My Problem with My Ex-Pastor

A lot has been made of Barack Obama’s connection to the inflammatory remarks made by his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright.  Many think that he should have distanced himself earlier from the Reverend and his church (The Word of Month is apparently: repudiate).  And it’s made me think of the relationship I had around my pastor as a youth.

He never said anything inflammatory like Wright.  He just abused young boys.

Philip Rigney was the Monsignor of the Catholic Church that I attended during my youth.  He was a former Navy chaplain and a tough S.O.B.  No one wanted to get on his bad side, but he always projected this demeanor of “tough love”.  During my childhood in the 70s and into my teen years, I was pretty active in my church and the associated school.  I was a lector.  I served as sextant – the person that rings the bells at the right time, makes sure doors are locked/unlocked when needed, that the right accessories are available for a service (I worked a lot of funerals).  My first job was as one of two teenage janitors to the school/church (talk about cheap labor).

One day, without any fanfare or farewell, Msgr. Rigney was gone.  Transferred.  Seemed odd – typically someone that’s served a parish that long would have had a goodbye party.  Anyway, the transition was made, I finished up high school, moved onto college and later grad school.

While in grad school, I had a good parish that I liked being a part of as well.  The community seemed vibrant and I even became a religious education teacher for 7th and 8th graders for a couple of years (the grades no one else wanted because kids that age are so unruly).  It wasn’t easy, but it was a great experience.

Imagine my shock in 1994 when I’d heard that there was a suit and settlement for families from my church regarding predatory sexual practices there.  I was appalled, figuring that it must have been recent activity.  But I was floored to find out that it was Msgr. Rigney and his actions in the 70s and 80s.  The same time that I was very active in church activities.

Now, nothing ever happened to me.  Ever.  But I wondered – how close did it come to me?  I was alone with priests often.  I took direction from them.  I was alone with him.  We (the janitors) even went to the infamous “shore house” once.  Every time I think about what happened in the places that I innocently (perhaps cluelessly) moved around in, I get a knot in the pit of my stomach.  There but for the Grace of God go I.  Indeed.

In the intervening years, I’ve fallen away from the Church.  Scandal after scandal in diocese after diocese has convinced me that the Corruption is pervasive.  Here in San Diego, the diocese was caught a couple of years ago moving funds around to hide them from the courts so it would appear that they had less money to pay settlements.  Appalling.

My friends often say: “We have a great community, here.” “We can change the Church from the inside.”  And the problem with that is that the Church isn’t a democracy.  You don’t get to vote on who the bishop, cardinal, or Pope is.  And I have seen nothing from the Church hierarchy to suggest that they plan on confronting the criminal behavior of their officials.  It angers me.  And keeps me away.  When my Mom would visit me, I’d take her to church – and I’d sit there, stewing in anger, praying for enlightenment – leaving as conflicted and bitter as I went in.  There IS the power to do good there, and yet I can’t bring myself to support an institution that’s perpetrated and covered-up crimes like these.

So, as people have asked Obama – why not just go to a different church?  And the problem with being raised an active Catholic is that other churches just don’t seem “real”.  I know that’s a horrible thing to say, but they always seem sort of “church-lite” to me.  And so, I go on in this self-imposed purgatory of not being able to forgive the Church, but not being able to embrace another one.  And while I think Faith is intensely personal, I do miss the community aspects of belonging.  I really don’t know what the answer is.

Philip Rigney is 90 and lives in a retirement community in West Palm Beach, Florida.  Man, have I got a problem with that.

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35 thoughts on “My Problem with My Ex-Pastor

  1. Geez. Words cannot begin to describe how absolutely crazy that story is. I can't imagine what it would be like to find something like that out…

  2. Wow! Living out his days in Florida. How is that possible? God's will at work?! Wasn't San Diego the diocese that sent out letters asking people for money to pay for the settlements (without any accounting information in terms of how/if dire straights the diocese was facing)? I know Santa Barbara kicked some nuns out of their quarters so they could sell it. I lost track of the latest with Mahoney in LA. Rumor was he was going to be called to Rome. But he was a lowly bishop when I was in grade school. He confirmed both my sister and me at two different churches.A few years back I went to mass when B's family was in town. The priest was a visiting one, and got up during the homily and went on about how all non-Catholics were going to hell (B's dad is a Protestant). I couldn't believe my ears as this kind of talk was supposed to have stopped with Vatican II back in the 60's – clearly this guy hadn't gotten the memo. After mass, I talked to B's parents about it, but apparently neither of them were paying attention. I stopped going to mass with them when they are in town. My anger comes out in tears. I have been known to sit at mass sobbing and not a soul bothers me.

