We've had a lot of bad news to take in today... which has kind of felt like a punch to the stomach.
In the United States, everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty. We can argue about whether that is the case in the court of public opinion. So I want to be careful in reflecting on the news that all of us heard this morning: that a credible, substantiated abuse of a minor announced by the Archdiocese of New York from 47 years ago against Cardinal McCarrick, who was the Archbishop of Newark for 15 years. While McCarrick maintains his innocence... or rather - as he put it:
While I have absolutely no recollection of this reported abuse, and believe in my innocence, I am sorry for the pain the person who brought the charges has gone through, as well as for the scandal such charges cause our people
that doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence in me, nor does it want me to join his defense. The added, serious news that was announced with all of this:
In the past, there have been allegations that [Cardinal McCarrick] engaged in sexual behavior with adults. This Archdiocese and the Diocese of Metuchen received three allegations of sexual misconduct with adults decades ago; two of these allegations resulted in settlements.
just added to the feelings of sickness, anger, and nausea I have had today.
I can’t put it politely - I’m pissed. Not to mention heart sick, embarrassed, ashamed, confused... and a whole range of things that’s going to take time to unpack.
This is the first time that a priest, bishop – and Cardinal - who not only did I know personally; he was very much a part of my vocation story - has been accused of such things. He was our Archbishop during my young, impressionable years of high school when I first began seriously discerning God’s calling me to priesthood. He spoke at Vocations retreats that I attended while in college. He was the Archbishop who accepted me as a seminarian... a year later he would ask me to consider going to study in Rome (and then have lengthy fatherly discussions over that request and my feeling unable to go - when I said “No” three times) - three years later he would ordain me a deacon and then a year after that a priest. He was the one who assigned me to my first parish assignment - a community I still deeply love and feel connected to. Even though he left our Archdiocese soon after, (in 2000) about 5 years ago when I was made vocation director by then Archbishop Myers - (a position I accepted out of obedience, that was very overwhelming and that I had serious personal doubts over) I received a personal letter from then Cardinal McCarrick, who was now the retired Archbishop of Washington. It was such a surprise, so affirming and supportive that it helped quell some of those doubts. I know and recognize full well that my vocation is God’s call. So it’s not like I feel duped or something like that. It’s more that I have always had a deep respect and appreciation for Cardinal McCarrick as a spiritual father. So this news hit hard today.
I’m sickened... And I don’t doubt that there are many others out there who feel that. For those who’ve been victimized by priests and bishops – I can’t imagine the feelings you’re going through right now. For that, I don’t know what to say other than I’m sorry. There’s no excuse for it... and those wounds, wound the body of Christ.
As we still reel from today’s news, I’ve had a lot of reflections that I’m sharing with the hopes that perhaps they may be of help to those who are similarly angry and upset.
I remember very clearly when the priest-sex abuse scandal hit our national headlines back in 2002... Here it was, not even months after 9/11, which was devastating on so many levels for the whole nation, but particularly people of our local NY metro area, including the Archdiocese of Newark. On the heels of something that was already a horrific nightmare came a seeming flood of stories of depravity and abuse, and cover ups that were just unbelievable.
In fairness - if that’s possible in understandably very emotional times like these when a scandal this massive is revealed - some were proven unbelievable and untrue - and some very good priests were forever maligned by opportunists. Sadly - many, many were proven believable, true, and those stories and accusations were verified.
Soon after all these previous failures were digested, the Catholic Church in the US’ response called “Protecting God’s Children” was put into place, which was and has been extremely thorough and comprehensive. To the point that, especially when it was first instituted, personally it felt intrusive and unfair to have to submit myself to fingerprinting, new background checks and investigations as if I had been accused of one of these horrible things.
All of that, amplified by horrific jokes by late night comedians, awkward reactions and looks by those in the public when I would simply be seen wearing my priestly clothing (clerics), and so on – all of that hurt, all of that felt unfair, all of that angered me. This is all part and parcel of this ugly, scandalous, disgusting chapter of our Church’s history. I hate/hated all of it - the stories of the abuse, the priests who had committed them, the people who helped cover it up, and now this horrible aftermath. And it was just, once again, confirmation of what sin, what evil is capable of...
