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.

I want to begin by saying that I've always had, and still have, a great deal of respect for Fr. Groeschel.  His personal striving towards holiness and his effective assistance to many engaged in that quest have made him very well-known in Catholic circles, and justly so.  I accept 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!


Mikael said...

My respect for you took hit with that post. I'm fully with labrat on this, in every way.

His comments were fractally wrong (wrong in every possible concievable way). That he could even make such comments, and that they could then be published in a catholic newspaper speaks volumes of the immorality of the church.

Peter said...

Mikael, if my speaking the truth as I see it leads you to respect me less, then I'm afraid that's a consequence I'll have to bear.

I stood up for the truth when I left the ministry rather than be a party to covering up this scandal. I think that illustrates my commitment to honesty. It's that same commitment that led me to post this article, too. If that offends you, I'm truly sorry - but I can't change with the prevailing wind.

(BTW, you might have noticed that I, too, agreed with Labrat in my article. My pointing out additional factors concerning Fr. Groeschel doesn't in any way nullify or withdraw that agreement.)

Mikael said...

I don't think he mis-spoke, I think he really was making excuses for pedofiles, and that these really are his honest views on the subject.

Some of his argumentation was symptomatic to apologists as well, such as building strawmen.

And as labrat pointed out, he was one of those who counseled these molesting priests, to help put them back in positions where they could abuse again. He's part of the problem, in action, not just words.

LabRat said...

I haven't lost respect for Peter, for the record. He knows the man better, and much differently, than I do.

I haven't come to any conclusion different from what I wrote based on this- I still think that his words, the interviewer's lack of seeing anything wrong with them, and the Register's decision to publish them without qualm reflect exactly the attitudes of minimization that both led to the scandals and led to its, ah, ongoing nature. It's not at all hard to find lots of statements by Groeschel that the scandal represents an unfair, slanderous media attack on the Church by a society that's just resentful of the Church's morality- an attitude I've seen Peter condemn in terms most explicit, so I know he doesn't share it.

Can I see his statements as tragically misguided by someone who's worked their whole life for holiness and to better the Church and the community? Yes I can. I just don't think that makes them excusable, and I think the critical difference here is unlike Peter I have absolutely no reason to like or look well upon the man beyond my exposure to him here.

Mikael said...

In every case where he was "counseling" a pedofile priest, and did not turn them in to the police, he did a great wrong. He is an accessory after the fact in multiple cases of child rape.

Stuart Garfath said...

Whilst in the Australian Military, I applied, and lived by the following unalterable dictum.

The misuse or abuse of Rank, Power or Position must never be tolerated, no matter the circumstance.
The same applies outside the Military.
If the law is broken, a crime committed, and 'you' are aware of it, there is only one course of action.
To do less conceals, condones and carries the responsibility and guilt of that wrongdoing.
Yes, it's as clear and simple as that.
Stu Garfath.
Sydney, Australia.

Patrick said...


While I deplore Fr. Groeschel's statement, I appreciate your willingness to stand up and speak the truth as you see it. In this case, it would seem that you have personal knowledge of Fr. Groeschel and the Church that I do not - more power to you for speaking from that knowledge and lending your perspective on this issue.

Mikael - I think Peter's first response says it all.

Labrat - I consistently enjoy your writing. Thank you for your usual intelligence and perspective!

Stu, that's a nice statement, powerful and ringing. Now tell me that you turn yourself in every time you speed, that you've turned in your friends or coworkers for cheating on their taxes or your neighbours for jaywalking. Tell me that in the Australian Military (Why are we capitalizing?) you never knew anyone who brought a beer onto base, or used a vehicle for personal purposes. What did the desk sergeant say when you dragged the malefactors in?



Mikael said...

Patrick/Chris - tell me you didn't just compare child rape to speeding and jaywalking.

That's one of the dumbest sets of faulty comparisons I have EVER heard.

Btw this guy watched while known pedofiles were put back in positions where they could continue their abuse, and did nothing. He's part and parcel of the problem in the catholic church.

Patrick said...

Mikael - Stu took a single particularly challenging scenario and turned it into an absolute law which can never be violated "no matter what the circumstance." You're barking at the wrong absolutist.

I understand that you feel Fr. Groeschel is part of the problem - given his history of participating in the Church's institutional obfuscation, he's not in a strong position to speak on pedophilia in any terms other can utter condemnation.

If you can read Peter's post and lose respect for him because he's willing to relate his life experience and speak to the merits of the man as well as his faults, well, that's unfortunate. Do you lack respect for anyone who believes differently than you do, or only those who say something about it?

You don't know that this priest did nothing. You have no idea what he did or didn't do, except that he didn't do what Peter did and walk away.

Mikael said...

I lost respect for him(Peter) for defending this man who is part of the problem, this enabler and apologiser of child rape. Going as far as calling his ministry "exemplary".

I also know he(Groeschel) didn't do what he should have done, and alerted police about these pedofiles.

I won't go as far as Stu for all crimes, but I certainly will for crimes where harm has been done to actual victims (and not just some corporate/government entity). Would I turn in a coworker/friend/neighbor for jaywalking? No. Would I turn him in for rape, murder, robbery, or aggravated assault? Of course I would.

Peter said...

Mikael, you're free to respect - or disrespect - whomever you please. However, I wish you'd be more thorough in researching someone's background before deciding to condemn them out of hand.

When I say that Fr. Groeschel has had an exemplary career and ministry, I mean it. He's touched literally tens of thousands of lives. He's also written a book about the clergy sex abuse scandal:

You won't find it trying to excuse or justify the behavior of abusers, but bring as much healing as possible to the Church, the victims, and all others involved.

If you rush to judge someone solely in terms of what the media say about him, you're going to make a lot of mistakes. I believe you're making one in this case. Your mileage may differ, of course.

Mikael said...

Peter, I have held you in high esteem for quite some time. I lost some of the respect for you with this, not all. It tarnished it a bit.