What Priests Do

One of Rod Dreher’s longtime commenters recently offered this assessment of Catholic priests:

When I was a little kid, I played with the kids in the prolific Catholic family across the alley until I was around 7. And then for some reason, we did not play together any more. It was not like we had a fight or anything. We just stopped. I was thinking about that one day, for some strange reason, after my father died, and I said to my mother, “You know, it’s odd how when I was little I stopped playing with the X.”

She said, “We stopped it. We did not want them to get you involved with their religion. You know what priests do.”

Yeah, I knew. Brother Davis, in his semi-literate enthusiastic way said it. “They likes little boys!”

In the wake of the revelations of the grotesque betrayals of both the commandments of God and the trust of God’s people by ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick, you can be sure many people are thinking similar thoughts. Indeed, too many bishops and priests have given people not previously hostile to the Church reason to begin thinking such thoughts. But “too many” is not “all” or even “most.” Far from it. In the righteous anger ignited by McCarrick, many innocent men are being slandered. So how do we respond to those who think that “what priests do” is to sexually abuse “little boys?”

One way of responding is by looking at the statistics. The John Jay report studying allegations of sexual abuse against priests in the United States between 1950 and 2002 concluded that some 4,392 priests were accused of sexual abuse of minors during that period of time, with 2,411 having a single allegation against them. This total represents approximately 4.3 percent of American priests over that time period. Since the report was issued in 2004, additional accusations of abuse have continued to be made, but the great majority have involved priests who were already dead, laicized, or missing. The John Jay report also concluded that the incidence of clerical sexual abuse was the highest in the 1970s, and that it began a steady decline after peaking in 1980. The most recent annual audit by the USCCB, covering the period from July 1, 2016 through June 30, 2017, recorded 24 allegations of clerical sexual abuse involving children who were minors during that time period. Six of the allegations were deemed substantiated, with three of those involving a single priest. In other words, 0.008 percent of the 37,181 American priests were credibly accused of sexually abusing someone who was 17 or younger in the last reporting year. Under the norms of the Dallas Charter, in place since 2002, priests credibly accused of sexually abusing a minor are to be removed from ministry. The incidence of sexual abuse of minors is far less clear in other professions, but approximately 20 percent of adult females and 5 to 10 percent of adult males indicate that they were subject to childhood sexual abuse, according to the National Center of Victims of Crime. No reasonable observer could look at these numbers and conclude that Catholic priests are characterized as a group by the abuse of the children put in their care, much less that priests in active ministry today are abusing the children in their charge.

However, I’d rather respond by recounting what priests have done in my life, which has taken place in the often turbulent wake of Vatican II. When I was a little boy, my Dad’s father, whom I deeply loved, died suddenly. I was inconsolable. But someone whose words helped me deal with my Grandpa’s death was the priest who presided at his funeral and who treated me with great kindness. Another priest who made an impression on me when I was young was the Slovak-American pastor of our large suburban parish. From my father I learned that our pastor had once been a priest at his childhood parish, a Slovak parish that my Dad loved, one where he swore his eighth-grade teacher, Sister Mary Ramon, acted just like Ingrid Bergman in “The Bells of St. Mary’s.” (My Dad has a candid photo of his eighth-grade classroom buttressing his memory: all the kids are beaming). Those who think that the Catholic Church is an oppressive institution need to wrestle with the fact that the Catholic immigrants who came to America from many different countries in Europe all did the same thing when they came here: they built Catholic churches and Catholic schools everywhere they went, often at enormous financial sacrifice.

From my Mom I learned that our pastor was an excellent confessor, an assessment I came to share, which is one reason I have never been reluctant to go to confession the way too many American Catholics are. From the pastor himself I learned the Faith, both directly from his sermons and indirectly through the religious instruction he saw that even we public school kids were provided. I will never forget the clear lesson on the evil of abortion I received as I prepared for my Confirmation.

The next priests to make an impression on me were the priests associated with my Catholic high school, the one institution that did more to shape me than any other. I was unhappy in my public school junior high, in part because of regular low-level bullying. I experienced none of that at my Catholic high school, where I was accepted for who I was. The contrast between a junior high where teachers and students raced out of the building at the end of the day and a high school where teachers and students often stayed late because they wanted to be there could not have been more stark. The reason for the difference was clear to me: the teachers at my high school, both lay and clerical, regarded teaching as a vocation, not just a job. Indeed, the best teacher I had at any level was the priest who taught me World History as a freshman and AP Modern European History as a junior. Many of my classmates share this opinion, including friends with multiple degrees from prestigious universities.

The many blessings I received from attending that Catholic high school did not end with graduation but continue to this day. That high school history teacher became a friend to my family and me, burying my grandmother, baptizing two of my sister’s children, concelebrating my wedding Mass, and making himself available for spiritual direction and confession when I needed it, including just weeks ago when a Lutheran friend wisely suggested that I talk to a priest after receiving distressing personal news. However, what most impressed me about this priest is something that involved me only indirectly. When I was out of the country, the family of Leonard, a dear friend from high school, tried to contact me; they wanted my friend’s mother to be seen again by a priest. The hospital chaplain had already seen her and could not see her again in the time period the family wanted. So they thought of the history teacher Leonard and I both had as freshmen 25 years before and hoped I could put them in touch with him. It turns out they didn’t need me to reach him. They left a message at the school, and fifteen minutes later my priest friend had returned the call and was on his way to the hospital, to anoint the mother of a student he had taught a quarter century earlier. (Sadly, Leonard died before his mother did. When my friend died, another priest from the school came to the funeral home, unexpectedly and unbidden, to console us as we mourned Leonard’s early death.)

