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The anguish of being Catholic

cathedral of st. paul
Archbishop Nienstedt’s leadership has been severely impaired.

Last week more than 300 Catholics gathered together. One by one, they came forward to an open microphone, giving their names and the parish to which they belong. I heard anger, pain, frustration – and yes, anguish.

Elizabeth NagelElizabeth Nagel

Their perspectives varied. Some told about incidents of abuse. Others, who work for parishes, spoke about the strict standards to which they adhere in doing background checks on volunteers wishing to work with children. But they are unable to do the same with priests assigned to their parishes. Another area addressed in this debacle is the degree of pain experienced by good and decent priests in this archdiocese. Everyone present related how events relating to this scandal have deeply affected them.

There was one area of agreement. Committing sexual acts involving a child is reprehensible enough. But much of the anger went beyond the molestation of children, and instead was directed at actions of Archbishop John Nienstedt and those who work for him. Questions were raised if he is even capable of bringing about healing and necessary changes — much less whether he is willing to do so.

Unanimous show of hands

At one point the moderator asked those assembled if they believed the archbishop should resign. The show of hands was unanimous. Archbishop Nienstedt’s leadership has been severely impaired. There was little hope expressed by those present that constructive change and healing can occur as long as he remains here in Minnesota.

One person asked if there was any process in the Catholic Church for the removal of a bishop or archbishop. Unfortunately, the principle of subsidiarity in the Church (in which matters are best handled at the local or individual level in order to curb excessive power “from the top”) works against any clear process for removing a dysfunctional bishop.

The issue was raised as to why there have been no arrests made of archdiocesan officials since the cover-up of abusing priests has been much more than immoral. Obstruction of justice, including tampering with evidence, is a punishable crime in Minnesota. One person reminded the group of the request by St. Paul police for anyone abused to come forward as part of the police’s on-going investigation of this massive attempt to cover up wrong-doing.

Understanding the underlying causes and solutions to curb pedophilia (molestation of children by a non-family member) is not an easy matter. Some of those present called for abolishing celibacy for priests as a solution. If celibacy were the cause of pedophilia, then the problem would not exist in Protestant denominations and other religions (or secular organizations that serve children). These traditions deal with the very same issues that the Catholic Church does regarding the sexual abuse of children.

Persons ordained and lay people who commit acts of pedophilia come in every size and shape – single and married men (and women), all ages, and across socioeconomic and educational levels.

Understandings have changed

To be fair, it is necessary to grant the Catholic Church a little slack in its past actions toward offending priests. Understandings about pedophilia have changed. Several decades ago, a number of mental health professionals believed pedophilia was a curable disorder. So removing a priest and sending him to a treatment facility was a feasible response (though similar help usually was not given to those victimized).

Today, most mental-health professionals would agree that pedophilia is not treatable. The only solution involves preventing such individuals from having access to children. And it is why child pornography is so dangerous because it feeds this illegal and illicit attraction to children.

Sexual misconduct with adults by priests and other clergy is another matter. It is possible for an ordained person to gain understanding of the origins of their sexual misconduct and entanglement with parishioners. After a process of self-examination and treatment, many of these ordained individuals are more “safe” in their parish assignments.

Of course, there will always be serial offenders – as reflected in our current public discussion in which we are struggling to find a balance between permanent incarceration and the safety of others. Likewise, the crime of sexual molestation of children in the church will never be completely curtailed. We can diminish it and limit its damage by increasing awareness about inappropriate behavior and provide resources for children and those who work with them.

Sometimes I would despair, along with my clients, when they were misused and abused by a clergy person they trusted. Then I would be privileged to be part of their healing process and I would rejoice.

As a Catholic, I hope the same healing can happen in my spiritual tradition. The Catholic Church is community for so many of us and a source of much good in this city that I call home.

Elizabeth C. Nagel is a Twin Cities writer and photographer. She spent over three decades as a licensed psychologist, including work with individuals harmed by clergy, including Protestant clergy, who crossed the boundaries of appropriate pastor-parishioner relationships.


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Comments (24)

  1. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 11/26/2013 - 08:35 am.

    celibacy and molestation

    My feeling is that celibacy doesn’t cause molestation, only previous molestation causes molestation. I think some molesters, wrestling with their consciences, are drawn to the priesthood under the false hope that living in an expectation of abstinance will help them manage their desires. I think generally that has been shown to be a false hope.

