This article on priests who have left active ministry appeared in the Boston Phoenix, July 18-25, 2002. The author, Kristin Lombardi, is actually a largely unacknowledged hero in the exposure of the clergy sexual abuse nightmare. Kristin researched and wrote a brilliant series that appears in the Phoenix in 2001. This series first exposed the cover-up of John Geoghan by Bernard Law. However it was not until the Boston Globe obtained the previously secret documents and began its investigative exposures in January 2002, that Law’s duplicity became widely known.
This article on how the official Church treats resigned priests speaks volumes and is as relevant and true today as it was in 2002.
Thomas Doyle 3-21-09
July 18-25, 2002
While the Church has spent millions to hush up its pedophiles, married priests can’t even collect their pensions.
BY KRISTEN LOMBARDI
MARK SUTTON KNEW the act was “wrong” in the eyes of the Roman Catholic Church. But after serving as a Franciscan monk and a clergyman for 24 years, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Sutton knew, too, that he could ease the pain and anguish of a grieving family, whose one wish was to witness their daughter’s baptism before she died.
“Here was a young girl who had suffered a violent accident,” Sutton recalls. It was 1996, and Sutton had left the Catholic priesthood to marry his wife, Rachel, five years earlier. That meant that he was forbidden to function as a priest in any public manner whatsoever. But the “vocation,” as clergymen describe their call to the ministry, never left Sutton. And so, since his departure from the institutional Church in 1991, he had gone underground, so to speak, quietly performing pastoral and sacramental ministry without Church approval. On this day, he was working as a patient escort at a Catholic-affiliated hospital in Albuquerque. He had just delivered the school-aged girl, bloodied and barely breathing, from the scene of a brutal motorbike accident. The girl’s family, recognizing that her death was imminent, asked Sutton if anyone at the hospital could baptize her. He relayed the request to the hospital chaplain, who requested his help. Surely, he reasoned, the circumstances at hand, an anguished family crying out for spiritual aid, qualified as an emergency. And according to canon law (No. 976), even a priest without faculties can minister to the Catholic faithful in such dire times as “the danger of death.”
So Sutton performed the sacrament, receiving the family’s heartfelt gratitude. Within minutes, however, word spread to the Catholic hospital’s director, who blasted Sutton for praying for the girl and demanded his boss terminate him. Says Sutton, “Here the family was overwhelmed with joy in the midst of all their sorrow, but the director wanted me fired.”
It was not the only time Sutton had bumped up against the Church. When he announced his plans to marry, in 1991, his bishop was unexpectedly gracious , offering Sutton $1000, an old car, and a year’s worth of life insurance to ease the transition. But others of his archdiocesan superiors were not so understanding, and since then, Sutton has faced one affront after another. He has been denied jobs as a chaplain in secular settings, such as hospitals; terminated for doing “priestly things,” which his accusers left vaguely defined; and ordered to leave parishes in which he is a congregant after parishioners discovered his identity. Church superiors have gone out of their way to make Sutton’s life miserable, using their political and social influence to prevent him from landing secular jobs by interfering in the interview process or threatening people who were willing to hire him, thus depriving him of a decent livelihood. Throughout the 1990s, Sutton says, he lived in utter fear of the Santa Fe, New Mexico, archdiocesan bishops. All this because he left the priesthood to marry.
“My wife could not believe that the Church could be so hard on one of its faithful followers,” says Sutton, now secretly operating as chaplain at an Albuquerque nursing home. “She was just aghast that the Church could be so harsh on the married priests.”
Sutton’s experience may be extreme, but it’s not isolated. More than 100,000 men around the world have left the Catholic priesthood since the 1960s. In the United States alone, the number of Catholic priests has today dropped to 44,874, a 23.5 percent decline since 1965, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. Most of these former clergymen, as many as 90 percent, according to one 1985 study, bade farewell to the priesthood to get married.
Church officials, for the most part, have shunned these men. Married priests have been kicked out of Catholic dioceses, virtually penniless, with nothing but the clothes on their backs. They’ve been denied aid to ease the transition into the everyday world, no low-interest loans, no counseling, no job contacts. Some bishops, such as several of Sutton’s, do everything in their power to prevent married priests from gaining employment. Others force former priests who opt for laicization to move 500 miles away to ensure that no one is aware of their previous status. Still others cancel retirement benefits.
