Abraham Lincoln once told a story about a man who traveled along a backwoods road on a dark and stormy night. After several claps of earth-shaking thunder in the blackness, with just the occasional flash of lightning to show him he was still on his path, the man issued a plea: “Lord, if it’s all the same to Thee, a little less noise and a little more light, please.”
I’ve been making that very same plea for over a decade now. It resonates clearly in my three-part post, “When Priests Are Falsely Accused,” and other posts such as, “Are Civil Liberties for Priests Intact?” When I wrote them two years ago, I felt very much alone on that dark and noisy path hoping that someone might come along with some light amid all the hype.
The sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic priesthood has generated so much pointless, noisy rhetoric that light has become a precious and rare commodity. The “zero tolerance” policy of the U.S. Bishops’ panic-driven 2002 Dallas Charter added no light at all, but only turned up the volume on corrupt voices like the ones I described in “SNAP’s Last Gasp!” In this decade of scandal, many Catholics have been duped. The crisis has been used by some very noisy people to silence a Catholic voice in the public square. Recent news events are witness to that silencing.
In all times of moral panic, however, no amount of noise will dissuade a few courageous voices from the truth, no matter how much that truth is suppressed. One of these voices to emerge with full and reasoned Catholic courage is David F. Pierre, host of TheMediaReport.com and author of a landmark book we profiled last December in “A Book Every Priest Should Read: Catholic Priests Falsely Accused.”
Now there is another, and readers met him here on These Stone Walls a few weeks ago in “May Truth and Justice Prevail.” Father James Valladares has recently published a compelling new book that I now add to my must-read list for Catholics concerned with the downward spiral of justice and public discourse in the Catholic Church. I recommend with great enthusiasm, Hope Springs Eternal in the Priestly Breast (iUniverse 2012). I received my copy in the middle of May and it brought all my plans for spring cleaning to a screeching halt. I was stunned by this courageous book, and you will be as well.
Before I describe it further, however, we need some full disclosure. I’m in this book. In fact, I’m in this book extensively, and so is These Stone Walls. I find it very difficult to write about a book that I am in. Father James Valladares did his homework, and he did it well. His book exposes aspects of my story that made me tremble. I read it through two consecutive sleepless nights that left me spiritually and emotionally drained. It wasn’t because the author framed my case as a justice crisis for the courts, but rather as a greater and more crucial justice crisis for the Church.
Father Valladares is the very first writer to accomplish this nebulous task, and he did it with amazing clarity and courage. In the end, I’m not certain whether it should encourage me or frighten me. Not even I – after living in this nightmare for two decades – had a full understanding of the implications for the Church and priesthood that Father Valladares laid out so masterfully.
In Hope Springs Eternal in the Priestly Breast, Father James Valladares has excised these wounds upon the Church and priesthood with impeccable credentials in developmental, educational, and counseling psychology. Having served for a decade as a lecturer in psychology at Saint Andrew’s College in Mumbai, India, he has completed extensive post-doctoral research in religion, healing, and parenting. Today, Father Valladares serves in the Archdiocese of Adelaide, Australia.
CHANNELING FATHER NEUHAUS
As I have written many times before, I am no strong believer in random coincidence. I received my copy of Father Valladares’ book on May 14, the Feast of Saint Matthias, the man chosen by the Apostles to replace Judas, the Betrayer (Acts 1:26). TSW readers might know that May 14 would also have been the 76th birthday of the late Father Richard John Neuhaus, one of the inspirations behind These Stone Walls and forever remembered as a priest who served the Catholic Church in North America with exceptional light, clarity, and fidelity. Another is Cardinal Avery Dulles, to whom l owe the idea for These Stone Walls‘ existence. Both are cited and quoted repeatedly in Hope Springs Eternal in the Priestly Breast.