    As for Catholicism, the religion, I think it has shown worldwide that everytime it has to choose between the spirit of Christ and the spirit of mammon it shows its corruption as a spiritual enterprise.

  2. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 11/26/2013 - 09:00 am.


    What you are saying is that the Catholic church should be given slack for covering up and enabling child rape. Regardless of whether pedophilia can be cured, these priests committed crimes against children and should have been prosecuted. That was the same decades ago as it is now. Sending a child raping priest to a treatment facility was never a feasible response.

    Your attempt to spread the blame to protestant churches is just sad. While there has been abuse elsewhere, what sets the Catholic church apart is the response to the abuse. The criminals aren’t just the rapist priests, but also the church leaders that protected and enabled them. The objection to Neinstadt isn’t just that the church can’t heal. Its that he is part of the problem.

    Frankly, I find it disturbing that you have been treating victims of abuse. Because really just don’t get it.

    • Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 11/26/2013 - 10:36 am.

      I agree

      She says, “To be fair, it is necessary to grant the Catholic Church a little slack in its past actions toward offending priests”

      Really? “Offending”, a euphemism for sexually abusing children has always been a crime. Hiding a crime and abetting a criminal has always been illegal. There has never been any room for “slack”. I think it is a waste of time to pressure the church to remove a criminal from his job, that is what they have been doing for decades. The people who knew and excused and hid these crimes should be arrested and prosecuted. I think the archbishop needs to do the perp walk. Since when does being a church official of any rank excuse a person from being prosecuted for their crimes?

  3. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 11/26/2013 - 09:44 am.


    Even the title of this piece paints the Catholic church as the victim. How about the anguish of being a victim of abuse?

    • Submitted by Joel Fischer on 11/26/2013 - 11:50 am.

      The anguish of being Catholic…

      is that we love the Church, we love the rituals, we love the people, we love the good work that has been done and continues to be done…


      we are extremely upset by the illegal actions that have not been properly prosecuted and the harm done to so many.

      Does it not cause you anguish when someone you love deeply does something wrong?

      • Submitted by Dan Hintz on 11/26/2013 - 01:32 pm.


        You can have your anguish if you actually acknowledge the wrong that has been done. The author of this piece failed to do that, instead offering excuses and attempting to spread the blame. She demonstates the problem with the Catholic church, not the solution.

      • Submitted by Sarah Kleman on 11/27/2013 - 12:42 pm.

        Yes, it causes me anguish

        but more importantly it causes me to let them know that if they continue that behavior I can no longer associate with them. And if they continue that behavior I shall have to call the police. I sure wouldn’t donate money to them so they can continue their reprehensible acts. Nor would I pretend that my anguish is more important than the victims of that person’s crimes.

        • Submitted by Joel Fischer on 11/27/2013 - 02:15 pm.

          Who’s pretending?

          There’s plenty of pain and sorrow to go around as a result of these reprehensible acts. I don’t see anyone suggesting that that their own anguish is more important than the direct victims. Please stop reading your own bias into others’ comments.

  4. Submitted by Bob Schwiderski on 11/26/2013 - 09:54 am.

    Grand jury, subpoenas, search warrants

    The archdiocese is within jurisdictions of 12 Minnesota counties, 5 District Courts, and a multitude of cities with numerous reports of clergy sexual abuse. All the police departments within this area should repeat the call of the St Paul Police Department to call them if you or a family member has been sexually abused by a cleric of the Archdiocese.

    It’s time for grand jury investigations, subpoenas, and search warrants looking at possible obstruction of justice, failure to report possible childhood sexual abuse as required by the state’s mandatory reporting statute and possible child endangerment activities of the Archdiocese of St Paul & Minneapolis.