Until recently, most married priests simply accepted the Church’s vindictiveness. But now, with the clergy sexual-abuse scandal dominating the headlines, exposing a staggering number of molestations and an appalling pattern of cover-ups by the Church hierarchy, married priests are beginning to see their mistreatment for what it is: a bitter irony. Notes one former Boston clergyman who taught some of the Archdiocese of Boston’s accused predatory priests at St. John’s Seminary, in Brighton, and who left the priesthood to marry in 1968, “It is ironic that, over the years, the men who fell in love with women were looked upon as abject failures, while the men who abused children were protected.”
IN SOME WAYS, the Church’s posture toward priests who leave the “clerical state,” as married priests call the priesthood, has improved over the years. In the late 1960s, when clergymen were fleeing their dioceses in droves, Church superiors looked upon priests who wished to marry with disdain, as if they were traitors, failures, and, in the words of one married priest, “pariahs.” Says Father Thomas Doyle, a clergy-abuse expert who has served as a Catholic priest for 32 years, “If you left the priesthood up until the 1970s, you were as good as dead.” These men, he says, “had so much guilt heaped on them. They faced a terrible, judgmental attitude.”
Today, the stigma associated with leaving the clergy has dissipated. Priests who resign aren’t necessarily made to feel ashamed for falling in love and, in essence, recognizing their humanity. Some Church superiors take the news of a priest’s departure in stride, as if resigned to the inevitable. Paul Roma, 66, a married priest from Portland, Maine, remembers feeling “taken aback” by his bishop’s reaction to his decision to leave, in 1998. “He said, “Go ahead and go,” Roma recalls. “He gave no arguments. Nothing.” Other officials lend a helping hand to their former priests, something that never happened in the 1960s.
This is not to say that Church officials regard married priests as equals. Those who seek an official departure from the priesthood must become “laicized,” which means that their religious vows are annulled. Laicization allows priests to marry inside the Church, albeit in secret, with no guests or witnesses. But this privilege comes with a steep price. Once laicized, a priest cannot wear his priestly garb. He cannot identify himself as a former priest. He cannot teach catechism, read the liturgy at Mass, or distribute the communion, all of which a Catholic lay person can do. In short, a laicized priest gets wiped off the books as if he’d never served the institutional Church at all.
Many former priests find the process so degrading that they refuse to go through with it. A priest who petitions for laicization must declare not only that he cannot live up to his celibacy vows, but also that his ordination amounts to a big mistake. According to the Church’s laicization petition, a copy of which was obtained by the Phoenix, a laicized priest has to agree to move miles away from “the area where his previous condition is known,” so as “to avoid scandal and astonishment on the part of the faithful.”
“The process is insulting,” says Terry McDonough, 65, a married priest from Duxbury, Massachusetts, who applied for laicization in 1984, only to withdraw his petition months later. He was subsequently kicked out of the priesthood. He adds, “I wasn’t about to say my ordination was invalid. To me, that wasn’t the issue. The clerical culture and lifestyle was the mistake.”
McDonough, now a rehabilitation specialist at a Bedford hospital, has yet to shake the sense of shame that he endured upon leaving the priesthood in 1984. Back then, he was a 48-year-old Air Force chaplain who had been in the active ministry for 22 years, as a missionary in Indonesia, a seminary teacher in Wisconsin, and the chaplain at Hanscom Air Force Base, in Bedford. He had lived the priestly life long before his 1962 ordination. At 13, he left the Charlestown projects where he was born and entered seminary. For years, he embraced what he now bitterly calls “this priestly stuff” until he befriended a woman named Susan in the early 1980s. Their friendship would force him to contemplate his celibacy for the first time.
“It dawned on me that I wasn’t participating in life,” McDonough says. “I had no experience of adult relationships, of families and children…. As a priest, you feel lonely in the midst of a crowd.” And so, in February 1984, McDonough sent a request to the Air Force chaplaincy asking for a transfer from the priesthood into military-officer service. “That’s when all hell broke loose.”
When McDonough announced his plans to marry Susan, now his wife of 18 years, his fellow chaplains encouraged him to shack up with her secretly instead. When he balked, his request for a transfer was denied. Bernard Cardinal Law, the archbishop of Boston, wrote letters to the Air Force, Army, Navy, and Coast Guard chiefs saying that if they accepted McDonough as an officer, the Church would never again endorse another Catholic chaplain for the armed services. The Air Force chaplaincy then booted McDonough off the base in the dead of winter, with nothing to his name. It even stripped him of his military-issued coat. McDonough eventually sued the Air Force for reinstatement’ and won. The Board for Correction of Military Records found the Air Force had acted improperly in discharging him because of “undue influence by the Roman Catholic Church.” But at the time, says McDonough, “I had lost my identity, my job, my future,” everything except Susan.”
