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An Awful Truth About Courage Founder

Father John Harvey (d. 2010), founder of Courage (Metanoia Pictures screenshot)

I am a supporter of Courage, the Catholic ministry to same-sex attracted men and women who wish to live faithful to the Catholic Church’s teaching on sexuality (that is, they seek to be chaste). So it’s a hard blow to read Crux’s report today about the role Courage’s beloved founder, the late Father John Harvey, played in advocating the restoration of abusive priests to ministry. Excerpts:

In a 1992 article in Crisis, a conservative magazine, Harvey described the arguments he had offered at the Ninth Bishops’ Workshop in Dallas in 1990. Harvey argued that priests who sexually abused minors often did so because of sexual addiction, and therefore guilt could not be imputed. On that basis, he claimed bishops could not impose canonical penalties.

Instead, he argued, most should be rehabilitated and returned to ministry. While he went on to note that there should be certain conditions, such as barring participation in overseeing youth ministry, he criticized bishops for a double standard in not treating abuser priests the same way as they often treat alcoholics or drug addicts, who are generally sent to rehab and then put back in the field.

In the article, he criticized bishops moving toward a zero-tolerance policy.

“Rather than concentrating on rehabilitating troubled priests, authorities too often merely ‘shelve’ them, permitting them only the ministry of private Mass and/or pushing hard for their immediate laicization,” he wrote.

In short, Harvey aimed to convince the bishops to adopt “a more hopeful view of priests and religious who had been involved in such behavior.”

While Bochanski told Crux that in the article, “[Harvey] stated clearly that those whose sexual attractions are completely oriented toward children or youth ‘should not be restored to any pastoral ministry’,” the article also makes clear that Harvey believed “relatively few” priests who sexually abused minors fit in that category.

For the rest, he believed that a return would be okay under qualified conditions, and he went on to recommend treatment similar to that of a 12-Step-Program, “the heart of which is faith and prayer – so that he keeps himself at a distance from any unsupervised contact with youth.”

I was startled to read in the report the name of Richard Fitzgibbons, a prominent Catholic psychiatrist in Philadelphia, and a conservative:

One of Harvey’s closest associates and clinical influencers was psychologist Richard Fitzgibbons, who trained at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia Child Guidance Center, and who went on to found the Institute for Marital Healing.

In his 1987 book The Homosexual Person, Harvey wrote of working with Fitzgibbons on “crisis intervention,” with abusive priests. Fitzgibbons has also been a regular presence at Courage’s annual conferences, including this past summer’s gathering, which celebrated the life and legacy of Harvey on what would have been his 100th birthday.

Along with his public appearances and praise from Harvey, Fitzgibbons’ work is cited on the Courage website, and he contributed a 37-page appendix on “The Origins and Healing of Homosexual Attractions and Behaviors” to Harvey’s 1996 book, The Truth about Homosexuality: The Cry of the Faithful.

A common theme that emerges in Fitzgibbons’ work is that of forgiveness and the “restoration of hope.” While highly critical of priests who reject the Catholic Church’s traditional teachings on sexual morality, Fitzgibbons’ clinical record in a number of high-profile cases, along with his decades-long work with Harvey, evidences a preference for rehabilitation of priests who commit sexual abuse, similar to their approach to homosexual individuals whom they sought to aid in changing orientation.

Crux continues:

For example, in January 2011, Fitzgibbons was asked to do a forensic assessment of a Kansas City priest named Father Shawn Ratigan. In May 2010, the principal at Ratigan’s parish had sent a memo to the diocese raising concerns about Ratigan’s interactions with young girls in the school. The memo focused on boundary violations, not actual sexual abuse.

In December 2010, however, a computer repairman found hundreds of photographs of young girls on Ratigan’s laptop, including up-skirt shots and a series of pictures of a very young girl’s diaper being pulled down, finally revealing her genitals.

According to an independent report commissioned by the diocese, “Following his initial meetings with Ratigan, Fitzgibbons advised Bishop Robert Finn that Ratigan was suffering from loneliness and depression caused in part by the fact that Principal Hess was ‘out to get him.’” Even after he saw copies of the pictures from Ratigan’s laptop, he denied that any of the photos qualified as child pornography.

Courts disagreed, however, and sentenced Ratigan to 50 years in prison for producing child pornography.

Read the whole thing.  The examples of Harvey and Fitzgibbons
show why it’s so difficult to draw clear left-vs-right lines in the abuse scandal. Fitzgibbons is a member of Opus Dei, the Catholic organization widely understood to be theologically conservative, but also a staunch defender of the papacy.

Regular readers will recall my revealing recently that back in 2002, a clerical source tipped me off that Dr. Fitzgibbons was one of American lay Catholics who traveled to Rome before John Paul II transferred Newark Archbishop Ted McCarrick to Washington. These Catholics, according to my source, flew to Rome to warn officials that McCarrick molested seminarians, and was therefore unsuitable to be elevated to the cardinalate (an expected outcome of being named Archbishop of Washington).

