Confessions of Father Bob
He Overeats and Can Curse like a Sailor. He's Uncomfortable Comforting the Sick and Regrets Not Having Kids. but for Father Bob Hartnett Being Imperfect Is What Makes Him a Good Priest.
Keeping the Faith
For Father Bob Hartnett, Being a Good Priest Means Living an Everyday Paradox; Being an Ordinary Man in an Extraordinary Job
By John Woestendiek
August 4, 2002
So there's this 300-pound Catholic priest, and he has a parrot, and sometimes he curses -- the priest, not the parrot -- and one night the priest walks down to the corner bar.
The tavern is Schultz's Crab House in Middle River, the priest is a guy named Father Robert Hartnett, and there is no joke here -- just the story of an imperfect 49-year-old man, who right now is sweating buckets and guzzling Diet Coke by the pitcherful as he celebrates the end of the school year with his staff.
The Catholic Church may be slogging through the biggest scandal in its modern history, but for Hartnett and the thousands of other priests untouched by the seemingly endless allegations of sexual abuse, the day-to-day mission continues, headline-free. In Hartnett's case, that mission is serving as pastor of a mid-size, mostly blue-collar parish in Baltimore County.
On this steamy night, he has walked a block from Our Lady of Mount Carmel Elementary, showing up at Schultz's with an envelope full of cash and making sure everyone -- nuns included -- gets a drink. As his duties go, this one is easy.
Otherwise, all that is routinely required of this son of a Baltimore steelworker is to be a fountain of wisdom, a fortress of strength, a pillar of virtue and a wellspring of inspiration; to join his parishioners in marriage, baptize their young, visit them in sickness and counsel them in grief; to give them purpose in life and bury them in death; to be a giver of sacred rites and a forgiver of sins; to be a writer of gripping homilies and a purveyor of Catholic values; to be philosopher and psychologist, administrator and orator; to run two schools, spend hours a day in prayer and meditation, maintain his vow of celibacy and lead a life that is exemplary in every way.
Were he perfect -- a man of unending patience, ironclad will and unlimited knowledge -- that might not be a problem.
But Father Bob is human.
He has impure thoughts. A big man at 6-foot-2 and 304 pounds, he has been known to overeat and, in younger days, overdrink. He can lose his temper, and curse ("Like a drunken sailor, sometimes," he admits). He is not always as organized, or as sensitive, as he thinks he ought to be. He is, he says, despite the robes and vestments, despite the influence his position carries and the trust it engenders, as flawed as the next guy.
"Sometimes I want to say to folks: 'Hey, I grew up in Overlea, in the same type of house you did. My father was a steelworker; my mother was a secretary and a waitress; and I went through the same kind of junk you did.'
"People don't recognize we struggle with the same type of issues they struggle with," he says one recent afternoon as he gets into his Dodge Intrepid, headed for lunch. "People see us as up on a pedestal. We're supposed to have all the answers.
Equally inaccurate, he says, are the stereotypes emerging from continued revelations in the broadening sex scandal: Priests as troubled and repressed powder kegs, waiting to go off; priests as victims of their own celibacy; priests as more likely candidates to commit pedophilia.
Never mind that the cases represent a minority. Never mind that most of them stem from decades ago. They seem to be popping up daily.
"It sounds like great numbers of marauding priests are out there stalking people, and that's not the case," Hartnett says. "Pedophilia is a psychological issue that runs across the gamut of people in the world. It's not particularly a priest phenomenon."
With about 300 priests in the United States having been relieved of duty because of abuse allegations since January, Hartnett says, the entire vocation has taken a tarnishing -- one that, as with crazed postal workers and fudging accountants, is not always deserved.
As the upper level of the church hierarchy takes its lumps for trying to keep a lid on the scandal through cover-ups and payoffs and for failing to remove abusive priests, frontline priests like Hartnett do their jobs, treading lightly and worrying more than usual about appearances, faulty conceptions and false accusations.
"I haven't noticed any clear negative reaction to me, and it's not something parishioners talk about much," Hartnett said. "But, inside, I wonder what people are thinking of me. It has probably made me a little more sensitive in how I interact with people."
Hartnett, pastor at Our Lady of Mount Carmel for nearly six years, has discussed the scandal with parishioners and, while he doesn't downplay it, he does attempt to put it into perspective.
"People wonder, how can that happen? How can that be? How can a priest sexually abuse a young boy? And I talk about how any sin can be for anybody," he said. "That doesn't justify the sin, it just acknowledges that anybody is capable."
Our Lady of Mount Carmel, with about 2,500 families and 8,000 parishioners total, has not undergone any decline in membership, as some other U.S. parishes have, since the scandal. And Hartnett has made no major changes in how he deals with children.
