Some Proverbs for the Bishops Gathered in Rome

As the summit on sexual abuse begins in Rome, the prelates of the Latin Rite of the Church are reading from the Book of Proverbs in the Office of Readings of the Liturgy of the Hours. Some of the proverbs listed in today’s reading are particularly appropriate to the task at hand.

He who winks at a fault causes trouble, but he who frankly reproves promotes peace (Prov 10:10).

There is tremendous pressure today to remain silent about sin and evil. Those who do speak of sin are often labeled judgmental and intolerant. Sadly, many Christians have succumbed to this pressure; nothing but trouble can result from such capitulation. The moral cesspool that is our modern age is stark evidence of this.

The correction of faults, frankly and with love, is an act of charity (St. Thomas Aquinas). Error and sin bring war and division, both individually and collectively, but God’s truth, lovingly proclaimed, brings peace by insisting on what is good, right, true, and beautiful.

We live in an age that turns a blind eye to evil. The world often celebrates it in visual entertainment, books, the news media, and music. One can see the destructiveness of the glamorization of evil simply by reading the news.

God’s law is His peace plan for this broken world of ours; it is His wisdom that will bring us peace.

It seems obvious that the failure to correct sin in others and the downplaying of sin are at the heart of this crisis. We pray for our Church leaders to clearly and confidently proclaim God’s law and to courageously correct and reprove error.

A fountain of life is the mouth of the just, but the mouth of the wicked conceals violence (Proverbs 10:11).

Jesus warned that Satan and those who are evil often masquerade in sheep’s clothing, while underneath they are ravenous wolves (see Mat 7:15). Many in our world today who despise God’s wisdom attempt to conceal it with euphemistic or deceptive phrases such as pro-choice, pro-woman, no-fault divorce, reproductive freedom, euthanasia, and death with dignity.

Despite the cloak of pseudo-compassion, they ultimately peddle death and division. God’s wisdom, on the other hand, speaks to the dignity of every human life, to hope, and to the promise of eternal life despite difficulties in this world.

We pray that the clergy and leaders of the Church will be like a fountain of truth and justice. Sadly, too many pulpits have been silent; teaching on many critical moral issues has been lacking or even erroneous. Many prefer to speak of tolerance and love in vague and unmoored ways. Tolerance and love have their place, but only in the context of truth and concern for the ultimate good of souls (not necessarily their present comfort).

Where words are many, sin is not wanting; but he who restrains his lips does well (Proverbs 10:19).

In an age of non-stop communication and 24/7 news reporting, the sin of gossip is an almost ever-present temptation. Discretion appears to have been lost.

Our age is one of easy access to various media (e.g., movies, television, books, news, music), and on account of this sin is not wanting. We talk endlessly about other people’s business and often ignore our own issues.

Rare indeed are those who “restrain their lips” and limit their criticism to what is truly helpful unto conversion.

The Pope has warned in this crisis of the need for care in how we speak to it. On the one hand, there has been too much silence and the faithful are rightly finding their voices. However, all of us must restrain the impulse to speak with invective, undue anger, and cynicism; these can generate more heat than light. Many criticisms of the hierarchy are rightly deserved, but we should not fail to praise what is good, to pray for a miraculous conversion, and to assist in crafting solutions that will restore holiness to the Church.

Crime is the entertainment of the fool; so is wisdom for the man of sense (Proverbs 10:23).

Our culture often celebrates the sins of others as entertainment. Fornication, adultery, and all kinds of sexual misconduct are normalized—even celebrated—in books, movies, and on television.

It is the same with violence. Most adventure movies today glamorize its use to solve problems.

Where are the movies that depict wisdom, beauty, love, truth, chastity, and strong families? There are some out there, but they are far outnumbered by those that celebrate crime, violence, dysfunction, and sinfulness.

As the prelates gather in Rome, we must recall that we are dealing with a cultural issue, not just a Church issue. Our whole culture has turned foolishness into entertainment and proposes we not take grave error seriously. We pray that Church leaders will realize anew our obligation to return to the font of God’s wisdom as the source of truth. Pleasing the world by conformity to its language and narrative is neither our role nor our goal. Proclaiming God’s truth is our purpose and our mandate.

When the tempest passes, the wicked man is no more; but the just man is established forever (Proverbs 10:25).

The truth will out. Evil will not remain; it cannot last. Christ has already won the victory.

The foolish keep resisting; they laugh at God’s wisdom, dismiss the Scriptures, and reject Church teaching. When they are gone, though, we will still be here proclaiming Christ crucified, gloriously resurrected, and ascended to glory.

Though the Lord permits His enemies time to repent, their days are ultimately numbered—evil cannot last.

As the bishops gather, we pray that they will see the need to purge evil from the Church, to resist the pressure to succumb to the spirit of the age. Pray that they recall we will ultimately win only with loyalty to Christ Jesus. Persecution is not the worst thing in life; compromise with the world and dying in our sins is. The victory is in the Lord Jesus, who was crucified to this world, rose gloriously, and is reigning over a Kingdom that is established forever.

These are just a few proverbs that are particularly appropriate for our bishops as they gather. Please pray for them all.


Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Some Proverbs for the Bishops Gathered in Rome

Can Anything Good Come Out of 2018?

It is hard to describe 2018 as anything short of a disaster for the Church, both in the United States and around the world. I will not recite every gory detail here but suffice it to say that this year will go down in history for its high-stakes drama and the discouragement that ensued among both clergy and the faithful.

