Goodness, Holiness and Fr. Groeschel

In an oft-quoted line from a German play, a character says, “When I hear the word ‘culture,’ I take my Browning off ‘safe.’” Well, I don’t own a Browning, or any firearm of any brand. But I swear, every time I hear the words “good” and “holy” used in close conjunction to describe a living priest, I wish I did have a Browning. So I could flip off the safety. So I could clamp off the fulsomeness before it spreads like an oil spill.

These words, used in this combination, bring out my Dirty Harry side for a good reason. They have a knack for turning up whenever a priest stands accused of doing something wrong. They form the basis for the myth that becomes the mob’s main line of defense: “Fr. So-and-So, a good and holy priest, is being railroaded by venal superiors who are jealous of him on account of he’s so good and holy.” They have talismanic properties, these words. As long as they’re on hand for repetition, they can thwart any accusation of villainy.

Over the past 24 hours, an awful lot of good-and-holies have found occasion to attach themselves to Fr. Benedict Groeschel. That’s Groeschel, co-founder of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, prolific author and EWTN host, candidate for anyone’s list of Who’s Who in the Catholic Church. In an interview with National Catholic Register’s John Burger, he explained, at great length, why some sex abuse of minors on the part of adults isn’t that abusive after all. In “a lot of the cases,” he said, “the youngster – 14, 15 18 – is the seducer.”

Groeschel also pointed out that many instances of abuse stop short of actual penetration, but are “almost romantic,” and argued that first offenders should not face jail time. He went on to call Jerry Sandusky “this poor guy,” and found the reluctance to inform on him “interesting,” which in context seems to mean “exculpating.” “If you go back 10 or 15 years ago with different sexual difficulties — except for rape or violence — it was very rarely brought as a civil crime,” Groeschel told Burger, apparently persuaded this represents the wisdom of the ages.

For me, the pat on Sandusky’s shoulder gave Groeschel’s game away. The former Penn State assistant coach did, in fact, have penetrative sex with boys, many boys, and boys quite a bit younger than 14. The victim of the shower rape witnessed by Mike McQueary was all of 10 at the time. McQueary took the very un-interesting step of informing on Sandusky — not to the police, as he should have done, but to head coach Joe Paterno (who, unforgivably, punted). Nor was McQueary the first would-be whistle-blower. In 1998, a woman told Penn State campus police that Sandusky had molested her son in the same showers. Sandusky later admitted to hugging the boy from behind when both were nude, and to touching his genitals. Far from finding any romance in the experience, the boy described it in an official police interview as “weird.”

Of course, it’s possible, even probable, that Groeschel is unfamiliar with some of these details. But that doesn’t get him off the hook. It suggests that the frame of romantic, Greek-style love figures so prominently in his view of the world that he’ll default to it until facts force him to discard it. In the interview, Groeschel stands on his credentials as a psychologist — he teaches pastoral psychology at St. Joseph’s seminary and has screened countless seminarians. But he doesn’t spare so much as a nod to two of pedophilia’s defining traits, namely, an inability to empathize with the victim, and an elaborate mechanism for self-justification. It’s very easy to find a predator who will claim to have been ensared by the wiles of an epicene youth; that doesn’t mean young Ganymede was actually on the make.

Mary Dunford, now 70, was molested by a nun while a teen boarder at the Villa Maria School. In Dunford’s account, the nun would “kiss me on the mouth then take her clothes off down to the waist and have me kiss and suck her nipples. She told me she loved me.” The religious order to which the nun belonged admitted fault, returned Dunford’s tuition, and arranged for abused and abuser to meet and reconcile. That meeting, however, didn’t come off as planned. When Dunford related how the sister’s abuse had affected her life, the sister replied, “You weren’t the only one damaged.” Just goes to show that everyone has a sob story.

Exactly what led Groeschel to say what he said, I don’t know. (Has he, perhaps, counseled too many priests and too few kids?) Nobody on Facebook — as good a meter for the sensus fidelium as any — seemed to know, either. The general mood was one of shock. Some tried to argue that Groeschel had been quoted out of context, that Burger had wronged him, somehow, by not demanding clarification, that NCR’s editors should have excised that segment of the interview. But there was broad agreement: good and holy though Groeschel might generally be, did not have the authority to start a national conversation on the blamelessness of predatory priests, at least not yet.

