One of the issues I address in my personal memoir, "Dilemma: A Priest's Struggle with Faith and Love," which has caused a significant degree of controversy among certain Roman Catholic circles, is the way the institutional church deals with priests. I highlight especially those moments of personal crisis when priests need the most support, from everyone in the spiritual family they grew up in and gave their lives to, and often find everything but support.
Recently, I read "An Unexpected Life," a book by Monsignor Dale Fushek of the Diocese of Phoenix. The charismatic founder of Life Teen and organizer of Pope John Paul's 1987 U.S. visit describes his work with youth, shares his stories of the priesthood, his attraction to figures like Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa (an admiration we share) and provides a unique perspective when he refers to his work as Vicar General (a bishop's right hand) and pastor of one of the most prominent parishes in his local church. He served Bishop O'Brien of Phoenix, who also was ousted after a hit and run incident where a man died after being accidentally run-over by the bishop. I found it interesting that Father Dale avoided telling many of the "difficult" and "painful" stories in his life and in the lives of his brother priests, yet anyone who has been involved in the Roman Catholic Church, at any level, can certainly read between the lines.
His book got me to thinking about close to a dozen priests who have been very prominent dynamic leaders and have also ended up in a very "unexpected" place in their lives as priests and, above all, human beings. Some are indeed accused of criminal behavior and fell into the "zero-tolerance" policies propelled by the U.S. Bishops' fear of the media and public perception that the institutional church protected "pedophiles" or abusers of young adult men in their late teens -- which is also a crime -- but it is not the disorder known as pedophilia. Others disappeared due to sexual situations with adults, and still others because of money issues or an inability to succumb to the institution's desire to control their lives and their ministries.
Recently, Roman Catholics have seen the disappearance and/or disciplining of several prominent priests:
- Father Thomas Euteneuer: One of the greatest leaders in the pro-life movement the Church will ever know. He raised millions and millions of dollars for Human Life International and travelled the globe promoting the Church's anti-contraception and anti-abortion agenda. He was certainly looked at as a future bishop and someone who was smart, capable and extremely competent in his work. Father Euteneuer was a regular on EWTN: The Eternal Word Television Network founded by Mother Angelica. He disappeared quietly, when his bishop in the Diocese of Palm Beach "called him back to his diocese," and then the truth came only after reporters insisted on knowing his whereabouts. There were serious allegations of inappropriate behavior with women during rites of "exorcism."
Father Pavone and his supporters have said that the media has "changed the story" and that he is not suspended, but what Priests for Life does not seem to understand is that his bishop's letter does use the word "suspended" and people in the media are not expected to be Canon Law experts. This is what the Bishop of Amarillo wrote the Roman Bishops of the United States:
I have decided to suspend Father Frank A. Pavone from public ministry outside of the Diocese of Amarillo to take effect on September 13, 2011. For an indefinite period, I am withdrawing my permission to him to minister outside our diocese and am calling him back to spend time in prayer and reflection. My decision is the result of deep concerns regarding his stewardship of the finances of the Priest For Life (PFL) organization. The PFL has become a business that is quite lucrative which provides Father Pavone with financial independence from all legitimate ecclesiastical oversight
Yet, while all this seems to be happening now, we seem to have a bad memory and we forget this apparent animosity of the Church toward priests that are well known, charismatic figures and strong leaders has been going on for a long time. Regardless of the crimes they may or may not have committed, let's look back to the 1980s, 1990s and into the year Boston seems to have made the whole thing explode in 2001-2002.
How many people remember these charismatic figures?
- Father Ken Roberts: The author of "Playboy to Priest," an incredible speaker, TV Host on EWTN and an internationally known face for the priesthood and for promoting the alleged apparitions of the Virgin Mary in Medjugorie. He was accused, removed and never heard from again.
The list of disappeared priests could go on and on, including many like my own pastor growing up who was not known beyond our area, but has also been "put out to pasture" in terms of his own priestly ministry. It may be good for us to remember that before these men are priests, they are human beings. Each of them -- known and unknown -- has made a unique contribution to the Church and their communities. It is not our place to judge their particular issues or problems. Yet, for some reason, I really do believe it should be our place to reflect and ask: What is it that makes good priests, like the ones listed here and countless others end up in these situations? How do the leaders of the institutional church and "devout" church-going people deal with these human realities? Is there something in the system itself that may need fixing?
Our answer to these questions will only serve to create a healthier church and a healthier priesthood.