Friday, October 16, 2009

A Mother, a Sick Son and His Father, the Priest

O’FALLON, Mo. — With three small children and her marriage in trouble, Pat Bond attended a spirituality retreat for Roman Catholic women in Illinois 26 years ago in hopes of finding support and comfort.

What Ms. Bond found was a priest — a dynamic, handsome Franciscan friar in a brown robe — who was serving as the spiritual director for the retreat and agreed to begin counseling her on her marriage. One day, she said, as she was leaving the priest’s parlor, he pulled her aside for a passionate kiss.

Ms. Bond separated from her husband, and for the next five years she and the priest, the Rev. Henry Willenborg, carried on an intimate relationship, according to interviews and court documents. In public, they were both leaders in their Catholic community in Quincy, Ill. In private they functioned like a married couple, sharing a bed, meals, movie nights and vacations with the children.

Eventually they had a son, setting off a series of legal battles as Ms. Bond repeatedly petitioned the church for child support. The Franciscans acquiesced, with the stipulation that she sign a confidentiality agreement. It is now an agreement she is willing to break as both she and her child, Nathan Halbach, 22, are battling cancer.

With little to lose, they are eager to tell their stories: the mother, a once-faithful Catholic who says the church protected a philandering priest and treated her as a legal adversary, and the son, about what it was like to grow up knowing his absentee father was a priest.
Read the rest here.

I hesitated quite a bit before putting this up. Any post that deals with the Catholic Church tends to draw accusations of either being an "online Orthodox" anti-Catholic bigot, or of still having one foot left on the other side of the Bosporus and being too sympathetic to my heretical former co-religionists. But I think this one is worth discussion so here goes.

My own take on this is that it is a tale of bad choices and irresponsible behavior on the part of many people with one truly innocent victim.

Fr. Willenborg: The man is a cad. I don't know what else to say except that he has utterly failed at his moral responsibilities. He needs to man up.

Ms. Bond: While I empathize with her plight it is to a large degree one of her own creation. No one forced her to shack up with a priest. She seems to have tried to do right by her son, but irrespective of the low character of the priest in question, it takes two to tango. Rape was not among the accusations here.

The Franciscans: It's not their fault that one of their members has more issues than Time Magazine. It is their fault that they chose to look the other way over this and similar behavior. More on that a little later. It also sounds like they had to have their arm twisted a bit before they decided to do the right thing for the boy. Unfortunatly at every step the evidence suggests a greater concern for their own position than that of the family now in existence thanks to the activities of one of their members.

The Roman Catholic Church: It's time to broach a subject that will land me in all kinds of hot water with my Catholic readers. But oh well; sometimes things need to be said. Obligatory celibacy for all ranks of the clergy does not work. It never has. Anyone who believes otherwise is delusional. This is not a doctrinal issue. (I do not want this post to become a springboard for an Orthodox-Catholic debate on doctrine.) The issue is disciplinary.

Back in the days before swimming the Bosporus I knew my share of priests. A few of them were fairly candid on this subject. While I know of no serious study that's been done, the numbers quoted in here don't sound terribly off base to me. It is quite clear that a substantial percentage of Roman Catholic clergy habitually break their vows of celibacy. This occurs in every diocese and in most cases (unless they choose to remain willfully ignorant) the bishops know what's going on. Some of these priests live, to varying degrees, semi-openly with their "wives" in monogamous relationships. Others, like the subject of the linked story, are serial philanderers. And of course the Roman Catholic priesthood has historically been a popular career choice for homosexuals because it provided them with a convenient place to hide in plain sight where no one would ask them how come they don't have a girlfriend or get married.

The problem is that the hands of the bishops are from a pragmatic point of view tied. It's not that they don't want to discipline their clergy (though I suspect that may be the case in at least some places). The same rule (obligatory celibacy) which creates these scandals has in recent years severely hamstrung the bishops by creating a dearth of priests. Like it or not, we live in an age when large numbers of people who feeling called to a religious vocation, and are then being told that they must abandon any hope of a married life to pursue that vocation, are walking away. If by conservative estimates a quarter of your clergy are playing around routinely how does a bishop sack them all when he already doesn't have any-where's near enough priests to keep things up and running properly?

And blaming this on Vatican II or liberalism (which I know is popular) is hogwash. This sort of thing has gone on in every diocese in every country since the day Rome said "NO" to married clergy. In the old days, especially in culturally Catholic countries it was a lot easier to cover it up. But there are more than sufficient records to demonstrate this problem throughout history.

OK lets dispense with the inevitable cries of "Orthodoxy has its share of problems too!"

Yes we do. But they are not on the same level. Not even close. Yea we have priests (and at least one bishop) who cross the line. But we don't have a system in place that attempts to impose burdens on young men that not everyone is able to bear. And we do accept the possibility that those who are not called to a life of celibacy (which we hold in great honor) may still be called to the religious life including the ordained priesthood. By and large our scandals are more often about power and money. I would also note that in those instances where sexual scandals do occur it is as often as not in a monastery.

The bottom line here is that Rome's insistence on celibacy is turning away thousands of young men who would make terrific priests and setting up those who enter seminary for burdens that many will not be able to bear. Many of these will fall into grievous sin. Frankly, I think the rule is nuts.

And lastly Nathan: He is the one tragic and truly innocent victim in this mess. To be honest, I am not really overwhelmed by the story if you take him out of the picture and probably would not be posting on it.

OK a quick reminder on comments... READ THE GUIDELINES FOR POSTING FIRST.


alex said...

"This sort of thing has gone on in every diocese in every country since the day Rome said "NO" to married clergy. "

That's a bold statement.

Anonymous said...

Alex, I suggest you read up on the history of celibacy in the RCC. Yes, there was a good length of time before celibacy was required, and enforcing it was pretty ugly.