|The Fall of Father Corapi: the Latest Episode of Scandal on the Network Gone Wrong
By Christopher A. Ferrara
July 20, 2011
When I undertook the task of writing EWTN: A Network Gone Wrong, I knew I was in for a lot of outraged objections to the project. In the midst of the reigning ecclesial chaos, EWTN’s appalling brew of Catholicism and show business, the sacred and the profane, tradition and novelty, Gregorian chant and rock music, sober piety and charismatic hysteria, spiritual vignettes and sexuality-themed talk shows with parental warnings, has managed to establish itself as the gold standard of Catholic orthodoxy. That EWTN is now widely regarded as a bulwark of the Faith—indeed, the bulwark of the Faith in a Church in crisis—is yet another sign of what Lucia of Fatima repeatedly described as the diabolical disorientation of our time. And woe to anyone who points out the obvious: that a Pope like Saint Pius X would be reduced to apoplexy by a typical day of EWTN programming, which presents a post-conciliar “renewal” Pius X could not have imagined in his worst nightmares.
In the current ecclesial climate, to criticize EWTN is to suffer the consequences that attend any questioning of what common opinion has made into a sacred cow, even if one hastens to affirm (as I do) the sound elements in EWTN’s programming. The critic exposes himself to the easiest of demagogic cheap shots by those who are invested in the ecclesial status quo. For example, a certain “anarcho-capitalist traditionalist”—only in America!—whose views I have contested has defended his position by cloaking himself in EWTN’s mantle of respectability while demonizing me for “attacking EWTN.” Boo. Hiss.
The fall of Father John Corapi, however, prompts me to revisit the Network Gone Wrong in order to note why it has gone wrong. As I showed in my book, the essence of the problem with EWTN is this: Catholicism cannot safely be presented in the form of 24/7 cable television programming by a network—all Catholic, all the time. Any attempt to present our religion to the world in that way will inevitably produce the demotic corruptions necessary to stimulate the widespread popular interest without which massively expensive non-stop TV programming is impossible to sustain financially, especially when it depends on donations.
My book notes that with the arrival of Doug Keck as EWTN’s vice president for production in 1996, EWTN repositioned itself to become a player in the basic cable TV market, with all the compromises that campaign for popular acceptance has entailed. Keck, formerly employed by a cable conglomerate whose programming includes the Playboy Channel, “has been involved in the launch of more than 25 international, national and regional television networks.” It is Keck, notes EWTN’s Raymond Arroyo, who is “responsible for transforming the on-air look and content of the network.” The book documents the ways in which that transformation has led the network away from Mother Angelica’s relatively traditionalist and militant approach toward a pop Catholicism bidding for mass appeal.
This is not to deny that the television medium is suitable for the presentation of Catholic subjects by way of discrete productions. Bishop Sheen is the classic example of how the medium can serve the Church. And, in fact, a number of EWTN programs are quite excellent, such as those by Dale Ahlquist and Jamie Bogle. The point, however, is that the business of running a television network that seeks inclusion in basic cable TV packages, as EWTN does, is at odds with the purity of the Faith as a supramundane reality leading man to his eternal destiny and away from the things of this world.
The main reason this is so is that the viability of any TV network depends on popular shows featuring celebrities who attract fans and are able to maintain a devoted “fan base.” These celebrity-driven shows are what “anchor” a network in the viewing schedule. Corapi was such a celebrity—one of the most successful, if not the most successful, in EWTN’s history. Yet EWTN knew full well of his past as a rich playboy, a drug addict, and then a derelict wandering the streets. Amazingly enough, EWTN made Corapi a celebrity even though it was widely known that he had cohabited for years with a former prostitute at his ranch in Montana after becoming a priest, ostensibly in an effort to rehabilitate her. In pre-conciliar times, Corapi would not even have been considered as a candidate for the priesthood, no matter how sincere his conversion and repentance. Yet in front of EWTN’s cameras he became Super Priest, and thousands if not millions hung on his every televised word.
A discerning viewer, watching Corapi deliver his message in an over-the-top basso profundo right out of central casting, could see that he was playing a role and that behind the role was a man who still had serious problems. The whole truth about Corapi finally came out in a report by a three-man investigative panel appointed by his order, detailing continuing sexual improprieties, drug abuse, and a lavish lifestyle contrary to his vow of poverty (to which the order, it must be said, had previously failed to object). In response, Corapi issued an evasive non-denial and purported to “resign” from the priesthood rather than contest the charges against him. “That era of my life is sadly ended,” he said, speaking of his sacred priesthood as if it were a job opportunity that had reached an unfortunate dead end.
Shortly thereafter Corapi appeared in a video on his blogsite wearing a leather Harley Davidson jacket, his head shaven and his gray beard dyed black, to announce that he would pursue an Internet career under the bizarre moniker “Black SheepDog.” In a related audio message to his fans, he declared that he would now ply his trade “not just in the Catholic church but also in the entire world.... Under the name the Black SheepDog I shall be with you through radio broadcasts and writing.” In the words of one disillusioned fan: “[V]ery disappointed in corapi! [sic] [A]pparently he puts his money and fame above his priestly duties. [H]ow he could just quit is mind boggling. [Q]uite frankly, i [sic] don't care what he has to say anymore.”