Make no mistake — for Catholics, blamelessness is an attractive idea, especially when the Huffington Post is casting the blame. Last year, in Crisis Magazine, Fr. Michael Orsi published a piece in which he quoted an anonymous FBI agent to the effect that half of all allged instances of priestly sex abuse were false or exaggerated. Nobody seemed to want to know who the agent was and how he’d reached that rather extravagant conclusion; very likely, it didn’t seem so extravagant. Just one self-justifying statement from Groeschel, or one mail-fisted disciplinary action from his superiors, I thought, would would enshrine Groeschel, along with Corapi, Pavone and Guarnizo, in the hall of Good and Holy Martyrs.

Neither came. NC Register and the Archdiocese of New York disavowed any sympathy with Groeschel’s views in no uncertain terms, but Groeschel himself issued a very simple and sweet apology. “I did not intend to blame the victim,” he said. “A priest (or anyone else) who abuses a minor is always wrong and is always responsible.” By way of explanation, he added, “My mind and my way of expressing myself are not as clear as they used to be.”

Groeschel won’t face any disciplinary action, which suits me just fine. He may say he’s going soft in the head, but he certainly knew how to defuse a potentially explosive situation. And for that, I must admit, he might not be so un-good or so un-holy after all.

  • Anna

    Given that his account of his current schedule didn’t seem to mesh with his order’s statement that he’s in a “location where he is relieved of responsibilities” and unable to care for himself, I’m inclined to think the whole interview was the product of dementia, not his real opinion. Much as I wouldn’t say my grandfather actually believed in the existence of evil mirror people who were telling him to kill my grandmother – except, that in the throes of advanced dementia, he didn’t know what to think of those people in the mirror – I hate to see all Fr. Groeschel’s previous work taken down by one horrid interview.
    Also, as a parent I’m certainly not inclined to refer to Sandusky as “poor guy” – but in the Christian context, I can’t very well dismiss my own sins but decide that *he’s* a monster out of reach of grace. I’d like to decide that, mind you, but, since it wasn’t my kids he attacked, I can step back and say that if forgiveness was extended to the centurion who crucified Jesus, well, then Sandusky is as much of a “poor guy” in need of grace as the rest of us. If it had been my kids, I might be the one in prison…

  • Rosemary

    Fathers Pavone and Guarnizo did nothing wrong.

  • Columba William

    Have you not seen his TV program in recent months? He is very clearly suffering from cognitive decline. His program should have been pulled months ago. It’s embarrassing at times.

    The ones with explaining to do here are the National Catholic Register for publishing the interview and EWTN (owners of the Register) for continuing his program and his Congregation for not protecting him from himself.

  • Betsy

    I wholeheartedly agree with Columba, I can hardly watch Father Groeschel’s show anymore, his communication skills have declined significantly. I wouldn’t be surprised if EWTN ended the show after this fallout.

    Father Groeschel is a dearly loved priest for a reason. I can’t explain his recent statements, though I can say in the past, he has always defended the victims. If you look at the totality of his life, you can see that something is remiss here. I can only pray for him and those who have been harmed by his words.

  • ajesquire

    The problem with this statement from Father Groeschel:

    “A priest (or anyone else) who abuses a minor is always wrong and is always responsible.”

    is that the initial interview made clear that he doesn’t consider all sexual contact between a priest and a minor to be “abuse”.

    The problem with his original interview wasn’t whether “abuse” is always wrong or always the responsibility (legal, moral and otherwise) of the adult in a position of authority. The problem is with Father Groeschel’s definition of “abuse”.

    I’d also like some clarification on what, if any, position(s) Father holds within the Archdiocese and within the Order. He should absolutely hold NO of consequence given the self-professed poor state of mind.

  • Gail

    When he was in his prime, Father Groeschel was an inspiration to many, myself included. His many books & earlier EWTN series reflect the mind & spirit of an intelligent man who has lived a good & holy life & can still inspire generations to come. I, too, think EWTN’s NCR should have used more discretion & taken into consideration Father Groeschel’s declining health before publishing the interview. I would hate for this man’s whole lifework to be negated by this unfortunate incident.

