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  The Enemy Within
A parish priest cautions his would-be defender

By Father Joseph Wilson
Catholic World News
July 4, 2002

http://65.163.5.5/news/viewstory.cfm?recnum=21227

In April the American group Priests for Life issued a statement by Anthony DeStefano, the organization's executive director, calling on loyal Catholics to support their priests, and defend the Catholic Church, against the avalanche of public criticism surrounding the scandal of priestly sexual abuse. The statement argued that American media coverage has been driven by anti-Catholic bias, and to defend the immorality advanced by the media culture. What follows is one priest's response, as expressed in a letter to Jerry Horn, the communications director of Priests for Life.

Dear Mr. Horn,

On Friday of this past week, I received and read your FAX dated 5/2/02 with the essay by Anthony DeStefano, and I would like to share with you a few of my thoughts about it.

I believe that I understand the motivation behind the article--that Mr. DeStefano wants to be strongly supportive of the Church and the Priesthood, and wants to encourage others to do the same. Unfortunately, I believe that the unintended effect of an article like this will be precisely the opposite; I think it can do a great deal of harm to the victims and their loved ones, and that it does not really support priests in the current crisis because it misidentifies the source of the problem.

Mr. DeStefano's observations about the sickness which currently afflicts our sex-saturated society is obvious to anyone who has eyes to see and ears to hear.Sexually explicit imagery does indeed surround us through every possible medium, used to sell everything from cars to toothpaste. It is indeed true that neither the Church nor the priesthood exist in a vacuum, and it is foolish and unrealistic to expect that either will be unaffected.

But, Mr. Horn, before we point the accusing finger at the pernicious influence of MTV, it would be helpful if we were honest and humble about our own failings as a Church. Perhaps you are aware of the current publication of Michael Rose's book, Goodbye, Good Men. It is a careful but searing description of the lamentable, sordid state of most of our seminaries--page after page of stories and situations which most lay people would find literally unbelievable, but which I and anyone who has been through the seminary in the last quarter century know to be all too true. If anything, Mr. Rose was restrained.

THE SEMINARY CRISIS

Thousands of idealistic young men have presented themselves to the Church for formation in the last 30 years, Mr. Horn. Most of them found themselves consigned by their bishops to a situation in which the theology they received was at best questionable and often dissenting; in which the moral teachings of the Church were undermined, often not subtly at all; in which discipline was lax to virtually non-existent, spiritual formation wholly inadequate, and immoral and scandalous situations frequently encountered.

I was in the seminary 1977-1986. The theologate from which I graduated was the Dallas seminary. The vice rector in charge of the collegians there-- under whose influence the college wing of the seminary deteriorated dramatically, discipline eroded, sexually scandalous situations proliferate,d and good men abandoned their vocations in disgust--left the priesthood a year after I graduated, to "marry" the President of the Dallas Gay Alliance. He thoughtfully invited the seminarians to the festivities. He had been our Moral Theology professor (he studied for his doctorate in moral theology at the local Methodist university), in whose class we used Father Andre Guindon's text, The Sexual Language. This was a fascinating work, in the pages of which I learned, for example, that gay sex is in some ways preferable to straight sex because it is more innovative, expressive, playful.

It is interesting to look back and see how many of the men in that seminary left, either before or after ordination, to embrace an active homosexual lifestyle, often with each other. I actually had the experience, while there, of sitting through a lecture by Father Paul Shanley, the Boston priest who was recently arrested in California. As you know, I would hope, the Boston chancery office had a file of 1,600 pages on Father Shanley, including the diaries in which he described teaching kids how to shoot up drugs, and letters from all over the country protesting the lectures he gave in which he actively promoted pedophilia as helpful and healthy. The lecture he gave was for the Priests of the Dallas diocese and for the 3rd- and 4th-year seminarians--I was sitting directly behind the then-Bishop of Dallas, Thomas Tschoepe, who laughed and joked his way through a truly vile presentation.

