One morning, Robert Altier entered a store in Minnesota, expecting a normal round of shopping. But what he encountered was anything but normal.
“There was a small child who was there with his mom,” says Altier. “And I [saw] this absolutely horrified look on the woman’s face, and she pulled him back.”
What provoked the reaction? Altier, a Catholic priest, was simply wearing his clerical attire—the black button-down and pants, complete with the white collar. But that outfit was enough to frighten a small child.
After a slew of disturbing reports regarding sexual abuse allegations against priests and cover-ups from bishops, the incident (which happened to Fr. Altier “years ago,” in the midst of Minnesota’s own abuse scandals) demonstrates one of the repercussions that abuse scandals have had on the life and work of Catholic priests in America today.
The infamous Pennsylvania grand jury report and indictments against ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick have revealed church leaders’ failures to reprimand and remove perpetrators. This allowed the number of abuses to rise to painfully high levels. The Pennsylvania report alone identified 301 priests from six Pennsylvania dioceses who abused at least 1,000 children and adolescents between the 1940s and the 2010s.
In the aftermath of these reports, Altier is one of the more than 25,000 diocesan priests in America who are left to console and guide 68.5 million Catholic parishioners, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.
But the reports have had detrimental effects on the reputation of the American priesthood. The day after the grand jury report’s release, an NBC News article made the sweeping indictment, “The Catholic Church is a pedophile ring.” That night, The Daily Show's Trevor Noah made a joke out of it, calling the Church “a molesting club with opening prayer.”
Because scandals have become a reason to attack priests and the church as a whole, many priests have chosen to hide their identity out of fear of being labeled as predators. “In dioceses around the country, priests don’t want to wear their clerics [in public],” says Altier. He called the situation “tragic,” since now “what people need more than anything is the witness of a priest.”
The challenges also extend to priests’ work within their parishes. In the wake of damning reports against Catholic leaders, they have had to address outraged and despairing congregations who want answers.
“The main thing is these scandals are not only causing scandal to the people of God, but they’re also causing confusion,” says Altier. “The question is, “Who can you trust?”
Conflicting messages from church leaders have certainly added to that sense of confusion and mistrust. Pope Francis has refused to comment on a public letter by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò that accuses him and and several cardinals of overlooking sex abuses by ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick for years. (Though he did, obliquely, say this.) Cardinal Donald Wuerl, one of those accused, has insisted that he knew nothing about McCarrick. In response, some Catholics have called for Wuerl’s resignation, and a letter from the Catholic Women’s Forum has demanded explanations from Pope Francis.
For Altier, the crisis calls for diocesan priests to “take on the extra” task of rebuilding trust within Catholic communities.
“For the most part, the bishops wind up doing a lot of administrative stuff, so they don’t have all that much direct connection with the people,” he said. “If people can trust the pastor, and they know the pastor trusts the bishop, then they know they can trust the bishop.”
Despite seemingly bleak circumstances, Altier insists that hope remains alive. “God’s not going to abandon his Church,” he says. Now that the truth is finally surfacing, he added, “This is really cause for rejoicing … This stuff can get cleaned up, and then we can get back to what we’re all about.”