But I feel sorry for Corapi, a gifted man whose life has been filled with suffering and who is clearly haunted by demons he never really escaped. One could only feel pity at the sight of that poor soul in his Harley Davidson jacket—the real John Corapi finally out in the open—trying to explain himself and his plans for his new career as the Black SheepDog. Truly pathetic.
I feel nothing but contempt, however, for EWTN’s calculated decision to make Corapi a star knowing full well that he was damaged goods. Worse, having created this fallen celebrity, EWTN then proceeded to cover his fall as a news item on its pretend network news show, The World Over, on which Arroyo plays the role of anchorman. Sitting in EWTN’s cheesy imitation of a network news set, Arroyo interviewed a reporter from National Catholic Register about the Corapi affair as if he were covering breaking news of the day like any secular newsman, instead of a massive scandal for which EWTN itself is directly responsible. The people who run EWTN are so wrapped up in playing the game of “We’re a TV network just like the real ones!” that they have lost sight of their own complicity in making this troubled priest an integral part of the spiritual lives of millions of trusting Catholics.
But Corapi is only the latest in a long line of priests EWTN has turned into celebrities only to watch them crash and burn to the disillusionment of the faithful. Let us recall this cavalcade of scandal:
In 1998, Father Ken Roberts, a hugely popular EWTN celebrity and an avid promoter of the phony apparitions at Medjugorje—misleading countless souls—was removed from the network and all material related to him was expunged from EWTN’s website after his suspension from the priesthood on account of allegations involving the sexual molestation of minors.
In 2002, Father John Bertolucci, another EWTN superstar and proponent of the pan-Christian “Catholic Charismatic Renewal”—a clear threat to the integrity of the Faith—was expunged from the network without comment after he was identified by the infamous Bishop Hubbard as one of twenty child-molester priests in the Diocese of Albany.
In 2005, EWTN celebrity Msgr. Eugene Clark fell when videotape taken at a motel belied his denial of a longstanding affair with a secretary 33 years his junior, and he was forced to resign as rector of St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
In 2007, Father Francis Mary Stone, the immensely popular host of EWTN’s crass and often morally offensive, rock-and-roll-themed youth show, “Life on the Rock” (discussed extensively in my book), left the network in disgrace and then the priesthood after announcing his love affair with a widow. When last seen on the Internet, he was peddling a nutrition drink called Zrii under the name Dave Stone, shamelessly using the slogan “living life on the rock.”
In 2009, the aptly named Father Alberto Cutie, EWTN’s telegenic Hispanic heartthrob who “reach[ed] millions of households throughout the United States, Canada, Spain and Latin America on EWTN Espanol,” left EWTN and then the Catholic Church after photos of him groping a married, bikini-clad woman on a beach surfaced in a Spanish-language tabloid. He married the woman and became an Episcopalian priest.
In 2010, Fr. Thomas Euteneuer, former head of Human Life International and a fixture in EWTN’s video and audio programming, left the network and resigned from HLI after he admitted to “violating the boundaries of chastity with an adult female who was under my spiritual care”—meaning his “exorcism ministry.” Euteneuer maintained that the “vast majority” of his decisions and conduct had been “morally sound and consistent with all standards of pastoral care of persons.” The parents of the young woman Euteneuer admitted to violating, however, say they are aware of two other victims.
Granted, these other scandals did not involve the big red flags Corapi was waving for years before his fall. Nevertheless, there is a pattern here: A string of priests who became EWTN celebrities have broken their vows. Celebrity, or the desire for same, is a moral peril for anyone, and priests are no exception. Yet EWTN needs celebrity priests in order to insure the survival of its cash-hungry network operation. When the Faith becomes show business, the scandals of show business follow. The private sins of priests—and there but for the grace of God go all of us—become public affairs to the shock and dismay of the faithful who were their devoted cable TV fans.
With good reason has the Church always counseled that the faithful not become too attached to particular priests, lest they lapse into a Protestant-style congregationalism dependent on the charism of one fallible man. But EWTN, run largely by ex-Protestants, depends precisely on a kind of televised mass congregationalism driven by magnetic personalities. When those personalities reveal, again and again, that they are all too human, we encounter the grave consequences of EWTN’s attempt to turn the Faith into an endless TV show. That is one reason I wrote the book. And that is why the book is subtitled A Network Gone Wrong.
My suggestion to EWTN: Abandon your attempt to be a Catholic version of a secular cable TV network. Avoid the cult of personality and all its pitfalls. Forget the lame pop content. Instead, isolate the many sound elements in your programming and present only those on a more limited schedule, to a more limited audience if need be. Let the truths of the Faith speak plainly and simply for themselves; let its unadorned beauty be your main attraction. And if viewership declines, then too bad for the viewers who tune out. It would be better for you to downsize your operation for the sake of religious integrity than to continue repeating the past pattern of celebrity scandals and vulgarization of content. The Faith is not a TV show and never can be; but TV can be a powerful medium for advancing the Faith. Learn that distinction and respect it, and EWTN—no matter how large or small it becomes—will more truly serve the cause of the Gospel.
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