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Home/Rod Dreher/Father McWilliams Guts A Family

Father McWilliams Guts A Family

Father Robert McWilliams wearing liturgical colors appropriate to this new season in his life (Source)

Hi all, from DFW airport — been traveling back from California for most of this day. I want to bring to your attention this long piece by J.D. Flynn in The Pillar, an independent Catholic news service. Here’s the editor’s note with which it begins:

Cleveland priest Fr. Robert McWilliams was sentenced to life in prison Tuesday, after the priest pled guilty to federal child trafficking, child abuse, and child exploitation charges.

McWilliams, 41, was ordained a priest in 2017. He was arrested in 2019, and pled guilty to federal charges in July of this year.

At his Nov. 9 sentencing hearing, the mother of four boys preyed upon by McWilliams urged a life sentence.

That mother and her family told The Pillar their story.

Stop right there. Look at those dates. This guy McWilliams was so out-of-control that he started going after kids as soon as he got out of seminary. The mother of one of the victims — all males — sat down with Flynn to talk about what happened. He gives the mom a pseudonym, “Rachel Christopher,” and writes:

Rachel is talking about it, she tells me, because she does love the Church. And she does love her family. And she knows the Lord is calling her to speak.

“I feel that God is calling — I feel like it’s a responsibility and I feel it would be totally wrong for me to do nothing and say nothing. I’m doing this for love of my Church and for other people and love of children and love for other parents. I don’t want this to happen to anyone else— this is for our Church and it’s for Jesus too, because he’s hurting.”

Rachel tells me she also wants to tell her family’s story because she wants the Church to know they’re human beings — real people, real Catholics, with real pain. She says that when someone in your family is abused by a priest, it’s easy for diocesan officials to see you only as potential litigants, ready for a lawsuit. Or to see you as people who just want to harm or embarrass the Church.

That’s not her family, Rachel says. They want to help the Church in very specific ways. They want good to come from what they’ve suffered. Rachel wants to witness, too, to the faithfulness of the Lord.

And that means, Rachel says, she wants to tell me what actually happened. She wants people to hear it.

But first:

“Ok. I just want to do God’s will. Lord Jesus. I just want to do God’s will.”

Litany accomplished, she begins.

I suppose I don’t have to spend much time telling you what happens next. But you should read the whole thing anyway, because the sick head games that this manipulative predator played on his boy victims and their families is mind-boggling. How does someone so disturbed get through the seminary system today, after all we have learned?

I suppose there is no foolproof way, given how devious and intelligent many predators are. But Flynn talked to local Catholics who said they knew something was wrong:

Other Catholics who knew McWilliams saw red flags too.

Several Catholics in Cleveland told me that they had observed McWilliams interact with teens before his ordination, and that his closeness, and familiarity with them seemed inappropriate for an adult.

One Catholic in Rachel’s parish community recalled that McWilliams had several “furry heads” — large, expensive animal faced masks, associated with the furry subculture. Parents were mostly unaware of the alternative culture associated with the masks, and McWilliams encouraged children to wear them. More than once, he posed for pictures with children wearing the mask.

Had he owned the heads during seminary? Had anyone noticed them?

The same Catholic said her family visited McWilliams at the seminary. His behavior was unusual, she said. “He laughed about how much control he had over the other seminarians. Because they were not allowed to go into his room, they were not allowed to touch anything. They knew their place. Even so much as in the tv room, he had a place on the couch. When he walked in, they did not sit in his place. They got up and moved for him.”

A former seminarian, who studied at St. Mary’s for five years with McWilliams, was surprised when he learned about the priest’s arrest, but said in hindsight, he sees things about McWilliams’ years in seminary which give him pause.

“He was very good with technology, and he was very guarded about his personal life. But the one thing that really stuck out to me is that he was very good at sneaking things. So, like, we weren’t allowed to have alcohol in our rooms, but Bobby always had alcohol in his room, and he would invite people in to drink, you know?”

The former seminarian recalled a specific instance when McWilliams explained that he used his cell phone to avoid firewalls placed on internet use at the seminary.

“There was a firewall, and your formation advisor had access to anything that you searched [on your computer]. And I remember Bobby saying to us, waving his phone around, ‘Well, what’s the point of this? If you have [a cell phone], you can do whatever you want.’”

The former seminarian said McWilliams also would tell fellow seminarians that he could offer them guidance or counsel to get over pornography addictions — unusual behavior between seminarians, but one which seminary administrators seemed to approve.

The Pillar asked some detailed questions of the Diocese, which declined to respond.

Here’s something amazing: this woman, Rachel Christopher, is going out of her way to assert her allegiance to the Catholic faith, in spite of it all — but her diocese treats her and her family like kryptonite:

Before an early meeting with Archbishop Nelson Perez, who was Cleveland’s bishop until he was appointed to Philadelphia in January 2020, Rachel said she remembers that the family was given instructions from diocesan attorneys about what topics it was ok to talk with the bishop about.

Rachel thought it would be a pastoral meeting, but, like many conversations she has had with diocesan staffers, she felt like it was just a perfunctory exercise.

“And so you get to the point where you just shut down. You can’t even share from your heart. I remember thinking, like, are we just supposed to go and talk about the weather with him?”

“Everything they say to us, or about this, seems like it goes through legal, legal, legal.”

