When the Pastor Is Removed

On the Fourth Sunday of Easter, I replaced my pastor as administrator of the parish of the Immaculate Conception in the Diocese of Raleigh. Under the diocesan Code of Professional Responsibility, he was removed by the bishop because of an allegation of sexual misconduct with a teenager that took place some 25 years ago. He was notified by telephone on a Tuesday evening, met with a diocesan official on Wednesday, met with parish staff and leadership that afternoon and left the rectory that evening, without packing. He supported the bishop’s decision-making process, a process that involved the participation of an allegation review board composed of both clerical and lay professionals. The news hit the airwaves by 11 p.m. The bishop held a news conference on Thursday. The media descended upon the church, and one television station opened and closed its evening broadcast live from the church lawn. By the time I processed down the aisle to begin the first of five Masses that weekend, the parishioners had been both informed and misinformed by the media. At each liturgy, they arrived filled with questions and clearly stricken by a communal experience of shock.



I was flanked by two other priests—the diocesan vicar for priests and a provincial councilor from our religious order. They both had letters to read to the assembly, one from the bishop, one from the provincial. Both expressed regret, gave the basic reasons for the dismissal of the pastor and promised heartfelt prayers for them and for me, the parish’s new administrator.

At the first Mass, the bishop’s letter was greeted with a vigorous challenge from a man in the assembly. I knew him—one of the “retired young”—highly trained, professional, theologically inquisitive and articulate. He stood up in our midst and asserted his presence. He gave voice to the thoughts of a stunned assembly and spoke his mind. He could not accept the removal of his pastor based on impersonal and one-way communication. It did not matter whether it was in the form of news reports of events long past or carefully crafted and legally vetted ecclesiastical letters, even if the pastor had voiced his personal support of the process. The assembly applauded. It was, after all, Good Shepherd Sunday. While taking an allegation from the past seriously, the people knew their pastor only as that good shepherd whose voice they recognized, trusted and followed, for he had given many of them over the years a new chance at life in the church.

At this first Mass of the weekend, the learning process had begun, and we three members of the clergy were the students. At the next Mass, both the letter readers spoke more personally and truthfully of their longstanding friendship with and admiration for the pastor we knew and of their own deep sorrow. I stated up front that I was already planning a town-hall style meeting of the parish for the following Sunday afternoon.

The learning is still occurring as I negotiate this period of transition. The fact that I have been this parish’s parochial vicar for nearly two years and am known and welcomed by its people has greatly facilitated the learning process. I also realize that there are parishes where victims of clergy abuse reside, and learning is taking place from a different perspective. With that in mind, here are four insights I have culled to date from our experience.

First, the preacher needs to trust the Scriptures to open up and explore the ambiguity of the moment.

The prospect of preaching at all the Masses on the weekend the pastor was removed oppressed me. Already the media and church leadership had started casting accused priests into two mutually exclusive categories: “good and holy” or “evil and unfaithful.” There seemed to be no place for the grayer tonalities of sin and repentance that my pastor had taught me to respect in the lives of our parishioners. I wondered how our people would hear the Gospel for the Fourth Sunday of Easter. If their pastor was no longer to be counted among the “good shepherds,” did that mean he was nothing but a “thief or robber”?

For a moment I considered bypassing the Gospel text in my preaching, but then decided to confront the challenge of the text head on. I sought a way to give expression to my own emotional reaction of anger, pain and loss at the removal of my pastor, confrere and friend. I sought a way to validate the immensely good shepherding that our parish had experienced without dismissing the seriousness of the accusation or the anger, loss and pain of victims, and without judging the prudent actions of the bishop or provincial. The Gospel text accommodated that purpose and allowed the assembly to explore the ambiguous feelings that had overtaken them. Despite their thoughts concerning whatever may have been true in the accusation, their experience of their pastor was also true. He called his people by name and led them forth. He walked with them, sometimes ahead of them, and many times encouraged some of them to take the lead. Always they followed him, because they recognized his voice.

And now the silence was deafening.

Second, emotional responses to the crisis are many and varied. All are valid. None can be taken away.

I did not quiet the man who stood up to challenge the bishop’s letter in the midst of the liturgical assembly. At some level, I realized that he was providing a service to the community. He was giving vent and voice to what many were feeling. When I sensed he was finished, I asked if we could return to the order of worship with the promise of an opportunity to speak when all could be heard.

After each Mass and in the week to follow, parishioners sought me out to tell me what they thought and how they felt. At the risk of oversimplifying, they fell into roughly three categories. The first group consists of those who express unrestricted, unqualified support for their pastor, disgust for diocesan procedures and mistrust of the motivations of the accuser. While they support me as administrator of the parish, they want to know what they have to do to get their pastor back. They equate reconciliation with reinstatement. Some of these feel guilty that they cannot identify with the pain of the accuser. At the other end, and less vocal perhaps, are those who wholeheartedly agree with the pastor’s dismissal, who fear for their children’s exposure to him and think that it would have been better had he been removed 25 years ago. Some of these feel guilty that they do not share the same level of support for the pastor voiced by their friends and neighbors. Needless to say, they do not want to see him again. In the middle are all the rest, who like many of us, are searching for ways to reconcile the church’s message of supreme healing and reconciliation through the mystery of forgiveness with the social demands of justice, professional codes of responsibility and the utter finality of “zero tolerance.”

