The first week of July brought dismal news for devoted Catholics already bent under the millstone of scandal. On Independence Day, I turned on New England Cable News to learn that forty-two year old Father Paul Archambault, a priest of the Diocese of Springfield ordained only six years, took his own life. It was heartbreaking, and I know his family must be devastated.
But I fear that far too many in his other family – the Catholic Church – have so steeled themselves against the relentless tide of painful news that such a tragedy is just another news day. That is an even greater tragedy. If you have never read my article, “The Dark Night of a Priestly Soul,” about the suicide of a priest I knew, please do. I wish Father Paul Archambault had read it. It may have helped him to seek another way to deal with whatever immense pain brought him to this horrific act. I have been where he was in the final moments of his life. I wish I could have helped him.
I don’t yet know the source of Fr. Archambault’s unbearable anguish. He died sometime the previous Saturday night after celebrating Mass and then ministering to a family in a hospital emergency room where he was a chaplain. When he did not show up for his Mass that Sunday morning, someone went in search of him. In between was the darkest night of his own priestly soul. Please, please pray for him.
Some twenty-six American Catholic priests have taken their own lives since priests became a favorite target of the news media, and of Satan himself. I have personally known five of them, and three others who were murdered. A psychiatrist friend who has been conducting research on the priesthood told me that it is extraordinary that I have known eight priests who were either murdered or committed suicide. He said that I’ve been hanging out with the wrong crowd – or, if you read the Gospel, the right one.
I do know this: simply casting off the most wounded among our priests has been the sin of the Church, and it’s a sin that would not happen in our own families. Cardinal Avery Dulles wrote of this in one of his last letters to me before his death:
“Thank you for keeping me informed about the great scandal of the failure of the Church to support her priests in their time of need. Someday your story and that of your fellow sufferers will come to light and be instrumental in a reform. I am sure that in the plans of divine Providence your ministry of suffering is part of your priestly vocation.”
No corporate bottom line would dictate whether we care for our fathers, our grandfathers, our brothers, or our sons, but lately in the Church in America, it does, and it’s a scandal. Christ came into the world to call forward a community’s soul, not a corporate sole. One bishop I know wrote in a whining missive to Rome that if he helped one accused priest in his diocese he would fear an uproar. At least the bishop was honest. His response toward a brother left beaten on the side of the road was moved by fear.
The problem is strictly American. Other parts of the world do not see the draconian and terminal penalties imposed upon accused priests which lead to their being simply discarded – sometimes on the streets with no place to go. I fear sometimes that the Catholic Church in America is becoming far more American than Catholic. America is a disposable culture that does not abide problems, and the Church has come to reflect this ugly side of America. The stewards of our faith have capitulated to it.
DISPOSABLE PRIESTS IN A DISPOSABLE CULTURE
I am as much in the dark as everyone else about what exactly lies ahead for Father John Corapi. He has announced that he has not petitioned to leave the priesthood, which would require a relatively long process of seeking voluntary laicization in Rome, and he certainly has not left the Catholic faith – at least not yet.
There are priests who, for various reasons, are not assigned to ministry. Under a tenet of Canon Law (Canon 1722) a bishop, with just cause, may forbid a priest from the exercise of public ministry for a period of time, but he remains a priest.
For seven years before I was accused and faced trial in 1994, I was not in “public” ministry as a priest. For the first two years, I was director of a drug and alcoholism treatment center, and vice-president of the New Hampshire Association of Chemical Dependency Service Providers. But I was still very much a priest living under obedience to the authority of my bishop. I celebrated Mass and other sacraments.
Even now, after 17 years in prison for a crime that I insist never took place, I witness to the Gospel and to the Mission of the Church every day in conditions that most priests cannot imagine. That is not a boast. Who would boast of such a thing? I celebrate the sacraments, as you know, and I am still a priest.
A priest may also petition the Holy See for voluntary removal from the clerical state, known popularly as “laicization.” TSW recently had a comment from a man who left ministry as a priest to marry many years ago. As far as the Church was concerned, he remained a priest and entered into a civil, but invalid marriage. He reported that he was only recently granted his petition for laicization so that he may now have his marriage blessed by the Church. For reasons that are both sound and prudent, the Church has never been in any hurry to return a priest to the lay state.
