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.