  • Patt

    If anyone watched Father on EWTN last Sunday–you could tell something was wrong. He was having trouble focusing– asking and answering questions. His responses were extremely slow and my daughter and I both said it was time for him to retire. It is called “old age’ when memory and faculties start fading. A member of the Franciscan friars— a priest and close relative of mine– told me that Father cannot remember what he said on the Catholic Register interview. The statements made were so unlike him and he does not remember making them , he even denies he did so. So cut some slack. Were he functioning at 100% he would not have made such comments. He has been in fragile health for years and now he is out of the limelight. Can we try to remember the good he has done and not crucify him for these comments made in his confused state? Please?

  • LeAnn

    @ajesquire Father Groeschal is a non dioscesan priest and is in an order of religious priests. Thus, he does not serve Mass at a parish.

  • Andy O’Neill

    Despite your article statements I have to use the terms “good” and “holy” regarding my interactions with Fr. Groeschel. Those terms do not connote sinlessness, as I am sure he sees himself as a sinner like the rest of us. I have met him several times and can say that these comments of his are out of charater and he appears to be in decline. I suspect he meant to indicate that sometimes there have been cases of homosexual seduction of priests (just like there have been cases of heterosexual seduction) but not by minors. His reported comments are out of character for the Fr. Groeschel I have met and watched. He has been in decline for at least the past year and was mistaken in his comments. Given his life to this point I think he would agree in asking for prayers for abuse victims, all religious and particularly himself. May God bless Fr. Groeschel and all who pray for him.

  • Frank McManus

    I’m entirely sympathetic with the impulse that led Max Lindenman to write this piece. He’s right about the way “goodness and holiness” are used to defend the indefensible in cases like those of Pavone, Guarnizo, et all — and indeed let’s not forgot the king of the “good and holy” priests, Fr. Maciel.

    But Groeschel is not at all in this category. I doubt he’s a saint. But his work has influenced me greatly over the years — though I think lately he’s gone much too far down the road of right-wing Catholicism. I’ve always believed he has a degree of integrity most other priests, famous or not, lack. But as others have noted, Groeschel really has gone soft in the head lately. He’s an old guy; he suffered a terrible car accident some years ago that I think affected him permanently. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn he has mental issues that could be diagnosed by a doctor.

    I feel I know his thought (from the old days) well enough that I can easily imagine what he was trying to say in that interview: human sexual desire is complex; people often do terrible things when they’re in situations that “push their buttons.” Yes, pedophiles are responsible for their sins and crimes — just as we are all responsible for our own actions. But that truth should not be used in a way that makes it impossible for us to see them as human and to try to understand what went into their decisions that led to abuse.

    As for Sandusky being a “poor guy” — anyone who’s listened to Groeschel speak knows that this is not an expression of sympathy or an attempt to exculpate Sandusky. In Groeschel’s old fashioned New York way of speaking, calling Sandusky a “poor guy” would likely mean that he is putting him in the same category as the deeply screwed up people he encounters daily on the street: the junkies and drunks, the petty criminals, the drug dealers, etc. All are human, all have deeply messed up their lives, all are paying the price for it. Poor guys.

  • Patt

    Additionally–I have met Father, spoke with him, ate with him and got to know him (this was years ago, when his mind was sharp). So yes, I would apply the words holy and good to him. Have you met him? Do you know him? He is suffering now as Pope John Paul II did in his final days. Was the pope not holy and good –or do those words apply ONLY if one is healthy and in control of their faculties?

  • Sheila

    He is elderly and literally was brought back from the dead(after being hit by a car). Leave this man alone, he is a friend of the Father. Read his articles and books and you will see a holy man, in love with Christ’s church and all people. There were other priests that EWTN might have pulled before their dementia decline, but… hey… who is perfect? I watch many programs and I support EWTN. They have brought me (with God of course) to the One Holy Apostolic Church. That my friends, is a miracle.

  • John

    Max Lindenman,

    Exactly why did you become a catholic? It is clear that you jumped at the opportunity to condemn a respected and accomplished (53 years) catholic educator and psychiatrist. Maybe you should mention that he also said that abuse is never o.k. and that abusing priests should leave the Church. Have you ever met Father Groeshel? Do you know anything about him? I’m guessing you have only been alive about a third of his life if that? Shame on you.

