“What Does the Priest Really Do All Day?” My apologies in advance to Father John Zuhlsdorf whose great blog, “What Does the Prayer Really Say?” is deservedly one of the most heavily visited and widely respected sites in the Catholic on-line world. I have much respect for Father Z and WDTPRS, and that respect is shared by his many thousands of readers.
However, that fact alone made Father Zuhlsdorf a target of ridicule awhile back. I became aware that someone had anonymously published a satirical blog to poke fun at Father Z. The blog’s taunting title was, “What Does the Priest Really Do All Day?” It didn’t last very long. It turned out that I knew the person who created the site, and challenged him on it. Alarmed and embarrassed to be so easily identified when he thought he was anonymous, he quickly took the site down, sending it to the ever growing trash heap of discarded websites in cyberspace. Then he sent me a note: “That site wasn’t a serious effort. I actually admire Father Z and his blog, and read it regularly.” Well, c’ est la vie!
What really caught my eye, however, was the question he was asking in his title. In my post, “The Expendables: Our Culture’s War Against Catholic Priests,” I described a situation I was in similar to that of Father Marcel Guarnizo. It was my first assignment as a priest back in 1982, in a parish badly splintered by lawsuits and factions. I was just a young priest trying to find my way along a treacherous path lined with the hostility of Catholics in a sadly divided, but otherwise wonderful parish. Shortly after my arrival, a small group of parishioners asked to meet with me. As the meeting started, one woman asked, “What exactly do you priests do all day?”
The question wasn’t an inquiry. It was an attack. I knew this instantly because as I started to provide an account of my very busy day, it was clear she wasn’t even remotely interested in the answer. The question was meant to be a grenade lobbed toward me to open the meeting. It was an invitation to all others present to proceed with the real purpose of the gathering: to vent their anger at my expense.
So I stopped trying to respond to the question. Instead, I pointed out that their anger could not possibly be aimed at me because I had just arrived. None of them knew me at all. The only common denominator regarding me and their hostility was the mere fact that I am a priest. I asked if any of the dozen people present could explain to me why they are so angry at priests. No one could answer the question. The only articulated response was denial. Later, I heard that I had “shut the meeting down” by refusing to stay on topic – the topic being my willingness to quietly and humbly endure a frontal assault.
So I’ll put the question to you, and would appreciate any insights you have if you wish to comment. Why are so many Catholics angry with priests? The anger isn’t just a reaction to news of the sexual abuse crisis. The anger I’m describing preceded that crisis by decades. Rather, I suspect, the abuse crisis was shaped and framed by that anger, and it shows. What think you?
THESE TWO PRIESTS WALKED INTO A BAR ONE DAY . . .
The priesthood in America has long been a subject of jokes and gossip in our scandal-driven media culture. I wrote of an event in my next parish in “My New Year’s Resolution About Gossip,” my last TSW post of 2010. It’s interesting that Father James Valladares picked up on this same account and used it in his great book, Hope Springs Eternal in the Priestly Breast (pp 118-119). The story is worth repeating:
“I arrived at St. Bernard Parish [now Parish of the Holy Spirit] in Keene, New Hampshire on June 15, 1983 . . . The parish was immense, for New Hampshire, at least. It had over 2,000 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.
In that summer of 1983 there was a lot going on in my 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 pushing 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, 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. It spread everywhere.
I waited for a time when I was a little calmer to call Geraldine. 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 my 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.”
MONSIGNOR WILLIAM LYNN, THE NEWEST CATHOLIC SCAPEGOAT
I thought of this story three weeks ago when Philadelphia Monsignor William Lynn was convicted of a single count of child endangerment. Like many, I followed the case closely and was grateful to David Pierre and The Media Report for some superb ongoing commentary about the case that kept it in perspective.
There was a great deal wrong with that prosecution which bordered on persecution. Monsignor Lynn was not convicted of that charge because he is guilty. There was no evidence that he ever set out to endanger anyone. He was convicted because he is a priest, and like the story spread about me by Geraldine, the news media convicted him before he ever set foot in a courtroom. The trial itself was just pro forma. The news media built an “availability bias,” a phenomenon I described in “Catholic Scandal and the News Media.”
One Philadelphia defense attorney who reads These Stone Walls described this trial as “justice with an agenda.” She wrote that few in Philadelphia are now very proud of this “District Attorney with an ax to grind, and a judge who appeared to work for the prosecution.” When law is reduced to a lynch mob in this arena of decades-old child abuse claims, the jury is in before the trial even starts. Those who would tritely say today that Monsignor Lynn had his day in court and justice prevailed have no first hand knowledge of the prolific injustices that have permeated our justice system. Just see “Thy Brother’s Keeper” for a vivid example.
In the news interviews to follow, the true agenda revealed itself. SNAP’s Barbara Blaine let an outright lie prevail, claiming that there is substantial evidence that children remain in danger in the Catholic Church, and that the conviction of Monsignor Lynn on a single charge – despite his acquittal on all others – is evidence that “the Catholic Church’s cover-up continues.”
Two weeks ago in California, a man was acquitted of a charge that he savagely beat an elderly priest in front of numerous witnesses. The evidence and eye-witness testimony were clear. However, the assailant was found not guilty because he claimed that the priest molested him decades earlier. Whether true or not, that claim has never been tested in a court of law.
There are men in this prison with me serving long sentences for doing far less. To excuse this savage assault because the victim was a priest and the assailant claimed his own victimhood is a travesty of justice and, a dangerous signal of something I wrote recently in “David v. Goliath”:
“Those who have claimed to advocate for victims – some real, but many feigned – have created a whole new set of victims by dismantling the freedoms and civil liberties of a single class of citizens: accused Catholic priests. The outcome of the trial of Monsignor William Lynn in Philadelphia is the result.”
When the rhetoric of a witch hunt replaces reason and the rule of law in a modern day courtroom, priests become like an accident scene at the side of the road – spectacles drawing spectators, but never any presumption of innocence, never any benefit of doubt. It is justice by news media – aimed not at sexual abuse, but at Catholic priests.
The famous words of Sheriff Buford Pusser, quoted in “Walking Tall: The Justice Behind the Eighth Commandment,” now haunt this scene of wreckage. As Buford Puser stood before his jury, his lacerations glistening with blood, he summed up for them and for all of us the mandate for true justice:
“If’ you let ’em get away with this, you give ’em the eternal right to do the same damn thing to anyone of you.”