native went on to complete his sacraments and formally rejoin the church during his sophomore year in college after finding joy and justice within Jesuit education.
Palacios said he hopes this latest faith-shaking event will rally Catholics to change power structures within the church.
“This is a church that needs to belong not to the hierarchy, but the people in the pews,” Palacios said. “Some people will leave the church over this. Some will find it again. More than anything, this needs to wake Catholics out of a state of complacency.”