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Fr. Carl Kabat faces prison, ouster from order

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

Oblate Fr. Carl Kabat has spent more than 14 years in jails and prisons for acts of nonviolent civil protest against nuclear weapons. In addition to possibly facing another long prison sentence for his most recent protest, Kabat is also facing dismissal from the religious community he’s been a member of for nearly half a century.

Kabat, 66, was arrested Aug. 6 at a nuclear missile silo in Weld County, Colo., where he had climbed a security fence and stood atop the silo wearing a clown suit. He and another man, former Denver diocesan priest Bill Sulzman, who stood outside the fence with a placard, were arrested. Kabat was charged with entering a fenced military site without permission, a federal misdemeanor that carries up to a year in prison. Kabat has a November trial date in Denver.

“We are fools and clowns for God and humanity’s sake,” Kabat wrote in a statement. “We bring bread and wine and a hammer as symbols of life in this damnable place of death.”

The date of the action was the 55th anniversary of the United States’ atomic bombing of Hiroshima. In addition to any sentence he receives in his current case, Kabat also faces charges of federal probation violation that could result in an additional five-year sentence.

Kabat’s problems with the Oblates stem from his failure to follow the order’s “Guidelines on Civil Disobedience,” which were put in place last year. The guidelines, which were adapted from the Detroit Jesuit Province, require Oblates who participate in acts of civil disobedience to receive prior approval from their superiors.

The guidelines’ opening paragraph states: “While the United States Province of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate wants to give wide latitude to members in exercising personal freedom of conscience, it insists upon union with the superior through the vow of obedience. These guidelines call for an open dialogue in resolving matters of conscience.”

He left a note

In July, Kabat, who was then residing at St. Henry’s Oblate Community in Belleville. Ill., left a note informing his local superior of his plans to participate in an “action” that would probably result in his being sent back to prison. Kabat said he didn’t share details of his plans to protect his Oblate brothers from the risk of a conspiracy charge. In a letter to Kabat, dated Aug. 2, the Oblate Provincial, Fr. David Kalert wrote: “This letter is to officially notify you that you do not have permission to participate in any action of civil disobedience and that you do not have permission to reside outside your designated Oblate community.

“Because you are illegitimately absent from the community, and in light of the province policy on civil disobedience that was carefully explained to you ... I must remind you that this new action on your part constitutes cause for dismissal from the congregation. Therefore, unless you return to St. Henry’s immediately, I will have to begin the formal process of dismissal.”

Kabat did not receive Kalert’s letter until late August, after the two had spoken by telephone. In a second letter dated Aug. 22, Kalert wrote in part: “As I mentioned on the phone, I am pursuing your dismissal from the congregation. It is very important that you have a chance to respond. Obviously, without your address, things will proceed.”

After years of being essentially cut off from his community, Kabat says his brother Oblates don’t understand him. Kabat said his current problems have more to do with the dynamic between him and Kalert than they do with the greater community of Oblates.

In December 1998, following his release after more than four years in prison in North Dakota, Kabat, a balding man with an easy laugh, received a letter from Kalert assigning him to reside at St. Henry’s, a community of about 20 mostly elderly Oblate brothers and priests. Kabat said he received no specific duties but did volunteer work in his community and at a Catholic Worker House in nearby St. Louis.

Another note

“It is very important at this time that you live in an Oblate community, and prolonged absences, even overnight, would not be acceptable without my approval or the approval of the vicar provincial,” Kalert wrote to Kabat in a Dec. 16, 1998, letter.

After abiding by Kalert’s orders for “a month or two,” Kabat said he rebelled. Before leaving for a week-long trip to Wisconsin to do part of his court-ordered community service at another Catholic Worker House, Kabat left a note saying that requiring him to get the provincial’s permission to leave the house overnight was “evil,” and that he should not be treated as if he were 13 years old. Kabat said he made copies of the note, put them in the appropriate mailboxes and left, having done “a nonviolent public resistance” against an evil restriction. Kabat said Kalert later rescinded the restriction.

While he calls the effort to dismiss him “sad,” Kabat says he’s not really interested in putting up a fight to stop the process.

“I never want to be in anyone’s presence who doesn’t want me,” Kabat said. “I know it’s a kind of personal thing with Dave Kalert. I don’t know what the hell is going to happen. I kind of feel sorry for the poor guy. I’ve been trying to do what I think God wants, and I guess [Kalert] seems to think that I’m doing the opposite.”

Kalert, in an e-mail, said the dismissal process can be “quite lengthy, involving several levels within the congregation. The person in considertion has plenty of opportunities for involvement, and appeals are built into the process. Dismissal cannot and should not be the decision of one person.”

