Dave and I sat there in stunned silence along with the rest of the congregation. It was last weekend after Saturday Mass and we had just been told that a priest in residence at our parish was accused of a sexual impropriety, a priest with whom we had shared meals, a priest we both not only respected but genuinely liked. A priest we called a friend.
Immediately the archdiocesan response went into effect. Father was removed from active priesthood and from the parish as well. Guilty until proven innocent is the new order of the day and while I am saddened, I understand the overreaction is necessary to prevent the catastrophic effects of past under-reaction.
I definitely struggle with believing that Father could be guilty of what is charged. Yes, he has denied the allegation, but that certainly isn’t proof of innocence–it’s what I know of him that gives me pause. The alleged incident occurred almost 35 years ago, before he was a priest. He has never been a parish priest and has never worked in any capacity that brought him into contact with minors. He was an Army Ranger before he was a priest, then worked as an Army chaplain, including tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and ministering to the wounded at Walter Reed. It just doesn’t feel like the c.v. of someone who was seeking to groom minors, a la Jerry Sandusky. There are no other allegations and never had been any in his past. Lest anyone think I am defending the indefensible, I am not. I understand that we really never know someone. I fully accept that Father could have done something awful all those years ago. But decades-old individual incidents are hard to prove, or to disprove, and that uncertainty is difficult to bear.
What I know for certain is that this won’t diminish my faith or drive me from the Church. Leaving aside those who were the victims of abuse, I have always seen it as a little child-like to leave the church because of the sins of those in positions of authority. In the same way adolescents call their parents hypocrites when they fail to live up to the values they are trying to impart, so some call into question the Church itself when its servants fail. It takes a certain intellectual and spiritual maturity to understand that the church’s teaching and doctrine hold a Truth that transcends the flawed nature of those who teach that Truth.
More than anything, I am overwhelmingly sad. For Father, because he is a friend, and for the accuser, because he or she was either horribly wronged or is perpetrating a horrible wrong. And I’m sad for my parish and for my family. Father connected with my kids because he wasn’t an ivory tower priest, but a man who had vast life experience (and some pretty fascinating stories to tell). Over dinner with him, my kids could see that priests can be relatable, funny—hey, even normal. It’s priests like that who will help them back to the faith. I’m sad that we—my family, my parish—will miss out on the incredible homilies and spiritual direction that touched so many.
I see Father through the lens of the positive impact he had on our family, our parish, our communtiy. If the allegation is true, there is someone out there who sees the grave negative impact he had. I think that’s what makes the situation so hard—in cases like this, how much credit does the good someone has done weigh in their favor versus the sins they have committed? It’s hard to believe that a prelate like Bishop McCarrick did enough good to offset even a fraction of the vast amount of evil he released in the Church, but in these cases of grey, how do we balance the possible awful with the known positive? So I struggle with the injustice of it all—the abuse of children and the abuse of authority and the bearing of false witness. Mostly I struggle with not knowing the truth, of maybe never knowing, and in the uncertainty it’s hard to see exactly what my reaction should be.
The only thing I really know it that I have to pray for all involved. For Father and for his accuser. I have to pray that God puts people in my children’s lives to lead them back to Him. I have to pray for vocations, for priests who will be dynamic and faith-filled to serve the Church, and us, through this turbulent time. As John said, “He who is in us is greater that he who is in the world.” And that’s what gives me hope—no matter what the truth is here on earth, His Truth will prevail. I just need to keep the faith.