  • Chrysalis FX

    Perhaps the fanboys and girls should try taking in deep breaths and re-read the full article, in its entirety. It’s not the most christian thing to do, ask somebody why they came into the faith, questioning their motives when they search for the truth, as any good journalist does, in my humble opinion. Leading ad hominem attacks on Max Lindenman will not erase the wrongness of Fr. Groeschel’s previous remarks. Even he backtracked on them. Victim blaming is never worthy of defending, either. I wonder how you apologists would feel if it were you or someone you love who was sexually abused. May I humbly suggest next time before you go on crusade on an innocent writer, search within your conscience and ask yourselves if you really see any malintent and if there is any truth behind the words at all. And whether or not blindly following any public figure will do any good to the causes that you as christians believe in; that is, love, goodness, justice. Wishing peace and safety upon you all.

  • Doug Sirman

    Fr. G. wasn’t saying anything he had not lived out in his professional life as a psychologist (not a psychiatrist). He is directly responsible for the release and placement of a number of predatory priests who were under his counsel, and who reoffended. He is also responsible for perpetuating the oh-so-useful fable about how “science thought it was curable.” However, when questioned, he was incapable of citing one research project or model of therapy or peer-reviewed journal article which made such a claim. Further, when questioned, he was incapable of even describing such a mythical therapy, how it was initiated, it’s structure, or how it allegedly accomplished the desired goals.

    Fr. Groeschel has done an enormous amount of good in the world. However, in the area of priests sexually abusing children, his clinical opinion is without value.

  • Louis

    Chrysalis FX: We aren’t defending his comments, yet we are defending Father Groeschel. We should condemn his horrible comments, but I believe that condemning him would be wrong since he has done a lot of good for the poor and elderly of New York and he shouldn’t be solely remembered for these comments and nothing else. I can understand being hurt by the comments he made, yet when I go onto other sites and see people calling Father Groeschel, “A secret child molester”, and “A piece of garbage”, I get upset because I know through interacting with priests that know him and through his writings/work for the poor that he isn’t any of those things. We should show mercy and forgiveness to Father Groeschel. We should show forgiveness to all people.

  • http://none kali ness

    This is so disgusting. Fricking catholics should be ashamed to stay in the cult. The whole priest thing is so stupid… pedophiles “forgiving” sin…what a load of crap

  • Christopher Hunt

    Honestly? Good God, this is some petty b*** s***. Father Groeschel is obviously becoming less clear in his thoughts and word choice. He has for a very long time. Probably for well over a year. Shame on you for writing a scathing article like this. I swear, the Catholic bloggosphere is filled with a bunch of pansies.

    [It's the shit in the comboxes that make 'em grow, sonny boy.]

  • Chrysalis FX

    @Louis, sadly, that’s the way it goes. Nobody here implied accusations of a more serious nature in this blog, but as everyone knows, we are all judged on the basis of our latest behaviours as much as our lifelong records. Excuse the analogy, but if I were against stealing all my life, and then years later decided to rob a bank, I would be primarily judged by that action. The shock would affect others into speaking against me as well. Perhaps some -would- mention a lifelong record of ethical behaviour; prompting them to suggest a possibility of dementia affecting my judgement. Regardless, I would be ripped to shreds by the majority. In saying that, I do honestly feel sorry that you had to witness such off remarks by somebody you seemed to have admired greatly. For what it’s worth he seems to have backtracked from his comments, as it’s duly noted by the end of this very article.

  • Chrysalis FX

    @Christopher Hunt “Waaaah waaah, some blog author decided to speak against some really off choice of remarks by my former idol, now I’ll go insult people I do not know by posting derogatory comments on the internet! Oh wait, why doesn’t this make me feel better already?” Looks like you had your virtual ass handed back to you anyway. Maybe next time you’ll consider voicing your reactions in a tone which suits the intellectual majority of the people who frequent the place.

