NOTE: This is Part 1 of a 2-Part Series. Please click here for Part 2.
The darkest days of the American Catholic priesthood crisis are behind us, but concerns linger for the justice without mercy it unleashed.
“These are the times that try men’s souls.” (Thomas Paine)
In my recent post, “If Night Befalls Your Father,” on These Stone Walls, I wrote of a terrible tragedy in our Church. In the United States alone, some 28 Catholic priests have taken their own lives since priests became a favorite target of Satan and the news media. I wrote that I have personally known five of them, and three others who were murdered. In 1994, just months before I faced trial, I received a call from a priest asking for help. I had met with him previously and I knew he had been depressed. I also knew his depression had become critical, but he resisted seeking treatment. I’m telling this strange story without his name, of course, but with his permission.
I, too, have lived in darkness, and know its grip on the human soul. On the day this priest asked for help, he had made a decision to end his own life, though I did not know this fact until he met with me. He spent the previous two days planning this out and putting his affairs in order. He decided that using a firearm would guarantee finality. His plan was to hike as far as he could into the Northern New Mexico mountains where he would not be discovered for months or even years, and he would take his own life there. He saw no light at all beyond his dark night of the soul. Like most priests, however, he did not own a gun. New Mexico law required a waiting period for gun dealers to sell to private citizens, but private sellers were exempt from the law at that time. So my friend scoured the newspaper for a private sale, and found a prospect.
An Albuquerque man had a 9mm semi-automatic handgun for sale for $500. My priest-friend arranged to purchase the gun that evening at 6:00 PM. after retrieving the funds from his bank. So the priest drove to Albuquerque, and on the way to the seller’s address he stopped at the bank. The required $500 was just about the sum total of what he had in his account. The bank had closed for the day so he went to an ATM machine near the bank’s front door. With his mind made up and his plan in place, my friend inserted his card into the ATM to withdraw his funds as he had many times before. This time, however, the machine ate his card, then printed out this message:
“Your card has been retained for an unknown reason. Please consult an account representative during business hours.”
My friend looked incredulously at the printed message. His plan was ruined, and he drove home feeling defeated. The next morning he called the bank. An account representative told him she had no explanation for why the bank’s ATM retained his card. “It shouldn’t have,” she said. “There’s absolutely nothing wrong with your card or your account.” She offered to mail the card back to him immediately. After hanging up from talking to his bank, he called me and agreed to let me bring him to a center for priests in crisis. He interpreted the incident with his ATM card as a sort of divine intervention, and, in a strange way, it gave him hope.
Clearly, the last two decades have called upon Catholics and the Church to pay some attention to the quality of life for Roman Catholic priests. We are seeing the problems of priests – and especially the sex abuse crisis – with blinders on, addressing them only as personal failures of the priests involved rather than as a systemic failure within the priesthood. This has added to the tragedy, and the Church’s response to date – which includes the draconian policy of zero tolerance – has signaled every priest to keep his problems to himself.
In the June, 2011 issue of Catalyst, Fr. Michael Orsi has a superb reflection on the folly of the U.S. Bishops’ present course (“Reconsidering the Dallas Charter“). Zero tolerance and the climate of blame and scapegoating have made the problems of priests far worse. As the recent John Jay Report on causes and context of the crisis has pointed out, sex abuse by priests is almost entirely a thing of the past. But the crisis of spiritual leadership it exposed is still very much in the present.
As I mentioned in “When the Gloves Come Off on Catholic Blogs,” others in the Church have used the problems of priests to further some agenda of their own, sometimes with abject cruelty. Some have used the crisis to demand sweeping changes in the priesthood, blaming the crisis on the tradition of a celibate priesthood – at least in the U.S. where celibacy itself has become suspect in a narcissistic culture. I pointed out in “Are Civil Liberties for Priests Intact?” that the thousands of convicted sex offenders in this one state are predominantly married men. Clearly, celibacy does not cause sexual abuse.
LETTING PEOPLE DOWN
After I posted “Good-Bye, Good Priest” on These Stone Walls, I learned an important lesson as the Father John Corapi story unfolded. For me, it was the most important lesson. I was left with no doubt about the ripple effects of my own response to injustice in these dark days for the priesthood in Western Culture. I sometimes think of how easy it would be to just walk away. In some strange way, I envied Father Corapi for having the means to do it. But I certainly didn’t envy him for the vast number of people who felt hurt by his decision to leave ministry without fighting to let the entire truth unfold. Some of the more cynical among us thought this pointed to his guilt, or at least partial guilt.
