God Does Not Need Our Lie
A reader writes:
I am a parishioner at St. Peter’s in Lincoln, Nebraska, and I have been following your reporting on the Diocese of Lincoln and my parish closely over the past week. I just left Mass, and I wanted to provide you an update about how the diocese and parish are addressing the allegations against Monsignor Kalin and Fr. Townsend.
1. Bishop Conley celebrated Mass this evening. He will be celebrating at all Masses this weekend. He will also be leading a service on Monday evening.
2. The Bishop read a letter that is being read at all parishes in the diocese this weekend. In it, he says that there was an allegation against Monsignor Kalin back in 1998. He asks anyone with any more information to come forward. He also discusses Fr. Townsend. He said that last summer, Fr. Townsend was found behaving inappropriately (in a non-sexual manner) with a 19-year old male. Alcohol was involved. Afterwards, Fr. Townsend was sent to the Shalom Center in Houston for treatment. The family of the 19-year old was informed this week and forgave the bishop for not telling them sooner. This information has now been shared with the civil authorities.
3. An independent commission of laity is being formed to investigate the allegations.
4. The bishop apologized for not being transparent with the diocese and the parish. The bishop stated that while Fr. Townsend was a good priest in many ways, all of us fall short, even priests and bishops. Bishop Conley did not realize how emotionally needy Fr. Townsend was. Fr. Townsend has now been removed from the ministry.
5. The bishop praised greatly Fr. Danek. He also said that Fr. Danek has asked to be reassigned. The last 12 months (his first as as priest) were emotionally straining on him.
Overall, I am impressed by the bishop’s swift response to these allegations. I wish something was done last summer, but the bishop did apologize for his shortcomings.
Thank you for your continuing work on this issue.
Here is the full text of Bishop James Conley’s letter to the people of his diocese. This will be read at all parishes and every mass this weekend:
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
I address you with a heavy heart today. In the past week, several stories were spread on the internet regarding our diocesan culture and the conduct of priests within our diocese.
These stories have caused a great amount of distress for many of you, for many of our priests, and for me as well. Many of you have questions about the veracity of these stories, and many of you are concerned that you have been lied to.
Satan, the father of lies, is also the father of doubt and division. My fear is that these reports will become a wedge of division within our diocese. As your bishop — called to be your spiritual father — I want to speak to you clearly. I pray that the truth can break through fear, division, and distress, so that we might be healed in Christ — in our hearts, our parishes, and our diocese. Jesus, who is the way, the truth and the life, will set us free.
One report made this week concerns the Diocese of Lincoln’s former vocations director, Msgr. Leonard Kalin, who retired in 1998 and died in 2008. While Msgr. Kalin was loved by many, others report difficult experiences with him. Allegations were made regarding his moral conduct which included excessive smoking, drinking and gambling. The most disturbing, however, were in regard to emotional and physical boundary violations directed toward college students and seminarians. The diocese received one report of a physical boundary violation by Msgr. Kalin, in 1998. We are continuing to gather information about these recent allegations. I encourage anyone with information about these or similar allegations to contact Seth Odgaard, our Diocesan Safe Environment Coordinator. Early this week I will convene our diocesan review board — an independent group of lay experts in the fields of law enforcement investigation and psychology who answer directly to me, which gives this board its unique independence. This board will examine this situation. Please be assured, I will take all necessary steps to hold accountable anyone responsible for placing people in unsafe situations within the Church.
The second story concerned Fr. Charles Townsend, pastor of St. Peter parish in Lincoln. Last year I received a report that Fr. Townsend had developed an emotionally inappropriate, non-sexual relationship with a 19-year-old male which involved alcohol. After receiving the report, I immediately withdrew Fr. Townsend from ministry, and sent him to the Shalom Center in Houston for treatment. My failure at the time was the lack of transparency with the people of God about this incident. Despite reports to the contrary, I did not oblige anyone to keep silent about this matter. Our priests and the parishioners of St. Peter’s were told that he went away for health reasons. I made no effort to “cover-up” any element of this situation, and I tried to address it with integrity. However, I did not encourage transparency. I did not encourage an open discussion about this situation with our priests, with parishioners, or with those involved. Even though we were not legally obligated to report the incident, it would have been the prudent thing to do. Because the young man had reached the age of majority, we did not tell his parents about the incident. I deeply regret this lack of transparency and breach of trust.
These recent reports have led me to reflect on the ways we have handled the moral failings of our priests. I am working to rectify my failures to ensure that we consult appropriately and act with transparency in any matter involving a boundary violation. As your bishop, I have asked the Lord for wisdom, holiness, courage, and good judgment. I have tried to do my best to lead with integrity. But, like everyone, there is always more for me to learn, and ways to grow, and I ask for your prayers.
