A Good Priest and a Boy

I can’t remember exactly how old I was, but from what I have learned, that’s not unusual. I must have been 10 or 11, in the fourth or fifth grade at a small parochial school. I was an altar boy, and it was while serving at 6:30 Mass before school one morning that I first met him. He was small and thin. I would like to say he had blue eyes, but in truth I can’t remember. Father Murray had been a missionary and had spent much of his career in India. He was approaching 70, and prior to his retirement he was spending a year or two in our decidedly less exotic suburban New Jersey town.

Father Murray quickly befriended me, and his soft Irish brogue melted my defenses. He told me stories about India and the work he did there among incredibly poor people. Once he was in a place with so many flies that he had to wave them off each forkful of food before he could put it in his mouth. Father Murray took me into his confidence and made me feel special by the attention he gave to me. We spent more time together, and he came to my house for dinner a few times. My parents left us alone as he taught me how to play cribbage in the den at the back of our house. On one occasion I had something terrible on my mindof course I can’t remember what it was nowand I asked if I could go to confession. He got up and closed the door to the room we were in.

I unburdened my 10- or 11-year-old soul, he gave me absolution, and we went back to playing cribbage. I recall how carefully he would lay his cards down: Fifteen, two points. I am not sure if he was disappointed that what had seemed so earthshattering to me was rather mundane to him, but he ministered to me with kindness and compassion, as if I were a penitential prisoner on death row.

That, until more recently, was the end of the story. Now, of course, I am aware that all sorts of terrible things could have happened to me. Father Murray was a person I trusted and admired. We spent time together, often alone. My parents were as trusting of him as I was. If he had been a different sort of person, a predator, I might have been an easy mark. No, the terrible things didn’t happen to me. In fact, in a way, the terrible things happened to him, and to the many good priests who dedicate their lives, as Father Murray did, in service to God and to us.

I am not being an apologist for the abuse or the coverups and the malign ignorance that was once manifested. The abusers must be driven out of the priesthood (whether they are notorious or not) and prosecuted for their crimes. Nor do I wish to minimize the pain so many people have felt and continue to feel for what was so wrongly done to them. But after the victims of abuse themselves, it is often the good priests who have been hurt the most. The crimes of their fellow priests have tarnished their reputations, and caused unjust suspicion to be cast upon them. Some of them even feel they can’t wear their collars in public.

One of our parish priests has questioned his very vocation. I am sure he is not alone. Younger priests’ trust, especially in their superiors, has been violated. The non-Catholic public is wondering what really motivates men to become priests. Within the church itself, I believe that most lay members do not comprehend the impact the sexual abuse scandal has had on the lives of these priests.

These conscientious but troubled priests, along with Catholic lay people, would do well to remember and acknowledge the good priests they have knownpriests like Father Murray, who took time for me and let me win at cribbage. It was only later, after my own years of difficult times in which my faith was tested, that I recognized the impact he had on me. Father Murray was an example of faithful Christian belief and selfless Christian service. His life, held up against my own, is a regular reminder of how far I need to go.

I visited Father Murray 12 or 13 years later in Ireland after he retired. At the time, I had not been to church in more than four years, but seeing him started a process that would make me rethink my decision. Father Murray lived with two of his sisters by the sea. He was in his 80’s, and he was as surprised to see me so tall as I was to see him looking so frail. He still had a smile that would make Buddha jealous. Only after he left us did I realize that this cribbage-playing befriender of altar boys was also a very holy man.

10 years 2 months ago
Brian D. Scanlan’s forthright account (11/1) of wholesome boyhood experiences in the company of an aging priest was a welcome relief from the depressing lore we have painfully endured regarding boy-priest relationships these past years. His memories do not clamor for healing. Yet his otherwise laudable essay betrays an angst, I fear, that is all too common among Catholics still reeling from the pain and shock of the priest sex-abuse scandal. His uncompromising demand that the “abusers must be driven out of the priesthood” disturbs me greatly. Although I certainly agree that the guilty should pay for their crimes and I deeply commiserate with the young victims of this frightful tragedy, I winced when I read his claim. A new and sad fact is that some priests who have suffered the allegation of sexual abuse have now themselves become victims in this horrific saga.

Despite the feverish rhetoric that frequently frames this explosive issue, it needs to be admitted that not all accused priests have a history akin to that of John Geoghan or Paul Shanley, and they should not be ostracized or exiled as if they did. They are not all serial predators. Neither are they beyond the pale. Yet all of them, even those with a solitary allegation against them often years in the past, are now tarred with the same broad, all-embracing, unforgiving strokes, despite the fact that prior to the Dallas charter some of these priests had ministered effectively, if not admirably, for years in settings without children and with no accusation of impropriety. Now they’re gone; and given their record of restoration and service, there are still those who would drum them out of the priesthood altogether. Did somebody say “justice”?

Faced with wrenching decisions, people sometimes ask, “What would Jesus do?” Some fathers of the church judged Peter’s denial of the Lord a crime without parallel. But Jesus did not drive him out of the apostolic college. He not only forgave him; he reinstated him. The fallen, restored Peter retained his leadership of the church. Is this just a pious story to make us feel good during Holy Week, or should Jesus’ action be a paradigm for our own conduct in these anguished, traumatic times?

Perhaps the bishops will revisit this issue when they gather again in 2005 to ponder the norms of the Dallas charter. In the meantime, less harsh and strident language by all participants in the conversation might be not only a blessing but a welcome advance.

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