Others seemed to think his decision highlighted the flaws in the Bishops’ approach to accused priests, and the fact that Father Corapi may have found the whole process to be futile. This had a ring of authenticity. I understand the feeling of futility, and face it almost every day. It’s where my friend was when he called me from Albuquerque on that awful day. He felt that life was futile and when even his plan to end it fell apart, he ran out of options. It was only then, with no options left, that he accepted the fact that he is not the author of his own existence, and the end of that story is not his to write. It was then that he surrendered. People often ask me how it is that I still have faith – in God, in the Church, in anything or anyone – after seventeen years in prison for a crime that never took place. The levels of betrayal are too many to count, and I cannot make sense of them.
I wrote of one in “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” and Ryan MacDonald recently wrote of another – this time from the “helping profession” – in “How Psychotherapists Helped Send an Innocent Priest to Prison” at his new blog, A Ram in the Thicket. In prison, I get out of bed every day, sit in front of this barely functioning typewriter, and write the truth, but often it does feel futile. People need hope to fight on, and I am no exception. Please don’t mistake me for someone who brings to every hardship a spark of faith. I hope I’ve never given that impression. I find no hope at all in my circumstances, and faith is a daily challenge for me, as it is for most of you. But I have become convinced that the very existence and impact of These Stone Walls is such an unlikely thing – it really is when you think about it – that I have come to believe God is using what feels like futile and hopeless circumstances toward some end. So I surrender to it. Every day. And it is in that act of surrender that hope generates itself, and faith becomes its own evidence. At least, that’s what the Letter to the Hebrews says. “Faith is the substance of things hoped for; the evidence of things unseen.”
As my friend, Pornchai has pointed out to me, “Giving up is just not a luxury you have. There is more at stake than just you.”
Justice is an end in itself, and its apparent futility does not excuse us from calling the Church, and all of society, to justice. Neither Saint Maximilian Kolbe nor Saint Pio saw much in the way of human justice in this life. Yet here they are, the inspiration behind These Stone Walls. Faithful Catholics have to stop reeling from the very idea of scandal in the Catholic Church, and have to stop trying to find a place to point fingers. As I described in “Inherit the Wind,” scandal broke out in the Church before it was even ten minutes old, and we have lived with scandal ever since. But after 2,000 years of both scandal and grace, grace prevails, and the Church still stands.
NEWS FROM THE FRONT
It’s time for a concerted effort to call the news media – including the Catholic media – to live up to its first and foremost responsibility: the whole truth. “The Scandal of Catholic Abuse of the Catholic Abuse Scandal” has nothing within it that calls us to walk on a higher road. It’s just empty and pointless. I mentioned in “Holy Hostility, Batman!” that one of my less-than-noticed posts on These Stone Walls this year was “Cable News or Cable Nuisance: Gloom and Doom in America’s Newsroom.” I had a mild rebuke for CNN’s Anderson Cooper for an incident on one of his evening news discussions last November. His guest that night was John Walsh, host of the recently cancelled “America’s Most Wanted.” Mr. Walsh got away with telling the CNN cameras:
“Last month, 100,000 victims of sex abuse by priests were denied an audience with the Pope to tell him how their lives were shattered.”
It made a neat sound bite for CNN, but there was just one problem with it. It wasn’t true. It wasn’t even close to the truth. TSW reader, Dorothy Stein fired off this email, without response, to Anderson Cooper:
“The truth is that on October 31, sixty people gathered to protest near the Vatican in Rome. Sixty, not 100,000, though one can see how easy it is to confuse such numbers. Of the 60, approximately 30 claimed to have been victims of abuse by Catholic priests in decades past. The others were activists using the spotlight for some other agenda. The “victims” were outnumbered by reporters two to one. For the news media to later say there were 100,000 people there is a gross distortion, and an example of using the media as a weapon against the Catholic Church. It must not go unchallenged.”
Once again, I was rather proud of Dorothy Stein. As a non-Catholic, most of what she knows about scandal in the Catholic Church, she says, comes from two places: the mainstream news media and These stone Walls, two almost polar opposite sources of information. She tells me that she is thunderstruck by how completely the mainstream media shuns the story of falsely accused priests in favor of the story it wants. That’s the nature and scope of the problem we face as priests, but it must also be the problem we face as Catholics. Extreme examples of gross misconduct in the priesthood – like that claimed in the cases of Father James Porter, Father John Geoghan, and Father Marcial Maciel – are freely held up as the norm.
When other priests are accused, the door is open for multiple accusers to score unquestioned settlements citing these cases of serial sexual abuse by priests as precedents. It’s time for Catholics to challenge the mainstream media on this.