Fr. Townsend has been removed from ministry, so that I might consult with our diocesan review board about his situation. This past week we reported this incident to the civil authorities. I also met with the man and with his parents and expressed my regrets for failing to inform them. I asked for and received their forgiveness.
As of Thursday, August 9th, I am appointing Fr. Craig Doty pastor of St. Peter parish in Lincoln. Fr. Doty has been a key priest in our diocese for bringing about renewal and healing both in our presbyterate and for the lay faithful. I have asked him to take this assignment as a sign of my own desire for healing. As you hear this I am preaching directly to the people of St. Peter parish in Lincoln at all the Sunday Masses.
The diocesan review board will review these two cases and any others that are deemed appropriate for their review. I assure you that a full inquest will now be undertaken.
During the past week, I have experienced profound sadness for anyone impacted by these situations and I have been weighed down with concern about the potential betrayal of the good people of this diocese. Most deeply, I am reminded of our need for continual conversion. Christ promises that the truth will set us free. I ask for your forgiveness. Please pray for me, as I work to ensure that our diocese is led with integrity, transparency, and humility. Let us pray for each other.
Sincerely yours in Christ,
+James D. Conley
The Most Reverend James D. Conley
Bishop of Lincoln
My read on this is that this is a pretty strong letter, and certainly one to be welcomed, especially the bishop’s request for forgiveness. I am surprised to learn from the bishop that neither he nor one of the diocesan officials ordered Father Danek to be silent about the matter. I had been told by multiple sources that that Danek was told not to talk about it. Danek would not talk to me when I contacted him this week. It is possible that Danek chose on his own not to talk about the case, and, as Bishop Conley said, was not under an order to be silent out of holy obedience.
I want to revisit here the open letter that Wan Wei Hsien, a former seminarian of Lincoln and student active in the University of Nebraska Newman Center, posted to Bishop Conley this week. I included the letter in this post. Note this passage:
My friend (who was also Msgr. Kalin’s victim, as I wrote above)—let’s call him Fr. A—asked me what I hoped would happen after this. After some thought, this is my conclusion: I hope that you, Bishop James, will listen to the witnesses that are coming forward, not only about Msgr. Kalin but also about the others who are implicated in this entire practice of secrecy and abuse. These abuses are not independent of the structures of power and authority within the Catholic Church and its theological discourse regarding the value of the priesthood, celibacy, obedience, etc. In fact, these abuses were precisely enabled by them. This is a point which I feel the Catholic Church in the US has never fully confronted in its dealings with sexual abuse since 2001. The abuses are systemic, thriving within practices and ideas nurtured, not in “liberal” seminaries (as I was so often told when in Lincoln), but within an entire world of practices and ideas (often coherently water-tight) in which they have been legitimized, sanctioned, and silenced. It is easier to think of them as aberrations—except that the evidence shows that abuse is often integrated, deeply, into the fibers of church life.
I will leave you to make decisions, but I hope that you will take seriously the accounts that are now arising. As you investigate the pervasive rot that affects the Diocese, I hope also that we will find in these stories occasions of deep repentance for those actions and words, many well-intended, that have made this whole scandal possible—and protected it from earlier disclosures. Perhaps, once and for all, that self-righteous “fidelity to the Magisterium” that has so often characterized Catholic discourse in Lincoln can be abandoned, and that culture of non-judgmental repentance that was the spirit of the Desert Fathers and Mothers reborn. The time is for reparation to those whose lives have been damaged, not for explaining away what has happened.
Bishop Conley says in his letter today that the painful news this week is causing him to “reflect on the ways we have handled the moral failings of our priests. I am working to rectify my failures to ensure that we consult appropriately and act with transparency in any matter involving a boundary violation.” This is good to hear. Let’s not lose the broader point that Wan Wei Hsien makes in his open letter: that the scandal is not a ‘liberal’ versus ‘conservative’ phenomenon, nor is it merely a matter of sexual misconduct and “boundary violations”; it goes to the very heart of how power and secrecy work in the culture of the Catholic Church.
Different dioceses and particular institutions within Catholicism have their own versions of this culture. Those that are more theologically liberal can hide beneath the official story that they want to believe about themselves: that they are tolerant, compassionate, inclusive, dedicated to social justice, and so forth. Sexual abusers know how to operate within those boundaries, and how to use the “official story” to manipulate others — priests and laity alike — into staying silent, or not asking questions.