During the school year, he shows up in the high school snack bar almost every day to sell candy bars and chat with students. He still attends every student sporting event he can. And when hugged by a child, he says he does -- and will continue to do -- what he has always done.
"I'm going to hug them back."
One day, a farmer's daughter looks across the road and sees a helpless-looking seminarian sitting on a tractor ...
The oldest of five children, Bob Hartnett first entertained the thought of becoming a priest when he was in elementary school. It was a Catholic school, St. Michael the Archangel in Overlea, where many boys at least entertained the thought.
But for Hartnett, son of a Irish-blooded steelworker and German-blooded keypunch operator, the thought stayed with him, and by the eighth grade his mind was made up. Or so he thought.
"When it really became clear to me, I was 13 years old and at the ocean with my family. I took a long walk. I mean a long walk -- so long that my parents got concerned where I was. I just walked along the shoreline and kept thinking about it and what it would be like.
"We priests always talk about it as a 'calling,' but it's more like a feeling: This is what I'm supposed to do with my life. It wasn't like hearing voices or anything like that; it was more of a feeling that this is the most natural thing to do."
Not everyone was as sure as he was -- including his mother, and at least one nun at St. Michael's.
"All three of my eighth-grade sisters had said to me, 'Don't be disappointed when you're not accepted into the seminary.' "
One, Sister Pauline, told him that unless his math improved, he had no chance. For two months he met with her after school every day for math tutoring.
While his father was pleased with his plan to become a priest, his mother questioned whether he fully understood, at 14, how big a decision he was making.
"Mother wanted him to be sure," said Hartnett's sister, Elaine Hartnett, who is assistant principal of Our Lady of Mount Carmel High School. "She was afraid that he was going to be lonely."
"It's a hard lifestyle to choose -- a lot of commitment -- and mother saw him making a decision, at a very young age, to be solitary. But it was clear that was what he always wanted to do."
By the time he went to college, his mother had stopped doubting his choice. About the same time, his own doubts began.
"In 13 years in seminary, I probably packed my bags to leave seven times," he says. "It was for different reasons. Sometimes because the academics were too tough, sometimes it was just thinking the grass might be greener on the other side. I wondered if there was something I was missing, and questioning whether I wanted to have a family someday.
"Sometimes I thought I should just go to work at Beth Steel, like my father."
His father had discouraged that -- even for a summer. "He was afraid I would get a few bucks in my pocket and decide not to continue my education."
He was 19 when his father died, leading his mother, Winnie Elbourne, who has since remarried, to switch jobs, becoming a waitress so she could spend more time with her children.
After finishing his high school seminary programs, he went to St. Mary Seminary College in Catonsville, receiving a degree in behavioral sciences. Later, at Mount St. Mary Seminary in Emmitsburg, he got a master's of divinity and a master's in sacred scripture. From there, he was sent to do his internship, and his diaconate, at St. Luke Parish in Edgemere.
At St. Luke, ready to start doing some noble deeds, he was sent to cut the grass.
"He was on this huge tractor, and he didn't know what to do with it," recalled Christine Gernhart, who, about 10 at the time, spotted him on the tractor and walked across the street from her family's cattle farm in Edgemere to show him how to drive it.
She is 34 now and a veterinarian, and she counts Father Bob, as she and most of his parishioners call him, among the most influential people in her life.
"He is my spiritual guide, essentially. Any time I am making big decisions in life I usually contact him.
"He was one of the people who taught me to make something more of myself -- that I didn't have to be barefoot and pregnant and cook and take care of the house. That was the mentality in that area in the '80s."
Although she is not a parishioner at Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Gernhart still turns to Hartnett for advice, most recently on getting pregnant. She and her husband wanted to pursue infertility treatments, but they were aware that the Catholic Church is against many of the procedures involved.
"He gave us what the church says, and he gave us different ways to look at it, and he allowed us to make the decision that was best for our life," she says.
In June, at the couple's request, he renewed their wedding vows at Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Christine Gernhart, pregnant, cried during the service. Jim Gernhart wiped a tear off her face. Hartnett, his right hand raised, pronounced them husband and wife again.
Last week, she gave birth to a son.
A priest decides to pay a visit to the home of an expectant mom ...
Hartnett, after serving as an assistant and associate pastor, and as director of the Monsignor O'Dwyer Retreat House in Sparks, got his first pastorate in 1988 at St. Mary's in Pylesville.
Within a year, his co-workers came up with the idea of the curse jar.