THE SNAP JUDGEMENTS
It’s also time to cease giving any credence whatsoever to groups using “victimhood” to mask a devious agenda. In just about every news account of Catholic scandal since 2002, the news media gives the last and loudest word to representatives of SNAP – the Survivors’ Network of those Abused by Priests – whose spokespersons stand ever ready to condemn the Catholic Church, the priesthood, the bishops, the Pope, and even Catholics in the pews for still being Catholics in the pews.
SNAP has become an inexhaustible source of the story the news media wants – and the media has discovered that SNAP will never tire of condemning the Catholic Church for still standing even in the face of SNAP’s self-serving rhetoric. It’s a marriage made in . . . well, certainly not Heaven. SNAP is now a part of the problem and should be treated as such. Its sole goal is to denigrate me, you, and our shared faith, and it plans to do so until the entire Church is bankrupt. It’s time to stop listening to SNAP. This group surrendered its moral credibility when it confused justice with vengeance by promoting only the latter, it advocates for a never-ending state of victimhood for its adherents. That is not true advocacy.
KILL THE PRIEST!
I have many examples of how the news media has helped create rather than just report the priesthood crisis, but here’s one that was particularly vile. On August 24, 2003, a news van parked in front of this prison in Concord, NH while a reporter for WMUR-TV News in Manchester pondered for the camera whether I could be kept alive in prison. I can’t say I much appreciated the WMUR News reporter’s new-found concern for my safety. I had already been in prison for almost nine years at that point, and no one had shown any such interest before then. At least one station official had close family ties to a prison official, and knew – or should have known – the possible impact of that news story and the way the station went about reporting it.
At best, it was grossly irresponsible. What prompted the story was this: The day before, on August 23, 2003, 68-year-old Father John Geoghan was beaten and strangled to death by a prisoner half his age about seventy miles from here at the Sousa-Baronowski prison in Shirley, Massachusetts. It was a gruesome event, not in the least because of the conflicts it created among local Boston Catholic “reformers” in SNAP and Voice of the Faithful (VOTF) who didn’t know whether to cheer or feign concern.
It was largely their own rhetoric, after all, that led to the murder of a priest they relentlessly vilified day after day in the local news. John Geoghan became the “Freddie Kruger” of clergy sexual abuse, and a prime target in the Massachusetts prison system. Only three people in this prison even mentioned the WMUR-TV non-news story about whether I will live out the week. One prisoner asked me if I was at all concerned. I wasn’t. Two others told me they thought that I faced far more danger from that news reporter than from anyone here. No one else ever even mentioned it.
I was left to wonder whether all of WMUR’s news accounts had such an impact. It was hard to take any of it seriously. New Hampshire news outlets have a penchant for borrowing news stories from neighboring Massachusetts on slow news days in NH. The WMUR news team motto is “No one covers New Hampshire like we do.” That’s true considering that no one covers New Hampshire at all except during the presidential primary season every four years. What could one really expect from a TV news outlet that has a camera on a pole overlooking the Interstate, and calls it “Sky Cam”?
There’s more to be written about Father John Geoghan, ground zero of the sex abuse crisis in Boston which in turn was ground zero for the crisis in the rest of the nation. Please bear with me as this painful chapter unfolds in future posts. Meanwhile, I thank you for having minds and hearts open to the whole truth, and patience in its long telling. A reader recently wrote to me saying that These Stone Walls is “inspired.” Trust me, please, on this one huge point: If this is so, its inspiration is not in me, it’s in you. Like a Zen Buddhist monk once famously asked, “If a tree falls in the woods and there’s no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?”
I could knock down entire forests with words, but if you’re not there to hear it, well . . . then we’re back to futile again. If I haven’t asked you recently, please do help by sending a link to TSW to others. The viral effect of faithful Catholics in the public square can be a force to be reckoned with. I offer each day in prison for the readers of These Stone Walls, and I offer Sunday night Mass for you as well. Being there to read what I write is a source of immeasurable hope, and I thank you. In prison, hope is the only reason to face each day.
“To suffer with the other and for others; to suffer for the sake of truth and justice . . . these are fundamental elements of humanity, and to abandon them would destroy man himself . . . Does truth matter to me enough to make suffering worthwhile?” Pope Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi (On Christian Hope) ¶39.
Editors’ Note: Part II of this post is slated for September 14. Please join us next week for TSW’s first ever “Stuck Inside Literary Award.”
Father MacRae is brought up at the 41:00 mark, and the actual segment begins at the 32:14 mark.