August 19, 2006 in City

Latte-a-day remark leaves bad taste with some Catholics

Rebecca Nappi The Spokesman-Review

We Catholic schoolchildren felt sorry for the pagan babies. They could not go to heaven. So our nickels and dimes were scooped up in parochial school classrooms and sent to missionaries in Africa and other exotic places.

The missionaries would baptize these pagan babies with our money, the nuns told us. We were urged to sacrifice a candy bar or two each week to save the souls of the pagan babies.

The pagan baby campaigns are only a dim recollection for me, because by 1964 – when I was in the third grade at St. Charles School on Spokane’s North Side – many misguided and arrogant Catholic movements were being swept away by Vatican II.

But when I read that Seattle lawyer Tim Kosnoff said Spokane parishioners would only have to sacrifice a “latte a day” to contribute to a $60 million settlement for sex-abuse victims, the dark legacy of pagan babies emerged.

The latte-a-day comment irritated many Catholics, including those like me who believe the sex-abuse victims deserve powerful healing through monetary settlements – contributed to by all Catholics – and through the telling of their stories at the parish level.

Kosnoff’s comment showed a lack of understanding about the Catholic culture and our scars over money-wrangling tactics from our youth, such as the pagan baby collections.

Kosnoff is not Catholic, according to a Seattle Times profile published in February. But Michael Pfau, a Seattle lawyer Kosnoff has teamed with, attended parochial schools and graduated from Boston College, a Jesuit institution. He should have explained to Kosnoff why his comment would not play well in Catholic Land.

The comment harkened to the “money sermons” given in our youth by parish priests. The priests sketched gloom-and-doom scenarios if parishioners didn’t sacrifice and contribute generously to the collection plate.

These money sermons are often delivered now, in gentler form, by lay parishioners. And the amount that individual Catholics contribute is voluntary; some contribute nothing. Catholics don’t do guilt as well as they once did.

Yet Catholics can be generous, especially when they feel moved from the heart. When more Catholics hear the victims’ stories, I believe they will be willing to voluntarily contribute to the settlement. But listening sessions with the victims have been rare.

So I worry that Kosnoff’s comment will make it more difficult for the victims to speak to the parishioners who most need to hear them. These include the Catholics who believe that many of the victims made up their stories. And the Catholics who tell me they won’t contribute to any settlement that helps those “fancy” Seattle lawyers grow richer.

The sex-abuse victims in the Spokane Diocese could not tell their stories as children because the Catholic culture of the time didn’t allow for the reality of evil-doing priests. As adults, the victims sought out these high-powered Seattle lawyers because they possessed the clout to get the attention of a diocese that was initially in denial about the whole mess.

As I’ve said before, the true healing of this crisis will come about only when the majority of Catholics in the Spokane Diocese listen to what happened to the victims when they were children in a church that failed to protect them.

The sex-abuse victims are not our modern day pagan babies. They do not dwell nameless in remote locations. They will not be “saved” solely by sacrificing daily lattes.

They deserve financial recompense, and they need to be heard. Unfortunately, their lawyer’s recent money sermon generated unnecessary static in this long Lenten season known as bankruptcy.

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