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Confessions of an Ex-Priest: Learning to Drink Like a Catholic Cleric

Priests have the right to drink alcohol. But when they provide alcohol to minors, drive while drunk, and sexually assault children, we must never get used to it. Instead of promotions and prayer vigils, Archbishop-elect Cordileone and Father Perez deserve prosecution to the full extent of the law.
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Shortly after midnight on Saturday, San Francisco Archbishop-elect Salvatore Cordileone, one of the creators of California Proposition 8, was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol. Cordileone endangered the lives of pedestrians, other drivers, and his passengers: his elderly mother and a foreign exchange student, a young male adult.

Earlier in August, Father Peter Petroske was arrested in Michigan for a DUI. He was alone but driving naked. Petroske was immediately suspended from his duties and barred from church property. We have yet to see if Bishop Cordileone is suspended and carted to detox or whether bishops, who author anti-gay constitutional amendments, get a free pass.

Current events reveal that some Catholics will defend Cordileone despite his alleged criminal action. Parishioners of Woodburn, Ore., have held prayer vigils outside the jail where their pastor, accused child molester Father Angel Perez, is being held without bail. They're raising funds for his legal defense. Archbishop Vlazny of Portland granted Perez an open-ended loan to hire one of Oregon's best defense attorneys. Meanwhile, the 12-year-old boy Perez allegedly got drunk and then assaulted receives only the archbishop's prayers.

While I cannot speak to the motives of the accused or those who defend them, I can speak to the drinking culture I experienced in the priesthood, where alcohol-free gatherings were a rarity.

In 1994, months after feeling "called" to the priesthood, I attended the annual seminarians' Christmas party at the rectory of the director of seminarians. He was the priest delegated by the archbishop to supervise the men preparing for priesthood. I'd expected classical music, prayer, and conversation between men aglow with passion for service and God.

After greeting me at front door, amber drink in his hand, the director of seminarians led me into a packed living room. The guests ranged from undergraduates to borderline Social Security recipients. Some were in pants, others jeans. No one wore clerics. A young guy with thin lips was addressed as "Father," whereas leathery, gray-haired guys were not. "Gentlemen," the host pronounced. The room quieted. "I present Mr. Rastrelli of Clinton." The crowd toasted. I felt welcomed.

His hand on my shoulder, the host steered me into the dining room. Upon the table, 40 or so multicolored bottles stood erect, arranged like soldiers ready for battle. At home, my parents kept a modest, dust-coated collection of bottles in the cupboards above the refrigerator. I didn't know which liquors they preferred. My priestly host drank Dewar's. Neat. I didn't know what Dewar's was or what "neat" meant. I didn't ask. He reached for what I later learned was called a rocks tumbler.

"What will it be?" He snapped the ice tongs.

My conscience spun. My 21st birthday was in three months. He held an empty glass. His smile waned. I felt like an actor in a poorly scripted after-school special.

"Do you have any wine coolers?"

He guffawed. Wine coolers were apparently for wimps. I scanned the table for white zin but saw only bitter reds and liquors with names as foreign as Latin. I needed something I could stomach, something sweet. What would Mom drink?

"I could do a fuzzy navel."

He smirked, added more Dewar's to his tumbler, and led me into the kitchen. From an ice bucket, he snatched a fuzzy naval wine cooler. "You'll have to meet Lou," he said. "He also prefers froufrou drinks." The kitchen crowd laughed. I joined in, not knowing why, just hoping to survive, to be a seminarian.

They drank gin and tonics, Manhattans, and brandies. As they spun tales of crazy seminary professors, I swallowed down my fruity, saccharine drink. When I finished, the host passed me another.

A seminarian with an auburn mustache and an offensive lineman's build burst through the entryway. His mug was equipped with a bicycle bell. "I'm empty," he rang. I grabbed him a beer and followed him into the living room, trying not to stumble. If I kept his glass full, maybe my superior would quit handing me bottles.

Men filled the velvety furniture. From the armchair nearest the fireplace, a seminarian, who looked like a beardless Santa, bellowed about his escapades: the women he'd "sport fucked." He leapt up and thrust about like a satyr, illustrating his "sport-fucking" prowess. Everyone howled. I wanted to leave. Was this celibacy? Was this what priests really thought about women? Instead, I laughed along, my eyes averting the mélange of crucifixes hanging over the fireplace.

Later, I retreated to the kitchen and informed my ride that I was good to go. Whenever. The priestly host passed me another wine cooler.

Nine years later, I was a priest. The host was my pastor, boss, and roommate. We entertained guests: a former seminarian and his boyfriend. The scotch flowed freely before dinner, wine during, and sambuca after. Each time, I refused a refill, citing my need to remain sober so as to celebrate the early morning Mass. Each time, my pastor refilled my drink and ordered me to loosen up.

The room spun as we cleared the table. Again, he insisted on taking the Mass, as he'd routinely come to do after plying me with too much liquor. "I chose to party," I said. "I'll deal with the consequences."

I woke up at 1:30 in the afternoon and stumbled into the kitchen. The scent of bologna and over-ripened fruit poured from the refrigerator. The pastor tromped in, "You were sure lit last night. I don't think I've ever seen you so... animated."

I set down the milk. "I'm disgusted with myself. This morning, I had Mass with a hangover."

He patted my shoulder. "Don't worry. You'll get used to it."

Priests have the right to drink alcohol. But when they provide alcohol to minors, drive while drunk, and sexually assault children, we must never get used to it. Instead of promotions and prayer vigils, Archbishop-elect Cordileone and Father Perez deserve prosecution to the full extent of the law. The culture that produced them must not be excused.

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