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Priests voice range of concerns in effort to organize in New York

New York

When more than 160 priests and former priests from the New York archdiocese, the Brooklyn diocese and the Rockville Centre diocese on Long Island met recently in midtown New York City, it was perhaps ironic that the meeting was held on the second floor of a private club, the Manhattan Club, and just above an Irish saloon where the burning issues of the day are discussed with great gusto.

The large meeting room, along with refreshments, was reserved and paid for by an anonymous lay club member.

A week before the meeting, priests and former priests were advised that only priests and former priests were invited so that neither women nor laymen would be present. Although a few lawyers attended anyway, the laity might not have been interested, since the program for the two and a half hour meeting sounded like classroom sessions on canon law and spirituality in the seminary.

Chaired by a Manhattan pastor, Fr. John Duffell, the meeting began with a presentation by Msgr. William A. Varvaro of the Brooklyn diocese, a canon lawyer, on the canonical rights of priests as they relate to the sex abuse scandal and the U.S. bishops’ “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People,” adopted in Dallas last June. The second presentation was a reflection by Msgr. Bryan Karvelis on the need for a spirituality among priests that is “solid, clearly defined and demanding.”

The meeting was hardly under way when a man in his 30s approached the microphone in the center aisle. “This is a map to cover up crimes,” he called out, waving a copy of Varvaro’s outline of “A Canon Lawyer’s Concerns about Dallas” in the air.

Duffell asked the man to leave and when he refused, he was shouted down by a few angry voices, dragged out of the room by a fireman and a lawyer and escorted to the street. The man was later identified as Daniel Dugo, who claimed he had been victimized as a young boy by a Brooklyn priest.

In a similar incident at a meeting of Voice of the Faithful on Long Island a month earlier, another young man stood up and voiced his displeasure with the group and some of its aims. At that point, the moderator, Sheila Pfeiffer, told him he had three minutes to speak, like everybody else, and then would have to stop. He agreed, continued his criticism and, after he finished, remained for the rest of the meeting.

A lot to learn from laity

“I was a little uncomfortable with the way that young man was treated,” Matt Killion said later. Killion, formerly a New York priest with the rank of monsignor, is a law professor at John Jay College. “It should have been handled better by maybe giving him five minutes to air his feelings. That’s why we were there, to hear everybody. We have a lot to learn from the laypeople.”

Duffell handed out an outline of the goals proposed for the Voice of the Ordained, which is meant to include not only priests but also those who left after ordination. The group was described as “an effort to organize priests (active and inactive) so that we might: draw strength from one another; have opportunities for prayer and discussion; educate ourselves about the issues; and have a vehicle through which to give voice to our concerns.”

When someone noted that concerns for victims of abuse were noticeably absent, Tom McCabe, a former Brooklyn priest and an organizer of the Voice of the Ordained, said, “We have concerns about priests’ rights and reputations but we are also very concerned about the victims. There has to be that balance in everything we do.”

After the meeting, Fr. Jim Gardiner, a Graymoor Franciscan, said, “Nobody has yet addressed our needs as priests. And nobody has ever addressed the fact that priests have rights before the law. It was nice to go to a meeting where we could deal with a very real problem for priests. The presumption is there, among all of us, that child abuse is something that is very wrong.”

Regarding some of those rights, Varvaro placed emphasis on canon 220, which states that every person has a right to his reputation and his privacy. Some of his other concerns about priests’ rights and the charter framed by the bishops in Dallas included a better understanding of “administrative leave”; due process; the definition of “sexual abuse”; the provision of names to public prosecutors; uniformity of punishment; a statute of limitations; a belief in forgiveness and reparation; the confusion of the bishops and the presence of the media.

Each of those concerns, he said, need much more thought and preciseness.

‘Don’t say anything’

Because of decisions reached in Dallas and their aftermath, Varvaro advised the priests not to admit to sexual abuse to their bishops: “Don’t say anything because of the consequences that have come about.”

He said, “The father-son sense of trust has been destroyed and it will take a generation to restore that father-son trust between bishops and priests and between priests and people. ... The goal is to provide justice for all, but we haven’t.”

