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.

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