The Sad Tale of Spiritual Father vs. Spiritual Son

Vigneron-Perrone
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Imagine how you would feel if you were a priest nearly 70 years old and, out of the blue, you learn that a very disturbed adult male has accused you of an act of sexual abuse some forty years ago, an act that you know you did not commit. Suddenly, you are removed from ministry and your name is placed on the archdiocesan website because a review board has judged that there is a “semblance of truth” to the accusation.  

Few know that “semblance of truth” means that it is not impossible that the act has taken place, though no one has provided a shred of evidence beyond the person’s accusation. Indeed, you have an impeccable record of service and of indubitable fidelity to Church teaching.

This isn’t a case like that of McCarrick, where “everyone” knew and “everyone” ignored or covered up his long track record of abuse. Seventy-five altar boys come forward to say they never experienced, saw, or heard of you abusing anyone, and in fact were present at the event—a swimming party at your parent’s home with many persons in attendance—where the abuse allegedly took place. Your parish even took out a lawsuit that accuses the diocese of abusing the parish!

Nor were any other credible accusations forthcoming, which usually follows upon “credible accusations” having been made public.

Wouldn’t you expect an invitation to visit with the bishop or at least a phone call from him, your spiritual father, assuring you that you are absolutely believed innocent until proven guilty, that he believes you to be innocent and that everything will be done to clear up this matter as quickly as possible?  

But that invitation, that phone call, those assurances never came.

What did happen was that the detective who deposed the “victim” falsified his testimony. Indeed, one of your former altar boys, now an adult, gave a sworn deposition that the same detective attributed statements to him about you that he had never made—the detective claimed the former altar boy had said you had young men sleep in your bedroom, a statement he said he never made. Indeed, he said he testified he had never seen anything inappropriate. 

The deposition with fabricated testimony led to you filing a defamation suit against the detective and winning a $125,000 settlement. No admission of guilt was made by the detective but, combined with the “victim’s” denial he had ever made those charges, all minimally rational persons would be led to conclude that you were falsely accused. 

Indeed, the Michigan State Police dropped their investigation since the “victim’s” testimony was so contradictory.

You also voluntarily took two polygraph tests and passed.

Wouldn’t you expect the diocese to issue a press release joyfully announcing your vindication and to restore you to the pastorship of your beloved parish? Perhaps even the archbishop would concelebrate a return Mass with you. And surely the diocese would immediately remove your name from the list on the diocesan website of those credibly accused. 

You would also expect the diocese to fire—or at least suspend and demand a public apology to you—the canon lawyer of the diocese in charge of sex abuse cases, since he was present at the deposition that produced fabricated testimony (taken by a detective who was his parishioner). People would reasonably conclude he knew that the charges were fabricated. If he was unaware that the charges were false, something should have been done to explain how he could have been unaware of the falsity of the charges.

None of that happened.

So people wondered why.

People were told that it was because a canon law procedure against you had been filed with the CDF and it could not be stopped; it had to be completed before any consideration of restoration could take place. You thought common decency would lead the archdiocese to make a public announcement that since there was no evidence of abuse on your part, a fact they surely would have conveyed to the CDF, that they expected the CDF to drop the case.

That didn’t happen.

But the Vatican did close the case and dismissed any future possibility of prosecuting the sex abuse allegations.

So now restoration and apologies take place, right?

No, no, no, because in the meantime—since clearly the diocese was in no hurry to clear your reputation—you filed a defamation lawsuit against the canon lawyer.  

What could be the reason for not clearing your reputation? A continued conviction that you were guilty of sex abuse? On the basis of what evidence? An inability to admit that your case was poorly handled; that the diocese had relied on fabricated testimony? Really? The diocese would ruin your reputation (you who were innocent) for the sake of protecting their reputation (they who had done something wrong)?

Because of the way you were being treated, you might come to suspect that there was a vendetta against you and that justice would never come through the archdiocese. Was this paranoia on your part? Those who knew of your history spoke of you having had a target on your back from the start of your priesthood—decades ago you had blown the whistle on the homosexual culture of the seminary (see the book Goodbye, Good Men by Michael Rose), a culture that produced a presbyterate widely considered to be dominated and controlled by a lavender mafia. 

You also were instrumental in starting the wholly orthodox and popular “Call to Holiness” conferences to combat the wildly heterodox and pernicious “Call to Action” conferences. How had you managed to escape persecution up to this point? Was it that you built a thriving parish of devout Catholics in a remote inner-city church that provided exquisitely reverential and beautiful liturgies, a kind of refuge for Catholics who felt abandoned and ill served by the heterodox teaching and sloppy liturgies that permeated the archdiocese? You were the way the archdiocese appeased them.

You would begin to think you would never be restored and that the best service you could do for fellow vulnerable priests and the Church at large was to expose how the archdiocese was capable of treating a faithful priest—clearly falsely accused—and thereby you might prevent the archdiocese from doing the same to others.

You believed you were perfectly within your rights to file a lawsuit against the canon lawyer who submitted false testimony, since canon law asserts the right of a priest to defend his reputation. The archbishop invoked the promise of obedience you had made and demanded that you drop the suit. It is hard to believe that the bishop has the authority to make a demand that you not exercise a fundamental right any more than that he has the right to demand that you donate a kidney. 

The archdiocese, however, (although there was no credible accusation against you and credible evidence that you had been framed, and although the Vatican would not allow the archdiocese to proceed with its case), decided to file a canon law procedure against you for having refused to obey his command that you drop a lawsuit defending your reputation.

