It happens so easily, and sometimes even innocently. Very few of us are exempt from being both the victims and the proponents of gossip. As I wrote in “The Mirror of Justice Cracked,” the first of a three-part post in October, I was once Director of Admissions for a treatment and spiritual renewal center for priests. I had been on staff there only a month when asked one day to give a tour to a visiting bishop. In the main corridor, we stopped to look at a display of Native American art from a local Pueblo. As the bishop backed up to view the display, he backed right into the lady’s room door just as it opened and a secretary emerged. It was an awkward moment.
I reached out to steady them both as they collided, and to lighten the startled secretary’s embarrassment I said, “It’s not a vision; it’s just us.” The next morning I was summoned to the facility director’s office. The secretary had filed a complaint alleging that on the previous day I approached her as she emerged from the lady’s room and said. “Oh, it’s my vision of lust!”
When I told the director what really happened, he inquired with the visiting bishop who corroborated my account exactly, but not before the secretary passed along her version to the rest of the office staff. I was new there, and for weeks afterward I had a creepy feeling that I was the subject of a lot of office gossip. Over time, once the staff got to know me better and a trust level developed, the incident just evaporated. Eventually even the offended secretary just brushed it aside with a casually mumbled, “I might have heard wrong.”
There was a time when women were subjected to real and egregious affronts and harassment in the work place, and there was little they could do about it because of an inherent imbalance of power. I would never want to see a return to the bad old days of grotesquely unjust harassment and abuse. But the problem with the story above wasn’t what the secretary thought she heard versus what really happened. It was with the fact that the truth had a steep uphill climb once everyone else was told only one side of the story. Once such a thing takes root, it spreads and forms a life of its own. An untrue rumor can be repeated so much, and spread so far, that the truth doesn’t stand a chance.
Actually, this is exactly what has happened in the sexual abuse crisis in the Church. The media spread one story with such ferocity that the truth is just swatted like a pesky fly. To see just how this happened, have another look at my Catalyst article, “Due Process for Accused Priests.”
MY HIDDEN LIFE WITH A SECRET WIFE!
Though I tried hard to mask it at the time, the incident with the secretary was especially painful because it resurrected a similar experience from the past, and the fact that I seem never able to see such things coming. I have an inherently trusting nature. I suppose it would be a handicap if a priest didn’t readily trust others. But even here in prison, those who know me are always telling me that I’m far too trusting and open to others. It’s a very difficult balance for a priest to strike – especially one in prison. Trusting too much can harm your reputation. Not trusting enough can harm your soul.
I arrived at St. Bernard Parish in Keene, New Hampshire on June 15, 1983. I was told by our diocesan personnel director at the time that I was going to a positive and worry-free assignment after a difficult year in a very troubled parish. But as was typical for my diocese then – and perhaps for many others – there seemed to be no limit to how out-of-touch the Chancery Office could be.
I arrived to learn that the pastor had been charged with driving while intoxicated and was awaiting my arrival so he could leave for his third attempt at residential treatment for alcoholism. My heart went out to this man who struggled so much with his fragile humanity while his superiors seemed oblivious to it. I was there to replace another priest who was bitterly leaving the priesthood after three years at that parish, but stayed on to help me until the pastor returned. He was angry and disillusioned, and not exactly a fraternal support.
The parish was immense, for New Hampshire, at least. It had over 2000 families, provided round-the-clock pastoral care for a regional hospital and trauma unit, three nursing homes, a college campus, a regional Catholic school, and a mission church about fifteen miles away – and I arrived to learn that I was essentially alone. You can read about some of this tumultuous time in “Case History Part I: Origins of the Case.”
In that summer of 1983, there was a lot going on in my own life, too. Just a month earlier, my father died suddenly at the age of 52. I had literally gone from presiding over his funeral Mass, and caring for my family, to packing and moving to a new rectory and parish 100 miles away.
A few weeks after I arrived and got settled, my sister and her family drove up from the Boston area to visit me. We still had some unfinished details over the death of our father, and two months earlier my sister gave birth to her second child. I had the privilege of baptizing her in my new parish. While my brother-in-law unpacked my boxes of books, my sister and I took my two nieces for a stroll down Keene, New Hampshire’s picturesque Main Street. It was a beautiful summer day, and we had lots to discuss while we pushed the stroller down the busy street.
By the middle of the following week, the rectory phone started ringing. First, it was a priest in a neighboring parish. “I just wanted to give you a head’s up,” he said. “I’ve heard from two people that you have a secret wife and kids.” I laughed, at first, but by the end of that week I wasn’t laughing anymore. Then the parish council president called. “We don’t need another scandal,” he said. “People are calling me with a rumor that you’ve fathered two children.” By then, I was furious.
We were able to backtrack who said what to whom and when, and learned that the ugly rumor began with that innocent Sunday afternoon walk with my sister and nieces. And ground zero of the rumor was one parishioner, Geraldine (long since forgiven, no longer with us, and not her real name!), who also happened to be out on Main Street that afternoon. Geraldine jumped to a conclusion – a rather strange one, I think – then jumped on the telephone. It was like a virus that spread from person to person, growing and mutating along the way. Poor Geraldine had no intention that her bit of gossip would spread like a wildfire, but it did. It spread everywhere.
I waited for a time when I was a little calmer to call Geraldine, but she didn’t make it easy. At first she was embarrassed that I had traced the story back to her, but she was far more embarrassed to learn that my sordid stroll down Main Street that day was with my sister and two nieces who had come to visit to discuss the death of our father. “Well, never mind!” Geraldine said, “But we do have a right to know what our priests are up to!”