  3. jeez… that story's crazy… something like that would make me fall away from the church as well…i fell away for different reasons, but it's weird how betrayed a church can make you feel…

  4. That's tough. I agree, that feeling of Belonging is very important, but it is more important that you feel comfortable and condone the behavior of your place of worship. Here's hoping you can get all of the above at some point in the future…

  5. Excellent post. These scandels have been so damaging, in so many ways, to so many people and to the church itself, on so many levels. It makes me sick to my stomach to even think about it.
    I spent years away from the Catholic church too. In that time I tried other churches and like you said, they didn't feel "real" to me. I feel horrible for saying that too, but I get what you mean. Then one day, I visited the Catholic Church we now attend. I felt at home and was intrigued by the healing words I heard. I visited some more just to be sure it wasn't a fluke. Then eventually my husband went thru RCIA and really "tested" the church. That proved to be a period of growth for both of us.
    What I am trying to say is that, I agree that the crimes and scandels are inexcusable, but if I allow the guilty parties to keep me away from practicing my faith, then in my mind I perpetuate their sin. That said, you better believe I keep my eyes open and my children will never be left in any situation that could leave them vulnerable. Don't mess with Mama Bear! Grrrrrrr!

  6. please excuse my spelling of "scandals" and other typos. That's what I get for typing so quickly with a toddler and preschooler playing in the same room. Why is it my typos and spelling errors only jump out at me after I hit "post"?
    So cruel.

  7. Steve,
    I was not raised as a Catholic, but, living in Philadelphia, have lots of friends who have struggled with the issues you describe. I was actually married in a Roman Catholic affiliated church, the Maronite Church, which is Lebanese. And my son was baptized and confirmed there.
    Maronites are interesting. They are an Eastern church which never separated theologically from Rome. But, lost behind the "Green Curtain" for centuries, they developed practices which mimicked some Eastern rites. When the Crusaders came to Palestine, they came down from the hills, and reaffirmed their ties to Rome.
    But the physical separation lead to some anomalies. For example, Maronite priests are free to marry. Now, Maronite monks can't marry, and members of the hierarchy are not free to marry. But ordinary priests can.
    So, a Roman affiliated church allows priests to marry, with the blessing and imprimatur of the same leadership which decries the idea of priestly marriage otherwise. (And of course, Anglican ministers who convert to Catholicism are free to remain married).
    Or the issue of abortion versus peace. Why is it that the same leadership which might condone the public censure of a politician who is Catholic, but pro-choice, says nothing to encourage the public censure of a politician who is Catholic, but supports the Iraq invasion (which the Church has stated is an unjust war)?
    Or how can a Church whose mission is to protect the flock hide the wolves in cassocks, rather than cast them out?
    These are intellectual questions for me. I was raised a Christian Scientist, and drifted from the church. But I have the same issue in opposite. Coming from such an iconoclastic upbringing, the ritual of churches like the Catholic and Anglican literally feels pagan to me. The more evangelical churches seem to embrace certain parts of the message, but completely ignore Matthew 6(5-6)
    Most people I've met who consider themselves Christian don't even accept the faith of my fathers as being truly Christian, an attitude I reject. And I was raised to pray to Father/Mother God, not Father God.
    I miss the community of church, but I have the comfort that God does not need to reside in a particular building to reside in my heart. More than anything else, that's what I have to offer on this subject.

  8. [this is difficult] I remember reading/hearing an analogy somewhere about people in the Church being "rusty containers." God's good and holy water is poured into us, but because we're rusty, the water comes out brown and contaminated and unclear. I can't justify (nor do I want to) the things the Church has done over the ages. All I know is how I feel when that good and holy water is being poured into me; it's more refreshing and healing than anything else in the world.
    Now that I think about it … it might have been Francis Collins that made the rusty containers analogy.

  9. Have you tried an Episcopal church, since they are similar liturgically? Not sure if that would be a fit, but might be worth a try if you haven't explored that route yet.I too was raised Catholic and just recently I have found that I miss some of the traditions/liturgy. I think they would mean more to me today than they did then. Not sure I will ever return, but I am thinking of visiting again, just to see.