Third, open lines of communication so that people can share their thoughts and feelings and get information.

The following weekend we held a meeting open to the entire parish. We filled about three-quarters of the church. With the assistance of the diocesan office for Catholic social ministries, we provided the parish community with a facilitated opportunity to speak to one another and to get information from key sources. This was, after all, a key objection to the diocesan procedure of removal—they had had no voice. The vicar general represented the bishop. Ground rules for effective communication were established, refreshments were provided, and a loose agenda gave structure to the two-and-a-half hour session.

We had had parish meetings before, but I was struck by the depth of communication that was taking place and the deep respect with which each opinion was received. The voices did not all agree, but out of those many opinions, three recurring themes emerged from this cross section of Catholic laypeople:

• The people of the parish also feel victimized. Viewpoints changed as to who or what lay at the origin of their victimization, whether the priest-offender, the diocesan policy or the bishop-enforcer. But this truth is incontrovertible and in no way diminishes the effect of abuse on the abused. When a popular priest is removed quickly, summarily and without an opportunity to take leave, the people experience this as a death. They adopt the language of being forced into a funeral without benefit of a body. They yearn for closure, the chance to say goodbye, but it eludes them.

• The shepherd of the diocese must make a personal visit when he removes the local shepherd. One can offer many sound reasons to the contrary in order to protect the bishop. But a good number of people in the parish have retired from significant positions of authority, either corporate or military. They expressed their conviction that on the day a bishop removes a pastor, there is no other place for him to be, no other event that takes precedence on his calendar. The sending of a delegate instead deepens their experience of victimization. Leadership at such a time requires presence.

• Despite public opinion polls to the contrary, the so-called “zero tolerance” policy works better as a sound bite than as sound doctrine. Scholasticism, at least, knew how to draw meaningful distinctions. Many lamented that developing church policy seems to include no distinction between repeat offender and single instance, between pathology and grave sin. Others bemoaned the warehousing of talented ministers. Still others wondered aloud if they would be courageous enough to forgive and place their children or grandchildren at the front line with a “second chance” priest. Opinions varied on how much hope to place in the bishops’ ability to sort out these issues successfully.

Fourth, provide avenues of closure and healing and invite people to walk them when ready.

While readiness to move on varies, people need a way to grieve and say goodbye. They need to join their loss to the paschal mystery. Our own Good Friday came late this year, on the Fourth Sunday of Easter. Our collective mood felt out of sync with the prayers of Easter joy prescribed by the church’s liturgical calendar. We had to endure the patient waiting of Holy Saturday all over again—neither rushing ahead of the Father’s plan, nor grieving the Spirit by refusing to rise. We have found that several practices can help a parish begin this transition:

• Facilitate communication with the removed priest—with his agreement and without jeopardizing his privacy. The pastor was eager to receive correspondence and realized he was opening himself to a spectrum of opinions and emotions. We began with a drop box in the gathering area in the church. Next we provided an accommodation address to which people could mail items directly.

• Call the community together for a parish day of prayer. We held a parish day of prayer and adoration dedicated to the healing of our community, our pastor, the church in the United States and all who have been hurt by abuse. Various forms of private and communal prayer were offered throughout the day to suit the needs and timetables of parishioners.

• Postpone socials, if necessary, but not ministry. It is one thing to say we do not feel like having the volunteer recognition party this week. It is another thing to cancel the Stewardship Fair next month. Even in the midst of trying times, a parish has to keep its focus on its vision and mission statements. Those who have answered the stewardship call to exercise ministry at the liturgy or in the areas of catechesis, outreach or inreach need to be encouraged to forge ahead and build one another up. Of course, not all may be ready. We must open up safe space for those ministers who need to catch their breath and assess their own situations, and then welcome them back when they feel ready to resume their ministry.

Already the paschal mystery is exercising its energy in our parish. While attendance dropped some initially, I attribute that to scandal fatigue and trust that most will return in time. Certainly all will be invited to do so. Yet the clearest sign of the unstoppable force of resurrection is that requests for registration forms have increased. Newcomers as well as “parish shoppers” approached me the very weekend the pastor was removed. They told me that it was precisely because this community knew how to suffer together that they knew they had found a home where they could rejoice in the Lord as well.

In time, the steps of transition will be traversed, and a new pastor will be named. But in the present moment, where God speaks and acts, the parish administrator has but one task: to gather the community, to see them through the steps of grief to healing and to call them to use the great gifts the Holy Spirit has bestowed upon them as stewards of God’s manifold grace.

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