I loved the Catholic Church as a boy, but left it as a young man after hearing a priest with long, groovy hair (it was the '70s) sermonize about gay people and our purportedly pernicious ways.
Sort of like the slander emanating once again from certain quarters at the Vatican, where Catholic "traditionalists" — I'd call them reactionaries — are accusing Pope Francis of willfully ignoring the supposed role of "homosexual networks" in the church's ongoing sexual abuse scandals.
Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, the Vatican's former top diplomat to the United States, is among the fierce conservatives who seem to regard phantom conspiracies and conspirators as more culpable than the actual criminals who raped children.
Last Sunday, Vigano made public a letter in which he accused Francis of having long known about allegations that the now-disgraced Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington had preyed on minors and adult seminarians for decades. The pope has refused to comment.
The letter also alleged that Francis was well aware of a "homosexual current" flowing through the church, one possessing "octopus tentacles" that are "strangling" the innocents and the institution itself.
Scary stuff. I'm grateful to report that while nothing of the kind happened to this gay Irish Catholic baby boomer from blue-collar Massachusetts, I do know a bit about harm, and healing.
Soon after I felt driven out of the church, I left the closet behind as well.
It took 15 years for the next epiphany to arrive.
In the early '90s, I was a reporter covering Camden, a city besieged by crack, AIDS, and guns. I wrote about communities where valiant folks of various faiths (or no faith) fought on the front lines, and Catholic priests and nuns were among the toughest and most tenacious fighters.
Priests such as Michael Doyle, Robert McDermott, and Rick Malloy, and nuns such as Helen Cole, Peg Hynes, and Elizabeth Corry, collectively helped provide thousands of desperately poor or otherwise disenfranchised people with access to education, housing, and health care.
Their work was inspiring even to a lapsed Catholic far more interested in writing stories than in having spiritual experiences.
The strength of these men and women arose from a faith far deeper than any I had personally known. They had answered a call, and I came to understand Catholicism as about more than mysterious, if beautiful, rituals, or disdainful proclamations from the pulpit.
You could say that Camden gave me back Catholicism: The city is where I realized that a part of me I'd left behind was still meaningful, and that in letting it go, I had lost something.
I prefer not to imagine the losses suffered by boys, girls or vulnerable young adults who were violated by pedophile priests. How profoundly personal, and enduring, such damage must be.
The incidents of child abuse exposed in recent decades by journalists at the Inquirer, the Boston Globe, and other publications, and most recently by prosecutors such as Pennsylvania's Attorney General Josh Shapiro, require more than apologies, resignations, or "report abuse" phone numbers on diocesan home pages.
So what if the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights strenuously characterizes the church as the true victim of abuse — at the hands (or, perhaps, tentacles) of the media and overzealous prosecutors?
The ongoing investigations, revelations, and truth-telling are essential to the survival of the institution.
Not so the fervent obsession with sinister gay cabals, and the fake conflation of homosexuality with pedophilia, by Catholic "traditionalists" such as Vigano — whose integrity Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput vouched for, following the letter.
Vatican politics have nothing to do with the Catholicism I have witnessed in action in Camden. The distant antics of power-hungry men do not diminish the value of that work, any more than criminal acts or for that matter, nasty sermons by others do.