This, Mr. Horn, was part of my formation for the sacred priesthood. (Along with all of the other stuff: In my 1st year of theology almost all of our textbooks were paperbacks written by Protestants. Our text on the Eucharist was written by a British Methodist. That was not in Dallas, by the way; it was on Long Island) these stories could be multiplied literally ad infinitum. It was and is typical in this country that young men presenting themselves for formation are subjected to situations which undermine their faith and morals. That is not because the seminary is wired for cable TV. It is because the bishops of this country permit it to be so.

The situation was so serious so long ago that in the early 1980s, the Vicar of Christ directed that a visitation of all American seminaries, an unprecedented event, occur. This was entrusted to the bishops of our country. It was carried out while I was still in seminary, and under our bishops was rendered a toothless joke.

So, please: enough about the corrosive effects of secular culture on seminarians and young priests. The biggest obstacle to their formation as priests after the Heart of Jesus is their own fathers in God.

BLAMING THE MESSENGER

Now Mr. DeStefano crosses over the line into the offensive and the harmful when he speaks in this essay of the media. I read with disbelief lines such as, "But, come on; we know what this is really about, don't we? The current feeding frenzy in the press has little to do with any real concern for the victims of sexual abuse. ...Throughout this country the haters of the Catholic Church are grinding their axes, ecstatic the chance..." Or this chestnut: "All the indignant cries for justice emanating from the Church-bashers in the media are a sham." Or this; "...their true aim is to hurt the Church, to damage its credibility..."

What could one possibly say that is bad enough about such a superficial, shallow analysis?

First off, one distinguishes between factual reporting and opinion/editorial columns. Factual reporting one judges on the basis of the comprehensiveness, fairness, and clarity of the reporting of facts. Op/ed, being opinion, rises or falls on the strength of the facts on which it is based, the case that is built upon them, and the mode of expression. In my own judgment, for example, the opinion pieces of Jimmy Breslin are skewed, biased, and worthless, although he has the right to express those opinions. But I had better be able to distinguish between the opinion pieces and the reporting.

Friday morning I watched Middlesex County (Massachusetts) District Attorney Martha Coakley preside at the press conference on the arrest of Father Paul Shanley. She went out of her way to observe that her office lacked the resources to conduct manhunts, and to commend the media for using its resources not just to locate Father Shanley, but to research and profile the activities of predator priests like him so that the authorities and the public understood better the seriousness of the problem. And she observed that there were many victims who were experiencing some relief at this arrest,who have the media to thank for it--not the Church; the media. With a file full, a thousand and a half pages on the disgusting activities of Shanley, two cardinals of the Archdiocese of Boston thought he would make a good pastor. Because of that, we are now told that a 6-year-old boy was raped repeatedly for years by his pastor. It was the complaint of that boy, now 24 and scarred for life, which landed Shanley in jail. As far as the Church hierarchy was concerned, he was fit to be a pastor, fit to travel all over the country lecturing, fit to give a lecture as part of my seminary training. He was even judged worthy of a warm, glowing letter of commendation from Cardinal Law as late as 1997.

I honestly find Mr. DeStefano's comments about the media offensive. He begins his essay by noting that there are many good priests. Obviously, he is concerned that they not all be tarred with the same brush. How ironic that he then turns and does precisely that to the media. In the media, and in public life, there are people who have performed a signal service to the victims, which their Church hierarchy was not willing or able to perform, and they performed a service for the Church herself, which quite evidently is in more trouble than her leader realize.

DEAFNESS AT CHANCERY

Take the Dallas case. None of the victims of Fathers Rudy Kos, Robert Peebles, or Billy Hughes went first to the media. Nor did they go first to their attorneys. They went to the Church first; there, they were stonewalled, lied to, misled as delay tactics were used to push the matter past the statute of limitations.

Father Peebles was arrested for attempted rape of a boy on the Air Force base where he served as chaplain. The boy, from his former parish in Dallas, was visiting him for the weekend. The Diocese of Dallas prevented his prosecution by arranging for a discharge on condition that he receive treatment, as their pastor assured the boy's parents that the priest would get help. Well, he did not; the diocese broke its promise to the parents of the boy and to the armed forces. He was reassigned, to St. Augustine Church in Dallas. From there he was arrested for abusing kids--and the people of St. Augustine and the family of the first boy found out that in both instances, Peebles had been assigned to their parishes with prior histories of abusing kids--with no warning to the parishioners at all.

