As The Year of the Priest Ends, Are Civil Liberties for Priests Intact?
by Fr. Gordon J. MacRae
The Year of the Priest comes to a close this week amid the most vocal persecution the Catholic Church, the Pope, and the priesthood have seen in a century.
Civil liberties for Catholic priests are in grave jeopardy from both outside and Inside the Catholic Church. The state of affairs was best summed up by Catholic League President Bill Donohue. Appearing on a segment of NBC's "Today" show awhile back, Donohue faced off against a pair of contingency lawyers who were amassing their fortune drumming up claims against Roman Catholic priests on a national scale. The lawyers' agenda that day was to gain support for extending civil statutes of limitations so Catholic Institutions can be sued long after current laws would permit. Bill Donohue had the only memorable sound bite on the program, and the "About" page on These Stone Walls begins with that quote:
"There is no segment of the American population with less civil liberties protection than the average American Catholic priest."
I am here to tell you that Bill Donohue spoke the truth that day, and he did so with the courage and candor for which I and many others have come to admire him. I want to write about what he said, and about why I believe it is true. I write from the point of view of my own experience.
If some of what I write here is challenging for Catholics to read, let me begin with an assurance. At no point in my entire ordeal of the last sixteen years have I ever placed my own well being above the Mission and welfare of the Church. There came a point in 2002 at which I was very close to putting aside my own effort for justice because of a concern for just that appearance. I realized that continuing to fight my case in a public forum could mean taking positions that place me in stark confrontation with Church officials. A number of priests have lashed out in public anger at the Church during this crisis. I will not be joining them.
Rather than risk taking public and vocal positions against the decisions of Church officials, I wrote my bishop a private letter in 2002. In that letter, I told him that I am innocent of the claims for which I am in prison, but I would withdraw my defense and remain silently in prison for the remainder of my life if he asked me to do this for the good of the Church. Short of that, I wrote, I will continue to fight this unjust case by every means available to me.
Bishop John McCormack later told me that he considered my overture. To his credit, he said that he could not ask me to surrender my civil and canonical rights. I respect my bishop for this. It was the Catholic League's Bill Donohue who convinced me that staying the course of truth and justice is not only in my best interest, but that of the Church as well.
When he heard of my overture to my Bishop, Dr. Donohue wrote:
"Remember that what will always be of service to the Church is the truth. Pursue the whole truth, and you are pursuing what is best for the Church."
I will always be appreciative to Bill Donohue for that basic and essential piece of guidance.
The story of how this matter was being addressed at the time of my letter to my Bishop is revealed in a new document on These Stone Walls, and it makes for a good preface for the rest of this post. "Report on the Status of the Case" can be found under "Case History: Part IV" above. If you want some idea of the incredibly uphill climb that a wrongly accused priest faces in the current milieu, please read that document.
Some people actually get angry with me when they hear of my 2002 statement to my Bishop. Some feel that I was foolish to make such an overture. "What if he took you up on it?" My response is simple. I was accused falsely, and in the context of being a Roman Catholic priest. If I was not a priest, I would not have been accused. To pretend that somehow the claims against me are not related to the context of my priesthood is false. This is something that most Church officials long recognized. but many have put aside the rights of priests in open disregard of Church law.
"THE CHURCH MUST BE A MIRROR OF JUSTICE" (Pope John Paul II)
I admire Greg Erlandson, Publisher of Our Sunday Visitor. He has written some insightful editorials on the sex abuse crisis, and his writings have been entirely free of the dissent and blaming that have disgraced so many other publications. secular and Catholic alike. In the May 30th edition. the OSV Editorial Board has a terrific editorial entitled "Scalp Hunting." The writer pointed out the fixation The New York Times has had with the Catholic Church of late, concluding what most clear thinking people now conclude: "The Times is coming across as a little bit obsessed." OSV is sometimes a model of understatement.