Through my continued association with my high school alma mater, I also became aware of the inspirational work of a man who had taught one of my theology classes, the late Jim Skerl. I have written many times about Skerl and the way he followed Christ and the ways he devised for his students to follow Christ by serving others, ways that have now spread to Catholic high schools across the country. Thanks to Jim Skerl, high school students at my alma mater and many other schools now act as pallbearers for those who have no one else to carry their coffin and take meals and companionship on Sunday nights to the homeless living rough on the streets, after first praying before the Blessed Sacrament. I knew my last piece on Skerl did some justice to the man when I learned that the priest who gave him the last rites posted my article on the faculty bulletin board at school, and another priest who had worked with Skerl quoted it in a homily. It is true that Jim Skerl was a layman. It is also true that he was educated entirely in Catholic schools, spent his entire career teaching in Catholic schools, and was both influenced and supported by Catholic priests his whole life.

Thanks to my friendship with Leonard, I am the godfather of the nephew he never got to meet. Jimmy is severely autistic. In spite of this, he was able to make his First Communion at a church not far from my high school, together with a half dozen or so mentally disabled children. The Mass featured banal guitar music of the type I normally cannot stand, but on this occasion, I did not care, so obvious was the love enveloping the church that day. The same priest who helps the mentally disabled prepare for the sacraments also ministers to the deaf and regularly feeds the homeless at his parish. Those, too, are some of the things Catholic priests do. (In doing all this, the priest is ably assisted by a nun who is his indispensable partner in running the parish.)

As an adult, I have been fortunate enough to go to good parishes led by good priests. In college, I walked to the neighborhood parish, then staffed by religious priests from Italy and featuring wonderful, traditional music, including Latin chants at a time when Latin was never heard in most American parishes. In law school, I also walked to the neighborhood parish, and found a church quite like the one I had attended in college. It was there I first attended the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday, and since then I have seldom missed the opportunity to kneel and sing the Pange Lingua at what is for me the most moving liturgy of the year. Once I returned to Cleveland after law school, I eventually gravitated back to my college parish, which still featured outstanding music but was now led by a diocesan priest, an outstanding homilist who reminded me of John Paul II, whom he often quoted. As with the Polish pontiff, this pastor’s instincts were often to the left of my own, but, also as with the Polish pontiff, I never doubted his sincerity of faith or sanctity of life.

I came to my current parish through marriage: my wife has been going here since she was four. In addition to introducing me to the parish, she also introduced me to the pastor, an eminently sensible man who had made few changes to his beautiful church after Vatican II and a man of great compassion who had been very supportive of my wife when her long-widowed mother was dying of pancreatic cancer. My wife’s mother did not want to go to hospice, but she felt some internal pressure to go. At the suggestion of a colleague, my wife had her Mom talk to the pastor, who gave her the courage she needed to reject the early death hospice would have meant and to live one more year, a year my wife and her Mom treasured, despite all the difficulties. The pastor was also there for my wife and her Mom at the end. When we got married, two remarkable priests—my wife’s pastor and my high school history teacher—were there to witness our union before God.

The pastor’s replacement after retirement proved no less remarkable: a younger, dynamic priest whose preaching often focused on the Eucharist and whose example attracted a steady stream of new members to the church. Since this church is almost as close to where I live as my college and law school parishes are, I have had the opportunity to become involved in the parish and saw firsthand how many demands there were on this pastor’s time and how modest his creature comforts were. I have seen the great care taken to keep children safe, with religion students receiving regular instruction in how to protect themselves from sexual abuse and the pastor and other priests taking great care not even to be alone with a child. When public school students attending the Parish School of Religion go to confession, for example, the priests hear their confessions in the open, face to face, where both priest and penitent can be seen, but not heard. This might strike some as excessive, but it does show a strong commitment to protecting children. Finally, through my involvement in this parish, I got to know the seminarian who interned there, and was impressed by his ability to connect with both older parishioners and students, and the soundness of his homilies, not to mention his commendable zeal for all Cleveland sports teams. A colleague, who attends the parish to which this seminarian was assigned after ordination, reports that this new priest continues to impress.

None of this is meant to suggest that there is not a profound crisis in the Church. I was a charter subscriber to this publication in 1982 when it was called Catholicism in Crisis, a title I felt was appropriate. The McCarrick scandal highlights important aspects of this crisis: seminarians should not be subjected to predatory homosexuals like McCarrick, there is no place for homosexual activity in the seminary or the rectory, and men who are not committed to celibacy should never be ordained, much less advanced to the episcopacy or the cardinalate, as McCarrick mindlessly was. The abuses brought to light by the McCarrick scandal must end. Nor do I mean to suggest that priests are incapable of committing profound, even grotesque injustices. Sadly, far too many people, including some I know, have experienced such injustices.

What I do mean to suggest is that the wrong response to the McCarrick scandal is to castigate priests as a class, to give up on the Church, or, God forbid, to leave her. My sincere advice is this: if you are a Catholic, stay. If you are not a Catholic, join. You may not find three good parishes within walking distance, as I did, but there are many good parishes out there. When you find one, join, and immerse yourself in its life. I am convinced you will find, as I did, good people sincerely trying to please God. Even in these dark times, there is much good in the Church. She is still producing saints, which is what I believe Jim Skerl will one day be called. And, despite the egregious offenses of far too many clerics, the Catholic Church remains the only religious body teaching the full truth, including the full truth about human sexuality articulated 50 years ago by Paul VI in Humanae Vitae.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is “Last Rites” painted in 1879 and displayed in an Upper Bavarian parish in Irschenberg.

Tom Piatak

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Tom Piatak is a contributing editor to Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He earned his JD from the University of Michigan Law School.

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