During the ten years I served as a canon lawyer for Catholic dioceses including the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis, I worked on many, many cases of clerical sexual misconduct. I dealt with priests and deacons (and those aspiring to be either) who had sexually abused men, women, children and, in the case of one particular priest, animals. I was always aware of the precarious position this placed me in vis-a-vis my personal safety and well-being, but the work needed to be done and over time I developed the thick skin that comes from frequently interacting with sex offenders. Significantly, throughout those ten years there was only one offending priest whose issues rose to such a level of ‘creepiness’ that I objected to working with him. After having had the experience of being the only woman present at a meeting with this priest (and being very well acquainted with the contents of his personnel file), I informed my Chancery colleagues rather bluntly that I did not feel comfortable being around this priest, and that I didn’t think it right that I or anyone else should be asked to. I thought that my feelings on this matter would receive at least a respectful hearing, as by this point not only was I accustomed to supervising felonious clergy upon their release, but I had the added ‘street cred’ that comes from visiting inmates on Death Row and learning to eat po’boys with inmates in shackles. As I pointed out to my colleagues, one can presume that my comfort level in such situations is higher than the average person, not to mention the average parish worker or daily communicant. Given my discomfort with having to interact with this particular priest, I asked, how can we ask it of anyone else?

         My concerns were disregarded then, as they so often were. But, since the Archdiocese was very obviously aware of my concerns in regard to this priest, once the investigation by Minnesota Public Radio began he was one of the first the Archbishop asked to take a ‘voluntary leave of absence’.  In announcing the leave, the Archdiocese attributed the decision to ‘misconduct which occurred many years ago and did not involve members of any parish in which [the priest] has served’. The Archdiocese also stated that ‘this misconduct did not involve a violation of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. The priest was only ordained in 1997, so I leave it to you to decide whether any misconduct in which he engaged could have been ‘many years ago’.  I also wonder if it is correct to state that the misconduct didn’t involve a violation of the Charter or members of any parish to which he was assigned.  As I recall the materials in his file, one of the complaints lodged against him was that he was staring at the breasts of teenage girls at Nativity of Our Lord in Saint Paul. I suppose it could be argued that the priest was only in residence, and not assigned to the parish at the time, and that his actions were a violation of the spirit, but not the letter of the law that animates the Charter/Essential Norms. If so, that nuance was lost both on the father of the girls, and on the pastor to whom he complained. From what I recall of the file, the pastor of the parish was as outraged as the father, to the extent that he wrote to the Archbishop and said that while he wished the priest well, he was not going to tolerate such conduct at his parish.  Those who know him better than I will be able to confirm if that sounds like an action that would be taken by Father, now Bishop, Peter Christensen.

         It is also unclear to me if the Archdiocese’s statement on this priest is meant to encompass his use of prostitutes and phone sex hotlines. The Archdiocese claims that this ‘misconduct’ did not involve parishioners or violations of the Charter but really, when it comes to his soliciting sex, how can they know? It isn’t as though they made an attempt to locate all of the women whom this priest had paid for sex acts to inquire about their age and religious practices. On what could they be basing such a statement? Did they rely on the word of the priest that none of the women were known to him through a parish to which he was ‘assigned’, or did they just make a general assumption that Catholic women are unlikely to be forced into prostitution? If you consider that one of this priest’s parish assignments was at a location next to a Dorothy Day Center, perhaps you can understand my skepticism.

            I hope that you can also understand my concern. It is undisputed that this particular priest suffers from mental illness, compounded by several other issues which I cannot disclose but which constantly put him in jeopardy of violating his vow to maintain perfect and perpetual continence for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven. His mental illness, which leads to the compulsive and inappropriate staring that I have already mention, surely should disqualify him from parish ministry, if not priestly ministry entirely, seeing that both require that a man have the ‘integral morals’, ‘proven virtues’, and ‘the other physical and psychic qualities in keeping with the order to be received’, which in this case is the most holy and sacred priesthood (canon 1029).

            Perhaps you disagree, and therefore will not find it surprising, and incredibly disheartening, to learn that this priest was returned to ministry by Archbishop Nienstedt in April of 2014. Or perhaps you are comforted by the fact that one of the ‘conditions for his return to ministry’, if you will, was that disclosure be made to the parish community. Is it somehow acceptable to assign such a priest as long as the parishioners at his parish are informed of his history of mental illness,  angry outbursts, inappropriate staring at women, and inappropriate sexual misconduct with non-parishioner adult females’?.

            The ‘disclosure’ made in this case, which I consider to be an extremely minimal accounting of the priest’s past misconduct and current issues, presents an interesting contrast to the standards of behavior currently imposed on lay employees. As a canon lawyer I am comfortable stating that soliciting a prostitute is contrary to the moral and religious teaching of the Catholic Church, and for a priest, who is required by law to observe perfect and perpetual sexual continence, to do so- repeatedly- is also a violation of canon law. I am also comfortable in saying that I am scandalized, and embarrassed for the parish and the Catholic Church, to see such a disclosure announcing the return of a priest to ministry.  I am at a loss to understand how the Catholic Church can seek the resignation of a music director for conduct ‘inconsistent with the faith, morals, teachings and laws of the Catholic Church,’ while at the same time turning a blind eye to similar, or worse, violations of faith, morals, teachings, and laws by its clergy. However, I would not be surprised to learn that at least some parishioners fully supported this priest’s return to their parish. They have already endured a very tense and emotional merger, and no doubt fear that without quietly accepting this priest their ability to maintain a second worship site would be called into question.

            Clearly this is not an answer. Nor is it acceptable. Reading of the ‘reassignment’ of this particular priest called to mind a talk given about this time last year by Bishop Charles Scicluna, who until 2012 was the Promotor of Justice, or chief prosecutor, for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In addition to speaking of priests guilty of sexual abuse of minors, Scicluna spoke of priests who are ‘simply unsuited for ministry’, not necessarily because they commit crimes, or can’t maintain the obligations of the clerical state, or even because they are mentally ill. According to Scicluna, such a priest may simply be unable to deal effectively with people. Referring to such unassignable priests, Scicluna, stated,

   ‘There is no community to which I would send [an unassignable priest]. He wants to be a pastor, but we don’t hate our communities. We love every single community. I don’t want to send this guy to any community because
there is no community I hate that much. He would be very happy, but I would not be doing my job…I would have to give an account to God for my being unfair to the people.’[1]

I should note that the people of this particular parish have learned, over the past year that, by the Archdiocese’s own admission, they were assigned priests known to have abused children for thirty-two of the past sixty-four years. We don’t hate our communities, indeed.

            Scicluna is not alone is protesting against the assigning of unhealthy or unbalanced priests. In a recent address to the Congregation for Clergy, Pope Francis spoke to this issue, reminding bishops, ‘Today we have so many problems in so many dioceses, because of this error of some Bishops [in ordaining men who are not fit for ministry]’. When making assignments, Archbishop Nienstedt would not listen to me, but perhaps he will consider these words of Francis: ‘Please! We must think of the good of the People of God’.



[1] Reese, Thomas. ‘Canon Lawyers Hear from Church Prosecutor of Sex Abuse Cases’, National Catholic Reporter, 25 October, 2013.



 


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    Jennifer Haselberger is a canon lawyer who served as the Chancellor for Canonical Affairs in the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis until April of 2013, when she resigned in protest of the Archdiocese's handling of sexual misconduct by clergy.

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