Bill Nemitz: Church Ignores Scandal in "Welcome Home" Ads

Maine Sunday Telegram
January 1, 2012

If ever there was a window into the state of the modern-day Roman Catholic Church, it's my inbox.

Over the past few days, I've received three emails having to do with the faith in which I grew up back when daily Mass attracted a crowd, all five Sunday Masses were packed and a nun in full habit presided over every classroom.

"Just Hours to Go: Give Now to Hold Bishops Accountable in 2012," implored in its end-of-the-year appeal for a tax deductible donation. Fifty dollars, it promised, will help "obtain and post 250 pages of once-secret church abuse files and other crucial documents" for all the world to see.

"One More Day," echoed Voice of the Faithful in its request for money to help work toward optional celibacy for priests, deaconships for women and eternal protection for children from sexual abuse by priests, to name but a few of their causes.

And then there was this from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Maine: "Media Campaign Welcomes Catholics Home."

The first two messages, truth be told, have appeared regularly in the decade since revelations of child sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests scorched parishes from Maine to California and, more recently, around the world.

But the "Media Campaign Welcomes Catholics Home"? In these parts, as diocese communication director Sue Bernard noted in her news release, that's a "first-time ever television event."

By now you've probably already seen the 30-second spot, which began airing nationally on Dec. 17 and will continue through Jan. 8. Produced and funded by a lay organization called Catholics Come Home, the $3.1 million holiday TV blitz grew out of similar campaigns the group has staged in some 30 major markets throughout the United States since its founding in 1997.

"For 2,000 years, our family has celebrated life and prayed for our world," the ad's narrator says over a montage of religious activity. "We cared for the poor, started hospitals, blessed marriages and educated generations of children ..."

Noted Bernard in her news release: "The television message shows the beauty, spirituality and history of the Church and directs viewers to their website ( which answers questions and offers a parish-finder feature."

What the ad never mentions, however, is what some fallen-away Roman Catholics might call the elephant in the room -- the child sexual abuse scandal that prompted them to walk in the first place.

To be fair, as Bernard stressed in an interview Friday, "Over the past 10 years, the church has been doing little else than talk about the elephant in the room. As we should."

And that elephant clearly has taken its toll: According to Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, the number of Roman Catholics who attend Mass weekly now stands at a mere 22 percent -- down from 39 percent 10 years ago and a whopping 74 percent back in the late 1950s.

Applied to Maine's 188,000 Catholics, that means some 147,000 currently don't go to church on Sunday.

So why, as Catholics Come Home tries to persuade people to return, does it outright ignore the worst scandal the church has faced in its modern history? Might not a little contrition be in order here?

"That's not what we're hearing," said Tom Peterson, the group's founder and president, in an interview from his home in Georgia.

Peterson said in local markets where the ads have long aired, congregations have increased by an average 10 percent. And when asked, he said, the "vast majority" of those folks don't cite the sex-abuse scandal as their reason for straying.

"They say, 'I didn't have a reason for drifting away. I just got out of the habit,' " Peterson said.

Seriously? All those empty pews have nothing to do with the litany of horror stories that have buffeted the church since the decades-old scandal broke wide open in 2002?

"There's a few guys in the church who didn't toe the line, granted," Peterson said. But to heap years of headlines on them and not celebrate the good things the church has done, he maintained, "is almost like looking at the apostles and only focusing on Judas."

Which brings us to the blind spot in Peterson's campaign, however well intentioned it may be: While the exact number of children sexually assaulted by priests will never be known, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has to date tallied 15,736 known victims.

And as of last May, the number of priests either "credibly" or "not implausibly" accused of such heinous acts stood at just under 6,000.

That's more than "a few guys ... who didn't toe the line." That's thousands of felonies over a period of decades. And with each molestation, that's a wholesale violation of entire communities' trust.

What's worse, the whole tragedy was aided and abetted by a church hierarchy that enabled its perverted priests when it should have called the cops, and left its helpless victims feeling like they, not the men in black, were the sinners in need of God's forgiveness.

And now, just in time for the holidays, we're cajoled by a gauzy, coast-to-coast advertising campaign that's scripted as if none of it ever happened.

Maybe some of Maine's lapsed Catholics will see Peterson's ad on this New Year's morning, take a deep breath, and head for the nearest Mass. Bless them.

Maybe some others have already taken out their checkbooks and made a last-minute donation to Voice of the Faithful or Bless them, too.

And this former altar boy?

I'll begin 2012 with a simple prayer for those countless victims who struggle to this day with the demons left behind by men they thought could do no wrong.

Then I'll clean out my inbox.

FOOTNOTE: Three weeks ago, I wrote about the theft of a large glass bottle containing almost $1,000 in nickels, dimes and quarters from the tiny Denmark Congregational Church.

The kids in the congregation were devastated because the money, which they'd collected each Sunday for months, was to go to the Heifer Project -- a charity that provides needy villages around the world with $5,000 "arks" that include cows, pigs and a dozen other species of livestock.

Not long after the column ran, the Rev. John Patrick got a call from the local post office to please come down and clean out the church's mailbox.

"It was stuffed to overflowing," Patrick reported. "There was no room for the large pile of letters that were still coming in."

Tucked inside those letters were checks, cash, even piles of change. At last count, the donations from all over Maine and beyond totaled just over $10,000.

That, noted Patrick, is enough for two arks.

Happy New Year.

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:



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