That the Catholic Church, the world’s largest spiritual institution, could behave in such a vindictive manner might have shocked us a year ago. But if the unfolding clergy sexual-abuse scandal has shown anything, it’s that the Church hierarchy often acts in the most un-Christlike ways. The treatment dealt to former clergymen like McDonough seems tragically harsh. After all, priests who leave the active ministry do not simply get up and go. Typically, it takes years before they can admit their feelings; then, they have to muster the strength to act.
Paul Roma, for example, wrestled with emotions of denial, guilt, and angst for nine years before he left the priesthood in 1998. Since childhood, Roma had his heart set on becoming a priest. But as a teen, he felt bound by another duty, the military. He entered the Navy in 1953. He later married, had five children, and lived an everyday officer’s life, until his wife died of breast cancer in 1983. Her death prompted Roma to reconsider his boyhood dream. By then, he had become a deacon at a San Bernardino, California, parish. “I really felt drawn into being a full-fledged priest,” he recalls. At age 48, in 1984, he entered seminary.
Four years later, he was ordained in the Manchester, New Hampshire, diocese, where he worked for a decade. He met his current wife, Germaine, at his first assignment in a Pelham, New Hampshire, parish. When he noticed a “spark” of attraction between them, he panicked. He had just devoted years to training for the clergy. His identity had become tied up in the Church. “I didn’t want to fall in love,” he says. “I knew what people would say if I left.” He knew that the Church would ostracize him’ and that he would lose his $700 monthly stipend, lodging, car, and medical insurance. He figured the best thing to do would be to “get away from such a tempting situation.” So, in 1990, he went into the Navy again, this time, as a base chaplain.
Finally, after years of writing letters to Germaine, his heart won out. “It was like I was walking on top of a picket fence,” he says. “Marriage was on one side and the priesthood on the other. I couldn’t walk the line anymore.” When he left the clergy, Roma knew he was viewed as a scandal in the Church’s eyes. But if he didn’t leave, he says, he might have become “an even bigger scandal” by breaking his celibacy vows.
To this day, men who left the priesthood to marry, such as Roma and McDonough, continue to feel let down by the Church hierarchy. After decades of devoted service, many are denied their hard-earned pensions. Most Catholic dioceses, including the Boston archdiocese, refuse to offer any type of retirement benefit to priests who resign to marry, classifying them as priests “not in good standing.” And at least in the case of the Boston archdiocese, benefits are denied even though priests pay into the system while wearing the collar. According to the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (UCCB), the average priestly retirement benefit differs from diocese to diocese, ranging anywhere from $500 to $1100 per month. Yet according to a 1999 survey conducted by the National Federation of Priest Councils, a nationwide association of diocesan and religious-order priests, only 28 dioceses out of 158 respondents include resigned priests in their pension plans. “I call that elder abuse,” says William Manseau, 66, a former Lowell priest whose 1969 marriage to a former Boston nun named Mary made banner headlines in Boston. “The Church is stealing from me and any other resigned priest when it denies us our just compensation.”
Manseau is among hundreds of former priests now pushing the pension issue. The movement began in 1994, when former priest Paul McGreevy, a San Diego attorney who had resigned from the Boston archdiocese, tried to obtain benefits for a disabled, resigned priest who, despite 29 years of service, found himself practically destitute. McGreevy sent as many as 4000 letters to archdiocesan officials and organized 60 married priests who believe they have a right to collect their benefits. Yet it took three years’ work and a scathing March 1, 1997, column by Eileen McNamara in the Boston Globe to force Cardinal Law to acknowledge the priests’ request. The effort, now headed by Manseau, has grown beyond the Hub to include some 130 dioceses nationwide.
But the cardinal’s response to the initiative seemed half-hearted. In a March 17, 1997, letter addressed to Manseau, Law wrote that the archdiocese has “no civil or canonical obligation to provide benefits” to married priests. That argument, of course, also favors the archdiocese’s self-interest: according to a February 14, 1997, Church memorandum on the issue, which was obtained by the Phoenix, 117 inactive Boston priests were eligible for some type of pension, at a cost to the archdiocese of between “$750,000 and $1 million” at the time.
