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The Fruits Of Clericalism

The other day, I blogged about the conviction of Fr. Isidore (Stanley) Brittain on child pornography charges. The Orthodox priest was an unpaid staffer at his local Orthodox parish, and, according to police, was “loosely affiliated” with the parish at the time of his arrest. Last week, I wrote about how the OCA’s 2011 Sexual Misconduct committee (SMPAC) report strongly faulted Met. Jonah for letting Fr. Isidore serve in that Corvallis parish, given his past record of alcoholism, sexual harassment, and seeking out gay sex. I said then that the committee was absolutely right to fault Jonah, but the report (which was a heavily politicized document) failed to fault Bishop Benjamin as well.

I’ve just located in my files Met. Jonah’s response at the time to the SMPAC report, in which he strongly disputes its reporting and conclusions. Here is a relevant part to the Brittain case:

Fr Isidore was released (as suspended) to the Diocese of the West at the request of Bishop Benjamin, to be under the close supervision of his psychologist and his spiritual father, Fr Stephen Soot. I spoke personally with the psychologist, as well as Fr Stephen and Mat. Mona Soot.

After a period of time, Bp Benjamin asked that the suspension be modified, at the express recommendation of Fr. Isidore’s psychologist, to assist at the Liturgy for the sake of his healing and recovery, to which I agreed. I had been invited to Fr. Soot’s parish in Corvallis, OR, by Bp Benjamin, who specifically asked me to permit Isidore to serve with us, as a sign of hope for his full recovery, and at the recommendation of his psychologist.

Not only does the memorandum confuse the timeline of events, and have a number of key facts simply wrong, its assertion that Fr. Isidore was not closely supervised in his recovery efforts [sic]. I doubt he could have been more closely supervised. In fact, both Bp Benjamin and I have exercised extreme care in this, and his process carefully monitored by a psychological professional together with a priest. Absent significant financial resources to pay for inpatient treatment or to pay for his room and board at a monastery, how could we have done anything better?

Boy, this chaps my hide. Here’s what could have been done better: Brittain ought to have been defrocked, and allowed to participate in the parish as a layman. If Jonah’s account is accurate, it is appalling to consider that these clerics — Met. Jonah, Bp. Benjamin, and Fr. Soot — believed that a sexually troubled priest (in this case, an alcoholic homosexual) ought to be able to use ministerial service in a parish as an aid to rehabilitation. And that they took the advice of a psychologist over common sense. In one sense, this is understandable; the Catholic bishops routinely did this in years past. But these decisions were made in 2009 or later, long after everybody knew, or ought to have known, how foolish and risky these decisions were.

We don’t know how active Brittain has been in the parish since that 2010 photo of the Metropolitan, the Bishop, and the local priest serving liturgy with Brittain appeared in an OCA publication. Perhaps someone local can enlighten us. We know from the local media report that Brittain was listed until just before his arrest as a staffer (though unpaid), and “loosely affiliated” with the parish, which could mean any number of things. Yet how close could the supervision of Brittain have been if he was able to string himself out on meth, and become a child porn addict? If he had quit coming to church, that ought to have been a warning sign right there to the people in charge of supervising him that something was wrong.

The point is, this badly broken man who had apparently never been disciplined for his outrageous sexual harassment of Reader Sidebottom, had not been defrocked, and was still able to present himself as a priest-monk to the people of his parish. What’s more, even while he was serving at the altar for his “healing,” Brittain was arrested for drunk driving. Met. Jonah’s response to SMPAC’s citation of this fact:

It is very sad that Fr. Isidore got a DWI arrest, but has only been charged with reckless driving. Is his recovery shaky? Like most. But no one has proposed giving him a parish.

