We Catholics love our priests so much. Without them we could not practice our beautiful Catholic faith. We receive the Eucharist at their hands. They extend the mercy of the Lord to us. They give us spiritual counsel. They represent Jesus to us. They are there for us in the most intense times of our lives through joy and sorrow. We love them. And we should.
The Church is our home and our family wherever we are. Priests are our spiritual fathers.
Yes they deserve our love. They have given their all to the Church and to the Lord. Even if we are not personally close to a priest, a Catholics’ relationship to his or her pastor is a profound one.
When I heard the Bishops’ letter read at mass recently regarding Father Michael Sullivan being removed from ministry for inappropriate behavior with women who had now come forward, the news felt like a thunderclap. Internally I went straight to denial even with all that I know about these issues. My mind went through all the thoughts I get mad at other people for; thoughts like: Maybe it’s a mistake. Maybe it isn’t true. Maybe those women wanted to get him in trouble. Maybe these claims are exaggerated. Maybe it wasn’t that bad. Maybe he was just tempted. Maybe it wasn’t his fault somehow.
By the time the letter ended I had come to my senses. I know better than all that. What is interesting is that I thought those things for a minute anyway, and I was not particularly friends with Fr. Michael.
I was very fond of him. He was charming, intelligent, understanding and unique. He was kind. He was funny. He was good. He was a brilliant homilist. He had suffered a lot in life and was not afraid to talk about his own experience, especially in order to help others. As my own pastor said, “He touched a lot of hearts around here.”
It’s hard to put together the Fr. Michael we knew with the person who “crossed over emotional and physical boundaries” with women, according to his order, The Legionaries of Christ.
By the way, that description of what happened sounds fairly innocuous. But it isn’t, is it? Furthermore, given what the Church as a whole has been dealing with (and not dealing with as the case may be,) I suspect that this communication is as toned down as The Legionaries could get it without not telling us anything at all.
Women took courage and came forward for a compelling reason. We should honor that courage.
Maybe you feel stupid you didn’t notice anything amiss with Fr. Michael. Remember his charm. People who commit these kinds of offenses are often disarmingly charming. It would have been hard to notice anything amiss. As Allen Hebert, author of Abuse of Trust says, the offender “grooms everyone but only abuses a few.”
Maybe you want to think what he did was just a lapse in judgment, or giving in to temptation.
In law it is said that pattern shows intent. People who use their authority or a power differential or their special place in our lives or a gap in maturity or vulnerability to offend as he did time after time actually target the people they decide to be inappropriate with. They try small boundary violations first, and if the prospective target smooths things over or tries to make them feel better, or seems to feel honored by what looks like a special trust, then they try something a little weirder and then a little weirder. This process is repeated and perfected over time in a serial manner.
Fr. Michael had been “inappropriate” with various women, since 2013. One of the reports was of “inappropriate conversations” with a teen girl in a youth group.
Fr. Michael has a deep problem.
Why is this so hard to believe or talk about?
You may feel angry or upset that I am publicly addressing this. I understand. That is normal. I have written about this with great reluctance myself.
Something that is important to understand is that we in our church community are secondary victims here. This understanding helps me a lot. It explains why my first instinct was to deny the information in various ways, to mitigate his responsibility, wanting to forget and move on, hoping it was someone else’s fault. This is why I feel that I don’t want to and shouldn’t talk about it.
These reactions are not unusual for secondary victims. It is a common dysfunction that occurs in families and institutions when there has been sexual abuse of some kind. We should resist that dysfunctional urge to keep the secret. Secrets keep the church sick.
Why does it matter what we personally want to think about this? Shouldn’t we each handle it within ourselves the way we need to to feel better? We are not the ones in charge. We probably won’t see Fr. Michael again. We don’t know any of the women who came forward,
It matters because we want the Bishops and heads of religious orders to believe victims, to put them first, to change the way they deal with offenders, to be forthright, honest and open with us, and to help heal parishes where harm has been done. Shouldn’t we do what we wish they would do?
We believe in the Communion of Saints. This Communion is also us the believers living as the Church on earth. We are all connected. This is why we do penance after Confession. That is us making spiritual amends to the community of the Church we are a part of. Everything we do and think and pray is connected not only to God but to one another on a spiritual level. So the way we process emotionally and socially what has happened affects the whole Church.
That’s why we are also responsible to process our own emotions about this in healthy ways, to believe and to lift up in prayer these brave women who came forward, unsure of how they would be treated. We may never knowingly meet any of them. But they are part of us.
We have our own pastors with us. Some of them are deeply hurt by this. Some were quite close to him. They feel angry, betrayed, hurt, sad. They can’t believe this has happened either. We can console them as they have so often consoled us.
Should anyone entrust us with a story like the ones these women came forward with, we can give good eye contact, listen well, affirm them, be encouragers.
I was not close with Fr. Michael but I have friends who were, who are devastated. Some people are worried about young people in their lives and at their parishes who had a lot of contact with Fr. Michael. We should be there for one another. If you are doing OK about this there are people who aren’t. They are here with us. Maybe there is something we can do for them.
Does Fr. Michael Sullivan deserve our regard? Of course he does. God loves him. I believe Fr. Michael’s gifts to us were real. They may not look quite the same to us now but still, we get to keep them.
It is important to face the truth of his actions. This does not mean we just forget him. We know he needs our prayers. He is part of us too.
Let’s resolve to get through this crisis the way we wish the whole Church would get through the abuse crisis in general, in the ways that we can. In our home parishes, with our friends, in our families, in the sanctuary of our own hearts, let’s be the healing we wish to see.