26 February 2019, The Tablet

Out of ministry but still in the priesthood, argues a priest and survivor

by Joe McDonald

For me the ontological change that happens at ordination echoes with the indissolubility of marriage.. Once a priest, always a priest

Out of ministry but still in the priesthood, argues a priest and survivor

Pope Francis, flanked by bishops and cardinals, attends a Penitential Liturgy at the Regia Hall at the Apostolic Palace, Vatican at the end of 'The Protection Of Minors In The Church' meeting on Feb 23, 2019
Photo: ABACA/ABACA/PA Images

The day the priest who abused me was buried, the official papers removing him from the priesthood arrived from Rome.

When I was informed of this and sought clarification it was explained to me that technically he died a priest. My reaction to this news was to murmur, ‘thank God’, which surprised not only his confrère sitting in front of me but, to some degree, myself. This response has come back to me in these days as I attempt to reflect prayerfully on the work of the Vatican Summit on Clerical Abuse in Rome, which has just concluded.

Already there has been much comment on this summit. Before it was even finished the debate was framed along the lines: ‘is this the long awaited line in the sand or just the latest cosmetic exercise’? The analysis no doubt will continue. In this short contribution I do not purport to engage in any serious evaluation of its work except to address one aspect that has emerged. That is the tension between those who would argue that the priest who has abused must be removed from ministry and those who agree but also argue we should stop short of dismissing him from priesthood. I belong to the latter.

I am conscious this position may well be unpopular and I care very much that I do not add to the hurt of those already hurt. However it is important to address the issue at hand. There is, in my view, no debate around issues such as taking responsibility, our duty with regard to reporting, right through to full cooperation with civil law which will invariably be accompanied by punishment. At this point, if it is not in place beforehand, there must be clear arrangements to ensure that the priest who has been found guilty has no further unsupervised access to children or vulnerable adults. The National Conference for Safeguarding has done excellent work in this regard.

Now the question arises, what happens at this point? The priest has been accused, and due process honoured. Having been found guilty he has completed his punishment and will for the remainder of his days be monitored, never again having access to children and vulnerable adults. Should he now having been removed from ministry, be removed from priesthood? Whilst I respect there are those who would argue in favour of this I would like to present some argument against this. I do so for three reasons, they are practical, theological and pastoral.

The first of these arises out of the practicalities of ongoing supervision. My concern is rooted in my experience of a number of actual cases. In one instance I am aware of an individual who, post-prison, was successfully supervised for a number of years up to his death. This was only possible through the commitment of his Order and the time, personnel and resources necessary. The fact that he was living with a group of fellow religious who were aware of his background made this arrangement, whilst undoubtedly challenging, at least workable. However in contrast to this, I am aware of a diocesan priest who, post-prison, was effectively cast out by his diocese. Now I have no knowledge of his reoffending but I am aware of his unmonitored travel and believe him to have had no post conviction supervision. This greatly concerns me. It is important that when we clamour for expulsion from priesthood that we think through the implications of this.

The second of my reasons for exclusion from ministry but retention within priesthood is the theological, or more specifically the ontological argument. I refer of course to the change that takes place at priesthood. Whether or not it suits us this is something we cannot dilute or dismiss. The ontological change we speak of here sits comfortably beside the action inherent in baptism and confirmation. It sits reasonably comfortably beside the Eucharistic action, in that it smells like wine and tastes like it but it is now the Blood of Christ. Ontological change also speaks to the much referred to ‘the confessor as reader of souls’. However for me the ontological change that happens at ordination has very poignant echoes with the indissolubility of marriage, namely the words ‘for better for worse’. Once a priest, always a priest. Theologically speaking we are clearly within the sacred and per se the non negotiable, as in, this is beyond our power to dilute or adapt, even if we wanted to.

The third reason for my contention that whilst exclusion from ministry is appropriate, exclusion or expulsion from priesthood is not, is what I call a pastoral reason. Put simply, in moving from a place of justice denied to the wounded and voiceless are we in danger of administering justice without mercy? Indeed would this be worthy of the name? Would we be replacing one failure with another?

Indeed as an aside do we at times, especially within the realm of clerical abuse, fail to preach forgiveness? Naturally enough our heads our down. Given our shame this is fitting. Indeed if we mention forgiveness there are those who, understandably, quickly lambaste us for daring to do so. Notwithstanding all this, we have in fact no option but to speak about forgiveness. The truth, albeit, unpalatable about the much sought after ‘closure,’ is that there can be no real closure without forgiveness. Of course those so gravely damaged are entitled to compensation, psychotherapy and heartfelt apologies but all this together cannot bring the much sought after healing. This deep healing in my view is best effected through God’s grace. We go out to meet this grace through our openness and willingness to work on forgiveness, which is a process rather than a box ticked.

However a final word on this third reason, this pastoral argument for the retention of those removed from ministry, within the priesthood. My perspective here, in a nutshell, is that those who have abused, are in fact our fellow priests. Our brother priests. Yes, through sickness or consciously giving into evil to the extent that they are, in the words of Pope Francis, ‘tools of Satan’, yet they remain our brother priests. We do not choose our brothers. The brother or son who brings shame on the family, whilst we may well prefer otherwise, is one of us, albeit a sick dangerous part of us, who has committed evil in the past and we must remain vigilant as he could do again. Consequently after jail, we must ensure his supervision, but washing our hands of him may neither be in the best interests of those damaged by him, nor in fact be Christlike. Given the Church’s culpability, it’s voice, most especially it’s moral voice, is weakened. However weakened or not, in our efforts to reform and renew the Church, in the image of Christ and through the power of the Holy Spirit, surely forgiveness and compassion cannot be far from our lips? Is this not in fact part of our raison d’etre?

If we as a Church, mindful of our past failings, specifically with regard to justice, do not seize the opportunity to model justice with compassion, justice with mercy, are we not in danger of replacing one failing with another?

Joe McDonald (Fr) is Parish Priest of St. Matthew’s, Ballyfermot, Dublin and author of ‘Why the Irish Church Deserves to Die’ and Founder of Roncalli, a movement for the reform and renewal of the Irish Church

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