Can anything good possibly come from 2018? None of us can say for certain, but we do know that God can write straight with crooked lines; He can make a way out of no way. Though I am a known critic of many of the events of the past year, I would like to point out some positive effects that have occurred. I pray that these do not become overcorrections, which can sometimes be as bad as the evils they replace.

The laity has found its collective voice.

Many of us can remember a time when it was almost unthinkable to say anything negative about a priest or bishop. Even if one saw evidence of problematic behavior by a clergyman, mentioning it was verboten. There was a kind of excessive deference to Church authority. Because the priest was holy and had given his life to God, questioning or opposing him was tantamount to questioning or opposing God.

Though this began changing in the 1970s and ’80s, there has still been a sometimes-unhealthy submissiveness to the clergy, especially bishops. For traditional Catholics, disrespect for the clergy—especially the pope—was a mark of dissent and highly frowned upon. A true and orthodox Catholic had a filial love for the pope and, as general rule, for the bishops in union with him.

Although we call priests “Father” and think of bishops as shepherds, most of us are adult children. The Catholic faithful have equal dignity before God and have both the right and the duty to work with their clergy in manifesting the Church. The roles are distinct, but the responsibility is shared.

While not rejecting the divine constitution of the Church (wherein the Lord established his clergy with the power to teach, govern, and sanctify in a unique and authoritative way), God’s faithful people are to work with their clergy so that the clergy are responsible and accountable for the gifts and roles God has given them. Canon 212.3 says this of the lay faithful:

According to the knowledge, competence, and prestige which they possess, they have the right and even at times the duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church and to make their opinion known to the rest of the Christian faithful, without prejudice to the integrity of faith and morals, with reverence toward their pastors, and attentive to common advantage and the dignity of persons.

A fawning and overly deferential attitude toward the clergy does not help them or the Church.

The bishops and other clergy have been humbled in a way that may have salutary effects.

Over the past thirty years, many Catholics have become more comfortable giving feedback to their local priests, even confronting them when necessary. Bishops, however, have continued to be well-insulated; they are often surrounded and protected by several layers of staff. Most lay people indicate that they have no hope of ever getting through to the bishop. Even letters addressed to the bishop are answered by subordinates. In some larger dioceses, even priests can have difficulty meeting or speaking with their bishop.

Many bishops have become aware that they are too distant from their people and must get better at listening to them, taking their concerns seriously, and participating more in the everyday life of the flock.

Clergy are more likely to correct one another and speak more honestly to their bishop.

Priests are not immune from showing excessive deference to and flattery of higher-level Church officials. Priests are people and most people are hesitant to speak clearly and forthrightly to those in authority over them.

We priests need to overcome this tendency and learn to speak more frankly, yet still respectfully, to our bishops. A priest has a shared responsibility with his bishop, acting as his eyes and ears in the parish as well as being his voice to the parishioners. Priests must become more willing to say things to their bishop that he would rather not hear but needs to hear.

This recent crisis has helped some priests, even if only a minority, to become more willing to speak out, to the bishop and to the laity, with clarity and charity. Priests owe respect and obedience to their bishop. This is not obsequiousness and fawning deference, but manly and respectful interaction that has the best interests of the bishop and the wider Church at heart.

We have learned the price of silence and compromise.

The sexual revolution was simmering through the early 1960s and reached a boil in the last few years of the decade. Sadly, most clergy and parents remained far too silent as the body count grew. It is estimated that there are more than 40 million abortions per year around the world. Most children are now raised without the benefit of a father and mother in a stable marriage. Sexual promiscuity (and the resultant sexually-transmitted diseases) and sexual confusion are rampant. Yet the silence from many pulpits on these matters is deafening.

In 1968 many clergy, embarrassed by the prophetic encyclical Humanae Vitae, simply stepped away from any teaching on human sexuality. It became too politicized and controversial for their tastes. In sowing the wind, we have reaped the whirlwind.

We have been reminded that “tactful” silence is foolish and compromise with the world brings a false peace rooted in lies. The world will never be satisfied with any compromise we make. In fact, it derides us when we do so! The world will only be satisfied with total surrender. The sexual sin and confusion, up through the highest ranks of clergy, shows forth the price of such compromise. The world is not changed by our compromise, but we are corrupted, weakened, and confused by it. We have earned no converts, only derision and moral debilitation.

It’s time to get back to the uncorrupted and pure teaching of Scripture, which is more concerned with people’s salvation than with their feelings.

Some are now speaking more plainly about the central issues of homosexuality and the abuse of power.

The connection of homosexuality to sexual abuse by clergy has been a forbidden topic, but the current crisis has forced it out into the open. (I have written in detail about this topic in other posts, here and here.) When 80 percent of the victims of sexual abuse by clergy are males, we must investigate why that is the case; remaining silent about this fact has only caused further damage. An honest assessment is going to be necessary for any credible solution.

Clearly, those with deep-seated homosexual tendencies are going to face unique problems in the same-sex settings of seminaries, rectories, and religious houses. The Pope himself recently raised these concerns. The current crisis has encouraged more to speak out about these issues, realizing that continued silence will only make matters worse.

The common good and the spiritual welfare of those with same-sex attraction require a truthful assessment of this matter no matter how unpopular such observations and prescriptions may be. Besides, the world isn’t going to love us no matter what we do!

We are now more aware that the victims of sexual abuse are not just pre-pubescent children and post-pubescent minors, but vulnerable adults as well.

Although seminarians and newer priests are adults, an older priest or bishop can use his power, authority, and influence over their future to make it difficult for them to resist sexual advances.

