In Sad Times for Church, the Spies Have It

By Bob Keeler
Newsday [Long Island NY]
March 17, 2003

A tiny minority of right-wing zealots has been waging a tenacious guerrilla struggle in the Catholic Church for years. Now that energy has interacted with a new force, the cloud of suspicion covering priests, to bring sadness and division to one Sound Beach parish. This story, so intensely local, is also a disturbing harbinger for the church as a whole.

At the center of the sad tale is the Rev. Charles Papa, the much-loved pastor of St. Louis de Montfort Parish. When some parishioners launched a chapter of Voice of the Faithful, the lay organization that sprang up in response to the sexual abuse scandal, Papa was supportive. That took courage, because Bishop William F. Murphy sees VOTF as a threat.

Worse, Papa's support for VOTF brought him under the fire of a group of zealots in the parish - including the parish business manager, Connell Friel. At Papa's request, Friel said, he checked the pastor's computer to help delete unsolicited pornographic e-mails, and he found evidence of pornographic Web sites. Later, he removed the hard drive and sent it to the Suffolk County district attorney, who sent it on to the police department, which found no evidence that Papa had visited child pornography sites. His parishioners, including Police Commissioner John Gallagher, do not believe Papa has abused anyone.

Before these events, Papa had gone through a dark time: His brother died in the World Trade Center attack, and his mother and father had died in recent years. Papa acknowledges that he visited porn sites, but not child porn. In the past, this would have been a matter between him and his confessor. In the current environment, it abetted his detractors and led to months away from his parish for therapy, and a story in Newsday.

The more significant factor is not what Papa did on the computer, but what he did in the pulpit, encouraging lay people who want to support abuse victims and seek greater lay involvement in church governance. Overnight, he went from compassionate pastor to heretic - in the eyes of the zealots. They deny that his support of VOTF caused their anger, but they were clearly a hostile presence at its meetings.

This kind of zealotry is nothing new in the Catholic Church, which has a sad history of putting heretics to death. In recent times, especially in the years after the Second Vatican Council, the self-appointed watchdogs of orthodoxy have reacted badly to many of the changes the council sought to bring about. They're always ready to spy, disrupt and report to higher authority those they see as less than orthodox.

One priest told me of a local group that actually tape-recorded him in confession three decades ago, to make sure he was giving the right advice on birth control. Another priest told of zealots disrupting his liturgy for divorced people.

Not even bishops are exempt. Take Bishop Kenneth Untener of Saginaw, Mich. Before he became a bishop in 1980, Untener had been a seminary rector. The seminary had a program to teach seminarians how to deal with their sexuality. This program, in place before he became rector, used clinical films put together by experts. Someone infiltrated a session, aimed a camera at the screen, captured selective sexual images, and sent that film to the Vatican. So Untener had to travel to Rome twice and explain this program, before he could be ordained a bishop.

In that case, as in too many others, the Vatican was all too willing to listen to the spies, which encourages further zealotry.

"My take is without question that they have captured the attention of the Vatican much more readily than more liberal groups could ever have hoped," said Michael Cuneo, a Fordham University sociology professor and author of "The Smoke of Satan," a book about the Catholic right, and "American Exorcism," about fascination with demonic possession. "They have succeeded in fashioning an influence for themselves out of proportion to their numbers."

Operating in that spirit right here, a tiny group of opponents caused enough commotion to temporarily topple a pastor. Will this event encourage others to use similar guerrilla tactics against a pastor they see as too liturgically liberal, or a pastor they suspect is gay? And what pastor can now trust his business manager, after Friel's actions? These are truly sad times for the church.

Bob Keeler is a member of Newsday's editorial board.


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