On Tuesday, August 18th, the pastor of my parish, Fr. Michael Zacharias, was arrested for sex trafficking. He seemed like a nice and normal person. He did not come off as creepy. I knew him casually in the way most active parishioners knew him: talking to him in confession, listening to his homilies, asking him questions after Mass. I liked him. In Findlay, Ohio, a town with only one Catholic parish, he was an important part of the community.
Sex abuse in the Catholic Church is up there with my least favorite topics to talk about. Like many Catholics who take their faith seriously, I get questions from friends when Catholic sex scandals blow up. I am happy to share my thoughts, but it is embarrassing. When something is an important part of your life, it hurts to have it become associated with child molesters. Some other institutions that I have been associated with have had sex abuse problems (see Michigan State University and the United States Air Force, for example), but it is different when the abuse is in your religion.
I was horrified and depressed when I found out my pastor had been arrested by the FBI after morning Mass and charged with sex trafficking. As a lawyer, I am strongly in the “innocent until proven guilty” camp, but if my priest’s indictment is to be believed there is damning video and text message evidence in this case. Apparently, Fr. Mike liked to make “confession” videos for one of his now adult victims. In one highly disturbing video described in the indictment, Fr. Mike, while wearing his clerics, admits—along with other sordid details—that he met one of his victims in 6th grade and that, “I got to know him over the years. I knew that he was, that his dad was out of the picture, and I started grooming him . . . . So I kept going over to his house and I got to know him over the years.” In his text messages to the victim, Fr. Mike asked, “I used you. I groomed you…Didn’t I? How old were you?” The victim replied that he was 12. The document goes on to describe how, in an effort to persuade the victim to destroy the confession video, Fr. Mike allegedly told the victim that “‘it would only take one cop to tell the Bishops’ and he would never be able to give Victim #1 money again, everyone would know Victim #1’s face, and the Parish would be ruined.”
A priest who I liked and respected was not only accused of a horrible crime against children, but he even admitted his predatory motives. By his own admission, he sought out and groomed a boy whose “dad was out of picture.” The indictment also detailed how Fr. Mike exploited the victims’ drug addictions to get them to submit to his advances.
Pope Francis’s description of priest sex abusers as “ravenous wolves” could not be more apt.
After everything Catholics have gone through in the last 20 years, it is painful to see that the wolves are still devouring the sheep. Arguably, the Church has made significant reforms to eliminate a system that would protect sex abusing priests and reassign them to positions where they could abuse again. Priests are suspended, law enforcement is notified, parishioners are trained, awareness is pervasive. Our parish, along with others in the Diocese of Toledo, began to say the St. Michael prayer after each Mass to fight the evil of clergy sex abuse. But I also recall Fr. Mike talking about the “vile filth” of sex abuse in his homilies and reassuring the parish of all that is done to prevent it—the very conduct he engaged in.
After each new sex abuse scandal in America, the “big picture” reforms I hear being proposed tend to fall into one of two camps: a) there should be married priests (as a recent article in our local paper suggested) or b) the Church needs to go back in time to before the sexual revolution of the 1960s. I find both solutions unsatisfying. Regarding married priests, just reading the news every day suggests that there are plenty of married men also committing sexual abuse. Just look at the married executives and entertainers caught up on the #MeToo scandals, for example, and it is clear that marriage is no panacea to prevent sexual abuse. Taking the Church back in time likely wouldn’t help either. Priest sex abuse seems to transcend notions of “progressive” versus “traditional,” with offenders across the theological spectrum. Additionally, there were many cases of clergy sex abuse prior to the 1960s. These are complex conversations, but the bottom line is that these types of changes will not help as much as some people think.
So where do we go from here? There is still something wrong. Fr. Mike was ordained in 2002, the very year the Church began to take sex abuse seriously after reports of abuse in Boston. There still seems to be something in the Church’s culture that attracts bad apples and allows them to successfully live double lives. Why would a priest stick with a vocation for almost 20 years in a Church that is constantly teaching that what he is doing is the worst kind of evil?
The problem is power. Power that often comes in the form of clericalism. Clericalism is having an attitude toward clergy of presumed superiority and excessive deference. The power of clericalism makes being a priest appealing to some men with questionable motives and allows bad priests to live secret lives. Clericalism does not directly cause priest sex abuse, but it creates fertile ground for it to occur. Clericalism is an attitude that creates a dynamic that puts the priest his above parishioners. Even it its most innocuous forms, clericalism prevents the priest from responding to others as Jesus would respond to them.
I have the utmost respect for priests and can unhesitatingly state that a few priests have changed my life for the better and helped me to make good life choices. What these good priests had in common was that they knew a priest’s most important job. And what is a priest’s most important job? To administer the sacraments and preach the Gospel.