Other Church-affiliated organizations actually contradict the cardinal’s contention. In 1999, in fact, the Canon Law Society of America (CLSA), a Washington, DC based professional group of canon lawyers, published a report titled “Retirement Benefits of Retired Church Personnel in the United States of America,” in which it explored what it called the “canonical obligations of justice for retired Church workers,” including priests who leave the clergy. According to the report, canon law dictates that “a priest who has dedicated himself to an ecclesiastical ministry has a right to a pension.” Resigned priests who work in secular jobs, the report states, “should be entitled to a pension payment upon retirement, however small that amount [may] be.”
While the Church appears to have a canonical obligation to pay pensions to married priests, it isn’t necessarily mandated by federal law. According to the UCCB, few Catholic dioceses have a pension plan that’s registered with the federal government, and thus subject to labor-law regulation. “Many dioceses don’t have a true pension plan,” explains Sister Mary Anne Walsh, a UCCB spokesperson. “What they have is a charitable fund for the care of retired priests” in need of support. Some dioceses, such as the Diocese of Sioux City, in Iowa, do have a pension plan. But for those without plans, Walsh says, “there would be no legal obligation” to pay retirement benefits to resigned priests.
Although Cardinal Law has refused to pay pensions to married priests, he has maintained the position articulated in his 1997 letter that “the Archdiocese and I would not want any priest to find himself in his later years living in penury.” To this end, the archdiocese has set aside a token sum to bestow on former priests who can prove that they’re needy. In other words, it hands out cheap donations. One of the 60 retired priests pushing the issue, who paid about $150 annually into an archdiocesan account for 22 years before leaving to marry in the 1970s wryly notes, “This is about justice. But to Bernie Law, married priests have become pure charity. Isn’t that sweet?”
BY CONTRAST, Cardinal Law has long extended an indulgent hand to sexually abusive priests in his archdiocese. It’s true that problem priests who are defrocked see their privileges revoked just like any other laicized priest. When Law defrocked the now-infamous convicted child molester John Geoghan, the former priest lost his pension, his housing, and his high-end Boston attorney, Tim O’Neill, whose legal bills the archdiocese had formerly covered. For decades, however, bishops across the nation took care of clergymen who had preyed on children, rather than report such offenders to police. The Church has routinely funded an abusive priest’s therapy, salary, and legal defense, all while keeping him in the active ministry. Sometimes, officials coddled priests whom they knew to be serial predators.
Take, for example, retired clergyman Paul Shanley, who ranks among the Boston archdiocese’s most notorious pedophile priests. Last week, Shanley was indicted on charges of raping four boys during his assignment to a Newton parish in the 1970s and 1980s. This past spring, the court-ordered release of 1700 pages of archdiocesan documents shed light on the extraordinary lengths to which Shanley’s superiors had gone to accommodate him. In 1989, Shanley stepped down as pastor of the now-defunct St. Jean the Evangelist parish. At the time, Church officials had credible evidence that he had not only assaulted male minors, but had also promoted sex between men and boys. Regardless, his superiors approved his transfer, in 1990, to a San Bernardino, California, parish, with a top-level written assurance that he remained “a priest in good standing.” The archdiocese covered the cost of Shanley’s airfare and paid him a stipend of as much as $1690 per month. During the three years Shanley functioned as a part-time priest there, living a secret life operating a raucous gay motel in Palm Springs, the archdiocese sent emissaries to meet with him in California and increased his monthly stipend by another $300. This, as it negotiated settlements with several of his rape victims back home. In 1996, when Shanley finally retired as a “senior priest,” Cardinal Law made sure to pen a friendly and avuncular-sounding letter praising his 30 years in the priesthood: “This is an impressive record and all of us are truly grateful for your priestly care and ministry.” Today, as Shanley sits in a Middlesex County jail cell awaiting trial for child rape, he continues to collect a pension of more than $1000 per month.
Other dioceses have also showered perks upon their abusive priests. Some have offered exorbitant deals to induce these priests to disappear, and thus shield Church officials from any liability. One Dallas, Texas, clergyman named Robert Peebles, who admitted to molesting seven boys throughout the 1980s, re-invented himself with the help of his superiors. In 1987, after forcing him to resign, diocesan officials sent Peebles off to Louisiana. They paid $22,000 to enroll him at Tulane Law School, where he studied to be a lawyer. They gave him another $19,600 over the course of two years for living expenses, set him up in a furnished apartment, and essentially hid him until the press discovered him in New Orleans in 1994.