One of the most destructive fallouts of the sex abuse scandal in the American Church has been the reality of involuntary laicization. When enacting the Charter, the US Bishops quoted a statement of Pope John Paul II in his address to American cardinals on April 23, 2002: “There is no place in the priesthood or religious life for those who would harm the young.” Some American bishops have used that statement to seek forced laicization of accused priests under Canon 290, by judicial sentence or by a special act of the Pope. Prior to the Dallas Charter, such a permanent and unappealable removal from the priesthood was exceedingly rare. After the Charter, there was a wave of involuntary laicizations, and some believe they have done irreparable harm to the very Catholic theology of priesthood.
From a practical standpoint, forced laicization – popularly but erroneously called “defrocking” in the media – might satisfy some vindictive urges in certain victim groups, but it does nothing to prevent any possible victimization. It merely discards a priest with problems, or an innocent one, upon the dung heap of Job with no support, no supervision, and no accountability because of claims that are decades old and often uncorroborated. Families do not discard their fathers, sons, or brothers, and the Church should not discard her priests.
A PURITAN RESPONSE TO SIN
The Bishops’ Charter failed to add a qualifying statement of Pope John Paul II to the American cardinals summoned to Rome in 2002:
“At the same time . . . we cannot forget the power of Christian conversion, that radical decision to turn away from sin and back to God, which reaches to the depth of a person’s soul and can work extraordinary change.”
By omitting the most important part of the Pope’s statement, the U.S. Bishops adopted a punishment with no allowance for repentance. In an essay for Homiletic & Pastoral Review (“Sex Abuse and Anti-Catholicism“) Ryan MacDonald wrote:
“The Puritan founders of New England would approve of the purging of the priesthood now underway in Western Culture, for it is far more Calvinist than Catholic.”
In a landmark article in America magazine, “The Rights of Accused Priests” (June 21, 2004 and reprinted at TSW under “Articles”), the late Cardinal Avery Dulles issued a stinging rebuke of the bishops. What follows are some excerpts:
“The United States bishops have taken positions at odds with [their own] high principles.”
“Under intense pressure from various survivors’ networks, they hastily adopted, after less than two days of debate, the so-called Dallas Charter . . . “
“In their effort to . . . restore public confidence in the Church as an institution and to protect the Church from liability suits, the bishops opted for an extreme response.”
“The dominant principle of the Charter was ‘zero tolerance’ . . . Having been so severely criticized for exercising poor judgement in the past, the bishops apparently wanted to avoid having to make any judgements in these cases.”
Cardinal Dulles went on to address the often near impossibility of judging the truth of allegations against priests without investigation, and the inherent injustice of taking actions that brand a priest as guilty before such investigation. He then outlined the rights of priests under Canon Law, and how the Charter and current policies ignore or even destroy those rights. I urge every priest and every Catholic to read Cardinal Dulles’ article.
I am not a canon lawyer by any means, and have very limited training in it. What I have learned has been from experience, and my own experience has been a crash course in fending off what I believe is a seriously flawed and unjust process faced by many accused priests who simply did not commit the crimes.
To highlight how flawed this process is, I would like to reproduce a letter I received recently from a prominent priest, canon lawyer, and professor of Canon Law at a leading Catholic University. I’ll reprint the entire letter, but without his name since I haven’t asked his permission to print his name. I’ll let his letter speak for itself:
“Dear Father MacRae:
Don’t ever discount the real spiritual good is accomplished by These Stone Walls. You make people like me, with consciences dulled by repetitious prevalence of procedural abuses, face our responsibilities to protest and to act. You make it personal and compelling.
I want to pass along some bad news. You may already be aware of it, since you seem very well informed, but, if not, at least it will give you occasion to reflect. It seems that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has turned to ‘penal dismissals from the clerical state’ as a routine solution to the cases being sent by American bishops after preliminary investigations. The decrees of dismissal are not subject to appeal or review.
The procedural injustice of this practice is obvious.
In the preliminary investigation process, the accused priest has no opportunity to defend himself. The cases are sent by bishops to CDF sometimes with an expectation that they will instruct the diocese to proceed with a canonical trial for dismissal or allow the accused priest to remain [in the priesthood] in a penitential state but removed from public ministry. Instead, the CDF seems to be taking this drastic and terminal action based solely on the information provided by a bishop in the preliminary investigation – often when the priest is accused of abuse alleged to have occurred thirty years ago or more.
I don’t want to discourage you or any petitions to the Holy See on your behalf. Quite the contrary, I would urge any and all possible interventions.
Think about the implications if this shameful result should fall on you. It is really an empty juridical gesture with no practical consequences. You remain a priest. No one can take that away. You can pray, and you can celebrate the Holy Eucharist validly, absolve or anoint in emergencies, and, I presume, you could continue your very valuable ministry of consciousness raising. What I am trying to say is please do not be discouraged or lose hope if this awful expedient is aimed at you.”