There is a great deal of power that comes along with being the pastor of a parish that has nothing to do with providing the sacraments and is, at best, tangentially related to preaching the Gospel. Contrary to the impression of many, a pastor is not a branch manager for the bishop and has considerably more power at the parish level than one would expect. The pastor has power over finances, hiring, education, activities, social programs, and more. Parishes have financial councils and parish councils, but these are just advisory bodies without decision-making authority. Even the power of the bishop over the pastor is limited. As described by one pastor: “The bishop can have oversight; his permission can be required for the spending of money or the sale of property. But it is the parochus [pastor] who is the CEO of the parish or parishes in which he holds office.”
The current structure of Catholic parish life often places relatively young and inexperienced men in positions of vast power and resources from the earliest years of their ministry. In addition to being spiritual centers, large parishes are often multi-million-dollar non-profit corporations. Given the priest shortage, newly-ordained priests become pastors of their own parishes within a few short years. Compare this to the time and experience required to achieve similar levels of responsibility in the secular world, such as becoming the executive director of an equally large nonprofit, the CEO of a regional business, or superintendent of a small school district. Most people struggle for years to rise to such levels of responsibility while developing trust and leadership skills under the microscope of their colleagues and supervisors.
Some priests (correctly) view the worldly power attached to being a pastor as a burden and rise to the challenge with humility. However, I am afraid that for others this worldly power is what attracts them and it facilitates their ability to live secret lives apart from the parish community.
While it would be a mistake to try and run a parish like a corporation, society has learned a lot about ensuring accountability in organizations that is not reflected in canon law. It is not a unique phenomenon that power causes problems with leaders. Descriptions of the impact of power on leaders even suggest a connection between power and sexual abuse. Jonah Lehrer once described this phenomenon:
Once we become socially isolated, we stop simulating the feelings of other people. As a result, our inner Machiavelli takes over, and our sense of sympathy is squashed by selfishness. The UC Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner has found that, in many social situations, people with power act just like patients with severe brain damage. “The experience of power might be thought of as having someone open up your skull and take out that part of your brain so critical to empathy and socially-appropriate behavior,” he writes. “You become very impulsive and insensitive, which is a bad combination.”
If there is one lesson that has not yet been learned after all the years of clergy sex abuse scandals, it is that worldly power—when not carefully controlled—is a danger to integrity and tends to attract those with lifestyles that benefit from the protection that it provides. Regardless of the theological bent of the pastor or his marital status, a fact of human nature is that power corrupts if not carefully limited by outside safeguards.
In addition to the risk of abuse of power that is present in any organization, clericalism in the Church has an added spiritual risk. When priests focus on activities outside of their sacramental/ Gospel spreading job description, it cheapens both the true mission of a priest as well as the vocations of the laypeople who are devoted and trained to do these worldly activities. St. Josemaria—never one to shy from inflammatory language when it gets the point across—called the commitment to priests doing their sacred mission and laypeople doing what they do best “healthy anti-clericalism.” Unlike the unhealthy (and often murderous) anti-clericalism of revolutionary Spain and Mexico, an attitude of healthy anti-clericalism insists that there is something wrong when priests monopolize activities that do not necessarily require a priest. The consequence of this is that Catholic laypeople develop the misconception that all works of spiritual good at the parish much go through the priest. The priest becomes the parish in the eyes of many. The priest begins to see himself as the indispensable figurehead of the parish, separate and apart from the laity. According to St. Josemaria, healthy anti-clericalism “proceeds from a love for the priesthood and opposes the use of a sacred mission for earthly ends.”
Clericalism is contrary to the universal call to holiness of all people. The more power held by the priest over worldly activities, the fewer opportunities and less motivation that laypeople have to flourish in their own vocation to sanctify the world. This creates an unhealthy imbalance in parish life that is bad for both priests and laity. Clericalism makes it possible for a priest to live a separate life and secretive life away from the lay community where his behavior, lifestyle, and priorities cannot be questioned. I believe this is why Pope Francis connects clericalism with sex abuse. As he wrote in his August 2018 Letter to the People of God:
Such is the case with clericalism, an approach that “not only nullifies the character of Christians, but also tends to diminish and undervalue the baptismal grace that the Holy Spirit has placed in the heart of our people”. Clericalism, whether fostered by priests themselves or by lay persons, leads to an excision in the ecclesial body that supports and helps to perpetuate many of the evils that we are condemning today. To say “no” to abuse is to say an emphatic “no” to all forms of clericalism.