    Bob Schwiderski, Minnesota SNAP Director
    Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests

  5. Submitted by Judy Jones on 11/26/2013 - 12:30 pm.

    Child sex abuse is and was a crime

    Child sex abuse is/was a crime, and the church officials know/knew that…

    We believe there should be a thorough grand jury investigation into the MN church officials for enabling and empowering children to be sexually abused. The full truth needs to be exposed and those responsible for committing crimes of cover up and child endangerment need to be held accountable to the law of the land. Until this happens children will continue to be sexually abused within this system.
    Let’s hope that anyone who may have knowledge or may have been harmed will come forward and contact law enforcement, no matter how long ago it happened.
    Silence only hurts, and by speaking up there is a chance for healing, exposing the truth, and therefore protecting others.
    Judy Jones, SNAP Midwest Associate Director, USA, 636-433-2511.,
    “SNAP (The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests)

  6. Submitted by Michael Skiendzielewski on 11/26/2013 - 01:19 pm.

    What about the Victim Anguish?

    Ms. Nagel, sorry to say, but I found the tone of your comments to be unrealistic and somewhat naive. Church hierarchy continues to protect the priests FIRST and the children SECOND.

    Since 2002, the Catholic faithful here in America have witnessed time and again, the duplicity, insincerity, hypocrisy and untruthful conduct, behavior and decision-making of many of the religious leaders of the dioceses and archdioceses across this country. Over the past several months, Bishop Myers as well as Archbishop Nienstedt in Minneapolis-St. Paul have been shown, via statements, evidence, correspondence, etc., to be unable and unwilling to protect the children and young adults of the Catholic faithful in their charge. Along with Bishop Finn in Kansas City, it is well past the time that any further consideration be given these “leaders” and push for the tough and necessary legislative proposals that will help to protect ALL children, now and in the future.

    Retiring from the field of law enforcement here in Philadelphia, there is nothing better to capture the attention of criminals (in this case, alleged child sexual abusers and conspirators/abettors) than the cold steel of handcuffs, fingerprint ink on the extremities, the spartan and unexciting cuisine of detention centers, and the appropriate fashion statement of the orange wardrobe.

    Michael Skiendzielewski
    Captain (Retired)
    Philadelphia Police Dept.

  7. Submitted by Anne Farrell on 11/26/2013 - 01:29 pm.

    Stockholm Syndrome

    So often I read posts and articles from tormented Catholics. You are tormented because you are, deep down, good people who realize that you belong to an organization that has caused, and continues to cause, great harm. In many cases, you have been abused yourselves.

    I sympathize. But it is time to get some counseling (if you need it) and get out. You are enablers. You are allowing them to continue. Now that I am out, I get angry with those who continue to sit in the pews, as if nothing is wrong.

    • Submitted by Joel Fischer on 11/26/2013 - 04:55 pm.

      That’s just not true.

      There are plenty of good reasons to remain Catholic and to sit in the pews. The Eucharist being the foremost reason. Catholics only enable if they don’t call for action when wrongs are committed.

      Don’t get me wrong, I and many Catholic do feel abused, but that doesn’t mean we sympathize with the abusers or agree with the system that allows the abuse to continue.

      • Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 11/27/2013 - 07:35 am.

        there is abuse and then there is abuse….

        You feel abused? How about the children who actually were abused? You don’t sympathize with the abusers? You give them your money, your love, your praises. You, whether you admit it or not, are part of a criminal organization with a primary mission to cover up the crimes of child moletstation and to abet and protect criminals. In every case since this evil was exposed years ago EVERY parish, EVERY bishop and and EVERY archbishop has fought to protect the church at the expense of the children. That says to me that someone above them in the hierarchy is encouraging them to act that way, the problem isn’t just with the individual people and parishes. So I have no sympathy for Catholics who “feel abused” but continue to support that criminal organization.

        • Submitted by Joel Fischer on 11/27/2013 - 08:59 am.

          I do none of those things…

          and I would appreciate you not ascribing actions and beliefs to me that you have no clue about. Thank you.

          I was responding to the previous comment. I never once said nor do I believe that the abuse a Catholic may feel is akin to the awful abuse of the children. Covering up crimes is not the “primary mission” of the Church. Those heinous activities are the result of human failure. Even the Pope is human and can make mistakes, falling into the trap of holding on to power at all costs.

          But as I said before, there are still reasons to sit in the pews. The Sacraments are not subject to human frailty. One can love the Church and believe everything that the Church teaches AND not support the actions of people within the Church.

          Clearly, you hate the Catholic Church. You can have your hatred. I want no part in it.

          • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 11/28/2013 - 04:23 pm.