Further, because priests are called “Father,” any sexual interaction with the faithful—male or female, young or old—can rightly be called “spiritual incest.” All this talk about “consenting adults” ignores the fact that many relationships are not ones between equals. The #MeToo movement has brought this out in the business, media, and Hollywood worlds.

There is a growing awareness in the secular world of the damage that can be caused by caretakers, therapists, counselors, and others in positions of influence who take sexual advantage of vulnerable adults. In the Church, a priest who does this is guilty not only of violating a professional boundary but also of sacrilege, because he violates his sacred vows.

The current crisis has caused the Church to take a much clearer look at this aspect of the problem. If even the secular world is beginning to understand this, we can do no less.

Here, then, are some positive outcomes, even if painful in their initial unfolding. They can be helpful trends for the Church provided they do not become overcorrections. This is one of the dangers of any response to a crisis: that we simply swing to a perhaps-equally-undesirable extreme. For example, overcorrections might result in some of these:

  • A laity that is so bold as to be incorrigible, unteachable, and disrespectful of clergy and bishops.
  • Bishops that are so anxious for the approval of their flock that they stop leading and prophetically challenging the faithful to follow Christ, especially in matters that challenge popular ways of thinking.
  • Neglecting mercy and the pastoral need to be patient in leading people out of habitual sin.
  • Forgetting that 20 percent of the victims of sexual abuse by clergy have been female.
  • Demonizing sexual attraction such that even appropriate flattery and outreach (e.g., asking someone out for a date) is considered abuse. Attraction between men and women is normal and healthy and should not be criminalized. Obviously, clergy should never signal sexual interest, but a mere look or an expression of concern does not amount to a boundary violation.

Ultimately, we must lovingly summon all to chaste living in accordance with the Sixth Commandment and God’s overall teaching. If we can be serious and loving about this, something good may come of the crises of 2018.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard:

On the Loss of Faith as a Cause of Our Current Crisis

In the Liturgy of the Hours this week, we read a remarkable attributed to St. Macarius, a bishop of the early Church. I marvel at its vivid imagery, and yet at the same time, questions arise in my mind as to the general application of the text. In effect, the text states that if the soul does not have Christ living within, it falls into utter disrepair and a contemptible state.

Allow me to have Bishop Macarius speak for himself, after which I would like to pose a few questions.

When a house has no master living in it, it becomes dark, vile and contemptible, choked with filth and disgusting refuse. So too is a soul which has lost its master, who once rejoiced there with his angels. This soul is darkened with sin, its desires are degraded, and it knows nothing but shame.

 Woe to the path that is not walked on, or along which the voices of men are not heard, for then it becomes the haunt of wild animals. Woe to the soul if the Lord does not walk within it to banish with his voice the spiritual beasts of sin. Woe to the house where no master dwells, to the field where no farmer works, to the pilotless ship, storm-tossed and sinking. Woe to the soul without Christ as its true pilot; drifting in the darkness, buffeted by the waves of passion, storm-tossed at the mercy of evil spirits, its end is destruction. Woe to the soul that does not have Christ to cultivate it with care to produce the good fruit of the Holy Spirit. Left to itself, it is choked with thorns and thistles; instead of fruit it produces only what is fit for burning. Woe to the soul that does not have Christ dwelling in it; deserted and foul with the filth of the passions, it becomes a haven for all the vices (St. Macarius, bishop, Hom. 28: pp. 34, 710-711).

This is a remarkably vivid, creative description of the soul without Christ, of one who has turned aside from the faith. To be sure, St. Macarius speaks in a general way. Each person’s personal journey will be affected by many factors: how absolute his rejection of the faith is, how influenced he is for better or worse by the people and culture around him, how operative he has allowed their natural virtues to be, and so forth. Hence, we ought not to simplify the lives of unbelievers. They come in many forms and degrees.

If we apply St. Macarius’ teaching to the sexual scandal currently rocking the Church worldwide, we can note that one of the causes rightly assigned to it is a loss of faith. How is it possible for a man who once consecrated himself to God and who daily celebrates the sacred mysteries of the sacraments to so violate the Sixth Commandment and his promise of celibacy? In many cases this is not a one-time fall in weakness but a repeated action. How can a cleric live such a double life? Somewhere this man has lost the faith, either substantially or totally. As his sinful notions harden and his rationalizations grow, surely his soul darkens. As Macarius notes, the Holy Spirit cannot bring forth fruits in a soul in which mortal sin goes on unconfessed, and woe to the soul no longer indwelled by Christ. The filth of sin and the darkness of denial grow ever worse. This is why we must pray for the conversion of sinners: O My Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell, especially those in most need of thy mercy.

We see this also in the wider culture, where many live openly in sin and irregularity. Abortion, fornication, cohabitation, homosexual acts, rampant divorce, and (assisted) suicide once shocked us and brought shame and sorrow. Today they are called rights and are often celebrated; it is those who remained shocked and saddened who are excoriated.

This sea change also illustrates St. Macarius’ words, for we see how our culture suffers gravely from a lack of faith as it has “kicked God to the curb.” It is not an exaggeration to describe the Western world as a house that has no master living in it … increasingly dark, vile, and contemptible, choked with filth and disgusting refuse … darkened with sin, its desires are degraded, and it knows nothing but shame. Increasingly, this is our lot in the West.

