Fr. Gerald Fitzgerald and the Path Not Taken

The story of Boston’s Father Gerald Fitzgerald (1894-1969), who founded the Servants of the Paraclete congregation, has been told before. For example, it appears in the National Catholic Reporter of March 30, 2009; in the Dallas Morning News a day later; and was reported by news services like the Associated Press. But most readers outside (and indeed within) the U.S.A. might well be unaware of it, as, for that matter, the writer of these words was until recent months.

To summarize: in the 1950s, Fr. Fitzgerald constituted a rare voice—often, it would seem, a lone voice—on the subject of sexual immorality, and above all pederasty, in the priesthood. This was at a time when such Molochs as Freudianism and the Kinsey Report still exercised such tyrannical rule over the American public culture, that their despotism was conceded (and applauded) by old-fashioned buttoned-up liberals like Lionel Trilling, quite as much as new-fashioned monsters like Allen Ginsberg. Against this despotism, even such classic admonitions as Fulton Sheen’s Peace of Soul proved almost useless.

Fr. Fitzgerald had a different view to Trilling’s. It was not a view based on caprice. Rather, it derived from personal and alarmed observation. Like everybody else, Fr. Fitzgerald had noticed the extraordinary upsurge in vocations which occurred following 1945: perhaps the only time in post-Appomattox American history when full seminaries and an economic boom have coincided. Catholicism’s Panglosses, both lay and clerical, regarded this development as an unmixed blessing. Fr. Fitzgerald had other ideas.

He found himself noticing how few priests in the years immediately after the Second World War had been guilty of homosexual behavior with adults, let alone with children. Priests molesting under-age girls had been equally rare. (Fr. Fitzgerald also manifested a particular pastoral concern with priests suffering from alcoholism.) Within fewer than 10 years, this happy circumstance had changed. Pederasty, which in 1945 had been as alien to Fr. Fitzgerald’s experience as was bestiality, had by 1955 forced itself upon his unwilling attention.

 

Naturally we now know, from weary and bitter experience, what—according to the Church of Nice—Fr. Fitzgerald should have done. Instead of the Alcoholics Anonymous “Twelve-Step Program,” there would have been a Four-Step Program.

  • First, Fr. Fitzgerald should have dismissed the problem as a myth.
  • Second, he should have taken the line that the problem, if per impossibile it had the bad taste to occur, was eminently soluble.
  • Third, he should have calumniated as “Pharisees,” “bigots,” “fascists,” “homophobes,” and “conspiracy theorists” all those who warned about the problem in the first place.
  • Fourth and last, when calumny proved in vain, he should have resorted to smirking witticism, after the manner of that proverbial Irish communist who, asked to explain Stalin’s catalogue of crime, retorted with Hibernian panache: “To be sure, ‘twas a long time ago, and it never happened anyway.”

Fr. Fitzgerald did none of these things. It must be said that he did not summon the police either. (Exactly why he did not, remains uncertain.)

Instead, he wrote as follows in 1957—1957!—to one of the Paraclete congregation’s original backers, Archbishop Edwin Byrne of Santa Fe. No mealy-mouthed corporate glad-hander was Fr. Fitzgerald. He went as far as to advocate the purchase of a West Indian island, where pederast clergy could be parked, and which would serve as a kind of ecclesial Alcatraz to give the world fair warning. (Voltaire could have had a similar concept in mind when describing the presence of a gallows as proof positive of a civilized country.)

This is, in part, what Fr. Fitzgerald said. The letter came into the public domain only four years ago:

These men, Your Excellency, are devils and the wrath of God is upon them and if I were a bishop I would tremble when I failed to report them to Rome for involuntary laicization [in his haste he spelled it “laycization”] … It is for this class of rattlesnake I have always wished the island retreat—but even an island is too good for these vipers of whom the Gentle Master said—it were better they had not been born—this is an indirect way of saying damned, is it not? When I see the Holy Father I am going to speak of this class to His Holiness.

Well, this cri de coeur proved to be—as A.J.P. Taylor would have put it—a turning-point of history at which history failed to turn. A year afterward, Pope Pius XII, in whom Fr. Fitzgerald invested such high hopes, had died.  A decade afterward, the very words “damned” and “wrath” had largely disappeared from Catholic consciousness, as being excessively “negative.”

Pope Paul VI & Fr. FitzgeraldAnyone old enough to remember the late 1960s will appreciate (whatever his or her religious beliefs) that the single most obvious attack upon Catholic order since the Reformation came from public dissenters against Humanae Vitae. Condign and medicinal Vatican chastisement of these dissenters—preferably via excommunication for the noisily unabashed—was the sole possible method for defeating them. No such punishment of them took place. Forty-five years later they continue to flourish, and as the August 2013 verbiage from one Frank Mobbs (of New South Wales) shows, they now infiltrate even such nominally conservative publications as the Australian magazine AD2000. Their triumph proclaims to the world that Dostoyevsky was unduly pessimistic when he maintained: “If God does not exist, everything is permitted.” Those who led the Church’s New Class after 1968 went one better than Dostoyevsky. For they knew (not least from their taxpayer-funded experience) that everything is permitted even if God does exist.

And so, by inexorable logic, to such soothing antipodean syrup as archdiocesan seminary consultant and “hands-on” therapist Ronald Conway (1927-2009) dispensed in The Age (Melbourne’s then-broadsheet newspaper) on August 1, 1996. “Until about 1970 [Conway asserted] there was no effective psychological screening for candidates wanting to study for the priesthood or teaching brotherhood. Today that is not the case.”

In short: move on, move on, nothing to see here. The State of Victoria’s parliamentary inquiry into sexual abuse, and the subsequently established national royal commission, concluded otherwise.

Maybe Fr. Fitzgerald’s proposal of an island penal settlement would have been impracticable. At any rate it was never tried. It represented what Robert Frost would call “the path not taken.” Nevertheless, suppose it had been tried. We know two things which would have resulted.

  • By the public act of permanent incarceration for malefactors, justice for individual victims would have been seen to be done.
  • Serious money would have been saved for use on church projects which—if not actually beneficial—at least imposed less degradation on all concerned than does the process of gigantic episcopal payouts to victims (the vast majority genuine, a small but voluble minority bogus).

But what, in the larger scheme of things, did Fr. Fitzgerald matter? What does any ordinary Catholic, faithful to the magisterium, matter? How many divisions have we got? When did we last amount to more than “collateral damage” from the sexual revolution? Why, some of us, shocking to admit, don’t have theology (or any) doctorates. We haven’t even acquired divorces, those indispensable fashion accessories for the post-Christian soul.

More than a century and a half before Melbourne’s Archbishop Denis Hart told the parliamentary inquiry “Better late than never,” a very different Melbourne—namely, Lord Melbourne, British Prime Minister 1835-1841—prophetically assessed the worldly power of the modern Anglophone secular intelligentsia, and more especially that subdivision of the modern Anglophone secular intelligentsia which brazenly calls itself Catholic. It is a power which, after every failed project, exponentially grows in wealth, influence, and control over “democratic” institutions. The cynical peer observed:  “What all the wise men promised has not happened, and what all the damned fools said would happen has come to pass.”

R.J. Stove

By

R. J. Stove is a Catholic convert and resident of Melbourne who, for several years, edited the quarterly Organ Australia. His most recent book is César Franck: His Life and Times.

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