Sunday, September 25, 2005

A Thought... or Three

Not that it's terribly surprising, but I'm being savaged. Hey, as they will tell you until the Trads come home, it's better to be right than to be popular. God help us if faith were subjected to opinion polls.

Before all else, the past couple days have really brought to the fore for me a question which millions of American Catholics have been wrestling with these last three years.

As one of our bishops once said, the personality type of the serially-abusive cleric was "not the kind of person you'd pull your child away from in the grocery store line." How disgustingly true that is. The worst of the predator priests got away with what they did by being suave, seductive and charismatic, in effect by drawing people to them and building a personality cult. As always, it wasn't the good, honest and distinctly un-flashy types who brought this scourge down upon the church. But, as always, it is they who will have to bear the burden of it.

Think about it, hard though it may be: as these criminals were the guys who did everything in their parishes, the popular and beloved ones who everyone wanted to witness their weddings, baptize their babies, bless their homes and be part of the joys and sadnesses of their lives, many of us have been faced with the question of what happens when someone who has had a public record of memorably good work is discovered to be the diametric opposite in his perversions? Does it negate the good? Does it mean it was all a sham? Does it mean that the faith they inspired in travels was in vain, no good, that we never should've gone down the path their "witness" called us to embark on to begin with?

This is such a wrenching question to think through, but like it or not -- and again, it's not the popular position, but the true one -- the brutality uncovered down the line often involved a priest who had a sterling reputation and brought many people into a closer relationship with God and the church, often moreso than the good, honest and distinctly un-flashy types And if every good work or life affected by those priests who ran a severely depraved streak behind closed doors were nullified by their criminal predations, what would that mean? Where would we be?

In recent years, I came across two guys who had been accused of abuse and were removed. Each encounter made my blood boil.

Before the first guy imploded in a sea of clericalist arrogance, he was possibly the best preacher I had ever seen in my life -- he might still, even now, be the best I've ever seen in the pulpit. I hate saying it, but it's the truth.

He got in touch after he had been removed, yet while his laicization was still pending. I knew the story; he didn't know I knew, but I did, and I tried to get past my revulsion. But there came a point when I had to ask about it, because he seemed to live in some kind of parallel universe where, apparently, nothing bad ever happened and the decision to leave priesthood was portrayed to be one of his own accord.

He showed no remorse, no sense of the consequences, and even said, "So you really wanna be that obnoxious, eh?"

I hung up the phone, nauseated. I really wished to be able to find him and crack his skull for all the people he let down, even the embarrassment and heartbreak he brought to his own family, who were and are incredibly good people and to his mentor who had a nervous breakdown over it. I'm enraged still thinking about that guy's trail of destruction right now, and his lack of regret stuns the hope out of me still.

Around the same time, I was working a side job to make ends meet when I wasn't in class. One night, the gig entailed a wedding group. Clear as day, I could see that the celebrant entering in full clerics was the man who was described by another priest in the recent report as being "one of the sickest people [he] ever met." For a moment, I wasn't sure if I was seeing straight -- mind you, this was in the Fall of 2002, three months after the zero-tolerance statutes of Dallas were approved by the USCCB.

I had long known the story of this guy's depravity in its totality. So I found a moment to find him and pull him aside, just to ask some things. Nothing confrontational, just to sate my extreme curiosity as to what the hell he was doing vested and in ministry.

"Oh, well, you know" he started to say, "I was in a car accident a long time ago and I've been out ever since."

Forgive me for saying it: "Bull. Fucking. Shit."

Of course, I couldn't start a brawl and go off, because it meant that I would've lost my job. But, again, the sight of a smiling face concealing a despicable truth -- a string of 'em -- behind the collar was a bit much to bear, and it stuck with me for a good while.

The wedding family absolutely adored the guy. But remember, these sickos are invariably the beloved ones who can talk their way out of anything. Weeds in the wheat... but what of the good work?

You can see this is all a bit much to handle.

Lastly, I got a very poignant e.mail the other day where I was asked "what bishops/diocese have been particularly good about dealing with abuse in a timely fashion and going back well before 2002?"

Contrary to the "Cyber-Magisterium of Faithful Conservative Catholics" as our good friend Mr Shea calls it, there were bishops who "got religion" on sex abuse early on. Thing is, they're hated on St Blog's and seen as something less than Catholic, less than orthodox -- because they didn't have to ban gays to get the job done.

All the while, their beloved Bruskewicz still won't let the Review Board anywhere near Lincoln.

