In the name of the Fathers

Albert_Chevallier_Tayler_-_St_Francis_1898 As you can see from the numerous posts on media coverage of the pope's outreach to conservative Anglicans this past week, clerical celibacy has been a subplot (not solely fostered, but certainly abbeted by a speculative press). And then there is of course, the shadow side we have seen covered before -- the sex abuse scandals of the past 25 years. These involve mostly pederasts -- clergy abusing children.

But there's another angle to this story -- Catholic clergy who have affairs with women, which is what was so fascinating about the now-Episcopal Father Alberto Cutie. Without minimizing the drama of that soap opera, it didn't wrench at your heartstrings in the same way as the story of Pat Bond, her son Nathan Halbach and his father -- a Franciscan priest, Henry Willenborg. One big difference -- Fr. Cutie isn't a Catholic priest anymore. Although suspended, Fr. Willenborg, with a 22-year-old son, still is. Which leads, of course, to the question

This story hit the top of the "most emailed list" on the New York Times website, so it had an impact on some readers. It certainly did on me. Read the story before you read this post and then see how you feel.

There is no question that this is a powerfully moving piece --it is one that almost tells itself. But how well does religion beat journalist Laurie Goodstein do at giving us perspective and context, given what she has to work with? Here's the nub of the story:

The relationship between Ms. Bond and the priest is hardly unique. While the recent scandals involving the Roman Catholic Church have focused on the sexual abuse of children, experts say that incidences of priests who have violated sexual and emotional boundaries with adult women are far more common.

Clergy members of many faiths have crossed the line with women and had children out of wedlock. But the problem is particularly fraught for the Catholic Church, as Catholics in many countries are increasingly questioning the celibacy requirement for priests. Ms. Bond's case offers a rare look at how the church goes to great lengths to silence these women, to avoid large settlements and to keep the priests in active ministry. She has 23 years of documents, depositions, correspondence, receipts and photographs relating to her case, which she has kept in meticulous files.

Those files reveal that the church was tightfisted with her as she tried to care for her son, particularly as his cancer treatments grew more costly. But they also show that Father Willenborg suffered virtually no punishment, continuing to serve in a variety of church posts.

This case is unusual in that both Bond and Halbach went public with actual agreeements, thus providing documentation for the last paragraph (at least from Bond's side of the story). But it's the two paragraphs before that call out for documentation. As tragic as this story is, is there an even bigger narrative, focused clergy who have affairs with women (or men, for that matter) and aren't forced to resign their position? Are we talking a few bad apples or a subculture?

Huge journalistic questions, made more difficult by the interests of many concerned in keeping this kind of affair quiet. It's no accident that the story appeared in the New York Times, not a smaller media outlet.

Willenborg has now come to the attention of the Survivor's Network of those Abused by Priests and of Diogenes, a conservative Catholic commentator (among many others, see this comment on the website of the more liberal Commonweal).

Why hasn't the media, particularly the Roman Catholic press, spent more time on this issue, if it is indeed more common that we'd like to think? On the other hand, when Protestant figures are caught with their pants down, the media seems to dwell on the particulars of the acts rather than trying to examine the surrounding culture of the parish or the denomination. That doesn't serve much of a purpose beyond titillation.

In that respect, by taking a pretty thorough look at all the players, Goodstein does a real public service. She enables readers to understand how such a scandal could have occurred -- and remain hidden in plain sight for more than 20 years.

In a brief follow-up story published days after this compelling one, Goodstein wrote that Willenborg has now been suspended by the diocesan bishop. This paragraph grabbed me:

The bishop said he had been warned by Father Willenborg's superiors that The Times would report that Father Willenborg had fathered a son. But he said he decided to suspend the priest after reading accusations in the article that the priest encouraged the woman to have an abortion the first time she became pregnant by him, and had sex with another woman who was young enough to be in high school

No kidding. Can readers assume that if the bishop knew only that Willenborg had a son supported by the Franciscans, he would have been alllowed to stay in his parish? And one can't help but ask whether keeping a man like Willenborg in various positions, as the Franciscans apparently did, is in part a result of the Catholic Church's shortage of priests.

No doubt Catholic advocacy groups are going to be asking some of the larger questions in days to come. Although getting solid answers is not easy, for legal and cultural reasons, understanding the context is essential for readers who have enquiring minds and want to know if this is just one appalling story -- or part of a bigger one.

Picture of St. Francis is from Wikimedia Commons

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