Her family has no intention to sue, Rachel told me, and she she’s told diocesan officials that. But she says she feels like the diocese has nevertheless held them at arms’ length, possibly afraid of a lawsuit.

“I told [the diocese] I wanted to work with them, to talk about what can be learned and what we learned. They seemed open to that at the time. But then nothing happens. So a meeting is nice, but nice isn’t good enough. Action is important.”

This is a stab in the heart:

“They should be concerned that Joseph [the pseudonym Flynn gives her son, a victim] isn’t going to Church. Like, that’s a tragedy. And that’s where I want to see them. What are they going to do about those souls now?”

“They were hurt through the Church, and now that they’ve left the Church, does the Church care? The primary mission of the Church is the salvation of souls — and do they show that their first concern is people who have been hurt through the Church, and have left the Church — including my son?”

“That’s one of my biggest sorrows right now.”

Please read the whole thing.

It raises some difficult questions. Where is the father in this narrative? Is he absent from the family’s life — and is that what gave the predator priest an in? That’s what I speculated when I read it, and so did a lot of folks, judging by Twitter. DM’ing with J.D. Flynn, he said that’s a misreading of the story. He chose to focus on the mother for narrative reasons, not because the dad is absent.

Another question I have is about Rachel’s fierce proclamations of her unshakable Catholic faith. I kept hearing in her going back over and over to say it the voice of someone desperately trying to convince herself to hold on. Then again, I could well be projecting my own experience onto her; I ran through similar arguments in my head like a drill, trying to hold on to my Catholic belief by force of will. On the other hand, maybe she genuinely has such a strong faith, and is trying to signal to other families that you can get through suffering like this with your faith intact. I just don’t know.

I think about that young man, “Joseph,” who was so cruelly manipulated and blackmailed by that pervert priest. Now, as you’ve read, he doesn’t go to church. I hope and pray that he comes back, eventually, but if he does, it seems like it won’t be through the efforts of the Cleveland diocese. If he remains away from the faith, and marries, and has children, and doesn’t raise them Catholic or Christian — think of the lost souls. All because of Father McWilliams and those who didn’t catch him in time, or care enough about his victims.

Again, though, when I think back on McWilliams’s evil plan, explained by Flynn, I marvel at the inventiveness of evil. Who could even have thought about things like that? I’m not talking about physical sexual acts — I’m talking about the ingeniousness with which he manipulated everyone. I hope McWilliams dies in prison. And may God restore that family, and bless Rachel Christopher for having the courage to speak to a reporter about it. As hideous as all this is, we need to know that it happens, so we can do what we can to stop it, and to figure out how to survive it without losing our faith.

UPDATE: I forgot that The Pillar reported last month allegations from three former Cleveland seminarians that the seminary leadership did not take their protests against a priest who allegedly sexually harassed them, and engaged in grooming behavior. What is going on at that seminary? Is this another one of those lavender mafia things?

A Catholic reader last week sent me a link to a prominent Jesuit’s newsletter — the Nov. 7 issue, in which Father praised a controversial book. Excerpt:

One of the books that’s gotten some attention is “Gender Queer”, a graphic novel memoir about a young person slowly coming to the understanding that they’re non-binary, that is to say they don’t identify as being either male or female but draw elements from both and use different pronouns such as “they/them”.

I had the chance to read “Queer” over the summer. I really liked it. It’s drawn in this very open and cartoonish way that really captures the innocence of author Maia Kobabe. And you end up taking the journey to self-discovery with them. If you’re at all puzzled by the idea of nonbinary people or the use of different pronouns, I recommend it so highly.

At the heart of it the book banning seems to be about “protecting kids” from “dangerous ideas”, aka “I’m afraid that reading “Gender Queer” will make my baby sick in the head.” Which is obviously messed up and also sad, as really the book is an attempt to help queer kids understand what they’re going through. If you think “nonbinary” is hard for you to understand, try being the 10 or 15 year old person for whom the standard gender categories don’t fit. Where do you turn? Now imagine somebody’s parents trying to keep you (or your child) from resources that could help. It’s pretty messed up.

“Gender Queer” is available on Kindle and also in print. Could be a great Christmas present for someone, and a great way to reject some really bad thinking about society and sexuality.

Mmm-hmm. Here are some pages from “Gender Queer”. I’ve sanitized them a bit for your protection:

What kind of Catholic priest recommends a filthy book like that to teenagers? To be clear, I am NOT implying that the Jesuit who raved about this dirty book is an abuser. Not, not, not! What I do claim is that he has outrageously bad judgment on what’s appropriate sexual material for youth (and worse judgment about Catholic sexual teaching). This, in conjunction with the McWilliams story, makes me wonder, though, to what extent the judgment of the clergy today has been corrupted by the world’s rapidly declining standards on sexuality. I know, I know, there are tens of thousands of priests in this country, and there are a bunch of seminaries, with different internal cultures. I get that. What I wonder is if there may be an atmosphere in some seminaries in which the leadership is — how to put this? — less sensitive than they should be to what is sexually appropriate thoughts and behavior from seminarians and other priests.

Seriously, I cannot imagine a world in which it would be appropriate for a priest to give “Gender Queer” to a minor (or anybody, for that matter). And yet, this Jesuit priest warmly recommends this testimonial to “self-discovery”. How widespread would this recommendation be among the Catholic clergy? I wonder how the leadership at the Cleveland diocesan seminary would respond to “Gender Queer”.

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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