            Just a heads up: Catholic churches are a church, not the Church. There are plenty of other religions out there that are just as valid as the Catholic point of view and some of them have churches too.

            • Submitted by Joel Fischer on 11/28/2013 - 10:46 pm.

              It’s a distinction.

              A church is a building. The Church is something else entirely and what is being discussed here.

      • Submitted by Sarah Kleman on 11/27/2013 - 12:58 pm.


        Is that a typo? Do you mean to say you feel for the abused? Please tell us you’re not saying you feel abused because you refuse to leave a religion that harbors child sex predators and couldn’t care less what you think about that.

        • Submitted by Joel Fischer on 11/27/2013 - 02:08 pm.


          You’re now the second person who didn’t follow the thread from the original comment titled Stockholm Syndrome to my comment.

          Please re-read the thread. Yes, people who love the Church feel abused by those whom we trusted. No one, including myself, is suggesting it’s remotely the same as the awfulness perpetrated on the children. The pain and sorrow reaches every nook and cranny of the Church. It isn’t only the children and their families that feel it. It affects the entire Body of Christ, as anything malignant would.

          I’m trying to have a discussion here, but the conclusions people jump to when you mention the Catholic Church sure get in the way of an honest discussion. The Church isn’t going to disappear, no matter how many people leave it, so it’s up to its members to try to correct the errors of the fallible humans who run it, including present and past Popes.

          Please stop suggesting that I support the heinous actions of people within the Church. Nothing could be further from the truth.

          • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 11/28/2013 - 04:27 pm.

            First Action

            Can we start the corrective process by calling the police? Why these people are still running around in society is beyond me. No more of this “we’re going to review our files and processes” BS. The first action church officials can and should have taken is to call the police.

            That is the proper process to take.

            • Submitted by Joel Fischer on 11/28/2013 - 10:49 pm.

              I couldn’t agree more.

              Illegal acts, especially reprehensible ones like this, should be dealt with to the full extent of the law.
              Are you suggesting that a parishioner in the pew is complicit in the actions of other people within the organization?

              • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 11/29/2013 - 04:47 pm.

                The Law

                I’m not sure where you get any suggestions from, Joel. Your pronouncements seem just a little touchy.

                To be clear on this, I’m not suggesting that the police should be called, I’m unequivocally stating it.

  8. Submitted by Sarah Kleman on 11/27/2013 - 12:27 pm.

    No, several decades ago we did not think differently about sex

    with children. It was as horrendous then as it is now. We didn’t have to ask mental health professionals about it. We all knew it was deranged and perverse.

    Of course, it is anguish to be a Catholic. It is anguish to be stuck in a vortex that you can’t do one single thing about other than quit the club. Most Catholics don’t even know the extent of it. I wish I could ask every single one of them if they are aware that their church asserts as an affirmative defense in cases across the country that it was the child who seduced the priest. Not decades ago. Cases filed last year.

    But then anguish is a tough term to pin down. Is it really anguish when nothing is done about it? Stepping up to a microphone I suppose is brave. How about stepping up to the Archbishop’s door and calling him out. Why not have him step up to a microphone in front of 300 people? Why not bang on his door until he does something? Why does he get to sleep peacefully while Catholics claim to be anguished?

    I’m not sure I buy the anguish angle It may well be that Catholics feel required to say they are anguished. After all, that’s a lot easier than actually doing something about it.

  9. Submitted by Chris Bjorklund on 11/28/2013 - 08:31 am.

    A Look at the Wider Picture

    Captain Skiendzielewski above once again summed up the clearly appropriate societal response to this insanity. While comprehensive legal action against all office holders in this organization is necessary, it will also be necessary for us as a society to address the long standing license that religious firms have been granted allowing them to act with impunity against any social norm or legal statute. The fact that a business sells access to an imaginary being rather than selling fruit juice or bicycles should in no way exempt it from adherence to the most basic social responsibilities.

    Sadly, Ms. Nagel, and many others have invested sizable portions of themselves in an idea which proves itself over and over to be foolish, fatally flawed and destructive beyond measure. Curtailing that destruction can begin by sending a simple, though rightly immense, tax bill to all organizations claiming exemption from such things. Once these childish and petulant firms are expected to contribute they will sink or swim as all businesses must. I’m guessing “sink”.

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