Friday, September 7, 2012
The controversy over Fr. Benedict Groeschel
I'm sure many readers are aware of the controversy that erupted over remarks made by Fr. Benedict Groeschel during an interview with the National Catholic Register newspaper. The interview has since been taken down and replaced with an apology and related material, but the full text of the original article is available here. I recommend that interested readers click over there to read Fr. Groeschel's words for themselves.
I've had long and personally very painful exposure to the Catholic Church's attitude towards the clergy sex abuse scandal, as illustrated in my articles about the subject (see the sidebar for links to them). I'd like to contribute to this debate from that perspective.
the explanation by his community, and his personal statement, that his words were insensitive and ill-expressed, but not intended to be hurtful or to excuse any person - priest or otherwise - who preys on children in any manner. His present state of mental and physical health, including his advanced age, were factors in this incident, I'm sure. I extend to him my deepest sympathy for the distress and mental anguish that he's undoubtedly feeling right now - just as I extend the same sympathy to any victims of child sexual abuse whose bitterly painful memories have been revived by this incident.
I'm very sorry that Fr. Groeschel's reputation has suffered because of this incident, but I'm afraid that was inevitable the moment the interview was published. So 'hot-button' a topic was bound to attract immediate attention, particularly given the ongoing controversy over the Catholic Church's response to the scandals of the past.
Despite the fact that it's politically incorrect to do so, I'd like to point out that some of his statements that have been condemned by others were basically accurate. From my own experience in the ministry, I can assure you that there are, indeed, young people who, for whatever reason (usually desperate personal insecurity, but sometimes involving other psychological and/or psychiatric issues), make a dead set at pastors or other authority figures. They basically fling themselves at such persons, using their immature and unformed sexuality as a weapon to get the affirmation they seek. Such behavior isn't limited to younger people, either. I'm here to tell you, there are some people who seem to regard members of the cloth as scalps to be gathered, or notches to be carved into their bedposts. I can't explain such attitudes, but they exist, and they're real. I think many pastors and ministers will be able to confirm what I'm saying from their own experience.
Of course, it's the pastor's responsibility to prevent such incidents from getting out of hand. I was warned about such dangers during my training and formation, and found those warnings to be very appropriate and accurate during my years of ministry. I always took precautions to avoid dangerous entanglements, and to defuse tensions before they could escalate into anything untoward. I was successful in my efforts - but I'm afraid other pastors, of many denominations and faiths, have not always been successful. Tragically, some have even deliberately exploited the vulnerability of young people for their own sinful sexual ends. They are condemned for this, and rightly so, because it's always the responsibility of the therapist/adult/authority figure to prevent any abuse of that relationship. To deliberately warp and twist that relationship for immoral purposes is evil beyond my ability to describe it. (Such deliberate exploitation is not limited to the ranks of the clergy, of course, as illustrated by the recent and utterly horrific case of a pediatrician who apparently entered that field specifically to prey on his young patients.)
Blame can legitimately be attached to the National Catholic Register for its insensitivity over this matter. How such statements could have been allowed to enter print in the first place is utterly beyond me. I can only assume that the newspaper's long-standing respect for Fr. Groeschel led it to minimally (if at all) screen his remarks before printing them. That was a colossal failure of judgment and good stewardship, one that will long haunt the newspaper. It should. By failing in their duty of care and due diligence they've revived a heated controversy, opened many old wounds, and caused further damage to the Catholic Church.
Many are extremely angry and upset about this controversy. (One of them, my friend Labrat of the Atomic Nerds, has already published her response, which I commend to your attention. She doesn't share my faith, but I can't disagree at all with her response as a human being. In her shoes, I'm sure I'd feel as strongly.) Nevertheless, despite my very strong views on the subject of child sex abuse (views that led me to leave the ministry, as discussed earlier), I must re-emphasize that Fr. Groeschel is the last person I'd see as an apologist for abusers. I submit that his whole life argues against such an interpretation. I believe that in this case, he genuinely mis-spoke, and did not believe or intend to convey what his words appear to imply.
I'm as sorry as I'm sure the Devil is happy that Fr. Groeschel's long life and exemplary ministry appear to have been damaged by this controversy. He's a man of God who deserved (and deserves) better. I'd like to ask those of my readers who have any form of faith to please pray for him, and for his religious community, who are undoubtedly as deeply hurt and grieved by this scandal as he is. They, too, deserve better.
EDITED TO ADD: A couple of e-mails, plus a comment to this post, appear to indicate that others believe I should condemn Fr. Groeschel out of hand, partly due to his recent statements, partly due to his past efforts (which were mandated by his superiors, I might add) to help priests who were guilty of child sex abuse. I can't do that. He may have been misguided, even wrong, in what he did, but we don't know that. We have no first-hand information as to what therapy(ies) he may have recommended or attempted, or how successful they were. We certainly can't trust the excuses of those in authority, many of whom have sought to blame their own bad decisions on the advice they were given by professionals in the field. They remain personally responsible for their failures, despite their attempts to 'pass the buck'.
I repeat: Fr. Groeschel's personal efforts to strive for holiness of life, and his efforts to encourage and assist others to do likewise, are well-known. I don't believe for a moment that he in any way postulates that pedophiles are not to be held responsible and accountable for their actions, despite his comments in the interview in question. As stated above, his advanced years and the injuries he suffered in a near-fatal car accident a few years ago mean that his recent statements were, perhaps, less than fully considered. I don't know the truth of the matter, but that's certainly the impression I get (reinforced by his apology, and that of his institution). However, even without that, his exemplary track record would certainly persuade me that he's by no means 'as black as he's painted' - or as black as certain individuals have tried to paint him in the light of recent developments.
As for those rushing to pass judgment upon Fr. Groeschel, I can only recommend this tale of the Desert Fathers. It sums up my own attitude in this and other matters of integrity and morality. Pedophiles are already condemned by their own actions and our Lord's words. However, when it comes to fundamentally good people like Fr. Groeschel, I have more than enough sins, faults and failings of my own for which I need to repent and seek God's forgiveness. May He prevent me from, and forgive me for, judging the errors and mistakes of others less mercifully than I hope He will one day judge me!