Long after that came the headlines. He was convicted and served time for having molested two boys 30 years earlier.
I stood by my friends then in their shock and outrage and sorrow. Now – after more than a decade – I again stood by them at his memorial liturgy. Many parish members here, as elsewhere, had loved him. They chose to appreciate and pray for him at a memorial mass combined with a healing service.
Okay so far.
As the service unfolded, I waited. The brief homily praised him as a beloved pastor. The healing service included nothing beyond what seemed to be the traditional prayers used in this monthly parish ritual. The only reference to his offenses was an oblique mention that we are all sinners.
At first, I was appalled by what felt like more whitewash, on top of the decades-long layers that still have not hidden the horror of what was done by priests and the hierarchy. Even after changing official systems for dealing with this problem, the lack of candor, lack of basic sensitivity, and lack of persistent heart-felt sorrow continue to be fundamental and systemic sins among too many leaders in my church. Do priests and bishops still not comprehend that a wound so deep must be spoken of, every single time, with clarity as well as charity?
I held my discomfort as a interior question. Slowly, during the service, I realized that this particular man had already suffered for his sins, both privately (as we all do) but also in the very public forum of news reports, courts, and prison. I thought of Pope Francis’ “Who am I to judge?” I recalled that even in the worst months of revelations I had remembered the wisdom of other friends, therapists who have worked with abused children and their abusers. Separately, and repeatedly, they say of all their clients: “Everyone is doing the best that they can.” Grace came in those reflections.
I recognized him as a person. As my brother.
He, I, all of us: It's not as simple as being good or bad. We're both/and - not either/or.
Remember what I wrote last week about Sister Kathy Schmittgens? Here’s another, huge part of her story of escape from the soldiers and guerrillas closing in on her village in Sierra Leone:
At last, she and her sisters and the abandoned schoolgirls made it to the relative security of a convent in a larger city. Total exhaustion pushed everyone into makeshift beds. But what would they do for breakfast? Early that Sunday morning, another sister found one market stall selling bread. She bought dozens of rolls, every piece of bread it had. As people awoke, Kathy walked through the packed house, giving bread to each person.
On the porch, she found a young man sprawled out, still half asleep. "He was one who had harassed us and made demands of us. And so I recoiled when I saw him sitting on our veranda. But when I gave him the bread, he just seemed as lost as the rest of us were." She called it “the most difficult and truest communion I’ve ever had.”
I’ve often thought of that story. For me, it's an Emmaus story. Sometimes it’s only in the breaking of the bread that we can recognize each other as God’s children. Every one of us.