St. Pancras Church in Glendale, a neighborhood in the New York City borough of Queens, is directly across the street from where I live. I have given up counting the number of services since Sept. 11 that ended with the wail of bagpipes. They signal sorrow, a reminder of senseless destruction and irretrievable losses. Police and firefighters, workers and visitors to the World Trade Center, so many have been memorialized in my parish church. Others tell a similar story: priests have been on the front lines, offering comfort and hope.
Some of these priests, recent bearers of consolation and support, have now vanished from our midst. They have been named sex offenders, led away in disgrace, suspended from the priesthood. The echo of bagpipes mingles in my mind with cries of rage and grief. There is throughout our land a lamentation for the victims, children and teenagers especially, who suffered a loss of innocence and physical abuse, and for their families, whose trust was betrayed. A moral and legal drumbeat insists that the victims be helped, their safety insured, that predators be punished.
The hard question, the unpopular question, for those of us who cherish our young people has been this: what constitutes appropriate punishment in terms of severity and duration? Should a church whose crucified founder insisted on forgiveness forego extending it to anyone?
Brooklyn’s Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Sullivan was surely a minority voice at the long-awaited U.S. Bishops’ Conference in Dallas in June. His reasoned plea to remember the importance of forgiveness in our Christian creed was carried by NBC’s Nightly News. The bishops’ overwhelming vote to enforce “zero tolerance” was evidence of the majority’s inability to nuance their punitive action.
The painful pleas of victims of sexual abuse and their calls for absolute exclusion of fallen priests must have weighed heavily on the bishops, especially in the presence of the media and pollsters reflecting popular opinion. Bishop Sullivan, a social worker and pastoral presence throughout the nationwide network of Catholic Charities, did not stand a chance against the others. Still, he spoke his mind, saying that while he approved the charter to protect children, he felt it fell short of offering mercy and compassion to some fallen priests. He noted that the bishops were more lenient with their own harmful behavior, as they transferred errant priests from parish to parish to the detriment of young parishioners.
History will honor Bishop Sullivan’s wisdom, while the consequences of the one-size-fits-all punishment will needlessly deprive the church of both the evidence of sanctity—repentance in a repentant priest—and the unique quality of mercy passed on by those who have themselves experienced it. The late Rev. Henri Nouwen would describe them as “wounded healers.”
While repetitive and remorseless sex offenders have no place in the priesthood, there are cases of one-time offenders who belong there, as surely as God lets his sun rise on the just and unjust. One priest, called to his bishop’s office on a weekday afternoon, was suspended immediately from his ministry as chaplain in an all-girls high school. The nearly 20 years that he spent there have been unblemished by any suspicion of indiscretion. Always present to the students, faculty and staff, he has been loved and trusted—with just cause. The principal, alluding to the impact of the tragedy of Sept. 11 and the plane crash in Belle Harbor two months later, described the chaplain as “the glue that held us all together.”
No one knows what led to his suspension. Let us suppose that at some earlier time, perhaps a quarter century ago, he was found guilty of fleeting, inappropriate sexual conduct (exclusive of pedophilia, which requires its own response). Let us imagine, furthermore, that he had accepted censure and treatment and, most important, had experienced remorse sufficiently profound and durable to foreclose any recurrence of that behavior. If this is true, what else should be demanded of him? Does the goodness, the generous self-sacrifice of the intervening years count for nothing? Are we willing to judge another human being by the worst thing he has done, as if it were the only thing he has done? How would any one of us fare were someone to broadcast the worst thing we’ve done, as if it were the solitary expression of our life on this earth? What will this suspended priest do with the rest of his life—perhaps the 30 or 40 years that await him? What will the church do without him? Is this to be his death sentence? Will no one demand a moratorium for those who have paid for their crimes and for those who, though accused, are innocent?
We grieve for the victims of sexual abuse, for their parents, for the faith community and for innocent priests tainted by the sins of their brothers. We grieve, too, for the re-opening of cases closed long ago. This public scrutiny reopens wounds, a process that may help some and further damage others who were victimized long ago. A church struggling to reclaim credibility will have to remind victims that they, too, need to extend forgiveness. Studies of families of murder victims offer evidence of the poison that spreads when, after a time of help and healing, forgiveness is withheld.
As members of a church founded on forgiveness and certified by its belief in redemption, we regret the withdrawal of the forgiveness granted to those one-time prodigals who have lived repentant, productive priestly lives of service and salvation. The cries for renewed disgrace and punishment signal sorrow, a reminder of senseless destruction and irretrievable losses. They recall the echo of bagpipes, but this time they wail for the living.