A member of the clergy prays the rosary as he waits for Pope Francis to arrive at St. Patrick's Cathedral for evening prayer service in New York. Sept. 24, 2015. Across the U.S., Catholics once faithful with their financial support to their churches are searching for ways to respond to the constant sex-abuse scandals that have tarnished the institution in which they believe, with back-to-back scandals in the past two months. Credit: Mary Altaffer | AP

Why am I still a Catholic?

As I sat in the second pew Sunday morning at the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Washington, D.C., I knew I was not the only one there who was wondering that. My parish church — which I have attended for more than 20 years, and where my sons were baptized, received First Communion and were confirmed — seemed fuller than normal for an August morning.

The week had brought revelations of horrors inflicted by some in the Catholic clergy, and of the church hierarchy’s complicity in covering up their actions.

For Catholics in Washington, our anguish has been further deepened by the criticism aimed at our own cardinal, Donald W. Wuerl, in a Pennsylvania grand jury report detailing decades of alleged predation by more than 300 priests on what may have been thousands of children. In his earlier position as bishop of Pittsburgh, Wuerl was inconsistent in dealing with pedophile priests — in some cases, rooting out and getting rid of them; in others, allowing them to remain in the ministry.

The parish bulletin offered no reassurance. In fact, a tone-deaf letter by our pastor did the opposite. “Some have suggested withholding all financial contributions to their parish so as to send a message to the bishops,” he wrote. “Let me assure you that this action serves only to limit what the parish does to serve you; it will not in any significant way affect the Archdiocese.” That only reinforced my decision to turn in my own offering envelope empty.

But then, our young parochial vicar, Father Alec Scott, stepped up to give the sermon.

Father Alec, who was ordained only three years ago, began by telling us about a silver compass his brother had given him as a high school graduation present, along with a note that said: “Alec, never be afraid to go your own direction.”

He kept the compass close, as a metaphor for his decision to go into the priesthood. But he felt occasional pangs, as he watched friends get married and celebrated the birth of his nieces and nephews. Father Alec would think: “I’ve chosen my way. What have I given up or lost?”

The past week stirred a new, darker set of doubts, he said: “What am I doing with my life? What am I doing as a priest in this church?”

And then he pointed us to the morning’s Gospel, from the book of John, in which Jesus made the most fundamental of his promises, the one that Catholics accept every time they receive the Eucharist: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever.”

It was the compass again, this time pointing the way home, Father Alec said. “I say to myself, I don’t know where else I will find this.”

“For all the problems that we experience,” he added, “there is still the presence of God in this place.”

He implored us not to be “repulsed by our brokenness,” because “your prayers are essential. Your presence in this reform is essential.”

When he finished, the congregation erupted in applause.

The Catholic Church does not belong to the bishops. Jesus gave it to us. And we must take it back.

What happened in Pennsylvania, and probably many other states, was a crime — not just on the part of the priests who committed these hideous acts, but also on the bishops who conspired and colluded to conceal what they had done. I want justice, not just in the eyes of God, but in those of the law. The statute of limitations should be lifted, and the higher-ups in the church should also be held to account.

I also believe the Catholic Church should reconsider its position on celibacy, which contributes to an environment of secrecy, and its patriarchal culture, which denies women a meaningful role in its leadership. Those are things that have to be accomplished from the inside.

Let’s hope the bishops reset their own compasses. They have lost their way, and their moral authority.

There was another passage in the scripture readings this morning, from the letter of St. Paul to the Ephesians: “Watch carefully how you live, not as foolish persons but as wise, making the most of the opportunity, because the days are evil.

“Therefore, do not continue in ignorance, but try to understand what is the will of the Lord.”

Karen Tumulty is a Washington Post columnist covering national politics.

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