It began one Sunday in September when we noticed an unfamiliar priest celebrating Mass. The monsignor, who introduced himself as the director of priest personnel for the diocese, had bad news. A family in the parish had filed a lawsuit against our pastor, charging inappropriate behavior toward their teenage sons, and against the diocese for negligence. The monsignor hastened to note that no criminal charges were pending: This is purely a suit about money damages. Lawyers for the diocese had concluded that the charges were utterly without foundation, he said. In the meantime, said the monsignor, our pastor had the full support of the diocese, and he would continue at his post while the legal process unfolded. He lamented the injury to a priest’s good name and urged us not to allow baseless rumors to divide the parish.
The family’s case centered on charges that the priest, on separate occasions, had massaged their young sons in an unmistakably erotic manner. In one case, during an overnight trip to his remote vacation cabin, in the presence of other boys, the priest had instructed one of their sons to remove his shirt and lie on the floor, while he straddled him and massaged his back with oil. The family had brought their suit after discovering, contrary to initial denials from the diocese, that this priest had done the same thing to many boys over the years. The leadership team of the parishdeacons, associate priests and youth ministerhad repeatedly warned the pastor against his habit of taking young boys on unsupervised trips to his cabin, or overnights in the rectory, or to motels on trips to amusement parks. As one of them said, He was a regular Pied Piper.
To most of the parish all of this was completely unknown, and many were confused and shaken by the monsignor’s disclosure. The pastor was popular. Under his leadership the parish was thriving. Many parishioners chose to ignore the unseemly controversy. Others loudly questioned the motives of anyone who sought to undermine their pastor. This attitude was of course encouraged by the monsignor’s insistence that the charges had no foundation, that they were, in effect, stimulated by greed, and that our duty as Catholics was simply to rise above the rumors and pray for healing.
Parish leaders seemed genuinely anguished, but their main effort was directed to avoiding public airing of the issue. When questions were raised before the parish council or in other groups, they were met with a constant refrain: We must not discuss this subject. Meanwhile the pastor was at Mass each Sunday, hugging parishioners and thanking them for their continued support. The parish limped on, clouded by fears and concerns that we were not allowed to acknowledge.
Quite unwillingly, my own family found itself drawn into the affair. As guests at the pastor’s cabin, soon after we had joined the parish, my wife and eight-year-old son had witnessed behavior consistent with the allegations in the lawsuit: the discovery in plain sight of a book on The Art of Sensual Massage; the sight of our pastor massaging a 12-year-old boy clad in a bathing suitan expression of dreamy concentration on his face. Though disturbed, we had not reported these observations. Why? Perhaps we convinced ourselves of what we wanted to believethat surely this could not be as bad as it seemed; that we did not want to tarnish a priest’s reputation on the basis of an isolated incident. Now, however, since the monsignor’s disclosure at church, we regretted our silence.
But surely the monsignor would be interested in our story. Surely he would be sorry for having declared, before conducting any wider investigation, that the suit was without foundation. Surely he would also regret the article in the diocesan newspaper stating that no other allegations of this nature had ever been made. If only the monsignor knew the whole story.
So we called and wrote the monsignor several times. Within a matter of days, after talking with other parishioners, we compiled a long chronological account documenting incidents of improper behavior by the pastor going back 25 years. This account included the story of the brother of a close friend in the parish, who said that on an overnight camping trip, the pastor had crawled into his tent in the middle of the night and tried to pull down his pajama bottoms. The child had screamed and fought him off. Now, 25 years later, the memory still burned. He had never again attended church.
The monsignor was sorry to hear our news. Very sorry. Oh dear, oh dear, this is serious, he said. It pained him more than he could say to have to hear these things. But it did not take long before we discovered that much of this was already known to him. An associate priest in the parish had earlier submitted his own account of improprieties in the rectory and had begged the diocese to investigate. The monsignor himself had been involved in resolving a previous situation, after another 13-year-old boy said the pastor had gotten him drunk in his cabin and then straddled him and massaged him with oil.
As months passed, it appeared that nothing was going to change in our parish. The pastor remained in charge, celebrating Mass each Sundaythough we could no longer bring ourselves to see him there. Publicly he took the position, on the advice of counsel, that he could not comment on the allegations and was thus, sadly, powerless to defend himself. To parishioners who approached him with their concerns and questions he denied everything.
To priests in neighboring parishes the pastor provided his own version of the facts, which they willingly circulated: It never happened. There was nothing sexual about it. It was all misunderstood. These are very troubled boys. Their parents are jealous of me. The 11-year-old boy with the pajama bottoms? To the boy’s brother the pastor said he had no recollection of this incident. But to a priest friend he recalled the incident clearly: we had to get up early to catch a train. The boy wouldn’t wake up, and then he struggled when I tried to get him dressed.
Again and again from priests in the area, including two monsignors supposedly monitoring the case, I heard various versions of the same impulse: to minimize the problem, to shift the issue to the sad injury to a priest’s reputation. He may have been foolish, but he hasn’t broken any laws. Those boys look like strapping fellows; it’s hard for me to believe that they suffered any real harm. He has this thing about massagehe’s a very touchy-feely person. Sure, he doesn’t walk on water; but we are all broken, we are all sinners....
Again and again I found it necessary to point out to these priests that the pastor’s particular form of brokenness took the form of victimizing the most innocent and defenseless members of his flock. The pattern of these stories suggested a compulsive erotic attraction to young boys, which he was unable or unwilling to curb. He used his parishioners’ trust in him as a priest and as a family friend in order to gain access to their male children and to take them on unsupervised overnight trips, where he acted out his attraction and abused their trust. After Mass on the Sunday following the visit of my wife and son to his cabin, the pastor leaned over to my son and whispered, Next time you come alone, and we’ll leave Mom behind.
Again and again I found it necessary to answer the claim that nobody was hurt by the pastor’s behavior. The fact that he had intended no harm was irrelevant. There are certain adults a child has every right to trust. One of these is surely a priest. Who could assess the consequences when such trust was betrayed? Who could doubt the shame and confusion planted in the minds of the children he touched? Who could calculate the damage that such behavior did to the whole body of Christ and to the reputation of many innocent priests?
Perhaps I was naïve; perhaps it reflected my residual faith in the priesthood. But what offended me most was not whatever deviant weakness caused our pastor’s actions, but that when confronted he could accept no responsibilitythat he lied, and that he used his brother priests to circulate his lies.
Diocesan officials did nothing with the accumulating body of evidence. What seemed increasingly clear was that their hands were tied by the pending lawsuit. Any evidence supporting the pastor’s guilt could reflect on the diocese’s own culpability. So they spread the church’s mantle of authority around this priest and his secrets and lies, hoping that if only a knowing few were scandalized or alienated from the church this would be an acceptable price. Surely the parish, and the victims, would recover in time.
It is the same logic, repeated over many years and in many dioceses around the country, that has led today to a crisis, and a scandal, of unprecedented proportions.
Five years have passed since that Sunday in September. The priest finished out the remaining two years of his term as pastor. The diocese placed him, after an extended trip abroad, in another parishthough only on an interim basis. The lawsuit has dragged on in Dickensian fashion. One of the depositions, by a decorated police officer, stated that 30 years ago, when he was an 11-year-old altar boy, the priest regularly massaged him in the rectory. On the last of these occasions the priest had placed his hand inside the boy’s underpants while moving the boy’s hand over his own crotch, in a state of arousal.
The monsignor never returned to address our former parish. He went on to become chancellor of the diocese.
My wife and I continue to think of ourselves as Catholics. But we have not belonged to another parish since then.