But this can also happen within theologically conservative dioceses and institutions. This is the meaning of the Lincoln revelations this week. It doesn’t matter if you say that you are “faithful to the Magisterium” (the teaching authority of the Roman church), that you have a lot of vocations, that you are cultivating a vigorous orthodoxy within the laity. Clerical abusers and other corrupt priests can use that veneer of righteousness to live a dark secret life, and manipulate others into silence or passivity.
This is what happened most notoriously in the ultra-conservative Legion of Christ, founded by a secret sex criminal, Father Marcial Maciel. Father Richard John Neuhaus infamously and foolishly defended the Legion from accusers in a 2002 First Things article. In 2010, the magazine’s then-editor, Jody Bottum, counted the cost of Maciel, and mentioned Neuhaus’s humiliation:
The child-abuse cases were a corruption in the Church. What Fr. Maciel attempted is a corruption of the Church. He fooled many people, including this magazine’s creator, Richard John Neuhaus, who once defended Maciel in a 2002 column, before agreeing later that Cardinal Ratzinger (investigating Maciel at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) and John Paul “know more than I know with respect to evidence.”
The irony is that Fr. Neuhaus didn’t undertake that defense at the behest of Maciel, whom he never knew well. He did so because people he did know well, young American priests of the Legion, begged him to do so, telling him that their founder was suffering an attack they were certain was false and unfair. The first victims are the men, women, and children that Maciel, in his polymorphous perversity, used sexually, but the second set of victims are the good, strong, dynamic priests who had little direct contact with the man and are nonetheless tarred by his actions.
It’s worth dwelling on the Neuhaus-Maciel thing for a bit, because it reveals how conservative religious believers can allow themselves to be deceived, and to denounce as villains those who try to bring the truth to light. Here are a couple of excerpts from Neuhaus’s 2002 defense of Maciel and the Legion:
Having said that, I expect that most readers, and especially those who, with good reason, admire the Legionaries, instinctively recoil from the story about Fr. Maciel, finding it both repugnant and implausible. There is something to be said for consigning it to the trash bin and forgetting about it. Nobody should feel obliged to read on, for the subject is decidedly distasteful. At the same time, the story is out there, and”as Berry and Renner and the complicit publications surely intended”it has no doubt done some damage. Forty and fifty years after the alleged misdeeds, there is no question of criminal action. Even were there any merit to the charges, which I am convinced there is not, the statute of limitations has long since run out. And what can you do to an eighty-two-year-old priest who has been so successful in building a movement of renewal and is strongly supported and repeatedly praised by, among many others, Pope John Paul II? What you can try to do is to filch from him his good name. And by destroying the reputation of the order’s founder you can try to discredit what Catholics call the founding “charism” of the movement, thus undermining support for the Legionaries of Christ.
I am not neutral about the Legionaries. I have spent time with Fr. Maciel, and he impresses me as a man who combines uncomplicated faith, gentle kindness, military self-discipline, and a relentless determination to do what he believes God has called him to do. They are the qualities one would expect of someone who at age twenty-one in Mexico vowed to do something great for Christ and his Church, and has been allowed to do it. In the language of the tradition, they are qualities associated with holiness; in his case a virile holiness of tenacious resolve that has been refined in the fires of frequent opposition and misunderstanding.
And I am impressed by the words of Jesus that “by their fruits you shall know them.” I have known the Legion for some years now, speaking at their institutions in this country and, most recently, teaching a crash course on Catholic social doctrine at their new university in Rome, Regina Apostolorum. There were about sixty students in the course, almost all priests or seminarians, and I have never encountered anywhere a group of students more eager, articulate, or intellectually astute. And yes, they are orthodox and excited by the truth of the Church’s teaching. Critics who depict Legionaries as pious brainwashed zombies walking in lockstep under an authoritarian regime are, in my experience, preposterously wrong.
It was Neuhaus, though, who was preposterously wrong. Among many egregious sins — like having mistresses and families, though a Catholic priest — Maciel was guilty of some of the worst crimes imaginable:
On March 3, one of Maciel’s mistresses, Blanca Lara, and two of Lara’s grown sons told MVS Radio that Maciel had sexually abused his own children. It “started when I was 7 years old,” said one son, José Raúl González, now in his early 30s. “I was lying down with him like any boy, any son with his father. He pulled down my pants and tried to rape me.” The abuse, González said, got worse after that and lasted years. His brother Omar said he too had been sexually abused by Maciel, starting at age 8. (The sons never took Maciel’s surname.) Says Maciel victim Juan Vaca, 72, a former priest and adjunct psychology and sociology professor at Mercy College in New York: “This simply confirms what sort of personality we [were] dealing with: a malignant narcissist.”
