I shall never forget my first weekend as a priest. It was wonderful in so many ways. There is a wonder to celebrating Mass and freeing penitents from the bonds of sin.
But I also vividly remember several very unsettling moments.
First, on Saturday, a female parishioner came to the rectory “to see a priest.” When I saw her, she began to weep, confiding that she was pregnant. Gathering that the pregnancy was a problem, I asked if she had shared her concern with her husband. She said that she dared not. She said that she and her husband had four children, but she was carrying her teenage son’s child.
I was still recovering from this conversation when, after a full morning of Sunday Masses, my new pastor invited me to lunch. We talked about details, Mass schedules, what to do about dry cleaning and so on. Then, during dessert, he told me that he wanted to talk to me back in his office. In his office, he took a file from the drawer, handed it to me and ominously said, “You should know what you have walked into.”
I had walked into a situation in which my predecessor had suddenly been removed a few months earlier because of repeated and widespread sexual abuse of young boys. Talk about a double whammy — first the pregnant woman and now this.
In this file was a photocopy of a letter about this offending priest sent by a board certified psychiatrist to the bishop. This psychiatrist’s professional opinion was that the priest’s abuse of youth resulted from an underlying emotional problem aggravated by great stress. He advised the bishop to reassign the priest, but insist that he see a psychiatrist regularly, eat properly, exercise, pace himself, get some balance in his life and sleep eight hours a night. Then, if the priest did all this, all likely would be well.
The bishop followed this advice, but all did not turn out well. The priest abused boys in his next parish. He was removed, received more psychiatric treatment, and then, on professional advice, was assigned yet again. More trouble. Finally, he left the priesthood and moved away. I understand that he has since died.
The bishop’s reaction to this priest’s abusive conduct was similar to that of many other bishops. I fully concur in the outrage that Catholics feel when they hear of this pattern of reaction 30 years ago. Still, I thought about that priest when Pope Benedict XVI was denounced over the reinstatement, while the pope was archbishop of Munich 30 years ago, of an offending priest whom German mental health providers had treated.
It is never mentioned today anywhere, but professionals once believed that pedophilia could be cured, or at least managed, and that the effects upon victims were not so terrible or enduring.
This radically has changed.
As time passed after that first weekend, I was brought into all the developments of that woman’s pregnancy as the parish priest. I talked to the husband and to the children, including the son who had been his mother’s lover. (The husband stayed with her, by the way, and accepted the child as his own.)
Once, I even joined them when they met with a psychiatrist, a Catholic coincidentally. As I was leaving the office, this doctor said, “Father, incest is an epidemic!”
Pedophilia is pathological. We have learned a lot. Hopefully, it will help in the future. Still, pedophilia happens. Incest happens. Back then, I decided that such sexual problems are abetted by our time’s nonchalance about morality and by the philosophy that only personal whims, “feelings” and pleasures count.
I still believe this — just more so.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is associate publisher of OSV.