The #MeToo movement and the current anger about sexual abuse by clergy demonstrate that we as a culture do occasionally awaken to the increasing toll of the sexual and cultural revolution; we do occasionally engage in some degree of self-correction. Too often, however, our outrage is both selective and short-lived. Sexual abusers of every sort are rightly denounced, but there is little evidence that we are willing to consider the overall “pornification” of our culture as another contributing factor. It seems unlikely that the current celebration of sexual misconduct, confusion, and immodesty in movies, music, and popular culture is going to be included in our national examination of conscience.

Thus, our overall culture remains in great disrepair. As St. Macarius describes, we are adrift like a pilotless ship, foul with the filth of the passions, and a haven for all the vices. It is clear that our jettisoning of the faith and of biblical norms is having increasingly devastating effects on every level. We have become more coarse, base, and disrespectful of one another; we are exploitative, wasteful, and often ungrateful for what we have; we are increasingly impatient, resentful, and sullen at even the slightest inconvenience or problem.

By abandoning the first three commandments that refer to our relationship with God, we undermine the seven commandments that regulate our relationship with one another as well. This is central to St. Macarius’ point. When a house [or culture] has no master living in it [because we have collectively shown God the door], it becomes dark, vile and contemptible, choked with filth and disgusting refuse.

Help us, Lord, to rediscover the beauty of your truth. We have suffered by pushing you to the margins. Though even in more religious times we were not free of sin, we have only made things worse by departing from you. Bring us back as a nation, O Lord! Help us to be more faithful and to enjoy more than ever before the beauty of your truth and order. In Jesus’ name, Amen!

A Simple but Clear Warning

In recent months we have once again been forced to confront the sinful evils we have inflicted upon one another. Currently the focus is rightfully on the sins of the clergy. The sexual predations of some clergy have a three-fold effect on the victims and on the Church.

First there is the violation of the Sixth Commandment by all who engage in illicit sexual union. Sin always causes harm; it always sets evil loose. Even illicit sexual union between two fully consenting adults harms human dignity; it dishonors the body and the meaning of human sexuality, and it weakens marriage by usurping one of its privileges.

A second effect of sexual abuse by clergy is that those who perpetrate it gravely violate their vow of celibacy. This adds sacrilege to the list of grave harms and brings the very Sacrament of Holy Orders into disrepute.

Yet a third effect is the terrible violation of trust. Men who are called “Father” turn against their own in a kind of spiritual incest. The horrifying impact of this on the victims is evident in listening to their testimonies. The wounds are deep and lasting. While most of the victims were post-pubescent teens or young adults, the harm is the same. The typical case is a religious superior exploiting someone under his care and authority. The relationship is not one between equals. The victims have suffered behaviors ranging from sexual harassment to outright sexual abuse. In the priestly scandal most of the cases have been ones of homosexual predation, but homosexual or heterosexual, the sin of any sexual predation is grievous and causes tremendous harm.

One of the cultural issues that underlies this scandal, as well as others that have been in the news recently, is a tendency to treat sexual sins lightly. Since the 1960s there has been a steady erosion in the proper understanding of sexuality. While no one lived perfectly before that time, sexual sins were considered serious; blatant disregard for biblical sexual norms was considered by most to be shocking and scandalous. Cohabitation, sex before marriage, the portrayal of sexual acts in movies, and so forth were thought to be serious violations of decency.

At first, many thought it was “no big deal,” even calling it a “liberation.” All the while, though, the horrible effects continued to mount: an increase in sexually transmitted diseases, the skyrocketing of abortion rates, an increase in human trafficking (especially of minors), a steep decline in marriage rates, a steep increase in divorce rates, and an increase in single motherhood/absent fatherhood. And revealed most recently, the additional tolls of sexual harassment, molestation and sexual abuse.

Saying that sex is no big deal doesn’t make it so. It has been said that God always forgives, men sometimes forgive, but nature never forgives. We have sown the wind and we have reaped the whirlwind.

Today’s reading from the First Letter to the Corinthians gives a simple reminder on the seriousness of sexual sins and perversions:

Instead, you inflict injustice and cheat, and this to brothers. Do you not know that the unjust will not inherit the Kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators nor idolaters nor adulterers nor boy prostitutes nor sodomites nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor robbers will inherit the Kingdom of God. That is what some of you used to be; but now you have had yourselves washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God (1 Cor 6:9-11).

Note that this passage links these sexual sins to an injustice so serious that, if one dies unrepentant, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God. Put more plainly, the unrepentant will go to Hell.

Perhaps as we awaken from our long moral slumber we will begin to see that texts like these are not indicative of the “sexual hang-ups” of St. Paul or of an earlier age in general. In a stern warning like this, God is not trying to “take away our fun”; he is trying to protect us and those we might harm by illicit sexual union and summon us to conversion and repentance before it is too late.

It is a simple but clear warning issued in love and out of a desire to protect us, who often make light of sin.

St. Monica and Prayers for Priests

On the Feast of St. Monica, who prayed at length for her son, I’d like to say that my mother prayed for me too! I really needed (and still need) her prayers.

In this time of pain in the Church, when God’s people are rightly disturbed by the sins of the clergy, many of you have assured me and I’m sure other clergy of your prayers for us. St. Monica, especially in this difficult time, is an image of prayers not only for her son but also for priests; for clearly, her son went on to become a priest and bishop.

Satan hates priests and seeks above all to get to us. Jesus remarked laconically and pointedly, quoting from Zechariah (13:7), Strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered. This is why Satan hates priests and seeks to topple them.