Father Bill Hughes carried on an affair nightly with a 15-year-old girl until her mom grew suspicious and found love letters. She brought them to a trusted priest who took them and promised to pass them on--it would be dealt with. The letters were never seen again, of course, and nothing was done with Father Hughes.

The case of Father Rudy Kos makes no sense from soup to nuts. Kos had been married in the Catholic Church and divorced, yet someone wanted him in the seminary so badly that a fraudulent annulment was obtained for him--despite the fact that his wife contacted the diocese to say, "He can't be a priest! I threw him out because he likes boys!" Someone wanted to keep him so badly that the administration and vicar general ignored the complaints of seminarians--including persons known to me and friends of mine--that Kos, in the seminary, was preying upon the college seminarians.

When the Kos case was done, the judge did an unusual thing. He read, at the request of the jury, a statement from them publicly rebuking the Bishop of Dallas and the vicar general for testimony which was not forthcoming and obfuscatory. Again, please remember, the victims did not first go to the press, or to the law office. But the press and the law office were their refuge, when their Church hierarchy betrayed them.

And let us not palaver that nonsensical, "If we had known then what we know now..." The terrible effects of clerical sexual abuse on victims and families, and the cretinous harm done by chancery stonewalling, was quite clear to us in Dallas because of the 1984 Gilbert Gauthe case in Lafayette. We has men from Lafayette studying along with us. We all knew of the damage done by the vicar general and the bishop there--just as, more recently, the folks in the Boston chancery knew what had happened in Dallas.

ENOUGH MEA CULPAS?

I am sorry to burden you with what is already a lengthy letter, but one of my problems with Mr. DeStefano's essay is precisely that he has produced a brief cheerleading essay on an immensely complicated subject requiring nuanced care.Let me give you an example from my experience which made me cringe when I read Mr. DeStefano's strident, "For goodness sakes, enough with the Mea Culpas!"

There is a lady named Janet Patterson. She and her husband live in the Diocese of Wichita, Kansas; they have raised their family to be devout Catholics. Her son Eric, a remarkably gifted young man who had a lot of accomplishments to his credit, killed himself perhaps two years ago at the age of 29. Shortly before that, the family had discovered that the reason for the deep depression which had plagued Eric was the sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of his parish priest as an altar boy, from the age of 13.

Janet, who is a teacher, went to the diocese to tell them about the abuse her son had suffered at the hands of Father Larson. The priest she spoke with in the chancery office was well known to her; he had grown up in her town. He listened to her and grew very still and sad. He told her, "We had no idea this went back to then. Father Larson is no longer serving as a priest. We thought the abuse started in the parish after yours."

Janet left somewhat comforted. At least she had the consolation of knowing that her diocese had not knowingly put this predator, who was responsible for her son's death, in their parish.

Then, of course, she found out that it wasn't true. Father Larson had indeed abused kids in the parishes before hers, and had been transferred like a chess piece. It would be nice to think that it were at least theoretically possible for chancery officials to tell the truth once in a while, but, evidently, this is not a consolation we are granted in this life. Six altar boys who had served under this priest are suicides. Father Larson is in jail today--but not thanks to the Church. As for Janet and her family, no priest has reached out to them since the allegations became public.

I was put in touch with the Patterson family through the editor of The Wanderer, and we have spoken often. I asked Father Tom Doyle, OP, who was at the time stationed in the Midwest, to give her a call, and he said, "But she's just three states away." He promptly drove over to her house. But her local diocese has been of no support.

Do you know of Father Doyle? He was once the secretary to the papal pro-nuncio in Washington. He helped develop the 1985 secret report on the potential ramifications of the pedophilia crisis. He produced a report predicting a staggering array of scandals, billions of dollars in legal fees etc. The report was shelved by the bishops. So was Father Doyle, who pressed for the report's acceptance, and was canned. He has been in an ecclesial limbo since, but has made himself helpful to the victims and their attorneys as they come up in litigation against bishops like Cardinal Law, who perpetually bleat, "But we did not know" about things that were in Father Doyle's report to them 17 years ago.

