In the wake of the “Uncle Ted” McCarrick scandal have come a series of recommendations about where the Church should go from here and what the laity can do to help. Answers range from Anthony Esolen’s urging the resignation of every bishop who knew of the Cardinal’s vile actions to Christopher Tollefsen’s invitation to suspend all donations to diocesan coffers until the American bishops clean up their act. I also recall that when the clerical abuse scandal first broke twenty years ago, Alice von Hildebrand called for priests to follow the example of Pope St. John Paul II and use “the discipline” (self-flagellation) to mortify the flesh. Not a bad idea, that.
To this promising list I would like to add one more: the Jim Foley Option. Jim Foley was my dad (1930-2009), a relatively short but solidly-built Korean War vet who grew up on the streets of eastern Los Angeles. Jim was a devout Catholic and fiercely proud of his Irish heritage, but he differed from his fellow Irishmen in one crucial respect. As Wilfrid Sheed, son of the great Catholic apologist Frank Sheed, once explained, while the English respected the priestly office and took the man as they found him and while the Australians were cynical about their ordained ministers, the Irish were prone to an undue reverence of the clergy.
Jim did not have this tendency. He was enormously respectful of and helpful to the priests in our life even when, which was often the case in California’s San Bernardino diocese in the 1970s and ’80s, those priests were broken men (usually because of alcoholism) or dishonest (especially where our parochial school’s finances were concerned).
However, Jim knew where to draw the line. When I was about twelve or thirteen, our parish received a new associate pastor. He was tall and gregarious and popular with us altar boys, although he had a memorable habit of shaking your hand in such a way that his grip crushed your knuckles and caused acute pain. At the time we thought this was funny, though in hindsight I surmise a sadistic strain.
The priest was also an avid cyclist, and after settling in he invited me to join him on a day trip. I was thrilled and honored, having never been singled out before by a priest for a social outing. Right before the big day, the priest called to cancel. He informed me that my father did not want the two of us fraternizing; the priest concluded by saying that he respected my father’s wishes. I was stunned; I think I even cried. And I had no idea what to think of my father.
Only later did I hear the rest of the story. Jim Foley had heard from a parishioner at the priest’s previous assignment that the priest had been accused of homosexual activity with a teenage altar boy and it was for this reason that he had been transferred to our parish. My father had no proof, but the rumor made sense. Jim did not make a federal case out of it by writing to the pastor or the bishop; instead, he went straight to the potential troublemaker and told him not to spend time with me. If the priest “had any problem with this,” Jim added as he thrust a finger at the priest and then a thumb over his shoulder, “I’m going ask you to take off your collar and we are going to step outside.”
I can offer two other details. First, anyone who knew Jim Foley even cursorily would have also known that he was not bluffing. Second, that priest never laid a hand on me. Years later I heard that he had been laicized under mysterious circumstances.
One of my friends likes to joke that the only improvement to the 1983 Code of Canon Law is that it is no longer an excommunicable offense for a layman to deck a cleric. Perhaps this improvement was providentially ordained by God as an additional tool in the box for responding to crises such as these. My father didn’t know the niceties of canon law, nor would he have much cared when it came to protecting his family, but neither was he a suspicious or paranoid man. He only acted in response to a credible threat, and he never forbade me from socializing with other priests, which I did and for which I am grateful.
I anticipate all kinds of backlash from the Jim Foley Option. I don’t care. Our culture has moved away from fist fights (which, do note, is all that I am suggesting) to ridiculous lawsuits and hysterical shaming on social media, and I don’t think it is the better for it. We have forgotten the quick and easy art of conflict resolution through threat of a bloody nose.
I do not recommend the Jim Foley Option as the only solution because it clearly is not. But while reforming clerical culture and eliminating the hierarchy’s Lavender Mafia will take time, the Jim Foley Option can be instituted without a moment’s delay. Just think for a moment how much different the last few decades would have been if every homosexual or pedophile clergyman had lived in fear of getting the stuffing kicked out of him for preying on the innocent. Just think how different the lives of so many victims would be if they had had a Jim Foley like I did. If fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, perhaps a fear of pugilistic dads could become the beginning of clerical chastity.
Sure, the Jim Foley who carries out his threats could get arrested, but how many predator priests and bishops or their colluding chanceries would wish to press charges and have their own foul deeds brought into the light of day? Besides, my father would have gladly gone to jail to save me from being molested.
As for myself, although I’m no product of the U.S. military or East L.A., and have heretofore done all my fighting with words, I can nevertheless promise that anyone, from layman to pope, who tries to a lay a hand on my children or godchildren is going to get the Jim Foley Option.
Pass it on.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is a scene from the 1953 film “I Confess” staring Montgomery Clift and directed by Alfred Hitchcock.