Yes, priests are public people, and perhaps there have been too many times when the Church didn’t know enough about what they were all up to. But what was missing from this story was any sense of trust and human respect – not to mention any benefit of doubt. A simple, “Who were those people you were with?” would have produced an explanation and saved a lot of grief.
THE PRIESTLY RUMOR MILL
Lest you think that the story of Geraldine is evidence that women are more likely sources of rabid gossip, let me be the first to divest you of that view. I have been a priest for twenty-eight years, and know only too well that gossip has no gender differential whatsoever. I have also been a prisoner for sixteen years, and this environment is driven by rumors and gossip in a daily drama that would try any soul. It is what prisoners complain about the most. Everyone presumes the worst about them, and the same may now be true of priests as well.
And priests themselves are not exempt. Any priest in a diocese, or any priest or brother in a religious order of men, will tell you that fraternal trust is seriously eroded by the rumor mill. On one hand, it belies a healthy concern for each others’ lives, but that concern can quickly morph itself into something spiritually harmful and very destructive. We priests have proven ourselves to be subject to every possible human failure in the last two decades, and the darker side of human nature hasn’t passed us by. Priests are as capable of sin – and of blinding ourselves to it – as anyone else.
Perhaps the greatest sin of the priesthood was allowing the pedestal of clericalism to be built in the first place, and then leaving it unchallenged for decades. My good friend, the late Father Richard John Neuhaus analyzed the dangers of clericalism with his usual candid accuracy in “Clerical Scandal and the Scandal of Clericalism” found at “Commentary” here on These Stone Walls.
A few years before I was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Manchester in 1982, our bishop asked that all priests of the diocese actively participate in a priestly support group. The goal was to spend at least one day a month in prayer, study, reflection, and social support of and with other priests. It was a good idea. I was the sole priest ordained for the diocese that year, and as I prepared for ordination, I was approached by three groups asking me to consider joining them.
I chose the older of the three groups. I liked the idea that they might be mentors and examples. Unlike many newly ordained priests, I believed I had a lot to learn (or unlearn) from the triumphs and mistakes of an older generation of priests. I also liked these guys. They were all ordained in the troubled times of the 1960s that I described in “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” They all knew the Church before the Second Vatican Council, and I saw them as bridges between two world views.
I was nervous before my first meeting with the support group. I wanted to make a good impression. It began well. We prayed together, and I felt most welcomed. There were a lot of questions about my theological education. These were brilliant men, and I was humbled to be included.
But then, as though on cue, the support group of priests launched into a session that I can only describe as the worst kind of contagious gossip. The discussion eroded into a review of who was going away “for further studies” that month. “Further studies,” I learned, was a sarcastic reference to treatment for alcoholism, misbehavior, personal failing, or even sexual abuse. I was horrified, but I gave the group the benefit of doubt. After three more monthly meetings with the same sort of gossip session, I challenged the group to reconsider its priorities and format. Then my welcome evaporated.
What disillusioned me the most was the realization that as much as I liked and respected these priests, I could no longer trust their loyalty to the most basic standards of mercy and respect in – and FOR – our Church and faith. I have come to realize that many of them measured their success as priests by their own survival in the face of other priests’ demise. It was terribly sad, but I also know this did not reflect the true caliber of priests who serve the Church. Most are heroic and valiant men who live what they believe on a daily basis, and do so selflessly.
But the trend among these particular priests in my diocese wasn’t limited to the trenches of parish life. The Chancery Office in my diocese – and, I have heard, in many others – became a source of scandal for priests who discovered that confidences and problems shared were not always kept confidential, and often ended up in the diocesan rumor mill. To see how disappointing priests can be to one another, just have a look at Ryan MacDonald’s essay, “To Azazel: The Gospel of Mercy in the Diocese of Manchester.”
A NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTION FOR THE PLANK IN MY OWN EYE
A New Year’s resolution is an opportunity for personal renewal and self-improvement. The quality of mercy in our Church has suffered much during the scandals of the last two decades. As priests and as Catholics, we have a spiritual responsibility for self-assessment. And self-assessment is exactly what I must do after these experiences with Geraldine and my priests’ support group. All that I described above makes me wonder how many times I also unknowingly set into motion a snippet of rumor or innuendo masked as hard news. I’d like to think I wouldn’t hurt a person’s reputation intentionally, but like most people I can excuse a multitude of my own sins while holding others accountable.
So my own New Year’s resolution is to practice truth in justice, to try holding to a higher standard what reaches the ears of others through me. I cannot control what anyone else says or does, but I can pluck the plank out of my own eye before pointing to the splinters in someone else’s eye.
So I resolve in 2011 to make myself a better person by not setting into motion news based on rumor, innuendo, and half-truths. If I have news to tell, I will first check its truthfulness, and then check my motivation for passing it along. If I fail in this – as will we all – I further resolve to view my failure as a sin for which I must seek Sacramental forgiveness and absolution.
I have come to know in a very personal way the harm that a rumor can cause, and I never want to be the source of such harm for others. I have come to know that a Church that reflects mercy and justice begins right here in my own heart and soul, and I invite anyone who agrees with that to join me in my resolution.
“Therefore put away falsehood; let everyone speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members of one another. Be angry, but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil . . . Let no evil come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for edifying, as this fits the occasion, that it may impart grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, in Whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and slander be out away from you, with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” (St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians 4:25-32).
Psst! Spread this around! And Happy New Year. May the Lord bless you and keep you on our shared path in His Presence.