I had been reviewing some excerpts of “Scandal Time” in honor of Father Neuhaus’ birthday. His famous collection of essays on the priesthood crisis was published in First Things and is now gathered on These Stone Walls under “Articles.” On May 14, I had been reading an essay by Fr. Neuhaus entitled “In the Aftermath of Scandal,” (First Things, February 2004). When I first opened Fr. Valladares’ book I spotted this excerpt from the same essay:
“The niceties of Canon Law, due process, and elementary decency have in many instances taken a beating. As one cardinal archbishop said after Dallas (2002), it may be necessary for some priests to suffer injustice for the good of the Church. In the course of history, Caiaphas has not been without his defenders.” (p.25)
Some readers might find it odd that I agree, at least in part, with that unnamed cardinal quoted by Father Neuhaus. It has always been necessary that some priests suffer for the good of the Church. I hope that was clear in “Marking Thirty Years of Priesthood: If I Knew Then What I Know Now.” My greatest suffering is not wrongful imprisonment, however, as horrible as that actually is. I hope readers know by now that I have not been languishing in prison beating my own priestly breast in a litany of woe for eighteen years. My far greater suffering is that the Dallas Charter considers prison, even to be wrongfully imprisoned, to be the end of priesthood forever. Any Church bureaucrat who thinks that prison by its very nature marks the end of my priesthood seriously underestimates both me and priesthood. No consistent reader of These Stone Walls could ever draw such a flawed conclusion.
Father James Valladares most certainly has not drawn that conclusion. After reading his book, I was in awe of the extent to which he has been listening to me through his reading of These Stone Walls. I cannot speak for him, but I think I can safely write that he hasn’t listened to me because I am a priest or because I am a prisoner. He has listened to me because, to date at least, I remain both. I face every day as both. If I was not a priest in these extraordinary circumstances, not much of what I have had to say would have landed in this book.
So why did I conclude just a week ago that if I knew then what I know now, I would still be ordained a priest? The very day I am posting this – June 6, 2012 – marks thirty years since I offered my First Mass. I remember standing at that altar with great joy and profound peace surrounded by hundreds of my friends and brother priests who came to celebrate that First Mass with me. If elevating the Body of Christ for the very first time would have given me a glimpse of where priesthood would have me thirty years in the future, would I have ever dared to elevate that Host again? I have to answer not with a resounding “yes,” but with a sacrificial one, and for the very reasons Father Valladares describes:
“In June of 2002, during the height of the media’s focus on Catholic bishops and priests, the Los Angeles Times [no friend of the priesthood] sent surveys to 5,000 priests in the United States . . . The survey found that 91 percent of respondents were satisfied with their life as a priest; 90 percent of respondents would choose to be a priest again if they had the opportunity; and 91 percent of respondents thought it was unlikely that they would ever leave the priesthood.”(p.97).
It was upon reading this that I understood why Father Valladares would dare to name his book about facing and cleansing the darkest wounds of the Church and Priesthood, Hope Springs Eternal in the Priestly Breast. It’s because it does. In spite of all the noise and name calling, in spite of all the challenges and chastisement, in spite of all the suffering and sacrifice, priesthood in the Catholic Church is like that famous image of a flower forcing its way through pavement to reach the light of day. Priesthood, if centered on sacrifice, will survive all that is thrown at it.
You won’t read about this in The New York Times or the National Catholic Distorter – umm, Reporter. You won’t read about this at the toxic landfill websites of SNAP or VOTF or Bishop-Accountability. Writer, Ryan A. MacDonald made this clear in his essay, “Why Do SNAP and VOTF Fear the Case of Father Gordon MacRae?” These sites exist to promote agendas that have nothing to do with protecting children or serving the Church. They exist to restore the dissent of 1968 as I described in “Marking Thirty Years of Priesthood.”
The wounds of the priesthood must be healed, but they cannot be healed as long as only one side of the story is told. It is a fact that vulnerable people were once harmed at the hands of a small number of Catholic priests several decades ago. It is a fact that child sexual abuse in our society was and still is a reality of epidemic proportions. It is also a fact that scapegoating the Catholic Church does little to cast light on this topic and does nothing – absolutely nothing – to protect children in our broken culture.