But he was still serving in a parish! This is a distinction without much of a difference. Besides, Met. Jonah resigned under pressure two years ago. He’s out of the picture, and has been for a while. Yet the undefrocked priest-monk Isidore Brittain was still listed as a staffer at that parish until just before his April arrest on child porn charges. What was his role there? Did Bishop Benjamin restore his full suspension — and if so, what did that mean? What happened to the SMPAC committee? If Jonah’s leniency on Brittain was so horrible — and I agree that it was unacceptable — why did the Holy Synod allow it to continue after Jonah’s departure, if in fact it did? Was the Brittain case only meaningful to Syosset insofar as it gave them a rationale for sacking Jonah? If not, why was Brittain still listed as a staffer at that parish?

Maybe there are good answers to these questions. But these are questions that need to be answered.

This is what you have when clericalism rules, and the good of a fallen priest is seen as more important than the good of the entire community.

On the same topic, in St. Louis, Catholic layman Kevin O’Brien is not satisfied with Archbishop Robert Carlson’s claim that he had merely misunderstood the questions put to him by the plaintiff’s lawyer in a sworn deposition, and that he in fact has known all along that sex with children is a crime. Me, I am incapable of understanding how, after all the public has learned about clerical sex abuse since 2002, people are still willing to give bishops and other clerics (Protestants too) the benefit of the doubt in cases like this. This column from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch is Exhibit No. 1 in the persistence of clericalism. The “he” here is Abp Carlson, in the rhetorical device the columnist has chosen to use:

He would be, by the time of our novel, an older man, well-versed in the law and very much aware that depositions taken under oath by a hostile attorney are dangerous things. Caution is called for, and the most cautious answer of all would be that he didn’t remember.

He would be asked if he had known, when he worked in this other city, that it was a crime for an adult to have sex with a child. He would respond that he wasn’t sure whether he knew it was a crime at the time.

A safe answer — or so it would seem.

The columnist, Bill McClellan, goes on to say that the archbishop’s apparent perjury indicates nothing more than the man’s “impatience.” Yes, people actually believe this. In 2014. And people let priest-monks with records of repeated sexual misconduct and public, out-of-control alcoholism continue to serve in good standing in a parish, though in a limited capacity, until the police show up and find the priest-monk naked and drugged in front of a computer on which he had been collecting child pornography for two years.

It will never, ever stop until and unless the laity stands up and says, “No more. This is our church too. You cannot treat us like this.”

UPDATE: St. Louisan writes in the combox:

I think you missed the current of dark sarcasm is McClellan’s piece. By the time the reader get to his final line, “Who could not respect such a humble and honest man?” the answer that leaps to mind is “no one, really, since he is an utter mediocrity.” It uses Archbishop Carlson as an exemplar of those who really made the scandal possible–not the abusers themselves, but the time-serving, hesitant, lukewarm bishops, deans, and chancellors who were so unwilling to rock the boat that sitting quietly as it slowly sank seemed preferable to rushing about plugging holes.

You are completely right, and I apologize to McClellan. I read just now his earlier column, in which he sarcastically offers public relations advice to Abp Carlson. One recommendation? Blame the lawyers. Excerpt:

We’re going to blame them for your memory loss, too. How many times in your deposition did you claim not to remember something — 193? You suggested your memory loss might be from sedation related to surgery. Problem right there, Your Em. Lots of the flock have been sedated, and their minds are still sharp. Blame lawyers for the memory loss. They told you to be forgetful.

We’ll go after the press hard. They’re anti-church. That’s exactly what they are. Lots of organizations have problems, but the press is always after the church. Selective outrage. What’s up with that?

We have to put the press on the defensive before your protege, the Rev. Xiu Hui “Joseph” Jiang goes to trial. Criminal charges were brought against him on Good Friday. What awful timing! He’s accused of sexually abusing a young boy. The abuse allegedly occurred at, among other places, the St. Louis Cathedral Basilica school.

When Jiang goes to trial, somebody is going to dredge up his previous problem from Lincoln County. That’s the one in which he’s accused of giving the alleged victim’s family a check for $20,000 — and you allegedly called them to get the check back.

I get a headache just thinking about this stuff, Your Em.


UPDATE: As recently as 2011, Fr. Isidore was celebrating liturgy and teaching inquirer’s classes. Unbelievable.

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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