That contributed in part to my, what felt was a final decision, to leave the priesthood. While I took an “official” leave in 2006 - the groundwork for that was several years in the making. I know I’ve shared parts of that story over the years, but this is one part I haven’t. I didn’t just decide to up and leave in 2006 and pursue another childhood dream of becoming a NYC Firefighter. Any FDNY member will tell you that’s not possible. It’s a years long process. So that’s where this part of the story comes about.
It was in 2002 - after the scandal broke that seeing an advertisement to take the FDNY written test that caught my attention. There was many reasons that was the case. But I know part of it was feeling embarrassed and ashamed of the Church; my personal desire to, despite my sinfulness, that I strove to be a holy and virtuous man - and recognizing that I could offer my life and even “lay down my life” - the supreme measure of love that Jesus posits for us in the Gospels - in albeit a different way.
The application, testing, background process to become a NYC firefighter took over 2 years... They then establish a list of the close to 20,000 men and women who took those tests and often hire about 6,000-7,000 from that list (particularly after 9/11) I first took the written test in 2002... the physical test in, I believe August of 2004.... further background investigations and interviews to the point that in 2005 when the list was established I was #2363. Virtually guaranteeing I’d have a shot to become one of “the bravest.”
My point in sharing all of this is that I know how devastating these priestly abuse stories are and have been for so many just regular churchgoers who are simply reading and hearing these awful reports... While I ultimately never did accept that invitation to become a NYC firefighter (deferring the chance 3 times and then ultimately closing the door on that in 2007) I did pray, struggle, vent, pray some more, and eventually felt those gentle, loving, pulls from the Lord that first made priesthood seem even remotely possible so many years ago were still there. I recognized the importance of that call - and even more, how often in my life and that of my family we needed a good priest - a family crisis, a death, an illness - when things mattered the most - we needed a good priest, I needed a good priest - and how many of those good guys had helped me through all of this re-discernment really stood out... And when all of that clicked, I asked the Lord for forgiveness for my losing sight of all of that... for giving into temptations and fears and angers and getting so close to walking away - and most importantly recommitted myself to trying, with the grace of God, to being a happy, healthy, and holy priest every day of my life as best as I can.
Some 11 years later, I cannot imagine my life without these past 11 years as the Catholic chaplain to Montclair State University. It frightens me to think how close I was to this chapter of my own life not happening. The ways that I’ve met Christ, encountered him personally and witnessed what he has done for so many people here - I could fill volumes when I think about it. And it was so close to not happening. In part, because of things like what we’re talking about today.
So, yes, I’m angry and hurt today with all of this news. That anyone should suffer any abuse - physical, mental, emotional, spiritual is evil. I don’t know if there’s a category for “extra evil” but when those things happen within the Church, I think they would fall into such a category. news:That, once again, we find ourselves in the midst of such ugliness and that it deflects us from our divinely charged call of proclaiming the Gospel - not simply by words but actions - is beyond words for me.
But I do pray – which we really do need to do, to pray – that as we deal with devastating news stories again, that everyone of us personally remains vigilant not simply to the continuing and important work of protecting children - and all people - from sexual abuse... But also to remaining vigilant in protecting the precious things that St. Paul speaks about in 1 Cor 13: 13: faith, hope, love – for each and everyone of us, and for one another.
If I learned anything from almost leaving the priesthood is that leaving (or almost leaving) is a lot easier than staying.
It is easy to give into the understandable anger.
It is easy to give into despair.
It is easy to say faith, hope and love are nice ideals that are not possible (and almost look for any example that proves that premise, which sadly there are too many examples that do just that)
But when we realize how easy that all is, we need to pause, to take a breath, and to come back to the truth of our faith. Which is the reality that we are all sinners. We see what sin does in these horrific examples. Ultimately that has helped me to see what my sins has done (and sadly still does) to myself and others. And that puts me right beneath the foot of the cross - looking for Jesus’ love and mercy once again. And He lovingly, generously offers that to me - and the whole world.
And He does that knowing that yes we have the potential and have in dramatic ways throughout human history, picked up the nails and crucified Jesus many, many times in our thoughts, words and deeds.... but equally as true is that we each have the potential within ourselves to heed the call we hear every Ash Wednesday: “to turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel...” When we choose to do that, then we become the hands, and feet of Christ. Then we start offering His love, His mercy, His Healing, His care of the poor and suffering; His very self to a world of fellow sinners, all desperately looking and desiring on some level for all of those things. Through much more repentance and prayer, hopefully, we can get back to sharing that - and genuinely being that good news, once again.