When monsters roam free, we assume that people in positions of authority ought to be able to catch them if only they did their jobs. But that might be wishful thinking. A pedophile, van Dam’s story of Mr. Clay reminds us, is someone adept not just at preying on children but at confusing, deceiving, and charming the adults responsible for those children—which is something to keep in mind in the case of the scandal at Penn State and the conviction, earlier this year, of the former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky on child-molestation charges.
Gladwell’s short essay talks about how pedophiles not only seduce children, they also, in their way, seduce the adults around them, disarming the adults’ vigilance. Reading this, I thought about Christopher Clay, a priest of my acquaintance some years back, who was a total charmer. He was beginning to insinuate himself into my family when I inadvertently caught him in a lie — a lie that led a friend and me to discover that he was suspended by another diocese because he had been formally accused of molesting a minor. He was not supposed to be in ministry, but had charmed a pastor in our town into, get this, deceiving his own bishop to put the priest to work “off the books” in the parish.
I do not know if this priest was guilty of molesting anyone. To my knowledge, he was never charged with anything. I do know that he was and is a liar and a consummate charmer. Even somebody like me, who had by that time read so very much about child sex abusers, and who was if anything hypervigilant about this sort of thing, didn’t suspect anything was up, and might not have for a long time had Father Clay not told a manipulative lie to my friend — a small but telling thing that caused his entire facade to unravel.
And still, after I went public with a column about Father Clay’s deception (which in turn revealed his pastor’s deception of his own bishop), there were lots of people in his parish who thought me a villain for having done so. The truth is, many people want to be deceived.
The last time I saw Father Clay was in Dallas in the winter of 2011. He was at an Orthodox church event, in Roman collar, with a group of young adult male admirers surrounding him. Earlier this year, the Catholic bishop of Fort Worth forbade Clay from representing himself as a Catholic priest in his diocese, and forbade him also from setting foot on any Catholic property in the diocese. I don’t know why, or what happened to him after that. Wherever he is, and whatever he’s doing, I’ve no doubt he’s still charming and disarming people.