  10. I, too, was raised Catholic til I was 12, then my whole family moved to a more charismatic place of worship. Like Nacwolin, I find that I miss parts of it, especially the awe and reverance of God so prevalent in a Catholic service. My husband was brought up Lutheran, and I see many parallels in the liturgies. My hope and prayer would be that God Himself continues to reach toward your heart, to heal the crappy parts, and fill you with His light. People often suck, God does not.

  11. I'd be disgusted too. I hope you can find a church that feels right. I think fellowship with other believers is very important. Some of the very traditional Missouri synod Lutheran churches (like my mom's) almost match the catholic services exactly. The only difference is not praying to saints, no purgatory, and no confession.

  12. [this is a great post] My husband has a similar story with the Catholic church (as well as far too many people I know) which just goes to show how pervasive the "problem" is. I also spent a lot of time away from the church because I found I needed the time to reconcile my feelings of my actual faith/God and the organization that is supposed to support it. Finding trust in organized religion after experiencing what most of us have is difficult, and yet yearning for that community is also very real.

  13. Jacolily — no, he never served time in prison. The settlement was made out of court. According to his bishop (now deceased) he "did not deny" the allegations.

  14. Chris — his ability to live out his life galls me. Thank you for sharing your story. I had a similar one at a church in Albuquerque — the priest spoke at length about the role of women — which was clearly barefoot and pregnant. I thought I went back to the 19th century.

  15. Tam — it's amazing how much I've heard so many similar stories of departure and rapprochement. It gives me a sense of hope in people. Thank you for sharing your story.

  16. L — I always seem to learn something from you. I had never heard of the Maronites. Fascinating. I, too, have come to believe that God doesn't require a building for His presence.

  17. It hurts me that you were so affected by the actions of the clergy. Unfortunately, there are bad ones everywhere, in all churches, but that's just scary that you were that close to it. Thank God you were not harmed by him. I hope that you can find peace enough to someday join a church again because I can tell that you miss it. I was thinking along the same lines as Nacwolin and Kelly – maybe Episcopal or Missouri Synod Lutheran would be a good alternative if you haven't tried those denominations.

  18. as one former catholic to another, i completely understand the distance you have felt, the river of separation that exists between the faithful and those who lead. as a young female in the same period you attended church, i too got creepy feelings over our priest. there were inconsistencies that even I, a young lady, could see openly. with that said I too sought out different churches outside of my catholic upbringing – only to be disappointed. i wouldn't say they were "light" churches, but they held all of the same crappy issues. what i learned then, at the tender age of 14, was a profound lesson. god is in me, not in a house. faith is within me, not substantiated by a group. spirituality is all me and my friends are my spiritual support. i am my own house. i am my own – and i think that is what jesus was trying to say anyway in the bible. alienation and the need for understanding others like yourself, is something completely different.

  19. Thank you Janette — I think there is that sense of community that I miss. I was talking with the Beloved yesterday — trying to determine what the balance of community versus "time set aside for thinking about God" ought to be in organized religion.

  20. Mello — thank you so much. We were talking last night — realizing that in any walk of life, whether its church, or school, work, or government — there's going to be the same (or at least similar) distribution of saints and dirtballs. And I'm okay with that — the thing I've been unable to reconcile is that they began to see this and instead of rooting out the evil in their midst, they covered it up because of fear of bad publicity and greed.

  21. ssg — I think you were much more attuned to things as a teen than I was (don't they say girls always mature faster than boys… ;) ) — Regarding spirituality, I think that's the way I've been feeling for myself for the last several years. I've attempted to understand my relationship with God and compartmentalize the anger I have towards the Church (and maybe all organized religion). Still, its something that I want to figure out if I can better integrate in my life.

  22. perhaps your "anger "is really another word for "grieving" over the loss of the represented faith as you knew it, the trust you asked for, and now you are simply taking responsibility for your own faith as god intended it. it is truly tragic that the church you attended was clouded with the sadness of child abuse. And for this you can be broken, for it is truly sad. But figuring this all out is really your path, and it's a good path to follow.