In an effort to break him of the habit, or at least help him cut down, the co-workers decreed that every time Father Bob cursed, he would have to place a dollar in the jar.
"It became very expensive, but it cleaned up my act a lot. I still lose my temper, though. I still get sharp with people," says Hartnett, who has been working on the problem since he left the seminary for his first permanent assignment. That was as an associate pastor at St. Joseph's in Fullerton, where he began to learn both how lonely and difficult being a priest could be.
One of his first tasks was visiting a 5-year-old girl, dying of cancer, who had been sent home from the hospital for what would be her final days.
"She knew she was going to die," he recalls. "In fact, I think she was more prepared to die than I was prepared for her to die."
The girl asked him what heaven would be like, and whether there would be dolls to play with there. He answered the questions the best he could, but in retrospect wonders if the girl taught him more than he did her.
"She and her family had a very deep faith in God, and her understanding of Jesus and heaven buoyed her. I thought to myself, if they can have that kind of faith, in the face of that, how can I not?"
There are times, Hartnett says, that he re-evaluates his decision to become a priest. When he does, not having children of his own is what he thinks about the most.
Celibacy, relatively speaking, is the easy part. Hartnett took his vow of celibacy -- a promise not to engage in sexual acts of any nature -- upon becoming a deacon. He dated before the priesthood and had girlfriends, though none with whom he considered marriage.
"Have I thought what would it have been like? Sure. Most people encounter doubts no matter what commitment they make. Take marriage. There is a period where people stop and think, 'Yeow, what did I get myself into?' For me, at first it was the sex thing. Can I live a life without engaging in sexual relationships? We're sexual beings. But after a little while, it's a whole bigger thing than sex.
"People want to know how I came to commit my life to this, and the only way I know how to explain it is by asking them, 'How did you know you wanted to be married?' You just know it's the good and the right thing to do. And it's makes it somehow easier knowing that you are doing what you are supposed to do."
In celibacy, he has found a certain freedom, he says.
"Freedom to move in and out of people's lives, freedom to be individualistic about my own approach to spirituality, freedom to be committed to a community of people."
But there is a price.
"For me, the toughest part was not having children," he says. "At one point that was a very significant realization for me."
Still, he does have his students, hundreds of them; nieces and nephews; and a godson -- rare for a priest, but not nearly as unusual as the story behind it.
Ten years ago, Hartnett went to the home of some old friends -- Angelo and Terry Boer, and their 5-year-old daughter, Annie. He was supposed to take Terry, who was pregnant and expecting in two weeks, to lunch.
Hartnett knew Terry Boer from working with her at Retreat House, a diocese-operated meeting facility in Sparks for Catholic youths. He knew Angelo, now director of community service for Catholic Charities, from Cardinal Gibbons High. The two had played softball against each other. Father Hartnett -- then 350 pounds and bearing at least some resemblance to former Oriole Boog Powell -- played first base for a team of priests called the Padres.
When Hartnett called the Boers that morning, Terry said she wasn't feeling well. He said he'd come anyway and baby-sit if Terry wanted to go to the doctor.
When Hartnett arrived, Annie opened the door. "My mom's having a baby," the little girl said. "Yes, I know," Hartnett replied cheerily. "No," Annie said. "I mean my mom's having a baby right now."
Terry was already in labor. The priest went to her side while her husband spoke with paramedics on the kitchen telephone. When Angelo rushed back into the bedroom, Chris Boer was being born, into Father Bob's hands.
"We didn't know if priests were allowed to be godfathers, but we checked and found out it was doable," Angelo Boer said. "He was the right guy, partly because of the delivery, but mainly because he brings all the things that we hope our son would grow up to be. We thought he'd be a great role model for Chris."
A bunch of Catholic school students are trying to think of a gift for their parish priest when one remembers that the priest once said he liked birds ...
Founded in 1887 as a mission serving the German, Polish and Irish families who had migrated to the region, Our Lady of Mount Carmel became a parish in 1904, and its Spanish-style church, built to resemble its namesake in El Paso, Texas, was dedicated in 1938.
The parish thrived until the 1980s, when steelworking and other blue-collar jobs declined. More low-income residents moved into the area. Today, a county revitalization program is under way. The Villages of Tall Trees, a troubled apartment complex next to the parish that was plagued by drugs and prostitution, has been shut down and is being turned into a park.
As a parish priest, Hartnett tries to stay on top of what is happening -- in the community, in his parish, in his schools and with his parishioners.
Typically, he gets up at 6:15 a.m., prays until 7, listens to the news on the radio, showers, and prays some more. If there is Mass that day, he will prepare for it; otherwise he will work on his Sunday homily.
