Remember the Juan Williams fiasco at National Public Radio? I wrote about it last November in “At the Twilight’s Last Gleaming.” To refresh your memory, the story began when FOX News commentator Bill O’Reilly declared on “The View” that not all Muslims are terrorists, but all the terrorists who attacked the United States on September 11, 2001 were Muslims. This sparked a loud media fury about religious profiling and whether it is fair and just. The Bill O’Reilly episode culminated in Whoopi Goldberg and Joy Behar storming in protest off the set of “The View.”
The next evening, appearing on “The O’Reilly Factor” on FOX News, National Public Radio news analyst Juan Williams expanded the fray. He said that he’s sometimes uncomfortable when he sees people in Muslim garb board a plane he is on. The next day, NPR fired Juan Williams for exhibiting a religious insensitivity that did not reflect NPR’s journalistic standards – standards which have apparently never applied to NPR’s treatment of Catholics.
Imagine, for a moment, what might have happened if the entire affair was about priests and sexual abuse. What if Bill O’Reilly had said on “The View” something like, “Not all Catholic priests are sexual abusers but too many sexual abusers have been Catholic priests.” It would have been blatantly unfair and irresponsible, but do you think Whoopi and Joy would have stormed off the set over it? What if Juan Williams had said something like, “Sometimes when I see a Catholic priest board a plane I’m on with my grandchildren I feel uncomfortable”? Would NPR have fired him for that?
I can’t imagine Juan Williams actually saying something so stupid and insensitive, but such profiling has been standard in editorials in The New York Times and Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show” monologues. The point is that Catholics – and especially Catholic priests – are for some reason seen as exempt from concerns for the injustice of profiling, and from the politically correct sensitivity shown toward other faiths by media venues like “The View” and NPR.
And did anyone notice that PBS chose to air its latest “Frontline” production about the Catholic sex scandal during Holy Week this year? For consistency’s sake, we should all expect to see PBS Frontline’s 9/11 terrorist special aired during Ramadan, though I know already that won’t happen.
But in ways too many to count, this double standard has also been evident among Catholics who have stereotyped and singled out the priesthood as a special locus of sexual misconduct. The story of Father Marcial Maciel Degallado has been used to further that agenda.
Father Maciel, the widely – though mostly post mortem – disgraced and vilified founder of the Legionnaires of Christ was last summer’s sizzling news story among Catholic blogs. I wrote of it on These Stone Walls a year ago in “Roman Polanski, Father Marcial Maciel, and the Eye of the Beholder.” In that post, I took issue with some of the suppositions and conclusions of an editorial in the June/July, 2010 issue of First Things by editor Joseph Bottum entitled “The Cost of Father Maciel.”
In a nutshell, Joseph Bottum chastised prominent Catholics – including the late First Things founder, Father Richard John Neuhaus – for ever accepting Father Maciel’s word that he was innocent of the many and wildly evolving claims against him that had surfaced over several decades.
Mr. Bottum called for the resignation of Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Dean of the College of Cardinals, after making a foggy case of guilt by association with Father Maciel and Cardinal Sodano’s nephew. The cost of Father Maciel, for Joseph Bottum, was to be the end of Cardinal Sodano’s career in disgrace. Fortunately, that has not happened, and I respect the current Pope for not letting it happen.
As I noted in “Roman Polanski, Father Marcial Maciel, and the Eye of the Beholder,” I continue to have questions about why such evidence finally surfaced only after Father Maciel was dead and no longer around to answer to it or explain any of it. I can only conclude that there were agendas at work that went far beyond simply telling the truth about Father Maciel. I hope I’m not the only person to notice that all the evidence against him seemed to surface just in time to attempt to derail the Beatification of Pope John Paul II who presumed – just as he should have done – Maciel’s innocence absent proof of his guilt or an admission of guilt. There was neither.
But for my purposes, the cost of Father Maciel is clear. The Constitution and Church law notwithstanding, the true cost of Father Maciel is to rob any accused Catholic priest of a presumption of innocence. It is the worst possible example of the Catholic Church in America caving into the prejudices of pop culture.
I witness the cost of Father Maciel every day. A number of prominent Catholics who once openly supported my defense have been silenced since post-mortem evidence surfaced of Fr. Maciel’s bizarre double life and lifestyle. Some Catholics who held out a presumption of his innocence, without solid evidence to the contrary, have been burned by the stinging rebukes they’ve received from all corners in the Catholic media once that evidence began to surface.
