Scandal Tears at Faithful Catholics
Job, Religious Beliefs Create Dilemma

By Dan Popkey
Idaho Statesman
August 11, 2002

When Jean Fisher's sons ask, "Mommy, when are we going back to church?" she doesn't have a satisfying answer.

Absent a family crisis prompted by the child-abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, 8-year-old Nate would be studying for his First Communion.

But the Fishers aren't going to church, painfully excising a vital part of their lives because Jean, the sixth of seven children, prosecutes child abusers for a living.

Jean's aunt Margaret, a retired nun, was mother superior of her order. Two great-aunts were nuns; two great-uncles were priests.

Sunday nights' extended family dinners once were a forum to challenge conventional notions, wrestle with the mystery of faith, strengthen belief. Fisher's husband, Nate, was so moved by the gatherings, he became a Catholic.

But the talks have taken on a sadness in recent months, as the family struggles to reconcile church teachings with the church's hidden practice of shielding child abusers.

"We get together and pray together and shout together, but it has an angrier tone," said Jean's sister, Terry Armbruster. "We talk about the inequity of it, and the arrogance of the leadership."

"This has affected the whole family," said Marty Brennan, the patriarch, who still makes it to the pews Sundays with his wife, Martha. "We go, but man, a lot of it is out of habit."

The scandal has been toughest on Jean, because of the work she does. Since 1992, she has been a prosecutor in Ada County's child abuse unit, which she has headed for four years. Among her prosecutions have been a school principal, a teacher and a church choir volunteer.

"I can't turn that off," Jean said. "I know what that priest has done in order to get that child to do what he wanted him to do. Other offenders say, 'Your mother's gonna think it's your fault,' or, 'You're the one that wanted it; you like it.'

"What does a priest do? He goes to the rub of your faith and says, 'You're going to hell with me,' or 'We're both committing a sin,' or 'This will be our secret,' or 'You want to embarrass your family?' or 'You think your family's going to believe you over me, the parish priest?'"

The current scandal has a sorrowful resonance for the Brennan clan. In 1993, a family priest -- who performed Terry's wedding, taught Jean and Nate in college, and helped in Nate's conversion -- was accused of molesting a boy in his parish.

The Boise police investigation of the Rev. James Worsley landed on Jean Fisher's desk. "My jaw just dropped," she remembered. "It was devastating."

Worsley wasn't prosecuted because the statute of limitations had passed. He was defrocked. Jean struggled then, but resolved her concern when she realized offenders come from every walk of life. "There are bad priests, bad teachers, bad plumbers. And I got taken."

But new evidence of a widespread coverup paints a picture of a corrupt institution, feeding injustice and abusing power.

"I mean, how can I show up in church?" Jean asked. "I can't stand it, and I don't want to get up and leave in the middle of any more homilies, which I've done."

Her mother has urged her to return. "She says, 'Once a Catholic, always a Catholic.' I told her, 'I just can't go back. I'm done for a while.' "

Others have reassured Jean: "You still have your faith. You believe in God."

"That's missing the point," Jean said. "Yeah, I do have my faith. If I didn't have my faith, I couldn't do my job, I couldn't be a mom, I couldn't be a wife. I have my faith, but it's not in the Catholic Church institutionally. My faith in an organized religion has just totally been rocked, and I'm not going back until -- I don't know what they can assure me of right now -- I don't know how to fix it."

It's unclear how the scandal has affected 130,000 Catholics in Idaho. Spokeswoman Colette Cowman said few people have left the church. Contributions to the Boise Diocese development fund are down 2 percent from last year, but that may be a result of a down economy and capital campaigns in two parishes.

On a Sunday in October, the church will take attendance, as it does once a year, Cowman said. "If that number were down, we would probably look at it and say, 'What's the problem?'"

After newspaper reports, Idaho Bishop Michael Driscoll apologized for mishandling cases of two priests accused of abuse in California in the '70s and '80s. Cowman said Driscoll would be happy to meet with Jean.

Jean Fisher wants more than apologies. She called on the church to relieve officials like Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law, who let abuse continue, and to systematically assist prosecutors.

Nate Fisher is supporting his wife. "It just breaks your heart," he said. "Jean doesn't bring her work home much, but the saddest stories are when she knows they just can't come back or they're in such a bad spot."

Now, Jean thinks about how her church fed the pain. "These kids, they have such a hard, hard row. They can get over the touching part. It's the thing you can never touch that they can't get over. It's their mother didn't protect them; it's the system didn't believe them; it's 'I didn't have strong enough faith that God would save me.' I don't know how they make it from day to day."

But the Fishers know they need God in their everyday lives. They've discussed joining the Episcopal Church. Jean is considering St. Mark's, where a childhood friend, Leonard MacMillan, is a parish priest.

Father MacMillan respects Jean's anger. "The real scandal is not about pedophilia but about the arrogance of power that protected injustice. It exposes a weakness in the Catholic Church that now can be addressed. The anger is like a flame that will burn away a lot of unhealthiness."

MacMillan wants Jean back in the fold. "As painful as it is for her and for many other people, I don't worry about Jean. I don't think she'll lose her faith. I hope she doesn't lose the Catholic Church. Either way, she'll work through this anger."

Jean said she isn't ready to meet with Bishop Driscoll. "I'm really stuck," she said. But she knows God will be with her family. "Faith is a good part of our lives, it needs to be part for our children, too. We've got to do something."


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