She thought about not coming.
Disillusioned by the sex abuse scandal again consuming the Catholic Church, Claartje Bertaut considered skipping Sunday Mass for the first time in more than four decades. In fact, she even considered leaving Catholicism.
But the 87-year-old D.C. woman sat in the pews Sunday at the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament — one of the region’s most prominent Catholic churches — as a young, impassioned priest urged more than 200 churchgoers not to lose their faith in God or Catholicism amid a “period of darkness” for the church. The Rev. Alec Scott, Blessed Sacrament’s parochial vicar, apologized for the misdeeds of the clergy.
“For all the frustration this has caused you, I express my condolences,” said Scott, 31. “But without you, reform won’t be possible.”
The congregation — moved by his plea — clapped when he finished.
“I never in that church heard the audience applaud a sermon,” said Bertaut, who joined in the ovation. “This was a first.”
It has been a painful summer for faithful Catholics. First, an investigation into widespread abuse in Chile and a cardinal on trial in Australia. Then, the first-ever resignation of a U.S. cardinal accused of sexual abuse — Theodore McCarrick. Finally, last week, a Pennsylvania grand jury investigation revealed a systemic coverup by church leaders of child sex abuse. The report, in victims’ graphic accounts, detailed alleged abuse by more than 300 priests against 1,000 children over 70 years.
“This has been the summer from hell for the Catholic Church, and our sins are blatantly exposed for the world to see,” the Rev. Thomas Rosica, a Vatican adviser, wrote Friday.
Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, whose conduct as bishop of Pittsburgh was scrutinized in the investigation, has canceled his trip to Ireland for a major Catholic summit and has had his upcoming book’s publication postponed.
As head of a Catholic institution, McGuire said she sees this summer sowing new doubts. “The fact that we thought all the worst had come out already — this is what creates cynicism. People were like, ‘Okay, it’s all cleaned up, now we’re moving on.’ ... Now we know: The church is a fallible human organization.”
Facing the latest investigation, Catholics had a range of reactions — from those who can’t be shocked anymore to those who were newly grieved, from those who feel Catholics are unfairly singled out to those who maintain their faith in the religion but not its leaders.
“Everybody’s always lambasting the Catholic Church,” said Elizabeth Rhodes, a former Fox News producer, as she had lunch with her daughter near the campus of Catholic University of America on Thursday. “They don’t look at people in sports, the ones who are training kids in soccer. There are plenty of other religious communities, Jewish and others, where there’s sexual exploitation. Any religion, any time, it’s a tragedy, but I hate this focus [on Catholics].”
Still, Rhodes said, she’s frustrated with the church’s leadership. She thinks Pope Francis has been far too slow to respond to the crisis in Chile. She was upset by the revelations about McCarrick. She no longer trusts Wuerl, based on what she’s heard about the Pennsylvania report.
But she retains her trust in the priests she knows personally, and in her religion.
On Sunday at Blessed Sacrament, John Beasley said his faith in the church was a bit shaken by what he called “insidious” behaviors detailed in the grand jury report. However, the 26-year-old said Scott’s sermon resonated with him.
“I don’t doubt in God, but it does make me worried about the hierarchy,” Beasley said after the service.
Paul Elie, a writer who lectures at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center, thought he had lost the ability to feel even more disappointment in his church. He was wrong.
“It affects me profoundly,” he said of the recent scandals. “A lot of Catholics, we have to ask whether we have wasted our lives following this model of leadership. At this point, the leadership in this country is not credible. The repeated scandals make it difficult or even impossible to pass the faith on to our kids . . . I think about it every hour.”
The Catholic Church has lost more members in recent decades than any other major faith. About 27 percent of former Catholics who no longer identify with a religion cited clergy sexual abuse scandals as a reason for leaving the church, according to Pew research in 2015. And among former Catholics who now identify as Protestant, 21 percent say the sexual abuse scandals were a reason for leaving Catholicism, Pew says.
Even greater numbers of former Catholics say that they left over the church’s teachings on abortion, homosexuality, contraception or women.
Surveys have rarely asked about the Catholic Church’s response to the crisis since 2013, when a Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 78 percent of Catholics disapproved of the way the church had handled the scandal — more than a decade after a Boston Globe investigation prompted the church to overhaul its procedures for rooting out abusive priests.