Like St. Augustine, I have always felt my mother’s prayers very powerfully. I pray that my mother, Nancy Geiman Pope, who died in 2005, is now at home with the Lord and has met St. Monica. She always told me that she was praying for me! I often attributed her prayers to her tendency to worry, but I have learned of the power of her prayers and of their necessity. My mother said the Lord had told her that Satan wanted me and all priests and that she had better pray for me. I never doubted that she did and I’m sure she still does.

I remember once, a week before my ordination in 1989, I was up on the roof of our family home cleaning out the gutters. My mother came out and told me to “Come down from the roof at once!” and that she would hire someone to clean them. She later explained that her concern was that I, so near to my ordination, was now a special target of the Evil One and that I might have fallen from that roof by his evil machinations.

I have come to see both her wisdom and my need for her prayers. I have also come to value the prayers of so many of my parishioners, who have told me that they pray for me. Yes, I need a mantle of protection—and so do all other priests. Pray for priests! Pray, pray, pray!

So today on this Feast of St. Monica, my thoughts stretch to my mother. Thanks, Mom, for your prayers and for your wisdom. One day you called me down from the “roof” of my pride and told me to keep my feet on solid ground. Yes, you knew, and you prayed. You warned me and then prayed some more. You knew that precious gifts, like the priesthood, also come with burdens and temptations that require sober and vigilant prayer.

Thank you, dear readers and beloved parishioners, for your prayers as well. They have sustained me. Better men than I are suffering and better men than I have fallen under the burden of office. It is only your prayers that have kept me. Yes, pray, pray, pray for priests! Join your prayers to those of St. Monica, my mother, Nancy Geiman Pope, others in the great beyond, and many others still here on this earth. Pray for priests! Pray, pray, pray!

The photo at the top? Yes, that’s yours truly in a needy moment; my mother is holding me up in prayer and care. She still does this from her current location—closer to the Lord, I pray. Her prayers still hold me, as mine hold her. Requiescat in Pace.

Love and Lament Alike – A Brief Reflection for All Who Care About the Church

As a priest and pastor I work very closely with others: clergy, religious, laity who work for the Church, and laity who volunteer. We all work for the Church because we love her and her people.

At times, though, there is disappointment, hurt, or even disillusionment. Perhaps these feelings result from issues in the wider Church: sexual abuse by clergy, the lack of courage and leadership from some bishops and priests, the scandal of dissent at the highest levels, questionable partnerships with anti-life and anti-Catholic organizations, the breakdown of discipline, and the strange severity of response to some infractions contrasted with the almost total laxity in the face of others. Perhaps they are the result of local problems found in any group of human beings: gossip, hurtful actions, hypocrisy, power struggles, misplaced priorities, favoritism, and injustice.

While these things happen everywhere, many hope that there will be fewer occurrences in the Church. Some who come to work for the Church begin by thinking, How wonderful it will be to work for the Church instead of out in the cutthroat business world! Maybe they envision a place where people pray together and support each other more. Perhaps they think the Church will be a place with less competition and strife.

Alas, such hopes are usually dashed quickly. We are, after all, running a hospital of sorts; and just as hospitals tend to attract the sick, so the Church attracts sinners and those who struggle. Jesus was often found in strange company, so much so that the Pharisees were scandalized. He rebuked them by saying, People who are well do not need a doctor, sick people do. I have come to call sinners, not the righteous (Mk 2:17).

Idealistic notions of working in and for the Church evaporate quickly when the phone rings with an impatient parishioner on the line, or when two group leaders argue over who gets to use the parish hall, or when the pastor is irritable and disorganized, or when the maintenance engineer is found to be drinking on the job, or when certain members of the choir are making anything but harmony, or when some favored parishioners get attention from and access to the old guard leaders while newcomers are resisted.

For all these sorts of situations that engender irritation, disappointment, or disillusionment, I keep a little prayer card near my desk. Sometimes I read it for my own benefit and sometimes I share it with those who feel discouraged at what happens (or doesn’t happen) in the Church. It is a beautiful mediation; it recalls that although great love often generates the deep disappointment, in the end love still abides.

Consider, then, the following words. They are perhaps over-the-top in places, but love has its excesses. Take these words as a kind of elixir that speaks to the pain that love can cause.

How baffling you are, Oh Church,
and yet how I love you!
How you have made me suffer,
and yet how much I owe you!
I would like to see you destroyed,
and yet I need your presence.

You have given me so much scandal
and yet you have made me understand what sanctity is.
I have seen nothing in the world more devoted to obscurity,
more compromised, more false,
and yet I have touched nothing more pure, more generous, more beautiful.
How often I have wanted to shut the doors of my soul in your face,
and how often I have prayed to die in the safety of your arms.

No, I cannot free myself from you,
because I am you, though not completely.
And besides, where would I go?

Would I establish another?
I would not be able to establish it without the same faults,
for they are the same faults I carry in me.
And if I did establish another,
it would be my Church,
not the Church of Christ.

(from The God Who Comes, by Carlo Carretto)

Yes, where else would I go?

Is It Really About the Children? Taking Concern about the Sexual Abuse of Minors to the Next Level

In recent years, the Catholic Church has come under great scrutiny in terms of the sexual abuse of minors. Painful though it has been, it has been salutary in many ways. That such abuse has occurred, even once, let alone with the frequency we have all discovered, is both tragic and scandalous. That the Church has been scrutinized, and called to account by many, has meant that an increasingly serious and comprehensive set of protective measures has been put in place to root out the sexual abuse of minors. This both helps to protect the young and purify the Church.

