A Wall Street Journal column described Catholic priesthood as a heroic vocation. Other heroes have emerged whose vocation is to work for the good of the priesthood.
I recently received a letter from a 25-year-old reader in Washington, D.C. who wrote that since discovering These Stone Walls he has been reading intensely. “At times,” he wrote, “it has brought me to tears.” This was followed by the unexpected and ironic statement: “It makes me want to be a priest.”
The writer went on to describe his decision to continue reading past and future posts, and to explore more deeply his growing awareness of a summons toward a priestly vocation. The irony was that on the same day I received his letter, we posted “Saint Maximilian Kolbe and the Gift of Noble Defiance.”
The latter half of that post was about a priest of my diocese, the Diocese of Manchester, New Hampshire, who was accused, tried, imprisoned, laicized without due process, and abandoned by our bishop and successors. He is now dying of cancer out of sight and out of mind of our bishop and brother priests.
I hope you will read that post if you missed it, but I found myself wishing that the letter writer would not read it. I do not want to discourage him, but if what he has read thus far on These Stone Walls has not already done that, then I should not underestimate his own heroic witness.
This was not the first time that I have received mail from readers who felt called to priesthood and found that reading TSW pushed them closer to a response. And the response has never once been to flee in the opposite direction.
What could possibly be found in the writings of a falsely accused and wrongly imprisoned priest that would spark life into a dormant priestly vocation? I know priests my age and older who say that they would not foster a young man’s inclination toward priesthood given all that has happened over the last two decades. They assume that I must share that sentiment. I do not.
In “Thoughts Upon My 35th Anniversary of Priesthood Ordination” recently, I wrote of what I imagined my sister to be thinking as I lay prostrate on the floor during the Litany of the Saints at my 1982 ordination:
“I could only imagine her thoughts then: ‘Get up, you fool! Flee!’ Years later, my sister confirmed for me what I had suspected. I asked her if she recalls that moment. Her response: ‘I was thinking that they took my brother from me, and now look at what they’ve done to him!’ But such thoughts could not have swayed me then. They do not even sway me now.”
ORDINARY HEROES MAKE EXTRAORDINARY PRIESTS
I find much hope in young men like Michael, the author of the recent letter I received. There is hope for the priesthood in the strength of the Holy Spirit’s divine summons when men like Michael can look at where priesthood has taken me, and yet find in These Stone Walls something that fosters their own vocation. Not a lot makes me happy these days, but that does.
I found another sign of hope that same week when I opened a copy of The Wall Street Journal after it arrived in the mail. This is by far America’s finest newspaper. It’s pricey for a prisoner, but friends chipped in for a subscription. I never find in its pages even a hint of the contempt for the Church and priesthood that has become daily fare in The New York Times, USA Today, and, sadly, even the National Catholic Reporter.
But even my high regard for the Journal did not prepare me for the counter-cultural shock of this headline on its Editorial Page on August 11, 2017: “The Priesthood Is a Heroic Vocation” by Matthew Hennessey, an associate editorial features editor at the Journal. Here is an excerpt:
“Catholics around the world will celebrate the feast day of St. Maximilian Kolbe on Monday. [August 14]. His story is one of the Church’s finest, though too few people – Christian or not – have heard it… One thing hasn’t changed. Young men still want lives of heroic virtue and the priesthood offers that in abundance.”
It came for me as a sign of much hope. At a time when most of the secular news media views the Catholic priesthood as little more than a source of lurid headlines, The Wall Street Journal published this outstanding tribute, not only to a Patron Saint of both priests and prisoners but to priesthood itself. It is remarkable to read this in the nation’s largest newspaper.
Matthew Hennessey did not overlook the priesthood’s recent darker days. His op-ed pointed out that vocations to the priesthood have suffered at a time when “the sexual abuse scandal dealt a considerable blow to the priesthood’s once-sterling reputation.” With help, I was able to post a comment on the column at WSJ.com. It was comment number 100, posted amid some virulent anti-Catholic rhetoric.
But the wound on the priesthood’s reputation has only deepened through the one remedy – amputation – employed by the Church’s leaders in their time of crisis. Amputation of the accused has not appeased lawyers and insurers, but it has only deepened the wounds. Its legacy is a legion of stories like that of the priest whose plight I described in “Saint Maximilian Kolbe and the Gift of Noble Defiance”:
“I was with him early in the morning as he left prison a few days ago, and went home to his sister to die. I like to think that [Pornchai Moontri and I] managed to fill in some of the cold abyss in which our Church let him wander alone in exile these twenty years. I cannot imagine, even in my most vengeful thoughts, that such alienation and abandonment are what Christ summons forth from the Apostolic witness of His Church.”
I was very proud of the readers of These Stone Walls for their responses to that post. Readers focused – as Saint Maximilian would; as Christ would – not just on the wounds of the innocent, but on the spiritual wounds of one whose sin had caused him to be cast out, alienated, ostracized as a leper.
With no path to redemption, the Prodigal Son stands at a door bolted from within. Readers rejoiced with me over one simple sentence in that post as we stood waiting to enter the prison chapel for Mass after his 16-year absence: “He was reconciled, and we sat with him.”
OPUS BONO SACERDOTII
Our readers should then rejoice all the more at the presence of some real heroism and spiritual leadership in our Church. It emerged at a time of crisis in the priesthood, not from the chancery offices, but from the pews. It is described on the “History” page at the website of Opus Bono Sacerdotii.