Maciel hid behind a façade of orthodoxy, and his fanatical movement played on the theological convictions and ideological blindness of influential men like Richard John Neuhaus to give him cover. Neuhaus slandered Jason Berry and the late Jerry Renner for their groundbreaking coverage of the corrupt Legion of Christ cult. After his death, Berry, a distinguished journalist, granted permission for Andrew Sullivan to publish a 2007 letter he had written to Neuhaus, upbraiding him for his words and actions — including a harsh dismissal of conservative Catholic writer Leon Podles’s searing scandal book, Sacrilege. Berry wrote:
Orthodoxy does not confer a license to distort the valid research of those who find fault in church governance when the violation of children is at issue. You tip-toe around the moral accountability of bishops — the core theme of Leon Podles’s book, the central issue in a crisis of terrible human suffering. By debunking books like Sacrilege, and blaming “the public media” (is there a better, “private” media?) you perform a continuing disservice to your readers and the church. Podles’s book deserves a serious review in First Things by someone without your manifest bias.
By scoffing at the research in Sacrilege you erase the victims. It’s easy to take pot-shots at writers, Father. I wonder if you have reflected on the pain that your comments about Maciel caused those good men in Mexico and Spain whose bodies he sexually assaulted and whose minds he manipulated when they were boys in Rome. It took rare courage for them to go through a tribunal system at the Vatican, which had rebuffed them in the past. It took six years before Cardinal Ratzinger authorized an investigation and two more years before, as Pope Benedict XVI, he issued the decree that humiliated Maciel. “Scurrilous?” I wonder if you have the integrity to apologize to those men.
Read the whole thing to see Neuhaus’s chastened response to Berry.
I bring that history up as a warning to conservative Catholics in the Diocese of Lincoln and everywhere else — and, let me add, conservative Christians in all churches, including my own — to keep clearly in front of them that theological orthodoxy is no guarantee of moral purity, and grants no license to attack and dismiss people who are telling you things that you do not want to hear.
I’m receiving a number of supportive e-mails from Catholics in Lincoln for writing about this, but also some nasty ones too. One reader said that Wan Wei Hsien should not be believed because he is gay. Several others point to the sexual corruption of whistleblower Peter Mitchell, who was laicized over multiple sexual acts, including affairs with women — acts that Mitchell admitted in the initial piece I published. He wrote:
In 2017, I accepted laicization from the priesthood as a consequence of having violated my vow of celibacy as a priest on more than one occasion. I lived an unhealthy life as a priest, and I hurt people. I never intended to become such a person, but I did. What I did was wrong. I deeply regret having hurt people who looked up to me as a spiritual leader, and I take full responsibility for my actions.
Mitchell’s essay, however, discussed how a culture of secrecy and cover-up, even in conservative dioceses, can lead to bad men rising to positions of power within the Church, and using it to oppress good priests. He alleged that the beloved vocations director of many years, the late Monsignor Leonard Kalin, was a closeted homosexual and this kind of priest. If this is true — if — it is true even though this truth comes from the mouth of a broken, compromised ex-priest. If this is true, it is true even though it comes from the testimony of a gay Catholic man — one whose obedience to Church teaching has not (or not yet, to my knowledge) been questioned. He’s a queer, they say, so he must be lying about our dear old orthodox Monsignor.
This, you must know, is bullshit.
The only reason Bishop Conley has had to write this letter, and to deal with the Kalin and Townsend matters, is because Mitchell and Wan spoke out. One has to hope that this painful experience will compel the Lincoln diocese — and every diocese — to go deep into how and why this happened, and to re-examine the way its pleasing “official story” may be causing a lot of injustice and suffering beneath the flawless exterior.
I’ll leave you with these words from a priest who wrote me earlier today about this latest round of scandals within the Church he serves:
More and more and more I’m convinced St Augustine was right: God does not need my lie.
UPDATE: A reader writes:
I’m not so happy with Bishop Conley’s letter, e.g., “I have tried to do my best to lead with integrity. But, like everyone, there is always more for me to learn, and ways to grow, and I ask for your prayers.” It’s not like I did anything really wrong, I just have more to learn.
The most I have seen any of the bishops acknowledge is that they are sinners, just like everybody else — no awareness at all that they have presided over and enabled catastrophically destructive patterns of sin. The only thing that would indicate moral seriousness is repentance in sackcloth and ashes, but the only thing Bishop Conley promises is to “act with transparency in any matter involving a boundary violation.”
Is there even ONE American bishop whose moral understanding gets significantly beyond “mistakes were made”?