“We are not ourselves when nature, being oppressed, commands the mind to suffer with the body.”
— William Shakespeare, “King Lear”
This merciless age is no place for old men, certainly not for old men who talk to the press. Franciscan Friar of the Renewal Father Benedict Groeschel recently gave an interview to a Catholic publication. In this interview, he said some shocking and, in truth, uncharacteristic things regarding sexual abuse, the worst of which was to suggest that some priests who were guilty of such abuse may have been seduced by minors.
His comments attracted a great deal of attention, most particularly because he suggested the kind of self-serving excuse one expects to hear from abusers, not a psychologist with decades of counseling experience. For those who believe the Church is just a patchwork of rationalizations and deceit when it comes to such crimes, this was a gotcha moment.
Any suggestion that the victim is somehow to blame is deeply offensive. Too much is known about the scourge of sexual abuse and its lifelong impact on those children who are abused that any suggestion it is their fault is cruelly adding salt to a gaping wound.
To note that the comments were made by someone who has been recovering from a stroke, who is currently ill and who is, after all, 79 years old seems to merit little interest on the part of his detractors. But the comments were made. Now Father Groeschel will retire from public life, a lifetime of service ending with hate mail and condemnation. Most of us simply want this wretched episode to end, and it will.
Before it does, however, I want to echo the closing words of “King Lear”: “The weight of this sad time we must obey, speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.”
For without denying the words published were wrong, it must be noted that these words do not typify his extraordinary life. Born a Jersey kid, Father Groeschel never lost the Jersey attitude. He also never lost a generous heart and a capacity for hard work.
Although he may be best known for his appearances on EWTN and his many books, he has spent much of his life serving the needy and the suffering. A trained psychologist, he was a professor of pastoral psychology as well as a spiritual director and retreat master. He worked with emotionally disturbed youth, and specialized in care for people who have experienced great trauma.
Ordained a Capuchin 53 years ago, he became one of the founders of the Franciscan Friars and Sisters of the Renewal. He intended the order to preach reform and serve the poor. Not only from the order’s headquarters in the Bronx, but in a variety of ministries around the country, Father Groeschel was remarkable because he could talk the talk, but he most certainly walked the walk as well.
Even when he was far past the age when most of us would retire, he worked ceaselessly, with his books and writings and appearances, to provide for his order’s financial needs.
He was in Orlando in 2004 for a speaking engagement when he was struck by a car and almost killed. A few days later he had a near fatal heart attack. In 2010 he had a serious stroke, and those who know him say it took a huge toll. Most recently, he has suffered further physical setbacks, and this final controversy has done him no favors.
Before the final curtain falls, it would be unjust not to recognize all the great good he has done. This good should not be forgotten. He has lived a life of service and self-sacrifice, and as Shakespeare concluded his play, “we that are young shall never see so much, nor live so long.”
Greg Erlandson is OSV president and publisher.