The sexual abuse scandal that has rocked the foundations of the Church is still very much in the minds of the faithful. The Roman Catholic church has long had its own legal system, incorporating a judicial framework and a complex set of laws, or canons, regulating church organization. Critics, however, say canon laws assign excessive importance to the protection of church institutions, encourage secrecy over transparency, and favor rehabilitating wayward priests rather than punishing them. While abusive priests can be defrocked for misconduct, the church cannot send anyone to prison. Canon 1341 plainly stipulates that a bishop should penalize a priest "only after he has ascertained that fraternal correction or rebuke or other means of pastoral solicitude cannot sufficiently repair the scandal, restore justice, reform the offender." Church authorities who have tolerated abusive priests, or transferred them to other parishes rather than defrocking them, may also have been thinking of the canonical admonition to "repair scandal." Some bishops, investigators suggest, may have opted to hide evidence of child molesters in the priesthood out of a fear that if such behaviors were to become public, the priesthood would lose honor and credibility.
In this writer’s life, he has witnessed the lack of transparency with such situations. I received my calling when I was 12-13 years old. I contacted the diocesan Vocation Director. Back a generation ago, the Vocation Director had an enormous amount of power to decide who will be allowed to progress to Seminary. I was told to find a Spiritual Director, to guide my vocational development. A seemingly pious priest, let us call him Fr. J, took an interest in me and accepted the role. We met regularly and spoke about my academics, athletics, and my vocation. He reported back to the Vocation Director and I thought all was well. As I grew into my teenage years, I volunteered at the annual Church Fair. During the year when I had just turned seventeen. We decided to have one of our meetings before I reported to the Fair for my shift. I arrived and he ushered me into a side room. We usually met in the living room; it was more comfortable, relaxed, and I could play with the Pastor’s oversized Irish Setter dog, Rusty. I assumed this side room was more private with the hustle and bustle of the Fair workers.
We had our usual cordial and friendly meeting, with many laughs. When I got up to go, he stood up as well. I thought we would shake hands or give a quick embrace, as was usual because this was a common practice for him with everyone. He stood between me and the door. Our physical size plays a role here. I was 17, about 5’5”, 180 pounds and I was a strong kid as I was lifting weights for a few years. He was about 6’4”, well over 300 pounds, and a man in his full strength who could have easily overpowered me. He took my face into his huge hands, pulled my face upwards, and delivered a soft and romantic kiss. He did not let go. I stood there in anger, confusion, and shame. Please know that I never dated and was never kissed by a girl. My Spiritual Director gave me my first romantic kiss. At that moment, the Fair workers came into the Rectory in their normal and boisterous way. He released me and I hurried to my fellow workers. In the aftermath, my ideas of the celibate clergy, sexuality, and vocations became blurred, even shaken. It was difficult to reset myself as I felt violated by one whom I trusted with my inner being. He was also my confessor.
After this incident, his interest waned and he kept me at arm’s distance. We became friends again, but something was different. He started discouraging my vocation. And the diocesan Vocation Director lost track of me, which caused many problems in the future. I still wanted to devote my life to God, His Word, and the Church. I managed to suppress this memory, for the most part. I knew that too many inquiries would cause my vocational progress to be stopped. Whenever this memory came up and someone, on my behalf, asked too many questions, they were silenced with the threat of some form of punishment. They would come back to me and tell me to forget the incident.
Years later, an accusation of inappropriate sexual contact was brought against Fr. J. The memories came flooding back. I wanted to defend him, thinking my incident was just a passionate man going one step too far and these accusations were just hyped up to get some free money. I discovered his past. He had a record of accusations which ranged across the entire Mid-Atlantic region. Lawyers, who deal with such cases, have long records on Fr. J. He was a habitual offender. However, before the law could catch him, he was transferred to avoid a scandal. As he grew older and the full scandal of the Church broke over the news, he was moved into retirement. He was protected for many years and has since died.
To this day, his name does not always appear on the lists of abusers. When I inquired about this absence, I was told that it would not be necessary as, since he died, it would not prove anything nor repair the swath of scandals he produced. The Bishops and Pastors protected him, and many other abusers, to try to avoid the embarrassment which now hangs over the Church. Meanwhile, these churchmen irreparably altered many lives, taking away lives that should have been lived. They left it up to God to provide a path for the men, like me, to follow to accomplish His ends of establishing the Kingdom.