Making the Choice to Join Catholicism
Albany-- Hundreds Set to Complete Conversion on Easter As Church Endures Scandal

By Claire Hughes
Albany Times Union [Albany NY]
March 10, 2003

Despite more than a year's worth of news reports about the sexual abuse scandal roiling the Roman Catholic Church, 280 New Yorkers from 14 counties took their next-to-last step Sunday toward joining the religion.

The number of people in the Albany Diocese choosing Catholicism as their first religion or converting from another Christian faith this year is on par with numbers that have joined in previous years, said Albany Bishop Howard Hubbard.

The national crisis in the church, which involves the Albany Diocese, seems not to have affected their decisions as much as has interest in the religion's principles and the work being done at community churches, he said.

"Despite the difficulties we're going through, the church at the local level continues to be quite strong and vibrant," Hubbard said. "Even though individuals and several leaders have betrayed the sacred trust that's been given them ... most people can put that in perspective."

Early last year, the unsealing of church documents in Boston revealed a church pattern of protecting priests in cases where they had sexually abused children. Claims of similar abuse have since surfaced from coast to coast, including in Albany, where the diocese faces lawsuits from several alleged victims. Hubbard has removed eight priests from active ministry since June 2002 due to credible allegations of abuse.

Sunday, Hubbard acknowledged the scandal during his sermon at a ceremony at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, the hub of the Albany Diocese. The converts' decision "is a source of great joy, hope, promise and inspiration ... especially in these very difficult days," Hubbard said.

Those seeking to join the church stood near parish priests and Catholics who were sponsoring them and told Hubbard they had listened faithfully to the word of God and were ready to join their "brothers and sisters in prayer." They will complete their conversion to Catholicism on Easter, among the holiest days in the Catholic calendar, when followers celebrate Christ's resurrection.

After the nearly two-hour event, several soon-to-be Catholics expressed opinions about joining the religion that affirmed Hubbard's viewpoint.

Christopher Foss, 23, of Saratoga Springs, said he began attending Catholicism classes to learn more about his wife, Michelle's, faith.

Among the things he liked is the weekly Catholic ritual of Communion, in which churchgoers partake of blessed wafers and wine that represent the body and blood of Jesus Christ -- and make, Foss said, Christ present in every mass. Foss, a former Congregationalist, said he is troubled by the sexual abuse scandal within the church, but he did not think it should stop him from committing to Catholic principles.

"It doesn't make me question the faith. What it makes me question is the organizational body" of the Catholic church, Foss said.

As a teenager in Rensselaer, Sabrina Koch, now 26, grew to admire the Catholics who ran a youth organization that took her skiing and camping -- and kept she and other teens out of trouble, she said. She wanted to be like them, and having been raised without religion, felt a spiritual void in her own life, she said.

"I always just felt there was something missing, and this seems to fill that hole," Koch said.

Recent news reports about the church never crossed her mind when she decided to take classes to join the church, she said.

Teresa Gaudette's first experiences with Catholicism were negative, she said. The 33-year-old Latham resident was reared Baptist, but her stepfather was Catholic. When he took her to his church, she felt like an outcast because she couldn't participate in Communion, she said. And as a Navy recruit during the Persian Gulf War, she attended both Catholic and Protestant services and decided she preferred the latter because they were less solemn, filled with lively song. Later, she decided that wasn't enough.

"I didn't get the closeness with God that way," Gaudette said about the Protestant services. "I got the good, fuzzy feeling, but I didn't get close to God."

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