When I phoned Fitzgibbons to ask if this was true, he said to me only this:

If that were true, I wouldn’t tell you for the same reason Noah’s sons covered their father in his drunkenness.

For those who miss the Biblical allusion, he’s saying that if it were true, he wouldn’t admit it to me for the sake of protecting the image of Cardinal McCarrick.

This was not a denial. Nor was it an admission. But it was a very strange response, and it may tell you why the scandal persisted for so long — and why it is inaccurate and unjust to blame the cover-up only on liberals.

Ron Belgau, a gay-but-chaste Catholic who founded the Spiritual Friendship movement, e-mailed me about the Crux article. He’s given me permission to share this:

The heart of that scandal is not individual priests who sexually abused minors, as awful as this abuse is. The heart of the scandal is the willingness of Catholic bishops to repeatedly return sexually abusive priests to ministry, where they continued to prey on children.

As the Crux article makes clear, Fr. Harvey was a strong advocate for returning abusive priests to ministry. Read Fr. Harvey’s 1992 Crisis Magazine article, “Priests Who Stray: We Must Aid, Not Neglect Them.” Judge for yourself how well his advice has held up. How many children have suffered from the kind of policies Fr. Harvey recommended? How many billions have been lost? What has been the cost to the Church’s moral authority?

I first brought some of the allegations about Fr. Harvey and the sexual abuse scandal to Fr. Philip Bochanski—the current Executive Director of Courage and priest of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia—privately in 2017, and urged him to distance Courage from Fr. Harvey. His reaction to me was a combination of deflection, outright lies, and blaming the messenger. This past summer, Fr. Bochanski organized a conference dedicated to celebrating Fr. Harvey’s heroic “mission,” with Dr. Richard Fitzgibbons—who collaborated closely with Fr. Harvey on treating and returning priests who had sexually abused minors to ministry—giving a plenary session address.

The Crux article documents Fr. Harvey’s advocacy for returning abusive priests to ministry and against zero tolerance. This should shock. Even more shocking, however, is the defense Fr. Bochanski offered for Fr. Harvey. Fr. Bochanski told Crux that Fr. Harvey “stated clearly that those whose sexual attractions are completely oriented toward children or youth ‘should not be restored to any pastoral ministry.’” Pay close attention to the phrase completely oriented.

The 2005 Philadelphia Grand Jury report—which Fr. Bochanski, a Philadelphia priest, should have read—offers this example of how the Archdiocese rationalized keeping an abusive priest in ministry:

According to one of Fr. [Stanley] Gana’s victims, who had been forced to have oral and anal sex with the priest beginning when he was 13 years old, Secretary for Clergy [Msgr. William] Lynn asked him to understand that the Archdiocese would have taken steps to remove Fr. Gana from the priesthood had he been diagnosed as a pedophile. But Fr. Gana was not only having sex with children and teenage minors, Msgr. Lynn explained; he had also slept with women, abused alcohol, and stolen money from parish churches. That is why he remained, with Cardinal Bevilacqua’s blessing, a priest in active ministry. “You see . . .” said Msgr. Lynn, “he’s not a pure pedophile.” (pp. 45-46)

Fr. Bochanski is right that in his Fr. Harvey drew a distinction between those predatory priests with a fixated sexual interest in minors and those who had sexually abused children, but were also sexually interested in adults. Just as Fr. Bochanski claimed, he did say that abusive priests with a fixated attraction to minors should not be returned to ministry. But he thought only “relatively few” priests who had abused minors were fixated on minors—or to use the Philadelphia lingo, “completely oriented” or “pure pedophiles.” For the rest, he argued for returning them to ministry.

But what difference does it make whether a priest who is sexually abusing minors under his care is also violating his vows with adults? This is exactly the same distinction Cardinal Bevilacqua and Msgr. Lynn used to place predators like Fr. Gana back in ministry. And now Fr. Bochanski—an Archdiocese of Philadelphia priest who studied at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary and was ordained under Cardinal Bevilacqua—points to Fr. Harvey’s advocacy of this distinction in an effort to defend his legacy.

There is a lot more to this story that needs to come out, and will come out in the next few weeks. For those who know the history of the sexual abuse scandal in Philadelphia, however, Fr. Bochanski’s defense is almost more damning of Fr. Harvey than Crux’s indictment.

Readers, once again, I implore you: do not think that the Catholic sex abuse scandal can be understood entirely through a left-right paradigm. Some on the Catholic Right would have you do that to avert judgment for their own failures. Some on the Catholic Left would too (indeed, Team Francis’s attempts to dismiss the Vigano allegations as part of a vast right-wing conspiracy are exactly that).

This evil burrowed deeply within the institution. It’s going to require rock-hard steadiness, unflinching honesty and the patient application of spiritual and moral force, to exorcise it.

An important final point: this does not discredit the overall ministry of Courage, which has been a lifesaver for some gay Catholics I know. But it will have to be dealt with honestly.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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