You were puzzled that, again, the archbishop never spoke with you personally. He never invited you to sit down and talk through the whole situation. You would have been ready to drop the suit had the archdiocese said they would restore your faculties and your pastorship—which, actually, shouldn’t they be really eager to do? In truth, you were not being treated as a falsely accused son but as an enemy. You wondered why another “son,” the priest canon lawyer who plausibly engaged in defamation of you, deserved protection.  

Can your sense that you were being persecuted really be attributed to paranoia?

In fact, the press release issued by the archdiocese to announce the findings of the canon law process that investigated three charges against you (not identified in the press release) was clearly designed to continue to humiliate you. How could they have the audacity to mention that there had been accusations of sex abuse against you and not mention that they had been falsified!? Moreover, the press release didn’t identify what the charges were against you and didn’t state that you were acquitted of two of three charges. The press release made reference to “confidentiality” as preventing them from saying more but allowed you in your “apology” to reveal that the one charge of which you had been found guilty was that of disobedience—of not obeying the command that you not avail yourself of your right to defend your reputation.  

Given the diocese’s desire to continue to discredit you, it did not surprise you that purview of the judges was limited: their directive was to establish only that you had disobeyed an order, not to determine whether it was legitimate for the archbishop to have given such an order. The question most germane to this situation was not addressed.

You could have petitioned the proper office of the curia to determine the limits of authority of a bishop—and what a necessary task it is to determine those limits!—but in the end you decided to drop all civil suits and not to have recourse to any ecclesial options.

Having your faculties restored required you to issue an apology. You did so. The “apology” saddened and even infuriated some of your followers. They thought you should appeal the decision to firmly establish how unfairly you had been treated. But now you were 72 and wanting to serve your flock as a priest as much as possible in the years left to you. Those who had eyes to see did not need you to win an appeal to see the unfairness of it all. You believe your apology was worded in such a way that it was clear you were simply cooperating with the archdiocese and bowing to their perception that your suit against the canon lawyer (somehow) was impeding their investigation (which fell apart on its own). You never wanted to be wrongly disobedient; you only wanted to defend your reputation and help prevent others from being treated as you were.

One of those goals was met (your reputation was restored) and as much good as could be done toward the other was done (making public what despicable measures the diocese will take against one of its own priests).

**

So, who won this “battle”—a battle that should never have taken place? The bishop/father or the priest/son? Well, the priest cannot say Mass at his former parish, must ask for permission to say Mass at other parishes, and was made to issue a groveling pseudo apology. 

Do those punishments serve to humiliate him or the archdiocese? 

Most will see the final act of the archdiocese as petty and vindictive and no longer will doubt that the archdiocese engaged in persecution of this particular priest. They will likely find the press release and the punishments in themselves to be a solid piece of evidence for this conclusion. (And do note that the archdiocesan internet page that gives lists of priests who are “credibly accused” does not have a list of those who have been vindicated of any accusation.)

As for the priest, he is more loved than ever; he proved to be a model of obedience by being obedient where likely obedience is not legitimately required. That he is a true pastor was exhibited not only in his “apology” but in the beautiful spiritual reflection on his experience he sent to his flock: 

February 19, 2022 

Commemoratio Beatæ Mariæ Virginis 

At my Mass today I looked up to the crucifix above the tabernacle and had a passing thought about that INRI over our Lord’s head. How strange is this kind of King who publicly displays His shamefully disgraced, dying Body… 

There are some who are going to be disappointed in me for having withdrawn my civil lawsuit and for having apologized, even though I myself had been wronged. People had offered countless prayers, offered many Masses, given exceptional financial support, and expressed to me their compassionate sorrow over what transpired these past 1,150 days. I owe them all a huge debt of gratitude. I hope that what they have done out of charity for me will become for them a rich and eternal spiritual treasure, and that the prayers and Masses I in turn said for them during this time will be a partial “repayment” to them. 

How to make sense of all that has happened and the great human and supernatural efforts that were expended these two-and-a-half years? There is an answer to this, but one that makes sense only to a mind that’s been formed by the Gospel of Christ, apart from which one cannot accept phrases such as, “Do good to those who hate you; bless those who curse you; pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27) and “This also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you [i.e. punish], if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (Matthew 18:35). 

I quote these passages to you not in a cunning way, secretly hoping to justify myself. That would make my published apology bitterly ironical, and—I should think—highly offensive to God. Christianity knows a higher form of justice than the merely human—one that fights hard against our impulse for vindication and vengeance. Our Lord taught us another, most difficult way, contrary to our inclinations: charity unfeigned (2 Corinthians 6:6). 

I want it to be known that this long ordeal has done me a great deal of spiritual good that I may not have acquired otherwise. This is a lesson I’d like to impart to everybody who will listen: accepting hardships for Christ’s sake is a benefit beyond what words can tell. I’d also like to repeat what I have said publicly elsewhere: I may have done more spiritual good for others by enduring what I did (though, I admit, not always willingly) than if I had been exercising my priesthood in a public way. 

Thank you immensely for supporting me in this time. I often felt a strength which surely came from you, fellow members of the mystical body of the Church. 

Do pray for the pope, the archbishop, and for all priests. Overlook human weaknesses and see in them men who have the priestly “character” indelibly imprinted on their souls and given a divine mission—however unworthy they may be. 

***

Those who want to see a real-life example of the above scenario need only to follow the links in the “tale” above. Or search the internet for Fr. Perrone, Archbishop Vigneron, Monsignor Bugarin, Nancy LePage. 

For a systemic explanation of the dismal relationship between bishops and their priests since the Dallas Charter, please see this article: “An Open to Letter to My Bishop and All U.S. Bishops.” 

By

Janet E. Smith, Ph.D., is a retired professor of moral theology.

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