The fall down

16 12 2019

Fr. B. was sitting in the dark, head down. I hadn’t meant to stumble upon this scene. I was often the first one in the chapel before Prime. It must have been around 5:30 am. Seeing Fr. B. there, I knew something was wrong, but I had no idea what the scope of it was. That whole day afterwards, he was nowhere to be seen. From what I could surmise, he had left sometime in the afternoon. Only later did I find out where he went: Europe. Of course, I have not seen him since, but I heard of his unfortunate fate…

This is a story of a particular scandal. As the people involved are still very much alive, I will have to be very vague in how I tell it. In the last two decades since these events occurred, it has become evident that these were far from isolated events. When a priest falls down, in my experience, it has little to do with doctrine, enthusiasm, or even their naturally inclined piety. I’ve seen liberals, conservatives, traditionalists, all sorts of priests fall into sexual sin in many circumstances. I know clergy still struggling with it. What I write here isn’t designed to condemn or judge them. It’s more to communicate why I have little trust for institutions or confessional posturing. In the almost impossible struggle to transform lust into love, there are no easy shortcuts; there are no full proof plans. There’s just a lot of toil, and almost likely failure. Whether you choose to pick yourself up afterwards, that’s up to you.

Fr. B. was the head of the retreat center where I ended up living for over a year. In probably the most foolish but least regretful decision I have ever made, I decided to drop out of college to pursue a vocation to the priesthood. Had I had more sensible guidance, that decision would have not been made so precipitously. As it stands, it only took me a few months to determine that my life “in the world” was finished. I was barely out of my teens.

After a retreat with Fr. B., I asked if I could live at the retreat center as a volunteer and lay oblate. He agreed, as he already had a small community of men living there. Moving into the retreat center was a social baptism by fire for me as an awkward introverted kid. For one thing, my fellow male inhabitants were rather uncouth and even vulgar at times. J., our foreman, was a struggling alcoholic, and his right-hand man, R., wasn’t far behind in terms of a possible drinking problem. There was the mentally challenged T., who acted as a cross between a secretary and general housekeeper. Then there were the few other young men either discerning a vocation, or who were in general just “between things” in their lives. I don’t know how Fr. B. supported a community with that many people in it (I’m leaving a lot of people out). Of course, we were paid only room and board, and working conditions weren’t pleasant. We dug holes in the rain, we laid pipe, we shoveled out horse stalls, etc. I slept in a rundown trailer which didn’t have running water. But being young and idealistic, none of that mattered.

What held it together for me was living a communal life with the four resident priests there. Prime was at six, followed by a half hour of meditation and Mass. I learned to serve Mass and sing the offices. I could even sing a good deal of Gregorian chant from memory by the end of that year. I was one of the main sacristans, and I was often responsible for laying out all of the vestments for Mass which I did dutifully every night after dinner.

Then there was Fr. B. Fr. B. was one of those priests who seemed to be a natural at it. Short, energetic, and charismatic, Fr. B. was on a mission to save the world from itself. He preached against television and, controversially, that everyone really had a religious vocation, it’s just some followed it and others didn’t. Fr. B.’s sermons would often drag on but few seemed to mind. With a bombastic delivery bordering on the histrionic at times, I saw him captivate congregations and retreatants alike. He even had a significant market of people who bought his tape sets (remember tapes?) of conferences and sermons. Fr. B. was also a great lover of the arts, to the point that we had a resident male opera singer living on the property (also with a drinking problem). Fr. B. loved to sing but he had a voice that was a cross between a baritone and a fog horn. He also oversaw a very small school that was on the property. All told, people from other states came to make a pilgrimage to the community that Fr. B. had built up in only a few years.

I can’t say that I was completely under Fr. B.’s spell for a number of reasons. For one thing, in terms of charismatic cults, sadly that was not my first time at the rodeo. I had been in political groups (that are still around) which can only be described as cultic. So in some ways, I kept my emotional distance. But for others, Fr. B. was also clearly their guru. I was simply passing through, hopefully onto something more permanent. Thus, my personal interactions with Fr. B. were fairly limited besides seeing him for Mass and meals.

So I saw the situation at the retreat center as being a bit odd. There was one particular relationship between a young man and middle aged gentleman that struck me as a bit homoerotic, but I won’t speculate further on that. But aside from spending time with “his boys,” Fr. B. also had a group of young girls he was rather familiar with. Many families came from elsewhere to spend time at the retreat center. Many of them had little access to Mass and a traditional Catholic life outside of a Sunday mission Mass at an odd time. They would come, often eight to twelve of them, to spend a few days at the retreat center helping out and going to daily Mass / Office. Among these families were young women. I remember one time, Fr. B. went on a trip with a group of about six young women somewhere. I am sure that nothing out of turn happened on that occasion, but then there was that one time I saw Fr. B. walking on the retreat center grounds with one girl, alone. She was probably around sixteen. Of course, I was tempted to think the worst at that time, but I swatted down those thoughts as diabolical. I may have even confessed this in my next confession.

And now I return to that dark chapel early that morning. Fr. B. looked so forlorn. Maybe I thought he had a death in the family, maybe I suspected that he would be transferred for completely routine reasons, as priests of the order often were. But in the subsequent months and years, the full story came out. He was indeed seducing those young women of the families I had come to know rather well. After he left the retreat center, he had been sent to Europe to be dealt with by his superiors. He ended up spending six months in a monastery and was reintroduced into pastoral life, supposedly under supervision. He may have chafed under this, and left the order to go to Rome to get himself a more regular canonical situation. He was almost incardinated in a diocese where I believe he may have abused again and his past was then found out. At that point, Rome stepped in and defrocked him. To my knowledge, he is still out there, living a normal life somewhere.

Slowly, perhaps because of pressure from above, the retreat center was cleared out of much of the unnecessary personnel. Most of the young men returned to the world, leaving me as one of the last men standing (others, but not many others, would take their place). J. the foreman, for example, ended up going back to his estranged wife. My best friend G. ended up going back this chapel and getting married. And so on and so forth…

In some ways, I’m never going to live down the fact that the guy who initially accepted me into religious life was a creep. My last religious superior was / is also a bit of a creep, but more innocuously so. I suspect that I have bad karma in that regard. Every close relationship that I have had ends in a mess of badness. At this point, it’s probably not just coincidence. All the same, all of this has kept me humble and tolerant of the faults of others. One of the only good confessors I have had used to tell me almost every confession, “Welcome to the human race.” I am just glad I never had enough power over people to abuse them in the ways I have seen some supposed men of God abuse others. There but for the grace of God go I, perhaps. But in this case, my waywardness probably made my sins slightly less predatory. That is its own grace, I suppose.


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