He'll go out to breakfast, usually with James Reynolds, a member of the parish since the 1950s who volunteers both at the church and high school, where he runs the snack bar.
Reynolds, known as "Pop," by students, referred to as the Mayor of Mount Carmel by the pastor, has made it a point to take Hartnett to breakfast ever since he found out the priest has diabetes.
"We've had some in here where everything is straight -- no laughing," says Reynolds, who has seen five pastors come and go at Mount Carmel. "He's just the opposite. He's very down to earth."
After breakfast, Hartnett will go to his office, return calls, confirm his afternoon appointments. When school is in session, he'll then check on the elementary school, with about 530 students, and the high school, with about 270. He'll spend his lunch hour in the snack bar, helping Pop sell goodies, chatting with students, and guzzling more Diet Coke.
In the afternoons, he may make hospital visits to the sick or give home communion to an ill parishioner. He might meet with a couple getting married, or with one trying to get their marriage annulled. He may take a confession, or officiate at one of the 100 or so funerals handled by the parish each year.
He enjoys baptisms the most, funerals the least. Visiting the sick can also be difficult.
"When it comes to hospital visits, I have a hard time getting myself together to do that, especially with someone who is terminally ill. But when I'm able to get to the other side of those experiences, they are probably the most rewarding."
Around 3 p.m., he'll head back to the rectory and pray some more.
Evenings are often taken up with meetings or functions -- high school, elementary school, parish council, or some committee thereof.
In all, about a third of his time is spent on administrative duties -- too much, in his view.
In his free time, he will go out on the 26-foot powerboat he keeps docked in Essex, go to the mall, take in a movie, read a novel (he likes Stephen King), watch an Oriole game in one of the overstuffed chairs in the rectory living room, or get together a basketball game in the high school gym.
As an administrator, those who work for him say, he is supportive, allows people to do their jobs, and gets involved himself when there's a need.
When someone messes up, the reverend some liken to a teddy bear can turn into a lion. "When he's mad, he's mad," his sister, Elaine, says. "He has a temper."
Like everyone else, he has good days and bad days. Sometimes he seems awash in paperwork and petty details. Other days, he feels he's accomplishing what he sees as his main purpose.
"I call them my holy days," he says, "times I feel good about what I've done. Maybe it's some advice I've given, or I've done a home communion, or helped someone struggling with a life issue. A particularly good Mass gives me the feeling too. I feel holy."
Once a month, he goes to his support group for priests -- started through the diocese 20 years ago. "I've heard everybody in the group say, at one point or another, that the group has helped them survive the priesthood," he says.
And once a week, he cleans up after Christina, a parrot that students gave him three years ago on the 20th anniversary of his priesthood.
"I said I liked birds. I never said I wanted one," Father Bob said on a recent afternoon, his collar off and in his shirt pocket, as he powered up the vacuum cleaner, picked up what he could from his office floor and relined the bottom of Christina's cage with a fresh copy of the Catholic Review.
Christina is a monk parrot, also known as a Quaker parrot, and she has never learned a word. She produces only a steady stream of squawks -- and plenty of droppings in and around her cage. He leaves her cage door open, but the bird always stays in the office of Hartnett, the only person she tolerates.
Before taking possession, Hartnett was required to visit the newborn parrot several times at Marge & Har-Ree's Birdy Boutique. "We were supposed to be bonding, I guess."
When he did get her home, nobody liked her.
"It's a vulture trapped in a parrot's body," Karen Weber, administrative assistant in the parish office says.
Father Bob reluctantly concurs. "It's a nasty, nasty bird."
And then there's the one about the steelworker and the nun ...
It was when he was in the eighth grade, but Hartnett remembers it like yesterday. Everyone in class, for St. Patrick's Day, was wearing a shamrock made of construction paper.
The nun told him -- and only him -- to take his off. He seemed to have been singled out, for no reason. "No," he said.
At the principal's office, Hartnett got a one-day suspension. But when his father came to pick him up and heard his account of what happened, he took the boy's side. The Irish steelworker complained -- loudly, and with words nuns aren't used to hearing -- until the punishment was rescinded.
Hartnett was back in school the next day, and at the end of the year, he applied for the seminary.
In the 1960s, when Hartnett was in school, the nuns were always right. And priests were even righter.
Even when it came to Father Tom Smith, an associate pastor at St. Michael in the 1960s, no one ever came right out and said what was rumored to be going on.
"It was just, 'Father Smith is a little strange sometimes; stay away from him.' You would just pass that along to the next guy, and be cautious and that was it," Hartnett recalls. Back then, such suspicions were more likely to be avoided than confronted, and not just in the Catholic Church.
