Op-Ed List


The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests

Opinions & Editorials

Select essays from around the nation

Conscientious Objections: Priest calls on brethren to do right thing

by Thomas P. Doyle
Sunday, November 17, 2002

I recall a political cartoon from several months ago that depicts Boston's Bernard Cardinal Law holding up a tablet of the Ten Commandments and the caption saying, ``Seven out of 10 isn't bad.''

Sadly, that satirical cartoon seems to be a close reading of how the church hierarchy, and more importantly many in the community of priests, view the horrific clergy abuse scandal they continue to foster.

Of course there are exceptions. Notable among them is a parish priest from East Longmeadow, the Rev. James Scahill, whose parish is withholding the 6 percent diocesan tax that goes to the bishop's office and is used at his discretion. Scahill and his parishioners have made it clear that they will continue to withhold this tax until the Rev. Richard Lavigne is laicized and no longer receives any compensation from the Diocese of Springfield.

Lavigne pleaded guilty to child molestation in 1992. Later in 1992, the diocese settled a suit brought by 17 additional victims for $1.3 million. More than 10 years after his conviction and in the face of additional lawsuits, Lavigne is still a priest, gets paid a salary by the diocese and has fully paid medical insurance.

As a canon lawyer, I can state that Bishop Thomas Dupre could have and most importantly should have sought the forced laicization of Lavigne during the last 10 years. Yet he has chosen to do nothing!

Bishop Dupre has been quoted as saying the process is too ``cumbersome'' and that even if he chooses to seek Lavigne's laicization, he will continue to pay him because canon law would force him to do so, that it is the ``charitable'' thing to do.

There is nothing in canon law that forces him to do any such thing. The reality is that almost without exception, laicized former priests, including John Geoghan, receive nothing from their dioceses, precisely because of canon law.

As Scahill states, ``Charity is reaching into your own pocket to help someone and not reaching into someone else's!'' By using money that has come either directly or indirectly from members of the Springfield Diocese, this bishop is not practicing charity; rather, he's reaching into the pockets of parishioners to support a notorious pedophile.

When are my fellow priests going to realize there is something seriously wrong with this picture? When are they going to get out from behind the pulpit and let their communities know these actions and inactions are unconscionable?

More often than not self-realization is triggered by an outside source - by something someone says or does. These catalysts for change are all around us, but my fellow priests have to be willing to hear, and this can only come from within.

Many of these priests might argue they have listened and do realize the depths of this evil, to which I would respond: A realization is not a true realization if it is not followed by action! Many are truly sympathetic and deeply disturbed by what has been happening, but only a very few have taken the risk of standing up against the evil that is dragging the church and the priesthood through the mire.

Scahill has not only listened to his parishioners' concerns, he has realized they are his concerns as well and he has taken action! This action has galvanized not only his parish, but also the Greater Springfield community behind him and his parish's just cause.

Where has the opposition to him come from? His bishop, who views him as disobedient, and the vast majority of the diocesan priests he once considered friends and colleagues. As Scahill so eloquently states, ``There is no virtue to obedience if it requires one to suppress one's conscience.''

Those few priests like Scahill who have taken action, who have let their parishioners and the community know they are being heard, are to be commended. They have stood up in the face of an out-of-touch hierarchy and fraternity mentality that values blind loyalty above all else. How often have we been told in the past that we never air our dirty laundry in public?

Right! What we've done instead is let it sit in the basket until it starts to rot and the smell gradually seeps through even the 10-foot-thick walls of clerical denial.

Scahill and others like him have let their consciences guide them. They have put the victims in their rightful place - at the forefront of their thoughts and actions. Sadly, these priests are the exception and not the rule. Maybe they wouldn't be the exception if more were certain they would not be penalized or ostracized for speaking the truth, but that's not the way our system works.

When we took our vows to the priesthood, it was with noble intentions, to minister to those who need us, to follow in Jesus' footsteps. Yet many of us have lost sight of that, and instead worry more about our job security and power base than the needs of those around us.

cw0 It's easy to be enticed or distracted by superficial problems or to blame others. The media has been the target of our church leaders' wrath. These so-called leaders claim the media has blown the problem way out of proportion. It's a classic case of ``shoot the messenger.'' Will they at some point realize the media only has a story because of our monumental failure to seize the moral high ground and be what we are meant to be?

``When reform requires long explanations, it usually isn't reform, it's an excuse. There is a fine set of guidelines already available for those who will decide church policy: the Ten Commandments, not just guidelines for content, but for style as well. Short, simple, easy to understand sentences. No question about what they mean. That's what we need here.''

A wonderful, succinct statement that might have or more importantly should have come from one of us. But this came from CBS anchor Bob Schieffer, on an April airing of ``Face the Nation.''

Until all or at least most of our fellow priests open their minds and hearts to their community and take action to let church leaders know how they feel, we will be wallowing in our own moral implosion. It's easy for us to blame the institution, but it's us, the individuals of this institution that have the power to make sure these horrors never happen again.

The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus claims the problem is rooted in the failure of fidelity. He's right, but it's not fidelity to vows of chastity or to Humanae Vitae or anything that simplistic that has gotten us in trouble. It's fidelity to the mission assigned by Christ, to take the soul-chilling risk of doing the right thing. Neuhaus should talk to Scahill about fidelity. Scahill knows what it's all about. He lives it!

By doing nothing or turning a blind eye, we are no better than those priests who have perpetrated such heinous crimes on members of our flock.

``Possessions and ranks come and go, and ultimately it is the internal journey that remains,'' says the Book of Job.

We must listen to our parishioners and let our consciences guide us.

Bravo Father Scahill!

# # #

The Rev. Thomas P. Doyle is a canon lawyer currently serving as an Air Force chaplain in Germany.

Copyright by the Boston Herald and Herald Interactive Advertising Systems, Inc.


Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests