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Grace and disgrace

In my days as a religion beat reporter, I recall having a particular epiphany: that people who profess a faith, any faith, might not share the same credo or understand each other's sense of God, but they share a recognizable quality.

Some would call it spirituality. I always observed it to be an extra frame of reference that expands the way a human being experiences life. Grace would be another word for it. It's why people stick with religion even when the institution fails them.

August has been a seemingly graceless month for people whose religion is Christianity and whose Church is Roman Catholic. I am one.

In the past couple of weeks I've heard a priest whom I admire deeply tell his congregation that the release of the Pennsylvania grand jury report on clerical sexual abuse of minors and the ensuing cover-ups have made him feel shame at being a priest.

I've seen the Facebook post of a friend raised as a Catholic, saying that she wants to see bishops in orange jumpsuits picking up trash by the roadside. I have been so angered by the recent — and former — revelations that I mentally applauded the image. Look at what that anger is doing to us both. And neither of us is a direct victim of any clerical misdeeds. Such victims suffer so terribly and permanently.

Institutionalized abuse, like that for which the Catholic Church stands accused in the U.S. and other countries, is not religion any more than incest is family life. Both are, however, ingrained dysfunctions that harm every person they touch. Both are crimes.

The legacy of dysfunction is ripping up the big family of the Church, which seems ready to split into two camps of finger pointers. In human affairs generally that is what happens when conspiracies fall apart. In the president's terminology, it's when people "flip" on each other.

My other epiphany as a religion journalist was the challenge of describing someone's faith-based actions without presenting personal beliefs as if they are facts — as in, "In his church they believe they can handle poisonous snakes."

Neither of my two journalistic epiphanies is much use to me now. There is no sign of grace here. Nor do the actions of the abusers or the enablers have anything to do with beliefs, especially not concepts of sin and forgiveness.

Covering the abuse scandal is not religion writing. It's crime reporting. It calls for investigatory journalism, with the help of experienced religion beat writers bringing their familiarity and their sources to the coverage. The grand jury investigation met the state of Pennsylvania's obligation to investigate potential criminal acts against some of its youngest citizens. We cannot let it stop there.

Whatever was covered up must be uncovered. Wherever the statute of limitations permits, there should be charges and prosecutions and penalties. Those who can't be tried can still be dismissed in disgrace.

Reform will be painful and even chaotic, but like grace, it can expand our understanding of service, calling, leadership and identity. The clerical ranks may be decimated, and who will even want to serve? Who besides unmarried men might step up? It's clear that neither isolation from ordinary lives nor the absence of women is working.

The Church is still populated with souls who act kindly and faithfully, ordained and not. Together they will need to anchor the institution as it comes to understand that this time, the Church won't be teaching justice but learning it.

Lisa McGinley is a member of The Day editorial board. 

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