Consider the graph to the upper right and we shall see that the reports of this sinful and abusive behavior came rather suddenly on the scene in large numbers about 1960, and peaked in the early 1980s. I recall that, about that time (1985), in this Archdiocese we were rocked with some allegations that brought some very painful sins to light. Cardinal Hickey however, began a very through investigation of the problem, and was one of the bishops at that time who undertook a rather sweeping plan to ensure that young people were protected from this in the future. As a seminarian during those years I was expected to attend seminars that alerted us to the problem and we were all given extensive psychological testing and background checks to ensure we were free of any past sins and offenses in this matter, and free of any tendencies toward them.

As you can see by the graph above right, the number of reported incidents drops precipitously after the mid 1980s. While it is true that in 2002 the issue heated up in the news, the incidents that came to light at that time were largely from 20 to 30 years prior. The real anger at that time had more to do with the failure to discipline and remove abuser priests, a failure that had, or was still occurring, in certain dioceses. But in terms of actual incidences, you can see that the number has come dramatically down to its current level. Though not zero, which is the only acceptable number, we do see a remarkable drop. The graph at the left indicates a dramatic drop in the number of abuse cases by priests ordained after 1985. This too demonstrates that, by that time, most dioceses were very careful to do background checks and perform psychological testing that prevented abusers from entering the priesthood.

Hence, the painful period where sin in the Church has been laid bare has had the salutary effect of purifying the Church and, even more importantly, seeing that children are adequately protected from abuse.

So where do we go from here? How serious are we, as a society and a Country, about making sure that children everywhere are protected from sexual abuse? For if our concerns are really about the children, then we must come to see that the Catholic Church is not the only place children have sexually abused. And we must come to see that some non-church settings, children are still being abused in large numbers.

One of the most dangerous places for our children in terms of sexual abuse are the public schools. Consider clicking on this Google news search for stories about arrests for sexual abuse of minors allegations in the last month. You will see page after page of news items about teachers being arrested for sexually molesting the young people under their care. The search “teacher, student, sex, arrest” yields over 550 news reports (30+ Google pages). (Hat tip to Mark Gray for this Google information)

Note two observations of the media coverage of this. First, the stories are being covered. Hence it would be wrong to say the media is “ignoring” the story. Secondly, however, there seems to be no connecting of these stories. They are all considered to be individual cases, unconnected if you will. These stories tend to be framed as an individual teacher who is just “a bad apple.”

And this failure to connect these individual cases and see them as linked to an overall problem that must be addressed, endangers children.

When the abuse cases in the Church arose, they were seen collectively and it was proposed (rightly to some extent) that there was a problem in the Catholic Church, that something linked all these cases together in the wider culture of the Church. Some (incorrectly) blamed celibacy, others the culture of clerical exoneration, still others to the lack of oversight and discipline by the bishops, and “cover-ups.”

Problem in the Public Schools? But in considering these (very) numerous cases in the public school system, few in the media or elsewhere seem to be willing to propose that there is a problem in the public schools, that there is something that links these cases together. What exactly that problem is, is currently debatable. But the point is, who is demanding investigations? Who is demanding a systematic analysis of the public school system or insisting that further measures be instituted to protect children? Who is looking into the kinds of background checks that the schools perform before they hire teachers? Are there psychological tests to weed out potential abusers? Are there seminars for the teachers to help them recognize the signs of potential abuse taking place on their campuses? Are students taught about their rights and what to do in bad situations? Is there a climate of openness and concern that encourages students to report situations which make them feel uncomfortable, or when they feel they are receiving unwanted attention from a teacher or staff member? What are the procedures for dealing with credible allegations? Are public school systems properly vigilant in protecting children from predators?

Who is asking these questions and probing the “wider context” of the school systems in this country? Are we doing enough to protect our children? Apparently not. Look again at the Google link listed above. We are not dealing with a small problem here, it is widespread, and sadly, common.

Are we willing to take this issue of the sexual abuse of minors to the next level?

And while we are at it, are we willing to address the sexualization of children that takes place in our culture especially in ads, on sitcoms, in movies and music? Why do we tolerate TV shows that depict sexually active teenagers? Why is it so difficult for mothers to buy modest clothes for their daughters at most stores? Why do companies like  Abercrombie and Fitch which advertise padded bras and swim tops for 8 year olds, and sell thongs to preteen girls, continue to make money? In short, why are we as a culture not more outraged at the sexualization of children and young teenagers? Sexualizing children and teens does not help protect them from predators who are already confused. If we are serious about protecting the young from sexual abuse, then we ought to stop having such a high tolerance for this sort of thing in our culture. We have discussed this previously on the blog HERE.

I realize that some who read this post will want to read it simply as a priest deflecting attention from the Church. I can and will deny this allegation and have stated clearly that I think the Church has received rebuke, properly. But frankly dear reader, my motivations in raising this are beside the point. The questions I raise remain valid, if we are going to be serious about protecting children. Is our concern really about children and, if so, are we collectively willing to take our concern about the sexual abuse of minors to the next level?

I am interested in your responses and observations.

Article in Washington Post on Clergy Sexual Abuse Misses the Mark

The Washington Post has published a story this morning on the Sexual Abuse Scandal in the Roman Catholic Church. Why exactly they have chosen to do so at this time is not clear. There are no new allegations, no legal updates to report, no recent protests or accusations against the Archdiocese of Washington’s handling of this matter.

