Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The Heart of Darkness

How many people do you allow to look inside the darkest part of your heart? Have you ever even acknowledged its existence? Can you be honest with yourself about it? Can you really know a person without knowing that dark place? Are people capable of hiding the evil that lurks within or do others simply ignore clues out of fear of where they will lead?


My father called me last night with some unsettling news. At Mass on Sunday, a letter was read at the request of the diocese. This letter regarded a well-loved former priest from the parish. It was used to announce that he has been defrocked due to the sexual abuse of at least one young male parishioner in the 1970s. The letter explained the allegations, indicated that Fr. M continues to deny his involvement, and called for anyone who experienced sexual abuse at his or any other parish staff member to please contact the Diocese. Despite Fr. M’s adamant denial, it’s hard to believe that the Diocese would down and out defrock him without just cause. Permanently removing a priest from ministry, remove his right to call himself a Roman Catholic priest, and from wearing priestly garments is a very serious matter. The Diocese must first request and receive approval from the Vatican. Without a high degree of certainty, this wouldn’t have happened.

This news horrifies me. It makes my cheeks burn. I am conflicted and don’t know how to feel about it. He was a priest I trusted and admired. He oversaw my Confirmation studies. He encouraged me to attend what was a life-altering TEC retreat. He chose me to receive the parish’s first ever college scholarship award. He heard my confessions. I worked for several years cleaning the rectory and his office after graduation. How do I reconcile the man that I knew with what he has done? To me, Fr. M is a good, holy man who loved Jesus and Notre Dame. To others, he is a monster. Now that I know, which view should take precedence?

He is not the first priest I know who engaged in the sexual abuse of minors. Back in junior high, my family attended a week-long Catholic summer retreat in Indiana that we called Family Camp. Fr. R ran this camp. Each day, he said Mass and it was a wonderful experience to merge the Eucharist and nature. Unlike weekly Mass at church, I actually enjoyed those daily Masses. I can’t say that I remember any of his homilies, but I remember him as being bigger than life. I didn’t think that there was anyone closer to God than him. I would have followed him anywhere. Fr. R ran a sports camp toward the end of the summer. I always wished that I was more athletic so that I could spend an extra week with him. I believe it was there that the sexual abuses occurred.

Ultimately, instead of facing the criminal charges against him, Fr. R fled to Haiti, where he continues to be active in social justice causes. Several years after I moved to Virginia, I read an article in the Catholic Virginian about a speech he gave in Richmond. I saw his picture and was torn. Half of me wished that I had been there to see him again, give him a hug, and tell him that I love him. The other half wanted to call the Diocese of Richmond and tell them exactly who they booked as a speaker. In the end, it was easier to push aside the fact that I ever read that article.

My stomach hurts. I still don’t know how to process this. How was it that I came to look up to men capable of such horrible things? How did I not sense that something wasn’t quite right? How many other people like that do I believe in and with whom I would trust my children? Has this become an X-Files world where the best bet is to trust no one?

I grew up believing that God can work through any person or situation. My parents have always said that we have to look for Jesus in everyone. Is it all as easy as that? Today I wonder how it could be Christ that I saw in them. How truly present could Jesus have been in their ministries after they stole so much from those children? Ever since the phone call I have vacillated between two sets of opposing emotions: downright disgust and empathetic thoughts for the victims who were robbed of so much more than their youth and warm memories of both priests as “good men.” How much do those acts negate my experiences? Why am I having such a hard time deciding?


Can you spend years getting to know a person and honestly have no clue that they are [insert worst nightmare here]? Or, do you eventually become an accomplice - even if only on the subconscious level - because you choose to look away from what you don’t want to see?


Trista said...

I was pretty shocked when I heard the reading of the letter last week, too. But Mark and I didn't understand that Fr. M. was denying the allegations. Maybe we weren't listening close enough.

I think that Jesus calls us to love, even ones with such horrific sins, and to forgive. Easier said than done. Especially when you are so stunned and disappointed.

Jennifer said...

My dad said that he continues to deny the charges. I’m not sure where he got that information.

Shock, disappointment, anger, etc. play a role in the strange feelings I’m having. Were those the only feelings, I don’t think that I would feel as conflicted as I do about the situation. Mark used a great word last night to describe this: displacement. Where does this revelation leave the rest of us?

This situation probably heads down the same path as the stillborn/unbaptised babies getting into heaven argument. Although the Church ordains, that commission is truly given by Christ. Do gravely immoral acts on the part of clergy break that commission? If so, what happens to people served by that member of clergy afterwards? In my mind, the just response is to say that the commission is broken at that moment. Still, I can’t believe that God would punish the flock because of the shepherd. You have to hold it in your heart that his illness did not affect his priestly vocation for people who had no reason to believe otherwise.

Forgiving him and supporting him in prayer are important on a personal basis. As a Church, however, this seems like an easy way out to me. I’m not saying that it is unnecessary. It’s vital that forgiveness takes place. The Church can’t heal without it. That being said, what are our responsibilities as the Body of Christ? In addition to prayer and other forms of tangible assistance and comfort, what are we called to do for those who have been harmed by the clergy? Are there things that we as a body need to repent and ask God for His forgiveness? How can we make sure that this suffering was not in vain? How can we be certain that reform will take place within the priesthood when any of those in a position to enforce those changes can be part of the problem. Is faith that God will work through this situation for the good and wipe out any institutional problems a sufficient way for the rest of us to fulfill our responsibilities? I don’t have an answer to that. I just know that we can’t look the other way.

baggage said...

Hey there, I'm over from DD's blog. I'm a sexual abuse survivor myself and I'll tell you that it is no different for me. I have a very hard time reconciling what I know of my grandfather and what I know of my abuser, even though they were the same person.

Jennifer said...


I am so sorry that you had that experience. Knowing that you still feel that conflict makes me feel better. Thank you so much for your comment. Your blog is so beautiful! I can't wait to read it more.