  23. I don't think the Priest messed with you because they preceived you were strong in your faith. About fourteen years ago I felt I had to change churches because of problems (I'll just leave it at that) going on in the church and I didn't think it was good for my kids. It was really hard to leave that church. My Dad who was an alcaholic received Jesus in his life quit drinking cursing and totally became a new man. My kids were baptized in that church and the older ones had even helped in building the church. My sister and her husband were going there too. Needless to say it was hard to leave but something I felt strongly the Lord wanted me to do. I remember what the preacher at the new church said to me, when I told him I wanted to be sure I was doing the right thing, he said, "God wants us to know His will even more then we want to know it". Looking back I know I made the right move, all I have to do is look at my children and their families and see how God has blessed my obidience to Him.

  24. Grandma-P — thank you so much for sharing that story — I can tell from the P's that you defintitely made the right choice. And its interesting, I've often wondered why I wasn't a target, and I keep coming back to my strong family life — I don't think I would have made an easy victim, b/c we were (are) so close.

  25. that's a really disturbing story, Steve. i was raised Catholic too (served 13 years in catholic school, even), and as far as i know, my church was spared most of the problems that are plaguing the Church these days. i haven't been to Church in years, except for my dad's funeral. i do miss certain aspects of it, but more i miss the way it used to make me feel, and i kinda think i can find that feeling on my own, in my own quiet ways.
    the funny thing is… this isn't anything new. people are all up in arms over this perceived "new" corruption within the church… when the Church has always been corrupt. how about the Middle Ages/Renaissance, when the Church was the richest, most powerful entity on the planet? where does the word nepotism come from? yeah, from the italian for nephew, and all those "nephews" that the Popes and Cardinals granted Bishops and Cardinals themselves.
    NOT at all to try to downplay the tragedy of the current crop of crap going on, or of what happened in your own Church, but i just tend to wonder why people are so surprised (and i mean that in general, not you in particular. i imagine it's one of those things that you never think will happen in your own community, so that's always a surprise). it's horrendous and heinouse and disgusting, but i don't think it should come off as entirely surprising, unfortunately.
    i hope i'm not coming off as all incendiary or callous, because that is not what i'm trying for here!
    the hardest thing for me right now, is my cousin is in Seminary. i worry about how all this will affect him if he does take those vows. i wonder how he'll be treated, yanno?

  26. Liz — the history of the Church is riddled with some bad players, but I think in the 20th century the Church moved to be "better" than it had been. The Second Vatican council in the 1960's fundamentally changed the way in which the Church sought to interact with its members and the world. There was an expectation that things were better and were going to continue so. That's the world of hope that I grew up in. Its supposed to be a lot better than that.

  27. Sorry to be jumping on the post bandwagon a little late here. This was difficult for me to read, as I was also raised Catholic and cannot imagine what it would be like to hear information like this about your former priest. My brother, sister, and I were all very active in the church when we were younger and up until high school, when I like you started seeing the scandal and corruption, it was a wonderful experience. It angers me that men in these positions of power have the ability to ruin that experience for so many young people of faith.Since high school I too have fallen away from the church and jokingly refer to myself as a "collapsed Catholic". But I totally know what you mean about other churches not seeming real. 'Church-lite' is the perfect way to describe it! How can it be church when it is not called mass? Without the kneeling and the wine and the routine and communion. Just doesn't feel right. I too miss being part of the community of church because I feel like religion is such a beautiful thing. But something just doesn't feel the same anymore. For me, it is all but ruined thanks to self-righteous people who like to make others feel sinful and godless, rather than uplifted and fulfilled by the sense of a divine power in whom we are meant to put faith, and not be fearful of.

  28. Sorry to be jumping on the post bandwagon a little late here. This was difficult for me to read, as I was also raised Catholic and cannot imagine what it would be like to hear information like this about your former priest. My brother, sister, and I were all very active in the church when we were younger and up until high school, when I like you started seeing the scandal and corruption, it was a wonderful experience. It angers me that men in these positions of power have the ability to ruin that experience for so many young people of faith.Since high school I too have fallen away from the church and jokingly refer to myself as a "collapsed Catholic". But I totally know what you mean about other churches not seeming real. 'Church-lite' is the perfect way to describe it! How can it be church when it is not called mass? Without the kneeling and the wine and the routine and communion. Just doesn't feel right. I too miss being part of the community of church because I feel like religion is such a beautiful thing. But something just doesn't feel the same anymore. For me, it is all but ruined thanks to self-righteous people who like to make others feel sinful and godless, rather than uplifted and fulfilled by the sense of a divine power in whom we are meant to put faith, and not be fearful of.

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