"People didn't go around talking about child sexual abuse," Hartnett said. "Thirty years ago, there was not any forum or process, not just in the priesthood but anywhere -- even in the neighborhood. If someone came home and said the man down the street touched me, the father and uncles got together and paid a little visit and met with the guy and said, 'If you ever do that again we'll beat your brains out,' and that was it. Society has changed in the past few decades. Our culture got a lot more sophisticated and sensitive about these things."
As for Father Smith, what the students suspected didn't get addressed by the archdiocese until more than 20 years later in 1988, when Smith was confronted with allegations by church officials. He confessed to having molested boys at St. Michael in the 1960s, and, promising that such behavior was in the past, was moved to a position that didn't involve working closely with children.
None of that became public until 1993, when Smith, then 68 and pastor of St. Stephen Roman Catholic Church in Bradshaw, killed himself with a 12-gauge shotgun after having been accused again in a more recent, 10-year-old case of sexual abuse.
Smith had denied the allegation, but agreed to enter a clinic in Connecticut. The day before he was to check into that program, he killed himself in the rectory with a gun borrowed from a parishioner.
Nationally, the sex scandal had begun slowly unraveling in the 1980s, when Hartnett was at the Retreat House
"That was really the first time there was any public acknowledgement that there were priests that sexually abused young people," Hartnett said. "I made some changes in how I did things, like leaving the door of the confessional open, making sure I wasn't any place with a child alone, things I probably do as a matter of course now."
The Catholic Church, while taking some measures to address the problem internally, suppressed it publicly, only to see it burst forth more than a decade later.
Hartnett, having moved from Pylesville to be pastor at William of York in West Baltimore, was shocked by the news of Smith's suicide.
He was shocked again this year, when, in May, Dontee D. Stokes shot the Rev. Maurice Blackwell, who Stokes had accused of molesting him in 1993. Never formally charged, Blackwell was returned to his parish after three months in a psychiatric facility, a decision Cardinal William Keeler, the archbishop of Baltimore, has said he now regrets. In 1998, Blackwell was suspended and removed from the church after admitting to a different sexual relationship with a minor.
Hartnett was shocked again when the Rev. George B. Loskarn, another one-time associate pastor at St. Michael, was placed on leave from a Northeast Baltimore parish in June after an allegation that he sexually abused a teen-ager three decades ago.
And in July, the stunning news came that one of his predecessors at Mount Carmel, the Rev. David G. Smith, had been arrested and charged with "perverted practice" after the Archdiocese of Baltimore referred a complaint from a 45-year-old man to the Baltimore County state's attorney's office. The alleged abuse, which Smith has denied, is said to have taken place between 1973 and 1976 in the rectory of St. Mark's parish, where Smith was assigned. An inactive priest for the past two years, he served at Mount Carmel from 1980 to 1992.
Hartnett told parishioners about the charge at Sunday services on July 21, and invited anyone with concerns to talk with him afterward.
While he believes abusive priests should be removed, Hartnett worries about false accusations, and whether the "zero tolerance" policy approved by Catholic bishops in June could backfire.
"Who really knows what zero tolerance is?" Hartnett said after the Rev. Thomas R. Malia, popular pastor of Holy Cross Church in Federal Hill, was forced to resign in June for having knowingly hired a convicted sex offender as music director.
"Zero tolerance for what? Conviction? Accusation? Hiring somebody? We tend to use these phrases to make ourselves feel better. It's a nice 'sound bite' and it satisfies the media and our constituency, but what does it really mean? I'm not opposed to a person being removed if they have that particular flaw, but this is a very complex issue and I worry about the gray areas that don't get covered with a black and white policy."
Hartnett does not agree with everything the church says and does.
"I always promote the teachings of the church. I don't have a problem teaching what the church wants to teach. It's in the aftermath -- after a person makes a decision -- that I come to a place where I will accept what they've decided. If a person comes to me and says, 'I've done this,' I'm not going to beat them up over it. I don't want to be the cop and the judge and the jury."
"Father Bob definitely doesn't put on any airs," says the Rev. Leo Patalinghug, the former associate pastor at Our Lady of Mount Carmel. "He's definitely shown me a different style of ministry."
The two first met when Hartnett was at Retreat House, and Patalinghug was a student. When they ended up in the same parish years later, Hartnett told the younger man that even back then, he could tell he had the calling.
"I said, 'Why didn't you tell me?' " Patalinghug recalls. "Because at the time I wasn't sure. I would have liked to have known. I would have liked to have heard that. So I asked him, 'Why didn't you tell me that?'
"He said, 'Because I'm not God.' "
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