But still, as I replied to the e.mail, "I could reel off several examples, but one of the most sterling ones in my eyes is Bishop Donald Wuerl of Pittsburgh -- who, it must be noted, is no favorite of most of the St. Blog's crowd. He "got religion" on abuse not long after taking the reins in Pittsburgh in 1988, and when his appeals to have a predator priest laicized were meeting friction in Rome, he took on the Apostolic Signatura (the highest appellate tribunal of the Church) and won. This was in 1994, the former priest's name is Anthony Cipolla.

"Another example is Archbishop Michael Sheehan of Santa Fe, who restored much trust there after being sent to clean up an abuse mess in 1994. Another is Wilton Gregory, himself, (again, no favorite of much of St. Blog's) sent to Belleville to stop the bleeding after a "sex-ring" of priests was exposed and 10% of the presbyterate were suspended. And, of course, Sean O'Malley -- who restored trust and credibility in Fall River, Palm Beach and is working extremely hard in Boston.

"Cardinal McCarrick is another who got the job done. Bishop Joe Galante is another. There are many -- but, again, as they're not the bellicose, judgmental and divisive types favored in the Blogosphere, they've quickly been swept under the rug by those who should be praising and thanking them. Yet it was the gentle, pastoral qualities -- humility, graciousness, lack of scripting, lack of ideology and a conciliatory, human character -- which enabled each of the guys in the first group to be seen as the saviors of the Church."

Wanna be serious about the issue, people? Give the praise where it's due. I know the USCCB aren't the most popular people out there these days, but they can't all be painted with one jarringly broad brush.

To do so doesn't serve the church, but the Golden Calf of ideology. And of all issues, this is the last where a response that claims to be "Catholic" should be par for the course.



Blogger edgleason said...

Good post.. You can add retired Bishop Cummins in the good guy list .. he inherited quite a few cases but got an early fix on the outreach to survivors w/o the $500 an hour lawyers saying 'stonewall and attack'and let's settle with confidentiality'.All bishops were educated to keep secrets and keep the secular laws out of their business. the answer is... it's the system st---d.
Hang in there Rocco;it's you young who have to change the system.
Frisco eddie

25/9/05 22:25  
Blogger Jeff said...

Very good post. A lot of sound stuff in there. I don't know all of the bishops you mention, but I have been an admirer of Archbishop O'Malley for a long time.

The slam at Bruskewitz is NOT warranted however. He hasn't had any of these problems because he, too, won't tolerate these priests. The fact that he doesn't like the Review Board just means he won't play by some of their rules, which he considers damaging in other ways. But he doesn't tolerate this stuff in his diocese. Bishop Olmstead of Phoenix is another that "cons" love that you don't like that is doing a great job on this. It cuts across factional lines.

On the other, more emotional, issue: sin is a profound mystery. We are all deeply infected by it and the fact that people can TRULY in some ways be GOOD, even WANT to be good and seek it, while simultaneously doing dreadfully wicked things is just a fact of fallen human nature. I have no doubt that some of these men had done what you indicate--compartmentalized themselves and gone on living at the same time in parallel universes.

One wonders, though, what is keeping them from REPENTING. Perhaps, it's just that no one, NO ONE, is CALLING them to it. I sometimes think the world has lost the sense of sin completely--even us, even US. Of ALL people WE should have it, if we believe what we are supposed to believe.

Christ came into a world in which all sorts of people knew or sensed, that they and the entire earth were caught up in some vast, smothering, choking disaster of the spirit. Jews and Gentiles felt this. They felt the anger of God pressing in on them. So they asked, "How can we be saved?" But people today don't seem to have any feeling of dread; any notion that there is anything that they need to be saved FROM. The question, "How can we be saved," seems quaint or outmoded. "I'm a pretty good person," they say.

It frightens me. It frightens me badly. Kyrie eleison, may the Lord have mercy on us. On all of us.

25/9/05 22:44  
Blogger patrick said...


This is a long post, but I hope it is the occasion for some further brain picking. I don't think that the good things that these predator priests did became evil simply because the priest did evil things. God gives his grace where he wishes, even through the most evil men. And thank God for that, because otherwise, I would be sunk.

Whether these men were mentally ill, or had a compulsion they could not control, or whether they were simply con artists and unapologetic predators, you can guess, but not be totally sure, and I am sure you will sort that out over time.

One of the best recent biographies is of a cleric is "Loose Canon" a series of essays of Brian Brindley, the once famous gay Anglo-Catholic priest and later Catholic journalist and writer for the Catholic Herald and occasionally for the Catholic World Report(!). He was publicly and unjustly disgraced by tabloid reporter who entrapped him by dishonorable means (not with underage boys, FYI).