GANGING UP ON THE ALREADY DOWN
To date, at least, that final chapter of my nightmare hasn’t taken place. But the Church must be made aware – you must be made aware – of the inherent injustice of “piling on” that occurs when most priests are accused.
When I faced trial in 1994, I was entirely on my own against an assault on three simultaneous fronts. First, I faced a criminal trial, but very few priests earn a salary or have access to funds that would assure a fair trial. I certainly did not, but my diocese issued a letter to my attorneys instructing them:
“to the extent he is without funds, he should contact the public defenders’ office.”
The cost of my defense would have been but a tiny fraction of the cost of mediated settlements.
Secondly, simultaneous to a criminal defense and preparing for trial, I also faced civil lawsuits naming both me and my diocese as defendants. The accusers were represented by their contingency lawyers, and both they and their lawyers had a clear financial stake in the outcome. My diocese was represented by a high profile law firm seeking, from day one, the quietest avenue toward settlement that would generate the least publicity. With my meager assets dissolved in only partial funding of a criminal defense, I was not represented at all against the civil claims. When I protested the possibility of a settlement without corroboration, my accusers and their lawyers simply dropped me as a defendant so that I would no longer have any standing in the matter.
When Father Corapi announced that he is leaving ministry, a spokesman for his order cited Father Corapi’s lawsuit against his accuser as “complicating” the order’s investigation. The spokesman cited a requirement of Canon Law that there be no pressure on witnesses in a canonical case. Fair enough. But how, then, would anyone explain how an expectation of a few hundred thousand dollars from a mediated settlement fails to constitute “pressure on witnesses” in a canonical case. The canonical processes have given no thought to either the reality of false claims or the fact that accusers have a clear financial stake in the outcome of these claims.
Lastly, from the moment I was accused, I faced a trial-by- media that set an impossible boundary between me and justice. The accusers had contingency lawyers who were relentless spokespersons for their feigned “victimization.” My diocese had a spokesperson who advocated for the distance the diocese was motivated to obtain from me. As I faced trial in 1994, knowing that I maintained my innocence, and knowing that I was not represented at all as settlement negotiations ensued in the background, my bishop and diocese issued a press release stating:
“The Church has been a victim of the actions of Gordon MacRae just as these individuals. It is clear that he will never again function as a priest.” (Press Release of the Diocese of Manchester, September 6, 1993).
My attorneys protested this to deafened ears. With that public statement came the end of my civil rights to a presumption of innocence and a fair trial. Throughout the trial, the local news media cited that statement. The jurors in my trial read the statement. To pretend that this scenario represents justice requires far more skill in the art of pretense than I have ever been capable of.
And it’s even worse still, today. The Bishop Accountability website publishes every sordid detail about every money-driven claim taking no responsibility whatsoever for whether their information is true or corroborated. The site administrators publish the names and lurid details claimed of every accused priest while removing the names of all accusers. In some instances, this amounts to aiding and abetting them in the commission of the crimes of fraud and larceny.
And now, as is clear from the canonist’s dismal letter above, if the accused priest cares anything at all about preserving his priesthood then he must also hire a canon lawyer to defend himself against yet another tier of simultaneous judicial processes: the possibility of canonical dismissal from the priesthood.
If nothing else, the case of Father John Corapi has called attention to the realities of procedural mountains every accused priest must climb. I join many in our sadness that Father Corapi seems to have chosen not to attempt that climb. For now, I would like to ask readers to abandon the shallow but popular media notion that priesthood is little more than a job from which any priest can merely quit or be fired.
Please abandon also any notion of addressing any of this in confrontation with our bishops individually or collectively. They are the legitimate authority in our Church, and their positions have been no less influenced by cataclysmic events than were my own. We owe them loyalty, and our own demonstration of fidelity, before we are in any position to ask for change. We belong to the same Church, the one Church, and a house divided against itself will fall. The gates of hell may not prevail against it, but our own divisions and divisiveness could make a dent visible for centuries. What would priesthood be even worth to me if I seek to preserve it by sowing division?
When he ordained his first class of priesthood candidates as Archbishop of Los Angeles this year, Archbishop Jose Gomez said in his homily:
“The priesthood is not about power or prestige. It is not an office or an occupation. It is a sacrament.”
A sacrament cannot be simply discarded, even if the man who bears it is flawed. And for those accused, simply slamming the rectory door behind us on our way out might be the American way, but it is not the Catholic way.