Mr. Horn, I wish I could say, "So, that's the story," but it isn't even the beginning of the story. It is a tiny sliver, a tiny sliver of a huge, sordid, perverted epic. Mr. DeStefano's essay was not an encouragement to me in my "wonderful work." It was utterly demoralizing.

One cannot look at this pedophilia scandal in isolation. There are at least twelve major areas of the life of our Church which are in serious crisis, and have been for two generations. I think of liturgy, of catechesis, of Scripture, of moral theology, of religious life, of seminaries, of priesthood, of marriage and family life,--just for starters. I think of the faithful lay Catholics who have striven insistently to bring to the attention of the bishops and the Holy See the crises of our Church. I think of how often it could have been the case that our bishops might have helped and healed, if only they were capable of responding as human beings to people in pain. The whole country has been appalled at how they have at not "gotten it," at how utterly divorced from the ordinary concerns of people the bishops have been (please think of Paul Shanley roaming the country, and of the number of bishops who made that possible, in Boston and elsewhere, before you react to that point).

I think of all of these things, and then I think of Mr. DeStefano's essay.

No. We have not had enough of the Mea Culpas. I do not think Janet Patterson has heard all that she needs to from the bishop who has never been in touch with her, let alone from the cardinal of Boston who thinks Shanley was an example of "poor record keeping"--as though if the Boston chancery improves its secretarial skills, there will be no pedophiles left in the archdiocese; as though two cardinals needed help figuring out what Margaret Gallant, a lay woman, knew and told them about John Geoghan: that he did not need to be a priest.

No. We do not need to blame MTV and sexually explicit media for things we have fostered in our own institutions.

No. We should be embarrassed and ashamed to blame the media for "Church-bashing" when they are just pointing out the sordid facts about how our bishops go about their business. If society were indifferent to the fact that there are pedophile priests, and Bishops who cover up for them, then we would have reason to be outraged. We have no reason to be outraged that they take our teachings in this area more seriously than we do. We have no reason to be outraged at them because they are outraged that we do not live up to our own teachings.

CHOOSING THE TARGET

As a priest, I find it demoralizing and outrageous that Mr. DeStefano would issue a call to arms to faithful Catholic groups such as the Knights of Malta, the Knights of Columbus, the Catholic League and others, to go into battle against the very people who, as far as I can see, have done us a great service. They have pointed out the real enemies of the Faith.

The real enemies of the Faith are not the attorneys, the reporters covering the stories, the pundits weighing in. Indeed, even Jimmy Breslin, much as I personally dislike his punditry, can't be counted as the real enemy. He's bush league, compared to the real enemy--the enemy within. The enemy whose failure to oversee and govern, to guide and rebuke and foster the good has permitted over two generations that, within the house of God, dissenters could teach under Catholic auspices, preach with faculties and undermine the Catholic faith and liturgy; could administer seminaries in which every kind of aberration was tolerated; could bring things to a point where the Catholic father of his family has to fret over whether his son can be an altar boy, whether his children can be entrusted to the diocesan catechetical program.

We have seen the enemy. It ain't MTV. If Mr. DeStefano wants to mobilize the Knights of Malta and the Knights of Columbus, let's have a crusade demanding of the bishops solid catechetics, sound liturgy in the Roman tradition, an end to the situation where, when we encounter a teacher under Catholic auspices--whether in parish school, CCD, college, university, seminary, diocesan workshop, whatever--we have to figure out whether or not this person is, not just an orthodox Catholic, but a Christian.

It is time we quit turning the other cheek--but stop, Mr. DeStefano. Wait till your head stops spinning. Then: focus on the enemy. The enemy is within. As a parish priest, I am telling you: MTV doesn't undermine my ministry as much as the enemy within. I would have hoped that lay people, family people, would not have needed to be told that.

Wanna do me a favor? Don't bother jousting with MTV.

Stop. Think. Realize that the Church is in crisis, and has been for two generations. That there are folk who have the authority to address that--but that, instead of doing so, they have allowed the Church to become a possibly unsafe place for your kids.

Ask yourself who the real enemy is. I don't think you'll finally focus on Britney Spears.

This is an in-family problem, sir. Until you realize that, you're not helping this parish priest at all.

Father Joseph Wilson is a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn, New York.

 
 

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