An essayist, Anthony Symondson, SJ, who loved Brindley and his ministry, but was harshly (too much so, IMO) critical of his homosexuality, well captured the moral ambiguity of Brindley which may well be applicable here.

"It is a crude analysis to assign the delicacy and complications of human nature to one cause. Sin is rarely confied to a simplistic definition of right and wrong; it is more subtle.

Responsibility for an action can be diminished, but not excused[PR??] by habit, inordinate attachments, and other psychological or social factors....There is no justification for his [Brindley's] divided life, but he was weak, and perhaps possessed by a compulsion he could not control. He lived in watertight compartments. The consequences of leading an esoteric existence lie in the damage that is done when it ceases to be a secret, as much as in the life itself. For the Church at large, the effects of clerical turpitude lie all around. The reprecussions are best left to God."

But, the author then goes onto say about Brindley:

"Not all moralize, and there are many whose eyes brighten when Brian is mentioned. He was one of the most stylish, intelligent, funny, learned and cultivated men I have known. His rare and unusual life enriched scores of people as much as it infuriated others. I saw his death as the end of a long line of Anglo-Catholic clergymen whose existence brought colour to a grey institution, and even greyer parishes, WHO SERVED GOD THROUGH THEIR IMPERFECTIONS." [My emphasis].

Perhaps, Rock, these priests you knew were simply evil - or were good once, but chose the evil path somewhere down the line. But, perhaps it is the case that, like Brian Brindley, they had compartmentalized lives, compulsions they could not control, or were otherwise morally compromised in the way that most of the rest of us are, but in a more spectacular and particularly destructive way. Yet, just maybe, they tooy served God despite their imperfections and their sins, and despite the fact their imperfections and sins were so great that they needed to be removed from public ministry or defrocked.

25/9/05 22:49  
Blogger Dom Dominic said...

Well said Rocco. All of it.

There was an R.C. priest when I was growing up in New Hampshire, that people were uneasy around. He seemed "a little funny" and socially awkward. He was someone by outward appearance that one might "pull their kids away from in the grocery store."

He suddenly left the priesthood, and disappeared. Of course no one was surprised. "Must have gotten into some trouble. He was funny that way, you know."

Fifteen years later I ran into him at a conference. Turned out we have a mutual friend, and we all had lunch together. We share several common interests and have kept in touch since.

His big sin? He snitched on his pastor who was having a sexual and emotional relationship with a minor. The diocese moved them both to new parishes and told him that the "issue had been dealt with." Two years later when he learned that "the issue" was nineteen, working for his old pastor in the new parish, discerning a vocation, and now living in the rectory, he renewed his complaint which fell upon deaf ears.

One morning he woke up, packed a few boxes, drove away, and never looked back.

25/9/05 23:01  
Blogger Curmudgeon said...

Jeff beat me to the punch on . . . well . . . just about everything I would say, including a big plug for Olmstead, but I want to reiterate that your comment on Bruskewitz is WAY out of line.

I've got issues with Bruskewitz myself, and he gets no credit for "cleaning up" Lincoln the way Olmstead is now doing in Phoenix (he inherited a well run diocese with no systemic problems to begin with). But it's obvious that he's not acting to cover anything up to protect his image (the man is oblivious to questions of image, we can all agree).

Bruskewitz is standing up against his pandering brethren and refusing to permit a body controlled (at the time) by dissidents like Leon Panetta and Bob Bennett and 'Luther was Right' Keating to exercise authority in his diocese.

Bruskewitz, whatever his rough edges or his blind spots, was wise to refuse participation in the John Jay survey and is right to keep the board at a distance (witness the background and actions of the current national director).

25/9/05 23:15  
Blogger Sam Martini said...

And don't forget Bishop DiLorenzo, now in Richmond a bit over a year, but formerly of Hawaii - he is a warm and pastoral individual, who has been tough enough to clean up some real messes too. His new round of appointments from Richmond this past June have been excellent, with some fine traditional (and I am not saying liberal or conservative here) priests to good spots across the diocese. It may take a few more years to completely remake this diocese but he is making a fine start.

26/9/05 07:01  
Blogger Fr Phil Bloom said...

Nor should we forget Archbishop Hunthausen. When he returned from the bishops' meeting in 1985, he told his Vicar, "we have to do things completely different." He removed several priests from ministry, put others under severe restrictions. Since then Seattle has had no new accusations of clergy sexual abuse of minors.

As similar comments (above) indicate, what happened in Seattle also was common in other dioceses. This is part of the scandal that has not been reported - or at least has not sunk into public consciousness, including in the blogosphere.

27/9/05 14:22  

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