Catholic Church Crisis Doesn't Deter Converts

By Don Lattin
San Francisco Chronicle
June 15, 2003

The Catholic Church in America may be suffering one of its worst scandals,

but that didn't stop Glenn Atias, Josyln Podesto or Amera Atallah from joining the Roman Catholic Church this year as adult converts.

They are among the newest members of SS Peter and Paul's Church in North Beach -- and three of the 411 neophytes welcomed into the church this year by the Archdiocese of San Francisco.

And they enter the same year hundreds of Catholic priests across the nation have left in disgrace in a still-unfolding scandal over sexual abuse, child molestation and ecclesiastical malfeasance.

"You'd think people would move away, but it is actually putting some people in touch with their faith," said Sister Antonio Heapy, the director of pastoral ministry for the Catholic Church in San Francisco.

Even though the number of adult conversions in the three-county archdiocese is down this year, new members like Atias say the scandal has drawn them into the church.

"If you want to know the heart and soul of something, don't go there at its best time," he said. "Go when it is suffering. The church is now at its low ebb -- at its most humble."

Atias, 39, was raised in a "virtually secular" Jewish family in Rochester, N.Y., and now works as a statistician for a San Francisco company.

His exploration of the Catholic Church followed an earlier conversion experience that he would describe only as "very personal."

Podesto, 31, was raised by "hippie" parents in the Central Valley in the 1970s. She was never baptized, but remembers going to big Italian funerals when she was growing up.

She started thinking about her faith after her mother lost a battle with cancer two years ago. Her mother was a lapsed Protestant, but never seemed to lose her faith during her illness.

"Her death was an influence," said Podesto, who works as a hairdresser in San Francisco. "My mother was very open to other religions. When she died, she left me a Buddha statue with a rosary around the Buddha's neck. That's what it's about, it's about love."

Nevertheless, her conversion has surprised some of her friends.

"Some of them say things like, 'Wow, you're really bucking the trend,' " Podesto said. "But to me religion isn't a trend. It's a path and way to live your life."

Atallah, who is also 31, was born in Beirut. Her dad is a Lebanese Christian and her mother is an American raised as a Jehovah's Witness.

Her family moved around a lot as she was growing up, not leaving Atallah with a religious tradition.

In college, she studied comparative religion, explored Buddhism, hung out with "New Agey types" and got interested in Native American spirituality.

But her study of the life and times of St. Francis of Assisi -- San Francisco's patron saint -- inspired her to check out the Roman Catholic Church.

Like her fellow converts, Atallah is not happy about the way the bishops handled the child abuse scandal, and is shocked by some of the actions of errant priests.

But all that, these converts say, has little to do with their own faith in God and the larger institution of the Catholic Church.

"It's not a divine organization," she said. "It's a human organization. Humans are going to screw up, and they really screwed up," she said. "But that's separate from the core belief of what the church is supposed to be about. The church has done some fairly bad stuff over history -- starting with the Crusades. Every couple hundred years they clean house."

This has been one of those years. Actually, it's been one of those decades.

Public revelations about priestly child abuse and church cover-ups have been dogging the Catholic Church in the United States and Canada for more than two decades.

Ten years ago, the U.S. Catholic bishops made their first concentrated effort to publicly contain the scandal. But revelations about serial pedophilia in the priesthood continued in the 1990s.

This week marks the one-year anniversary of the bishops' latest attempt to purge the church of clerical transgression. They met in Dallas last June and adopted what they call a "zero tolerance" policy for all past, present and future cases of child abuse.

Last year, the Boston Globe conducted a major investigation of priestly molestation that put the issue back in the national spotlight and forced the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law, the nation's highest ranking Catholic prelate.

In California, new laws that make it easier to sue the church and criminally prosecute decades-old cases of child abuse have forced dozens of once-respected priests to leave active ministry.

Throughout it all, millions of California Catholics continue to attend Mass,

donate to the church, educate their children in Catholic schools and view the neighborhood parish as the center of their community life.

According to figures provided by the archdiocese, Mass attendance in San Francisco, San Mateo and Marin counties was only down about 5 percent between October 2001 and October 2002. Complicating that comparison is the fact that the October 2001 count was unusually high because of a post-Sept. 11 upsurge in church attendance.

About half of the parishes in the archdiocese recorded some drop in average Sunday Mass attendance in 2002, while about one-quarter of the parishes saw an increase and one-quarter remained steady.

Every year, hundreds of Bay Area adults go through a period of prayer and preparation in the Catholic Church called the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, or RCIA.

And each year, they are welcomed into the church at a traditional Neophyte Mass celebrated by Archbishop William Levada.

This year's service, held May 4, included 199 adult baptisms and 212 confirmations of Catholic converts from other Christian denominations.

That's a significant drop from the previous year, when there were 243 adult baptisms and 304 RCIA confirmations.

The Rev. John Talesfore, director of the archdiocese's Worship Office, said the unprecedented national and local media coverage of the church sex scandal probably contributed to the decrease.

The situation, he said, varied from parish to parish, depending on the vitality of the parish and whether the local church had a priest involved in the scandal.

At SS Peter and Paul's in North Beach, program coordinator Jan Ross oversaw a class of 17 converts this year -- two or three members larger than the previous year.

The single most common reason adults convert to the Catholic Church is because they have married a Catholic, or are considering such a union.

Podesto and Atallah said they both have boyfriends who are Catholic, but insist that those relationships were not what inspired them to convert.

Atias, who is married to a Russian Orthodox woman, said the sex scandal did not give him any second thoughts about joining the church. In fact, all the negative media coverage actually helped inspire him to make the move.

"The Catholic Church is a big target," he said. "It faces a lot of animosity from people who want to see it stumble.

"But day after day hundreds of thousands of people in the Catholic Church are feeding the poor, helping the sick.

"The popular culture focuses on the scandal, yet ends up inadvertently helping the church. When people investigate the church themselves, they see a gentle and loving philosophy, a sweet and gentle interpretation of the scripture and the beauty of the sacraments. The scandal has driven some people back."


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