A year after Father Maciel’s name lay in ruins, all the explosions about him were replaced in the Catholic online world by developments in the ever emerging story of Father John Corapi, and the guilt by association hasn’t abated.
In “Good-Bye, Good Priest!” on These Stone Walls, I tried to make a case for how the bishops’ policy removing accused priests from ministry actually impedes their ability to defend themselves. Father Corapi’s announcement that he is leaving ministry was confusing because, in effect, he simply decided what had already been decided for him. Many Catholics have characterized this as “leaving the Church,” which is not true. More on that at another time.
The guilt by association this time around is the mere fact that both Father Maciel and Father Corapi have been well-known and influential priests. Sometimes the comparison is made innocently, without much forethought about its impact, because it comes spontaneously to mind. In “Father John Corapi and Fifty-Eight Times Around the Sun” in April, I had a mild rebuke for John Norton, Editor of Our Sunday Visitor. In response to the initial outrage expressed by Father Corapi’s “diehard supporters” at claims against him, John Norton wrote in the April 3 edition of OSV:
“Weren’t Father Marcial Maciel’s supporters just as vehemently certain of his innocence before it became undeniable that he sexually abused seminarians and his own children . . . ?”
John Norton explained to me that he never intended to dissuade Father Corapi’s supporters with such a comparison, and, of course, I know he didn’t. I actually admire both John Norton and OSV. He’s one of the finest Catholic editors in the media today, and OSV is a superb Catholic newspaper that has tackled this topic with far more fairness, reason, and justice than most. That’s the reason we link to OSV’s blog here on These Stone Walls.
In a July 10 article in Our Sunday Visitor – “Father John Corapi Walks Away From Priestly Ministry” – writer Brian Fraga cited These Stone Walls and my post, “Good-Bye, Good Priest!” After Brian Fraga’s (and my own) article was written, Father Corapi’s superiors issued a statement declaring that they have evidence of his alleged wrongdoings. On his own website, “The Black Sheep Dog,” Father Corapi denied the claims again.
There is far more to this story than any of us know. Next week, I will attempt to refocus on the broader issue of what exactly happens to a priest when he is accused. In a sense, the case of Father John Corapi continues to highlight a point that must be made clear. If an accused priest is in fact innocent of the claims against him, his innocence can become an obstacle for those who simply want to settle the claims and move on with as little publicity as possible. I explored this in detail in my post, “The High Cost of Innocence.”
UNDER THE MILLSTONE OF SCANDAL
I think the reality of Father Maciel’s case – and the vehemence with which his supporters wanted to believe in his innocence – does come spontaneously to mind when considering high profile priests like Father Corapi. That’s the very point I’m making. It comes spontaneously to mind when we stop viewing priests as individuals and start seeing them as a caste within the Church, stamped from a one-size-fits-all mold in black and white categories like “faithful or not,” “priestly or not,” or, as Voice of the Faithful now claims the power to discern, “a priest of integrity or not.”
For nearly a decade now, the news media has gotten away with such profiling when accusations involve a Catholic priest. Each priest accused is saddled not just with a defense of the claims against himself, but with the entire millstone of scandal in the Catholic Church. The “availability bias” I wrote of in “Are Civil Liberties for Priests Intact?” has been a potent factor for any priest accused, and it is not the first time this has been sold to the public. Have a look, please, at “Catholic Scandal and the Third Reich” for an account that’s all too familiar.
Here’s an example of what I mean by “profiling.” When I was accused and faced trial, one of the claims against me was an allegation that I created child pornography. Believe me, if it was true, I would certainly not be raising the ugly specter of it now. No evidence for such a claim was ever found. None at all. Zero. The problem has always been, however, that no evidence was even looked for. As I described in “Sex, Lies, and Videotape,” my recent post about the Duke University sex scandal, I have learned the hard way that one tactic of police and prosecutors wanting to make their case with no evidence is to avoid putting anything exculpatory into the record.
A claim like creating child pornography can be thrown at any Catholic priest now. If there’s evidence, he’s of course guilty. If no one even bothers to look for evidence, then the claim just hangs vaguely out there, never proven, never disproven. This is exactly what happened to me.