The Article, entitled  After child abuse accusations, Catholic priests often simply vanish, seems to have as its purpose and focus the question of whether the Catholic Church is doing enough to “track” and control the behavior of former priests once they have been “defrocked” (i.e. laicized or removed from ministry). The question seems somewhat misplaced however since such functions of control, probation and registering sex offenders are the role of the State, not the Church. Never mind though, this article is going to be about the Church. Never mind that the Church has no legal standing or power to accomplish such tracking, control and legal disclosure. Yet it would seem according tot he article that she is still negligent. Exactly how the Church is to accomplish this task of tracking and controlling is not made clear by the reporters or others interviewed. At any rate this lack of monitoring seems to be the premise of the article. The article begins with this somewhat rhetorical observation:

[S]omething glaring is missing in this country: the accused priests. Although the vast majority were removed from ministry long ago – barred from celebrating Mass in public, administering the sacraments, wearing their clerical collars or presenting themselves as priests – church officials say they have no way to monitor where the men are now…..The Washington Post was able to identify 31 priests accused in the Washington area and locate nine who are still alive…..

The implication of course is that we are supposed to be monitoring. Again, how and on what legal basis or standing we are to do this is not stated.

 The Article is further deficient in that  it doesn’t discuss the breadth of what the Church has done to protect kids nor does show how much has been developed, including criminal background  checks of all priests and lay staff who have any contact with youth. No mention is made of the reporting and accountability to third parties that all abuse prevention training is up to date and that all requirements are met yearly in terms of legally recognized abuse prevention programs. Neither does the Post article make clear that historical data and names of all accused priests have been made public. All the men mentioned in the article have been named publicly before by the Church. Further, it is the policy of the Archdiocese to immediately inform the local police of any charges of abuse, past or present.  None of this is mentioned and the impression is allowed by the article that the Archdiocese is somewhat  cavalier about men who are barred from ministry and child safety, which is not true.

As a priest, I am grieved and angry that any brother priest of mine harmed children, sexually abused them, or scandalized them in any way. Nothing could be further from the purpose of the priesthood and the Church than the exploitation of the innocent and vulnerable. There is simply no place in the priesthood for those who have done such things.  I believe the Archdiocese of Washington has been very serious about finding those men who offended and, upon knowledge of any past abuse coming to light, has acted swiftly to remove them and report them to law enforcement. As a priest I am additionally grieved at how the horrible violation of trust by these abusers has affected the ability of the vast majority of priests who never offended to preach the Gospel and build trust with their people. I am no apologist for any abuser priest. Neither do I think that the Church has handled this matter well in the past. However, this Post Article says nothing about how seriously this Archdiocese has been about this problem for a long time now. This leaving out  of the “rest of the story” is a serious deficiency of the article and a disservice to the Church, and to  many people I love and respect who are very diligent in protecting the  young. Susan Timony is the post just prior to this (  some of the significant measures we take to prevent abuse and also the pastoral care we extend to victims and their families.

But the ultimate deficiency in the Post article  is the poor marksmanship of the authors who completely miss the target of what should concern us at this point. The data in this article goes a long way to show the deficiencies in our criminal justice system. If we are really serious about protecting young people from sexual abusers it is not obvious by looking at the lapses in incarceration, probation and community protection by the State.

I would like to look at an example from the article to illustrate this. The quote from the article is in bold italics black. My commentary is normal text red

The Case of Robert Petrella:

Robert J. Petrella has been accused by at least 25 men of molesting them when they were boys, church officials said. He has been convicted twice of abuse charges in Prince George’s County – in 1997 and 2002. Yet his name does not appear on any sex-offender registry He was prosecuted under the Maryland laws in effect at the time his crimes were committed, long before such registries existed, said Prince George’s Assistant State’s Attorney Renee Battle-Brooks: (This is bureaucratic gobbledygook. Robert Petrella has been in and out of jail twice since 1997. His absence from sex-offender registries is not a negligence on the part of the Church, this is negligence on the part of the State. Where is the outcry? Where are the demands for reform? Surely the Post will devote full attention to this terrible oversight in the law. The Post and many voices legitimately demanded immediate reform in the Church for our oversights and bad policies of the past. How about this dreadfully bad policy by the State of Maryland?  Robert Petrella should be listed prominently in every sex-offender registry. He is a very serious offender. At least  25 men have accused him. This is a serious dereliction of duty on the part of the state).

The Washington Archdiocese, which removed Petrella from the ministry in1989 after two decades and seven parishes, defrocked him in 2002. Susan Gibbs, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese, said she isn’t sure where Petrella is, and his attorney, William Brennan, declined to comment. (Hmm…so it looks like the Post isn’t going to decry the State of Maryland and interview people who demand reform. Oh, I see, it’s back to the Church which is supposed to know his whereabouts and be doing…. what? Has the Post not missed the true target here? It is the State of Maryland and other States as well that need reform. The Church does not have the capacity to track whereabouts since she cannot demand reportage from US Citizens. We cannot force Petrella to where a ankle device   or demand he check in every day. That is not in our power. The State however does have that power and I would recommend that the Post, if it is serious about protection, use a little journalistic pressure to agitate for change as they and others rightfully did of the Church in the past).