In the 18 months he spent living at St. Henry’s, Kabat said he was never asked by his housemates to speak about his work for peace. I couldn’t basically talk with anybody about anything of real substance and I can understand that. I’m 66, and I was the third youngest of about 20 in the house, and so in a certain sense you can’t teach old dogs new tricks.”

Kabat’s sense of estrangement from the Oblates -- and U.S. culture in general -- began back in 1965 when he accepted a missionary assignment in the Philippines. It was there Kabat said he became aware of the negative effect U.S. foreign policy was having on many poor nations. The United States supported the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos for 25 years, while the Filipino people suffered in abject poverty, Kabat said.

Didn’t fit in

When he returned to the United States in 1968, Kabat was asked to deliver guest homilies about his work in the Philippines to raise money for the Oblate missions. He was quickly criticized for “making people feel guilty.”

“When I came back from the Philippines in ’68 I realized I really didn’t fit in anymore here in the States,” he said.

In 1969, Kabat left for a four-year stint as a missionary in Brazil. Again he saw a nation with limited resources that spent millions buying weapons from the United States while its people suffered.

In 1976 Kabat finally found his niche. When he went to Washington for a conference, a friend suggested he visit Jonah House, a Baltimore resistance community founded by Philip Berrigan and his wife, Elizabeth McAlister. Kabat ended up staying and participating in acts of civil disobedience. He was arrested for throwing blood on the Pentagon and the White House. He was arrested at an arms bazaar in Chicago and in an anti-nuclear protest in Plains, Ga., shortly before Jimmy Carter was sworn in as president.

In 1980, Kabat, Philip Berrigan, Jesuit Fr. Daniel Berrigan and five others were arrested in King of Prussia, Pa., for hammering on nuclear missile nose cones at a General Electric plant, the first so-called “Plowshares action.”

On Nov. 12, 1984, Kabat’s life took a dramatic turn. Kabat, his brother, the late Oblate Fr. Paul Kabat, Helen Woodson and the late Larry Cloud Morgan rented a jackhammer and drove to an isolated Minuteman II missile silo in Missouri. Calling themselves the Silo Pruning Hooks, a reference to “beating spears into pruning hooks” (Isaiah 2:4), they damaged the silo lid and were arrested on various federal charges. On March 27, 1985, the four received stiff prison sentences ranging from eight years for Morgan to 18 years for Woodson and Carl Kabat.

Kabat spent more than six years in prison. Today, Kabat -- like his former codefendant, Philip Berrigan, who is also serving a prison sentence for a plowshares action -- still risks prison to oppose nuclear weapons. “Arms,” said Kabat, “kill even when not used, by causing people to starve.”

Although he is not personally taking his case to the news media, Kabat’s former seminary friend Bill Strabala, who was never ordained and is a retired journalist, issued a five-page statement about Kabat’s situation.

Hero and model

Strabala, who has maintained close ties to the Oblates, wrote that Kabat “is regarded as a prophet and a hero by a dwindling number of fellow Oblates and by pacifists of all faiths.” Oblate Fr. Darrell Rupiper, Kabat’s longtime colleague and friend, said Kabat has been an inspiration to many people.

“There are lots of people for whom Carl is a real hero and a model,” Rupiper said. “People have a high respect for this. He has been a persistent faithful witness to our Christian faith, certainly a witness against the nuclear policies of our government. I know he’s driven and he is a man of conscience. He may not have been into sacramental ministries for quite some time, but in a sense he is sacrament to the rest of us.”

Both Strabala and Rupiper said they have intervened on Kabat’s behalf in telephone calls to Kalert. Rupiper, who has suggested a mediator be brought in, said he’d like to see a resolution that would allow Kabat to remain in the community. Rupiper, however, said he’s not hopeful a compromise will happen.

In an e-mail message to NCR about Kabat’s case, Kalert wrote: “The discussions with Carl and the Oblates have been going on for many years. The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate have had a long history of concern about the reality of the nuclear threat and a Christian response to it. However, I believe this is the time to look at the basic issues of Carl’s belonging to a religious community. Certainly, at his age, we will not abandon him.”

The decision to dismiss Kabat will have to be presented to a canon lawyer. One Oblate who asked that his name not be used in this report, said the decision to expel Kabat will be divisive for the community, and he expects the matter to be opened up for discussion when the Oblates meet in November in Albuquerque, N.M, for a national convocation.

“I don’t see any upside to this for the community,” he said.

For Kabat, who always writes the letters OMI after his name when he sends his trademark postcards from prison, life will go on -- with or without his association to the Oblates. “Jim Douglas [another longtime nuclear weapons protester] said the future monasteries of the Catholic church should be the prisons,” Kabat said, “and that’s true.”

National Catholic Reporter, September 29, 2000