Linda Montez has been a member of St. Bernardine’s Catholic Church since the day she was baptized there as an infant, on Sep. 2, 1958. She received all her sacraments at St. Bernardine’s, attended the parish school from the first grade to eighth grade, and was married there in 1978.
When she hears story after story about sexual abuse in the Catholic Church— the grand jury in Pennsylvania recently found more than 1,000 identifiable victims of abuse over the last 70 years—Montez said she is not surprised because she was physically abused at St. Bernardine’s in first grade.
“I can walk into that school and have flashbacks to the day that I was thrown around the cloak room, and picture the mean look in that nun’s eyes, who was gone the next year,” she said, naming Sr. Angela as her abuser. “No child should go through that. It made me not trust adults at an early age, and I lost two years of schooling because of that. I really don’t remember learning until third grade.”
Neither St. Bernadine’s nor the Archdiocese of Chicago responded to an interview request about the incident. St. Bernardine’s is the only Catholic church in Forest Park.
Montez made a comment that might partially explain why many Catholics were not aware until recently of abuse within the institution. She said that she never told her parents about how she was abused until she had children of her own.
“Maybe I put it in the back of my mind,” she said. “Unfortunately there was no counseling back in the day, you just had to suck it up and move on.”
Montez looks back on those painful years, saying she suffered the lingering effects of abuse, and concluded, “It’s funny how one incident in your life can change the innocent person I was. But on the other hand, it made me the strong and persistent person that I am today.”
Today Montez said she struggles with staying Catholic. But she ultimately has stuck with the religion because she feels she knows the practice, it brings her peace and she believes everyone needs faith. She raised her three children Catholic, sending them to Fenwick and Trinity High Schools.
But another reason why Montez is still a Catholic is because the Catholic Church has changed, especially since Vatican II, she said.
“I enjoy the Mass with our new Pastor, Father Stan,” Montez said. “He makes the Mass fun for the children, and that was what the Catholic religion was lacking years ago. I always felt it was a fear-based religion.”
In contrast is Jim Murray, a member of St. Bernardine’s who has been a Catholic his whole life, and who felt skeptical when he first heard reports of sexual abuse by Catholic priests. Growing up, he said his experience in the church was gratifying, and that he never heard stories of anyone who was abused.
But his skepticism turned to anger as report after report appeared in the news.
“My anger,” Murray said, “is not so much directed at priests themselves but at the hierarchy who covered this up and didn’t get rid of these guys.”
He said he is adamant in his belief that celibacy is the root cause of sexual abuse in the church. He noted that the majority of the children who have been abused are boys.
“Most of the straight, well adjusted males who go to seminary don’t stay and many who get ordained leave the priesthood soon thereafter,” he said. “I think a lot of the guys who are left in the priesthood are confused about their sexuality. We have to stop that.”
Murray said he remains a Catholic because he has always been one—he’s not sure where else he would go.
“I’m a cultural Catholic more than a theological Catholic,” he said. “I go to church to pray to God and be with my friends and neighbors.”
Like Murray, Julia Doloszycki, who has been a member of St. Bernardine’s since 1951, said that she is still a Catholic because her congregation feels like her extended family.
“I feel the same comfort at St. Bernadine’s,” she said, “that I felt there when I was a child. The people are very friendly and warm.”
Doloszycki initially also found the reports hard to believe, although now she does believe survivors. She too had good experiences in the church, singing in the children’s choir and feeling a sense of peace and comfort.
“I felt I was in the presence of God,” she said.
Doloszycki likewise remains committed to the institutional church partly because it is changing, and slowly allowing women to have positions of leadership, she said. She serves on the Archdiocesan Council and on the executive committee of the Archdiocesan Women’s Council. As a sign that the church is open to gradual change she said that leaders in the women’s council are talking to the archbishop about allowing women to give homilies.
Meanwhile, Gino Pisani has spent the last 10 years as part of the planning team for St. Bernardine’s annual Kingdom Retreat. Sensitive to protecting children because of his work with special needs children at Roosevelt Middle School in River Forest, Pisani called sexual abuse intolerable in the church and anywhere else.
Although he was disillusioned by the reports of abuse, Pisani said he still goes to Mass almost every day.
“One big reason I’m a Catholic today at the age of 65,” he said, “is that my parents raised me as a Catholic, but also because there I find some peace of mind. Also, I’m a creature of habit.”
Pisani then added: “Everyone has to reach a point in their lives when they realize that no one religion is going to fill all of their needs. You have to pick and choose. I stayed with the Catholic faith because I found comfort there.”