Even when convicted and hauled off to prison, predator priests continue to receive assistance. In Massachusetts, John Hanlon is serving three life sentences for molesting children during his stint as a Hingham pastor in the mid 1990s. To this day, though, he’s listed in the Catholic Directory as a “senior priest” who qualifies for retirement benefits. A 1997 Mother Jones article on the issue of priestly celibacy quoted an acknowledgment by Hanlon, written from his Norfolk prison cell, that he has “not been forgotten or neglected” by the Boston archdiocese. Indeed, last February, the Boston Herald reported that Law himself has gone to visit Hanlon in jail at least twice since 1998.
Church officials chalk up such special treatment to canon law. Priests who abuse children and adolescents yet remain in the active ministry must be supported, according to the canon laws on charity. Explains A.W. Richard Sipe, a clergy-abuse expert and former Benedictine monk who left to marry in 1970, “The canons [regarding] charity bind a man to the social system and require the institution to support those priests who have not left” no matter what abusive acts they commit while in the priesthood.
Ultimately, Church officials’ actions speak volumes about what the Catholic Church views as the worse crime, the larger sin committed by its priests. Assaulting children, and thus breaking vows of celibacy, can be forgiven by the Church, as has been demonstrated time and again in the cases of pedophile priests like Shanley and Geoghan. Abandoning the clerical state, however, would seem to be a transgression of much greater magnitude. “In the Church’s estimation,” Sipe says, “the real crime is leaving the priesthood. It’s the worst thing that a priest can do.”
OF COURSE, married priests know better. They know that their experiences as husbands and fathers have only made their lives richer, emotionally and spiritually. They know that marriage has added a dimension to their ministries, which many of them continue today. Sutton, McDonough, and Roma are all members of a national group called Celibacy Is the Issue (CITI) Ministries, based in Framingham. They perform home Masses and sacraments, including weddings, funerals, and baptisms (and they are listed, along with 5000 or so married and resigned priests, on the CITI Ministries Web site at www.rentapriest.com). The organization has given them a way to exercise what they consider their God-given right to preach. They point to canon law No. 290, which says: “After it has been validly received, sacred ordination never becomes invalid.” And this, they explain, means, “once a priest, always a priest.” In any event, none of the 10 married priests interviewed by the Phoenix for this article voiced regrets about leaving the Catholic clergy. Perhaps Jim Magmer, 80, a married priest from Portland, Oregon, sums up the sentiment best: “Had I been a priest allowed to marry and have a family, I’d have been a happy man. Now, I’m just happily married.”
But ever since the clergy sexual-abuse scandal blew wide open earlier this year, married priests have found themselves suffering from a kind of post-traumatic-stress stupor. They, like many among the Catholic faithful, feel disbelief, bitterness, and rage toward the Church hierarchy and its blatant cover-up of child molestation by priests. But for them, the scandal has also opened old wounds. Why, they wonder, did officials exhibit such solicitude toward priests who were working against everything for which the Church supposedly stands? Why were clergymen who assaulted minors given second (and third and fourth) chances while others, in the words of one married priest, “had the spiritual boom lowered on them?” Where was the compassion for priests who had committed themselves to the clerical state and who had left with their integrity intact?
“I feel betrayed,” says Roma, when asked about the current Church crisis. “I never had sexual relations with my wife until I left the priesthood, yet they look at me like I’m a piece of shit?” He continues, “After all these years, you find out that a priest can molest a child and the Church will protect him. It has you scratching your head.”
Sutton, too, feels outraged by the apparent double standard. “If you stepped on a tack,” he asks rhetorically, “how would that make you feel?” He then adds, “I am devastated by the double standard because I feel I committed a good service for the Church.”
Yet Sutton and his fellow married priests have managed to find a silver lining to the scandal: the calls among the Catholic laity for broad reform. They are encouraged, they say, by such efforts among the laity as the Voice of the Faithful, the Wellesley-based organization that will hold a July 20 reform conference in Boston. Finally, it seems, the faithful have begun to recognize that their power in the Church comes through their control of the purse strings. Sooner or later, the current decline in contributions among parishioners should help move the hierarchy along.
But in the end, when the dust finally settles, Sutton and many of his colleagues don’t hold out hope that the Church hierarchy will embrace radical change. Even basic issues of justice, such as pensions for resigned and married priests, seem remote to them. After all, the institutional Church represents an ancient beast, one that’s accustomed to caring for its own, not for those who renounce the priesthood for a human thing like love. As Sutton himself puts it, “In the standards of the hierarchy, the married priest does not exist. They would prefer for me to disintegrate into thin air or fall off the face of the earth. That’s the way the institution works.”