Look for a story here: Catholic parents may be worrying about 'religious formation' classes

This is the time of year when Catholic children who go to public schools also have to attend classes on Sundays.

What most Christians call “Sunday school,” Catholics refer to as “religious formation.” It is required of all Catholics — baptized children and adults who have converted or returned to the faith — in order to prepare for the receiving of sacraments such as Holy Communion and Confirmation.

Many Catholic parents have been concerned, obviously, after the revelations of this past summer involving ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick and the hundreds of Pennsylvania priests accused of molesting children and teens dating back decades made public in a grand jury report. The abuse of minors and sexual harassment of adults in the church has triggered plenty of doubt among the faithful regarding the church’s hierarchy.

This can impact church life in many ways. Here is one Sunday-morning angle that reporters need to think about.

The conversations in the pews and outside churches in the past few weeks have revolved around their child’s safety, revealing a crisis of faith that is very real. Should their son or daughter attend religious formation this year? Can they trust a priest or church volunteer to be alone with their child? Have any safety procedures been put into place?

There are 17,156 local parishes in the United States with an estimated 70 million Catholics. A much smaller number, however, remains active in the church. For example, only 42 percent of families send their children to religious formation, according to research in 2015 (click here for .pdf) by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.

Indeed, the habits of American Catholics have vastly changed over the past few decades, and the events of this past summer will certainly impact the church (including attendance and donations) going forward. How much and to what extent remains to be seen. Two-thirds of Catholic millennials, for example, attend Mass only “a few times a year or less often.” That’s compared to 55 percent of pre-Vatican II Catholics, who go at least once a week, according to that same Georgetown University study.

Nonetheless, we are still talking about millions of people affected here. That’s the reason why the church sex abuse scandal remains an important issue. The perverse nature of the revelations and the poor response from Pope Francis and many bishops has exacerbated this mistrust, as a Pew Research study recently noted.

The pontiff’s reaction to the letter by Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano hasn’t helped matters as the American church remains in a state of crisis. It may be a reason why editors have refrained from keeping this story “alive” as they say, so as not to go against the narrative that this pope is a “reformer” who needs to change the direction of the church. Part of the liberal-conservative church divide remains a big part of the story here and which stories get done.

It must be noted that most of the abuse allegations from the summer pre-date 2002, the year new protocols to protect minors from abuse — known as the “Dallas Charter” — were approved by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. At the time, the proposal made clear that “no priest or deacon who has abused a minor can remain in ministry,” now-retired Minneapolis-St. Paul Archbishop Harry Flynn, who led the panel that drafted the proposal, said at the time. “As good pastors attentive to those we serve, we can do no less.”

This remains very true 16 years after The Boston Globe’s reporting (click here for links) forced church officials to take precautionary steps. While youth ministry remains essential to the church’s mission, what’s being done to allay the fears of nervous parents worried about their child?

This pew-level response, and what parents are going through, is what has been lacking from mainstream news coverage of this issue over the past few weeks. With religious formation a Sunday routine for so many Catholic children, the church — depending on the diocese — will have responded in a variety of ways.

That’s an angle so many have ignored, now that the story has shifted from those who have done the wrongdoing and their alleged victims to how it affects the church community as a whole.

The best comparison here is football. Editors routinely assign stories each fall about head injuries and the danger it poses to children who want to play football. Another example are stories about the growth of flag football to combat concussions but still keep children involved in the sport. The same applies to the Catholic Church after the dangers some have experienced in rectories and churches in this country.

In New York, the media capitol of the world, the Diocese of Brooklyn inserted a letter in every church bulletin on Sept. 30 from Bishop Nicholas DMarzio acknowledging they had recently paid a $17.4 million settlement with four people who had been molested by a church volunteer. Not only did DiMarzio address the settlement — a rarity among church officials, but something that become more evident this past summer — but also that it had been paid for after the diocese had sold property, and not from donations from parishioners.

For New York City reporters at mainstream media outlets, you need not go very far — in reality, just a short subway ride from your Manhattan offices — to do a story that’s right in your backyard.

Second, all clergy and lay members involved in church activities with children have to take an online course called Virtus Online. The program is run by the National Catholic Risk Retention Group, an insurance company of sorts that aims to protect the church from criminal and civil liabilities.

This second point is very important if the church hopes to remain viable financially. As DiMarzio notedin his letter, the Diocese of Brooklyn (and all nine others across New York State) have been subpoenaed by the state attorney general to hand over all documents regarding any sex crimes dating back to Jan. 1, 1950, to the present.

This month marks two deadlines. It is both the time when parents have to complete the registration process in order for their children to attend religious formation and for volunteers who teach the program to take the Virtus course, one being used by churches across the country. The Archdiocese of New York, for example, has listed many workshops on its website aimed at restoring faith and trust in programs such as religious formation.

There is much for journalists to think about here. There is a big trend piece right under our noses if we ask the right questions and know where to look.

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