  • Louise

    Max, this piece made me very very sad. Surely you must have met some good and holy priests in your time as a Catholic? Surely you have not been so disappointed in all your encounters with the Church that you do not believe there are any good and holy priests? I think Fr. Groeschal was wrong in what he said, but I believe that he is old and he made a mistake. I also believe he has done tremendous good in the world, and that while we must acknowledge that what he said was wrong, we shouldn’t condemn the man on the basis on one error. Certainly, if that is the criteria that we as Catholics apply, I can tell you there is no hope of salvation for me, as I have made many more mistakes than that. I agree with you that idolizing anyone, priest or otherwise, can be very dangerous, but I also believe that we have many good and holy priests (human ones, who like all of us have sinned) and we should have respect for the men that God has chosen to be our shepherds. If you haven’t met any good and holy priests, I pray you do. Pray for more vocations, because we need priests, especially the good and holy ones.

  • JerseyDan

    I have read a number of Father’s works, heard him preach and watch his show on EWTN rather frequently. I can’t say that I always agree with the man but he has always struck me as sincere and truly compassionate. I think the man was once quite brilliant and always chose his words with extreme care. Watching him on TV has become torturous as he sinks into a decline. Imagine, being a well regarded writer, homilist and speaker and knowing that your faculties are dissapating. And then imagine trying to plug on and keep the show on the road. I wouldn’t have the courage.

    I wouldn’t venture to guess what the man’s point was in his interview but I am sure that his compassion and age got in the way of reason. I would hope that perhaps he was trying to express a brilliant but subtle point based on something he saw or read about or exerienced over the past half century. However, unfortunately, his mind failed and he was quite unable to express himself or explain himself any further.

    And I agree wholeheartedly with Mr. McManus. Calling Sandusky “that poor guy” was an expression of disgust. It’s still used here in Jersey City as an expression of sad, disappointed disgust, especially when discussing fallen politicians.

  • sjay

    Part of the mistake Fr. Groeschel made was the same mistake Obama made when he chose to discuss his insights into the people of Western Pennsylvania. Therapists, whether professional or amateur, should confine their insights to strictly professional settings, that is, either the “patient” or colleagues. Nobody appreciates either themselves or those they care about being discussed as a psychological process rather than as a human being who is entitled to being taken on their own terms.

  • Manny

    Despite my respect for Father Groeschel his comments were completely inexcusable. He may be ill and suffering the effects of a car accident from a few years ago. I don’t know. I’ve seen him on TV this past year and he seemed lucid. I can only suspect he had those thoughts for a while and now they came out. It doesn’t sound like something he just formulated on the spot. An apology is not enough given the past two decades of church history with this subject. Given his age, his possible ill health, and these comments, he needs to retire for the good of the Church.

  • Fiestamom

    It concerns me that so many people on Facebook, comboxes etc are excusing him, saying it must be due to his declining mental faculties, the accident, etc. What if Father Groeschel has always had this opinion, he knew it was unpopular, but his mental state (before the accident/age), he knew not to give this opinion publicly?

  • Thomas R

    I could see how this kind of issue might lead to a conundrum for a Catholic or Christian. I’m not sure how to say what I say here, but as I understand Christianity in principle repentance is always supposed to be possible unless you commit the “sin against the Holy Spirit.” (Which I’m not totally clear on I admit)

    But in practice some people have personality disorders which are not treatable and therefore make them consistently harmful. I think in many cases this is a great difficulty for Catholicism in particular. If a person has an untreatable personality disorder that makes them a danger to others, or children, than this would seem to mean a whole class of people are beyond help. That execution might even be necessary, in some cases, to protect others from them.

    And I think that’s something understandably hard for our faith to accept if true. So their might be a temptation toward sympathy that seems disturbing. I know there were several expressions of sympathy and compassion to suicide bombers that I theologically understood, but emotionally found difficult.

    Granted he also has brain problems, etc.

  • Nancy Wiseman

    My husband and I are not Catholic, but watched Father Groeschel and gleaned a wealth of spiritual insight from his ministry. His message was for those who possessed deeper meaning of the Christian faith much like that of Oswald Chambers. He is loved and appreciated for his lifelong work. He enriched our lives and we are grateful.
    Dr. and Mrs. Jerry Wiseman

  • Monty Ehrich

    I still cannot understand how the interviewer and the editor could have let the offending words go to print.
    And, you had better get your Browning, and I’ll reach for my Walther if you do, but Father Groeschel IS a good and holy priest, as far as men can judge these things.
    - From a hedonist who found THE supreme pleasure in trying to heed God’s universal call to Holiness and in the utter AWE!-someness of God.