The person who has tracked the former priest most closely in recent years is [David] Fortwengler, who was an11-year-old altar boy at St. Columba when Petrella molested him in 1968. “I got that sick feeling in my stomach again,” Fortwengler said of learning that Petrella’s probation was coming to an end. Petrella, who did not respond to phone calls and letters, had gone unmonitored for long stretches before…..  Petrella….didn’t face criminal charges until 1997. After being convicted of battery, he served one week in jail before persuading a Prince George’s judge to release him so he could care for his ill mother. (Pay attention folks. After being convicted of child molestation Petrella spent only one week in jail, one week. Now this is a serious miscarriage of justice by the State. Again, where is/was the outcry? Where are the demands for reform? Why did this go unreported at the time? Again, this is the State, not the Church that is going lite on offenders)

His release required him to be in a home detention program in Pennsylvania under supervised probation for three years. Yet it came out in court documents years later that probation authorities there were never supervising him….  (More incompetence and dereliction by the State. It seems well past time for the Post and others to demand a full investigation of such matters. A dangerous sexual predator was allowed to go free and unmonitored for years. Did he live near a school, a playground? How many others are going free and unmonitored? Why is the Post making this an article about the Catholic Church. Here again it seems that they are missing the mark, which is the States of Maryland and Pennsylvania, which have both the legal power and duty to protect citizens and have failed to do so. The Church does not have the ability to track people or the power to engage in probative practices. It really must be the State that does this).

In 2002, after Fortwengler and two more victims came forward with allegations, Petrella was arrested again and pleaded guilty to three counts of unnatural or perverted sex practices. This time, he served nine months (nine months? Is that all?) and was released on the probation that ended three years ago…. (out already?) Haunted by the idea of Petrella going unnoticed, Fortwengler located him in 2008 in the North Arlington, N.J., home where the former priest had grown up. He was living there with his mother  (Is this the same mother who was so sick that he had to be released to care for her in 1997?),  neighbors said. He sometimes took walks carrying a Bible and wore a clerical collar when he appeared for a neighborhood condolence call, they said. “In order to protect your children, the whereabouts of dangerous predators like Petrella must be disclosed,” read the flier Fortwengler took door to door. Since then, neighbors have kept a close eye on Petrella, Good for Mr. Fortwengler. However he shouldn’t have had to do this. Further, with all the weird protections Petrella seems to have, Mr. Fortwengler may well have opened himself to a lawsuit had Petrella chosen to do so. Just as the Church has no power or jurisdiction to engage in such practices, neither does Mr. Fortwengler. But again he should not have had to do this. Robert Petrella belongs on every list of registered sex offenders. Had this been the case, neighbors would have known.

Well, OK, you get the point. It is the State which should be the real target of our reporters here. But, strangely, they are silent in terms of pursuit of this angle of the Story. It remains the Catholic Church that is their target. Rather than call State Officials, our reporters called the Bishop’s Conference and the Archdiocese of Washington. They received the following and rather obvious replies:

Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the bishops conference, said there is only so much that can be done to keep track of accused priests once they are no longer connected with the Church. “There is a lot of concern, but there are limits to what we can do legally,” she said. “We have no authority over them. Once they’re gone, they’re gone.” 

“Our authority over them ends when they’re laicized and no longer priests,” [Susan] Gibbs [Communications Director for the Archdiocese of Washington] said. “Even if they’re not laicized, they have the choice of walking away. They are adults. We’re not a police force. We don’t run prisons. We don’t have mechanisms in a legal sense for controlling them.” The legal system is much better positioned to offer ongoing scrutiny, she said. “That’s why it’s best if someone reports abuse immediately and that it’s brought to authorities, because then there’s a legal path to follow for investigating, proving and monitoring.”

Exactly, There are legal limits, and even legal liabilities involved when private citizens or organizations overstep their authority. Lawsuits, charges of harassment, defamation and so forth can result.

Three other ADW cases – Two former priests of the Archdiocese (Edward Hartel and Russell Dillard) are also mentioned in the article. Neither were convicted in court of the charges against them. They remain suspended from priestly ministry however for various reasons. In these cases the Church has been stricter than the State. The norms of the Church allow us to be very particular about who we allow to function in priestly ministry. However, to legally track and attempt to restrict the movement of former priests like these (who are free US Citizens and convicted of no crime in any US court) would surely involve legal liabilities. One final Archdiocesan Priest mentioned in the article is James Finan and he has freely submitted to supervision by Church authorities. Having met his legal obligations to the State he has lived in Church retirement homes for priests. He has not ministered as a priest or had any contact with parishes or children. But note, he is supervised as a free decision of his own. The Church could not insist legally on this, since he has rights as a US Citizen.

In the end, the Post has missed the proper target. Currently there are serious deficiencies in the criminal justice system that need investigation. The safety of children and minors is at stake when the State either through incompetence or legal complexities fails to give sentences that are commensurate with the crime, grants early release and/or  allows sexual offenders to go unmonitored and unreported on sex offender registries.

The Church has rightfully been rebuked for our failings of the past. I know that this rebuke has had the salutary effect of reform in the way we handle these matters today. I think that on-going scrutiny is both necessary and helpful for the Church. However this Post article makes clear that significant reform is also necessary in the US criminal justice system. It is my hope that the Post will follow through with what it has uncovered and that other media and concerned parties will insist on reform in the State as well. Sadly, and for obvious reasons the Church herself cannot champion this call. I suspect that I will get more than a few comments here on the blog from those who will be quite angry with me and assert that I am trying to evade responsibility for our past failures. I am not, and hope I have stated that plainly. But the fact is, this problem is bigger than the Catholic Church. If we are really going to be serious about protecting children it’s time to widen the net of accountability.

Here is a PDF of the Statement Issued by the Archdiocese of Washington Yesterday in response to the Post Article: Our Commitment to Healing and Protection