Even in Handcuffs, He Remained a Priest

By Stephen Perzan
Philadelphia Inquirer
December 16, 1987

On Monday, Dec. 7, I was physically assaulted by a member of the Sheriff's Department while standing outside Courtroom 296, where a typical First-Monday- of-the-Month Property Sale was going on.

The only difficulty was that I and about 200 other people were unable to get in. There was no more room in the courtroom, even though what was going on inside was advertised as a public sale. Many people's properties were being taken away, and they did not even have an opportunity to be there at the final demise. Others were there who perhaps would have bid higher on a property that was going off.

Knowing something about the rights that all these people were being denied - those who were going to be winners and those who were going to be losers - we demanded the procedure be stopped or postponed until a different location could be found. As the noise level of our demands to "Stop the Sale" swelled, those "outlaws" running the Sheriff Sale became more and more annoyed.

Finally, someone from inside must have given the order to attack. Before I knew it, I was being swept off my feet, hurled to the ground and dragged across the floor of City Hall. Then I was lifted up for a moment, my head smashed against the marble wall, and pressed face-down on the ground and handcuffed. The sheriff-officer told me I was under arrest, and I was taken to a holding room on the 7th floor of City Hall.

Not only had my rights been violated, but my dignity had been questioned. My head hurt, and I knew I was going to jail. I was not so much scared as ashamed. Had I done right? Was I really guilty of misconduct? What would my mother think? Did anyone out there even believe me or think that what I was saying was right or true?

"Are you really a priest?", some of the officers wanted to know. They came in and moved me, and then they moved me again.

After about 15 minutes, my accuser, the young sheriff-officer who had attacked me, came into the room where I was being held.

"Father, I'm sorry I didn't mean to be so rough with you," he said. "You know I lost a house in Sheriff Sale myself. I can't arrest a priest, I just can't do it . . . If you want, I can get you released."

I knew what I wanted to do but I told him to return in five minutes. I wanted to think about it. While he was gone, I tried to pray as best I could, which wasn't very well. When he returned, I told him he could release me. After signing a form, really an inter-office memorandum, he let me go. I said goodbye, and we shook hands at the gate.

Many people can testify that what I described actually took place outside Courtroom 296. But while I want to be someone who calls our world to a greater sense of justice, I also very deeply value my priesthood. While I believe in fighting for people's rights, especially those who are poor, above all else, I want to be a priest.

I believe that is what the sheriff-officer who attacked me was asking me to be when he apologized. While I might not have accomplished much, I hope that for that officer, at least, I remained a priest even in handcuffs.

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