In his brief talk, Karvelis said that priests should have a spirituality that “motivates us and guides us, that helps us to be patient but also to speak out and helps us face the problems of the church today.”

“I thought we were going to organize,” complained Jack O’Leary, a former New York priest who was the first to take the microphone after Karvelis concluded his talk. “I didn’t come here for another session of Abbot Marmion or to hear a lot of spiritual nosegays.” Marmion was a 19th-century Benedictine spiritual writer.

“Any spirituality needs a prophetic edge,” remarked a Brooklyn priest. “Our goal has to focus on becoming a Christian community and not just priests.”

“You can’t have just priests coming together,” John Gildea, a former seminarian now a lawyer, said later. “It’s too self-serving. You need the laity.”

“I encourage you in the formation of what you’re trying to do,” said Jim O’Brien, a Boston attorney who handed out a 9-page compendium on “The Rights of Priests.”

“What you’re doing is essential, with no leadership in the church,” he said. “Let’s give the church back to the faithful. The church today is dying, and well it should, if this is all we’ve done.”

“I always felt sorry for you guys, not being able to elect your own bishop,” said Fr. Paul Engel, a Capuchin Franciscan friar. “As religious, we elect our superior and, if we don’t like him, we kick him out.”

When a Yonkers priests complained that he didn’t feel comfortable having reporters present, Duffell agreed. “They’re not our friends,” he said, “and it’s our hope that they won’t be here in the future.”

Later Msgr. John Powis, a Brooklyn priest and one of the organizers of Voice of the Ordained, disagreed. “If it weren’t for the media, nothing would have been known about the scandal. The media has done a real service for the Catholic church. The truth should be our main concern.”

Engel returned to the microphone to say, “My hope was that we were going to be a prophetic group. … If we’re not a prophetic group, what’s the point of meeting? To be a voice means being prophetic.”

During the break in the meeting, Fr. Jim Sullivan reflected on some of the problems in the church that led to his playing a leading role in organizing the Voice of the Ordained. “Priests have been the slowest to speak up since the scandal broke,” he said. Sullivan is a retired Brooklyn priest, author of several books on psychology and spirituality and director emeritus of the Religious Consultation Center of the Brooklyn diocese.

“Resigned priests, religious and the laity have spoken but so far priests haven’t said boo,” said Sullivan, who predicted things would get worse before they get better. “While much has been written about abused children, there’s been nothing said about the number of women abused by the false promises of priests who had intimate relationships with women, promised they were going to leave the priesthood and get married and simply took advantage of the women and their hopes.

“But I don’t blame the priests as much as I blame the Vatican for putting priests in an impossible situation with mandatory celibacy for life and absolutely no outlet for their sexual desires. Celibacy isn’t working and Rome knows it but won’t do a damn thing about it,” Sullivan said. “It’s more a matter of control for the Vatican, even though it’s aware of the priest shortage and the skepticism of the people.”

91 priests sign on

Before the meeting ended with a prayer and the singing of the “Salve Regina,” Duffell raised a few questions of his own: “Do we know exactly where we are going? No. Will we have a change in direction? Maybe. Will we be meeting soon? Perhaps. It wasn’t clear for Jesus and the Twelve and it isn’t clear for you and me.”

Ninety-one of the 2,700 priests in the three dioceses signed on to become members of Voice of the Ordained. There was no mention of whether women, the laity and the media will be invited to the next meeting or whether it will again be held at a private club. There was no mention of whether some bishops might be invited. For the moment, the group has its goals.

Those who attended had the unique company of priests, both secular and religious, from all over New York. They had come together for the first time on a mission that may not be part of their bishops’ agendas.

Karvelis said, “We want to be able to get together where the priests can feel relaxed and comfortable because some priests are not terribly comfortable with the laity present. After all, religious communities have their chapters and nobody outside feels excluded. We want to be able to support each other as priests and former priests during a very difficult time.”

Out on the sidewalk, a couple of television crews -- never allowed inside the club -- were interviewing Tom McCabe and any others who wanted to talk as they walked out of the club and headed for the subway.

Dick Ryan is a free-lance writer living in New York.

National Catholic Reporter, October 25, 2002