After I was accused, all my earthly possessions were put into a storage locker as I awaited trial. I had no access to it. The detective who choreographed the charges told many people that he was investigating whether I created child pornography. When my attorneys finally asked him to obtain a search warrant and search my belongings for evidence, he responded:
“Well, we’re not going to look because the fact you want me to tells me that there’s nothing there. So he must have just given it all to some other priest.”
Those were the detective’s very words. Please ponder them for a moment. If such an open assault on the priesthood does not infuriate you, then nothing ever will. In the end, with no evidence at all ever produced, Judge Arthur Brennan cited the pornography claim when he sentenced me to nearly seven decades in prison. Judge Brennan said, “This court has heard clear and compelling evidence that you created child pornography of your victims.” Eleven years later, the detective finally admitted the truth to Dorothy Rabinowitz at The Wall Street Journal: “‘There was never any evidence of pornography’ the detective admits, today.” (“A Priest’s Story,” April 27/28, 2005).
This very sort of profiling – the detective’s assumption that all priests would be interested in child pornography – is based on deep-seated anti-Catholic prejudice. This is why I believe the bishops’ policies I outlined in “Good-Bye, Good Priest!” are most unjust. “Zero Tolerance” and administrative leave are a declaration that priests are accused despite being priests, and not because of it. The policies come from a time when most priests and bishops could feel comfortably immune from the tyranny of false witness. That time is long gone.
I think most Catholics know that real abuse took place. I certainly know it. In the 1960s to the 1980s, accused priests were often tragically moved from place to place. No one advocates returning to that gross neglect. But I also believe most Catholics know in their hearts that many of those who subsequently alleged abuse three, four, or five decades ago do not seek “closure” or justice or healing when they accuse. They seek money. Only money.
Vast droves of accusers have obtained lucrative checks in mediated settlements that make no effort whatsoever to actually ascertain a priest’s individual culpability. These are blanket settlements to stem the tide of an ever expanding blanket scandal, and throwing money at it has placed all American Catholic priests at risk of being falsely accused. That’s where we are, and it’s not a pretty picture.
Father Corapi was not alone in the particular injustice of spontaneous comparisons with Father Maciel. When Spero News reprinted my post, “Are Civil Liberties for Priests Intact?” a member of New Hampshire Voice of the Faithful posted a toxic comment comparing me to Father Maciel because he, too, was a writer who managed to convince some people that he was innocent. It’s a propaganda tactic that flies in the face of justice and the civil liberties guaranteed to American citizens. The same tactic was widely used during the McCarthy era in the 1950s. The guilt of one person was used to demonstrate the guilt of someone else by association. It is no different, and no less unjust, from the profiling of innocent Muslims. Catholics should know better – especially Catholics who claim to represent the voice of the faithful.
I was accused and faced trial at a time when the notorious case against Father James Porter was the hottest topic in New England. In the 1990s, he was the poster-priest for abuse in the Catholic Church, having a trail of some eighty accusers and lawsuits across several states. As the Father Porter case expanded in the news media in the 1990s, it triggered a wave of accusations beginning in Massachusetts then spreading throughout New England and across the country.
My own case began when one of four adult brothers who accused me told a contingency lawyer, and then a police detective, that he was driving his truck when he heard a news story about the mediated settlement of 80 claims in the Father Porter case in neighboring Massachusetts. He claimed that he pulled over his truck and wept as a flood of memories of abuse came suddenly to mind. During my trial, I heard the name of Father James Porter spoken more often than I heard my own.
If you’ve read Ryan MacDonald’s Special Report, “Truth in Justice,” then you know these accusers had a hard time figuring out which priest they wanted to accuse. Nonetheless, their respective, newly emerged memories were rather lucrative – to the tune of nearly $200,000 each from my diocese. If you still cling to the notion that no one would falsely accuse a priest just for money, it’s because you’ve never lived where I live.
After I wrote about Father Corapi a few weeks ago, I was contacted by a seminarian in Pittsburgh who is struggling with his vocation. He wrote that he recently came across These Stone Walls and was horrified at what happened in my priesthood. He wanted to know what I would do if I knew on June 5, 1982 what I know today.
In reply, I asked him to hunt for my post, “Going My Way” on These Stone Walls, and read it. I told him that the Church very much needs priests who are not in it for their own comfort, safety, or prestige, and for whom faithful witness is not just for sunny days. There are many such priests, and I have a feeling this Pittsburgh seminarian will be one of them.