It is also a fact that many Catholic priests have been falsely accused despite the unfounded and poorly informed rhetoric of commentators such as Monsignor Stephen Rossetti. The former Director of Saint Luke Institute recently spoke at a symposium for Vatican officials tasked with exploring the truth. They were not well served by his uncorroborated claim that in his experience, false accusations against priests are very rare. In my experience, they thrive and proliferate in direct proportion to the unquestioned money thrown at them by Church insurers and scandal weary bishops.
Msgr. Rossetti’s baseless assertion may have been true in 1980. It is not true today. He would do well to spend some time at the Innocence Project website to examine the stories of 247 men exonerated after being wrongfully imprisoned for decades falsely accused of sexual assault. I can only respond to Monsignor Rossetti with something I wrote in “Padre Pio Under Investigation,” now quoted in Father James Valladares’ book:
“Justice has turned on its head when men who stand to gain hundreds of thousands of dollars for making a false claim are automatically called ‘victims’ by Church leaders now, while priests accused without evidence from decades ago are just as quickly called ‘priest-offenders’ and ‘slayers of souls.’ (p. 207).
AT THE TURNING OF THE TIDE
Over just the last year, some prophetic and courageous voices have emerged in the Catholic public square to stem the tide of unjust vilification of the priesthood. Let’s hope these voices reverberate throughout this time of crisis and conflicting agendas to inspire others. Father George David Byers has joined in with some courageous recent posts such as “The Judas Crisis . . . Follow the Thirty Pieces of Silver.” Ryan MacDonald has once again added to this trend with “Bishop Takes Pawn: Plundering the Rights of a Prisoner Priest.” So has David F. Pierre, host of The Media Report, with his “Bombshell Report” about false accusations and his “Exclusive Report” about new evidence in my own case.
These writers of just and merciful Catholic conscience have made me proud to be a priest, and have given meaning to the suffering inherent in 18 years of wrongful imprisonment. Our reluctant Catholic press would do well to put aside its “Father Maciel Syndrome,” and follow their lead to cover this story.
And then, there is you. Yes, I do mean you, for if you are reading this you have lent to your Church and faith a courageous ear, and the tools for spreading the rest of the story. If you have been reading These Stone Walls then you have demonstrated for me and the whole Body of Christ something that has been sorely lacking in this decade of scandal: hearts of courage and justice open to the whole truth, and not just the one-sided scarlet letter with which our scandal driven news media and special interest groups have labeled your Church. Fr. James Valladares and David F. Pierre have told the rest of the story.
I believe it is told here on These Stone Walls as well, but spreading the truth relies not just on their courage, but on yours. I have no doubt that you have such courage for I have seen it. Help us tell the rest of the story by sharing this post in the Catholic on-line world, among your social networking, and by sharing a link.
Awhile back, writer Ryan MacDonald bestowed a dubious honor upon me and These Stone Walls. In “The Prisoner Priest Behind These Stone Walls,” he wrote that my writing for TSW “has been the finest example of priestly witness the last decade of scandal has produced.” Were that ever true, I don’t think it is true any longer. Father James Valladares has knocked me off that throne with a painful, faithful, and astonishing gift of priestly witness for the Church. I am honored to recommend Hope Springs Eternal in the Priestly Breast, and add it to our short list of recommended books on These Stone Walls.
“The present scenario reported by Fr. Valladares is dark. Yet, he has surprisingly chosen a title for his book that speaks of hope. For sure, it is a hope based on Jesus’ words to his disciples, ‘I will be with you always.’ Therefore, far from pessimistic, Fr. Valladares presents the facts with confidence that ‘the truth will set us free.’ For his hard work, born out of a love for the priesthood and his brother priests, Fr. (James] Valladares is to be commended.” (From the Foreword by Father Michael Orsi, Ed.D., Ave Maria School of Law).