“In April 2002, when the Detroit police arrested one of his parish priests on rape charges, Joe Maher did not think twice. Along with his business partner, Pete Ferrara, he drove out to the county jail and paid the bail…”
I wonder how many people, having read that far, would form a spontaneous judgment. It’s easy to do so. It is human nature and the printed word lends itself to that. But accusations are not evidence, and the Church must stop treating them as such.
When he involved himself in the case in Detroit, Joe Maher and his business partner and others obtained competent legal counsel for the priest, assuring an adequate defense. Truth prevailed and the priest was acquitted of the false charges.
After this, recognizing the absence of advocacy for the rights of priests in 2002, Joe Maher and Pete Ferrera founded Opus Bono Sacerdotii, a non-profit corporation whose mission is:
“To find solutions to the problems confronting priests in accordance with the authentic teachings of the Church and the Holy Father and his predecessors. In fulfilling our mission, the priests and staff of Opus Bono Sacerdotii facilitate care for Catholic priests who are experiencing difficulties in their personal life and priestly ministry.”
Opus Bono did not exist before my trial and imprisonment. I do not write that in a spirit of dismay, but rather of urgency for the Church and priesthood going forward.
At the time of my arrest and trial in 1994 – for false charges that were then almost a dozen years old – my bishop and diocese sought only my immediate amputation They embraced in a panic the advice of lawyers who assisted them in drafting a pretrial statement that condemned me as guilty before a trial even began.
With no other evidence in the case, there was little left for a jury to do. I was condemned after just ninety minutes of jury deliberation. Had an organization like Opus Bono existed then, such knee-jerk reaction might have been prevented. This travesty of justice must not be allowed to happen to other priests.
That has been my primary purpose in writing. But I can tell you that since then, this voice in the wilderness called These Stone Walls could not exist without the moral and spiritual support of Opus Bono Sacerdotii. And as my efforts at appeal grew, Opus Bono assisted financially with a fundraising effort.
WHEN THE CHURCH DEFAMES HER PRIESTS
Seven years elapsed between the time Opus Bono came into being and the time in which we launched These Stone Walls. In the interim, I was contacted by individuals, organizations, and even media outlets offering to take up my cause, but with an implied expectation that I would in turn cast the Church, the bishops, and the priesthood in the worst possible light.
Even representatives of the legal profession came to me in 2002 with a suggestion that all might go better for me if I would join other accused priests in throwing priests and bishops into the fires of a witch hunt. Whether true or not never seemed to matter to some of the serpents ready to take my side.
In all that time, I was aware of and inspired by the faithful witness of Joe Maher, Pete Ferrara, and Opus Bono Sacerdotii. But the strongest influence Opus Bono has had on me and on These Stone Walls is the powerful witness of fidelity to the Church while working for the good of the priesthood. Their work very much shaped the tone and substance of These Stone Walls.
The loyalty and fidelity of the founders and staff of Opus Bono are at the heart of its mandate to support, enlighten, and even challenge our Church in regard to the problems of the priesthood in recent decades. To its great credit, Opus Bono does not confuse fidelity with blind compliance.
As a result, Opus Bono has been the source of some sharp – but ever faithful – witness in the public square. Some of that witness comes as a challenge to bishops, priests, and laity to live up to the spirit and truth of the Gospel. I am very proud of Opus Bono for this.
The most recent example of challenge with unwavering fidelity came in the form of an important article. “When the Church Defames Her Priests” was written and recently published in Homiletic & Pastoral Review by Opus Bono founder and president, Joe Maher, and David A. Shaneyfelt, an attorney in private practice in California and an Opus Bono adviser.
The article addresses a destructive and ill-advised practice adopted by some two dozen dioceses and archdioceses in the United States to create and publish lists of priests who have been merely accused. The Opus Bono authors wrote:
“We take special issue with those dioceses who think that publishing a list of names of clerics who have been ‘credibly’ accused of sexual misconduct is warranted. We disagree for many reasons – canonical, theological, pastoral, and legal. It is this latter reason we wish to address here.”
The article goes on to present a brilliant, even stunning and chilling, explanation of what “credible” means in this context. Joe Maher and David Shaneyfelt present a clear and compelling case for protecting the due process rights of priests who are merely accused. After reading, I could not help but agree with its urgency. The article captured the flagrant injustice here:
“How ironic that a bishop, who aims to demonstrate his concern for one victim of abuse, will thereby create another victim of abuse – and end up paying large amounts of damages to each in the process. How doubly ironic that a bishop who initiates such a policy may someday find himself on the list.”
With this practice, some bishops have created their own private version of “Megan’s Law,” but without the law’s built-in respect for basic civil rights. In American courts, only those convicted in a court of law can end up on such a published list.
But some two dozen U.S. bishops and dioceses have published these lists with no legal entity requiring them, and little recourse on the part of the priests, many of whom are innocent, who have been victimized by them. These published lists replace justice with capitulation to a lynch mob and a scandal-hungry media.
I urge the readers of These Stone Walls to support Opus Bono Sacerdotii, to subscribe to its content, and especially to read and share “When the Church Defames Her Priests.” I have been one of them.
I have also been an eyewitness to the fidelity and courage by which Opus Bono, in its work for the good of the priesthood, has held a mirror of justice before the face of our Church.