Sadness, As a Saint Says Goodbye: Father Groeschel Steps Down

Sadness, As a Saint Says Goodbye: Father Groeschel Steps Down September 4, 2012

Thank you, Father Groeschel.  Through the years, your steadfast teaching has kept us on a steady course in our Christian walk.  By your humility and your love, you have taught us how to embrace Christ in the people we meet along life’s journey.  Through your wise counsel, you have helped us to grow in understanding of the Catholic faith. May God bless you for your faithful service, and may He comfort you as you seek to do His will in the seclusion of monastic life.

This is a sad day for people who have listened spellbound to the no-frills message of a great man of God, Father Benedict Groeschel.  Today Father Groeschel, age 79, has stepped down as host of EWTN’s “Sunday Night Prime” television show. 

You probably know why:  The Internet has been a-flurry with news of his recent inflammatory comment regarding children who have been abused by Catholic priests.  In an interview which was published August 27 in the National Catholic Register, Father Groeschel opined, “Suppose you have a man having a nervous breakdown, and a youngster comes after him.  A lot of the cases, the youngster—14, 16, 18—is the seducer.”

Almost immediately, the Internet was ablaze with criticism.  The New York Times called it a case of “blaming the victim.”  Bloggers and reporters alike jumped to the defense of abused children.  The Archdiocese of New York and the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal each issued apologies and clarifications.  Father Groeschel himself apologized publicly, explaining that in his advanced years, he is not always able to express himself well.

The New York Times summarized the situation in an article on August 31: 

For the past 38 years, Father Groeschel has counseled priests at the Trinity Retreat House in theNew Yorksuburb of Larchmont; he founded the retreat at the direction of the archbishop at the time, Cardinal Terence J. Cooke. The retreat is a place of treatment and reflection, and the archdiocese has sent priests credibly accused of sexual abuse to live there, but not since 2006, Mr. Zwilling said.

More recently, priests struggling with problems like alcoholism have been sent there for counseling. Father Groeschel, who has a doctorate in psychology from Teachers College at Columbia University, has also taught pastoral counseling for more than 40 years at the archdiocesan seminary, St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers.

But though he told The Catholic Register that he continued to teach at the seminary, the archdiocese said that the previous academic year had been his last because of what it described as advancing senility and other health problems. The Rev. Glenn Sudano, another founder of the Friars of the Renewal, whose adherents take vows of poverty and work extensively with the poor, said the remarks might have been the result of Father Groeschel’s advancing age and failing health, as well as the aftereffect of a near-fatal 2004 car accident in Orlando, Fla.

“Poor Father Benedict,” he said. “It is painful for us, seeing someone who was so much an advocate and a defender for the underdog, say that.”

In an official statement on the website of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, they explain: 

About seven years ago, Fr. Benedict was struck by a car and was in a coma for over a month.  In recent months his health, memory and cognitive ability have been failing.  He has been in and out of the hospital.  Due to his declining health and inability to care for himself, Fr. Benedict had moved to a location where he could rest and be relieved of his responsibilities.  Although these factors do not excuse his comments, they help us understand how such a compassionate man could have said something so wrong, so insensitive, and so out of character.  Our prayers are with all those who have been hurt by his comments, especially victims of sexual abuse.

In announcing Father Groeschel’s departure from his television show, Michael Warsaw, president and CEO of the EWTN Global Catholic Network, said of the beloved Franciscan friar, “Father Benedict has led a life of tremendous compassion and service to others, and his spiritual insights have been a great gift to the EWTN family for many years. We are profoundly grateful to him and assure him of our prayers.  At the same time, we ask our EWTN family to pray for all those who have been affected by this painful situation and in particular those who have been victims of sexual abuse.”

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On the heels of the firestorm, Father Groeschel’s apology—explaining that in his advanced years, he finds it difficult to communicate clearly, but that it was not his intent to blame youngsters for the actions of their abusers—is important; but it is not enough.

Yes, sadly, I agree that it was time for Father Groeschel to retire and to focus on prayer, as his age and his physical frailty have impacted his verbal acuity.  I’m sorry that he, EWTN or his religious community had not recognized the problem two weeks ago, before his reputation was sullied by his misstatement on this critical issue.  I’m sorry that the National Catholic Register didn’t anticipate the firestorm that would follow the friar’s incendiary remarks and edit the interview to reflect more kindly on this gentle soul. 

I don’t always sit and watch television on Sunday evenings; but I did catch a little of his show about two weeks ago.  Talking about it later that evening with my husband, I had expressed dismay that he seemed so much older and more frail, and seemed several times to be stumbling in search of a familiar phrase.  I had commented then that perhaps it was time to consider retirement.

If only that had happened.

In the past, it has been my privilege on several occasions to meet Father Groeschel—and once, to greet him at the airport and drive him to his destination for a speaking engagement.  He was a fearless purveyor of truth:  That meant that when he spoke to members of Legatus, the organization of Catholic CEOs, he told that group of wealthy business leaders that they should give more to the poor, that they should feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, dine with the common man, and give freely of their wealth for the sake of the Gospel.  When he spoke to addiction professionals at Guest House’s summer conference, he issued a clarion call for honesty in protecting victims of abuse.  He had no interest in acquiring wealth or building a name for himself; his prayer was for the people who were served by his four community centers in New York City.

It is painful to realize that his long career as a teacher and helper of souls has ended so ignominously, that readers and viewers may disregard his wise counsel because of a single lapse in judgment.  Even if it was compassion that drove him to defend the priests whom he has guided through addiction and personal failure, the issue of clerical abuse is a flashpoint for Americans, and the public enforcement of a “zero tolerance” policy is universal. 

So I’m certain that Father Groeschel will recede into his cell, avoiding any potential pitfalls and praying for souls.  I hope that in his general prayer, he remembers sinners like me; for I’m sure Jesus and His Mother Mary look with great love toward this humble servant who has served so well and given so much in his long lifetime. 

Dear Father Groeschel, may the Divine Healer comfort you as you enter this new phase of life; and when your work here on earth is finished, may He welcome you to the place He has prepared and may you, in the company of the angels and the saints, enjoy the blessed companionship of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. 

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There is one group to whom I’d like to address a specific request.  That group is SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.  This organization has frequently focused on shaming the Church and the priesthood, demanding remuneration for past offenses, and generally keeping the pot stirred.  It seems to matter little to them that the cases about which they protest date back to the 1960s and ‘70s; they are professional complainers.  Please give it a rest.  This is not to belittle the serious nature of the abuses which occurred; but please, fellows, respect this holy man and permit him to retire with dignity and in peace.

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