Forgiveness Weighed against Worries about Priest's Actions

By Ruth Holladay
Indianapolis Star [Indianapolis]
June 6, 2004

Graham Greene's timeless novel, "The Power and the Glory," has a timely quality.

The story is about a "whiskey" priest, a celibate who takes a wife and fathers a child in turbulent Mexico during the 1930s, a man of God who is a drunken, miserable sinner. Not to give it away, but it's a good-news ending: He is redeemed by his acute awareness of his wretchedness and love for his fellow man.

So why think now of a book published in 1940 and condemned by the Vatican in 1953? Because we are in the throes of a heightened awareness, even vigilance, regarding sexuality in the priesthood. Scandalized by hundreds of cases of priests who sexually abused victims over decades, the Catholic Church is confronting its failures under a microscope of public scrutiny.

The result is positive -- debates on the merits and struggles of celibacy, analysis of how pedophiles could lurk within the ranks of good priests and sorrow over the harm done by bishops who covered up. At the core is that old bugaboo -- the world, the flesh and the devil, with the emphasis this time on the flesh.

So it's no wonder that some of us are speculating about the future of the Rev. Ronald M. Ashmore, 59, an Indianapolis Archdiocese priest for 28 years who a year ago was arrested at a highway rest stop and charged with public indecency for allegedly soliciting sex from an undercover policeman. He was among 23 men nabbed by police responding to complaints of the hangout for men seeking sex with other men.

Ashmore has never been charged with sexual abuse of children. According to Indianapolis Archbishop Daniel Buechlein: "There has never been an allegation or a concern about Father Ashmore's behavior with children."

Buechlein made his point May 11 in a letter sent to a few hundred parishioners at three rural churches in southeastern Indiana. He wants Ashmore to be their priest. Buechlein's argument: "Father Ashmore has been a successful pastor, and I would like to give him a second chance. We are the Church, and being the Church is about forgiving and being forgiven."

Ashmore, he added, has completed a six-month course of treatment. Buechlein asked parishioners to discuss the matter and report to his representatives May 26. The archbishop will make his decision this month.

It won't be easy. The three churches apparently are at odds.

"The majority of us (at St. Maurice in Napoleon) are leaning toward giving him a chance," says Susan Schutte, who was taking calls at the church Friday. "I am not saying what he did is OK, but we want to forgive him and give him a chance."

At nearby Immaculate Conception, Kathy Westdrick also stressed forgiveness but said the church's vote was negative. "People were unsure if they could go to confession with him. There were concerns about teens serving at Mass. And a lot of people were concerned about his own safety here and how well he would be welcomed."

The third parish, St. Denis, with about 35 households, is split down the middle, both women said.

Victims' rights groups have urged that Ashmore not be appointed until Buechlein solicits input from other places he has served. The process, they say, has been far too secretive.

Nobody in any of these discussions has minimized the power of forgiveness and redemption -- the faith's central message, so well explored in "The Power and the Glory."

But nobody, either, will downplay concerns raised by impulsive sexual behavior, especially by a priest.


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