Fr. Mike said it himself: the parish would “be destroyed” if people found out about his criminal activities. Thinking that way is clericalism. And Fr. Mike might have been correct. In the eyes of many Catholics, because of clericalism, the parish is the priest. I am sure our parish will lose families over this scandal. For those families, the parish is destroyed. I cannot judge them for this, but I would suggest that the priest is not the parish. Our parish is of remarkably high quality in many regards, and despite the secret crimes of our former pastor that has not changed.
When it comes down to it, solving the problem of clergy sex abuse is quite simple. The Church needs to create a culture where being a priest is not an appealing job for sexual abusers. If the Church cannot do that, no number of safeguards will solve the sex abuse problem. I strongly believe that the only way to attract and retain good priests and driving away the bad is by rooting out clericalism and by carefully limiting the worldly power that comes with being a pastor. Giving priests unconstrained power that goes beyond their vocations and charisms can foster a dynamic of apartness that is unhealthy and lead to abuse when not limited.
Of course, there are other forms of worldly power that can cause problems in the Church. I think of the recent allegations against prominent lay Catholic celebrities David Haas and Jean Vanier. While all I knew about Haas was his name in the hymnal and his inescapable music, I had great respect for Jean Vanier’s writings as a parent of a child with special needs. The news about him hurt. While clericalism had no role in these allegations of lay abuse, I do suspect that the ever-growing power of celebrity played a role. Even in the absence of clericalism, becoming a “Catholic celebrity” is a path that is frequently corrupted by power and money. I would go as far as to say that getting famous and/or rich off the Church is contrary to the Gospel and should be treated with extreme suspicion.
This is a depressing topic for me to write about, but I do think there is hope. As I mentioned, there are good priests in this world, many of whom have helped me immensely. There are also priests who are willing to go against the status quo to root out sexual abuse. I think of the late Bishop John D’Arcy.
Bishop D’Arcy was the bishop of South Bend when I was in law school. He was a good guy. Then, as now, was a time of deeply politicized culture wars at Notre Dame. In this combative atmosphere, Bishop D’Arcy was a level-headed and reasonable person. He disagreed with people who did not see things his way, but he did it in a way that did not vilify or demean those with whom he disagreed. Not everyone liked Bishop D’Arcy, but if you listened to what he was said, he respected and understood other viewpoints. Bishop D’Arcy also had an interesting role in trying to stop sex abuse in Boston.
In the 1980s, while serving as an auxiliary bishop in Boston, he repeatedly tried to stop sex offending priests from being reassigned. He wrote letters making the commonsense recommendation that priests with histories of child abuse really must be kept away from children. He was one of the very few in the Church to push back against the hierarchy protecting abusing priests at the time. Bishop D’Arcy understood that, “Young people are open to priests, and, when assaulted in this way, their souls are often irreparably damaged.” He also realized that some men are attracted to the priesthood who have no business being there. Bishop D’Arcy admitted that shortly after becoming a spiritual director for seminarians, “I soon realized that one of my jobs was to get people out of the seminary—while helping the good men become holy priests.” He once said, “I was known by some of the seminarians as ‘D’Arcy the hatchet man.’ I was focused on whether their vocation was authentic.” Unfortunately, his advice was not heeded in Boston until it was too late.
While Bishop D’Arcy was ahead of his time, I do not think that priests who are genuinely committed to eradicating sexual abuse from the priesthood are rare. I think good priests are the majority now. And I have hope that the Church is headed down the path of eliminating sex abuse.
So why remain Catholic? It is hard to think of any stigma worse than being associated with child sex abuse. It is disgusting and unappealing. I could point to all the good works done by the Catholic Church or restate that the parish is more than just the priest. But ultimately, what keeps me Catholic is that it is true.
When I was just becoming interested in Catholicism in 2004 after returning from an incredibly stressful tour in Iraq, I started going to Mass. Though I had been to Mass before and had received the sacraments when I was younger, it had been a long time. I was not very interested before. I did not remember what to say, when to kneel, when to use holy water, and so on. I went to Barnes & Noble and looked in the Catholic part of the Christian book section. The most official looking book there was the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which I thought would certainly answer these basic questions.
I took the Catechism home and started looking through it. It did not answer my basic liturgy questions. Far from it. However, it was interesting and I read it anyway. What struck me was that the Catechism presented an entire worldview that that transcended how I understood things. It was a view of the world that was compelling, inspiring, and supported by Scripture, thousands of years of teachings from saints, and reason. This was deep stuff. I was hooked.
The Catholic Church that I want to see is one where the beauty of the Church and its teachings are not imprisoned by the evil of sexual abuse. I am hopeful that this will happen and that I live to see it. Eliminating this evil will require the Church to examine how its power structures can foster abuse. But it is still worth being Catholic, even in a time of crisis. In the words of St. Peter when Jesus asked him if he was going to leave with all the rest, “To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (Jn 6:68).
Images provided by the author.