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Issue Date:  August 12, 2005

Outspoken pacifist priest relieved of parish duties


Fr. Robert Cushing has been relieved of his duties as his Augusta, Ga., parish because of negative backlash resulting from his decision to travel on a pilgrimage to Japan to apologize to the Japanese people for the United States’ use of atomic bombs on two of their cities 60 years ago.

Cushing planned to spend Aug. 6, the 60th anniversary of the U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima, concelebrating Mass there with 20 to 30 other priests. Three days later in 1945, the U.S. bombed Nagasaki, the city with Japan’s largest concentration of Catholics.

Cushing, 55, is scheduled to return to Georgia Aug. 12. His pastor, Fr. Thomas [Peyton] at St. Teresa of Avila Parish, has asked Cushing to leave at the end of the month because coverage of Cushing’s pilgrimage in the diocesan paper and The Augusta Chronicle caused an outcry, including numerous letters to the editor to the Chronicle criticizing Cushing.

Under the headline, “Apologize for what?” a Chronicle editorial criticized Cushing’s pilgrimage, saying it was the Japanese who should apologize.

“[T]he United States only did what it had to do to repel and eliminate Japan’s own imperialistic aggressions. ... [W]e suggest the good reverend stay home and tend to his flock at St. Teresa of Avila Catholic Church in Augusta. ... Sometimes bad things have to happen. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 had to happen.”

In an interview with NCR, Peyton said he had asked Cushing to leave the parish “with regret,” and that he and Cushing have shared a close friendship for many years. Peyton said Cushing’s trip was “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” but he did not elaborate about what other issues may have led to his decision, saying he did not want to discuss personnel matters.

Cushing said Savannah Bishop J. Kevin Boland called him to say he supported Peyton’s decision to remove Cushing, who has served as parochial vicar for three and a half years. In a letter to Cushing, Boland expressed his concern that the priest, who has been active with Pax Christi USA and other peace groups for more than two decades, was misrepresenting himself.

“I am concerned about your using your position as an ordained priest of the Catholic church to foster and nourish your agenda as it pertains to your opinions about World War II,” Boland wrote. “You have a right to your opinions, but you do not have the right to use the ‘pulpit’ in the symbolic sense to push your agenda. I consider that approach as a grave misuse of your ministry as a priest.”

Cushing, who in the late 1980s spent a month in a Georgia prison halfway house stemming from a protest arrest at Georgia’s King’s Bay submarine base, said his was not a bully pulpit, adding that he has worked to moderate his preaching style from what it was in the 1980s to “a more discreet way of preaching.”

As of Aug. 1, the day Cushing departed for Japan, Peyton had not announced his decision. Cushing said Peyton told him he had received complaints about the pilgrimage from several parishioners, including at least one who had threatened to leave the parish if Cushing stayed.

“Father Tom told me that he thought it was time for me to move on because of the heat he was getting” as a result of the pilgrimage, Cushing said.

In “a heart-to-heart talk” with Peyton a few months ago, Cushing said, the pastor told him he had a mission to finish plans to build a new church, a project that has suffered some financial setbacks. Cushing said “a handful of people” had threatened to withhold donations to the building fund if Cushing stayed on at the parish.

Cushing said the idea for the trip began 20 years ago when he met Sumiteru Taniguchi, a man from Nagasaki who was a hibakusha ( an A-bomb survivor). In a talk at Cushing’s parish, Taniguchi told his story of being 15 years old when the Nagasaki bomb exploded.

“Thrown face down into a ditch by the initial force of the blast, he survived with massive radiation burns on his back,” Cushing wrote. “Forty years later he came to us as a pilgrim of peace. After showing us file footage of his city -- before, during and after the blast -- he reverently bowed to us, turned his back and unveiled his wounds. I will never forget what I saw: an almost black and white negative imprint of hell on human flesh. When his eyes came up to meet ours, the woman next to me blurted out, ‘Mr. Taniguchi, please forgive us for dropping that bomb on you!’ Before the translator could open his mouth, Mr. Sumiteru Taniguchi responded: ‘I forgive, but please forgive sneak attack on Pearl Harbor.’ ”

Taniguchi invited Cushing to visit him in Japan. They had plans to reunite in Nagasaki.

Cushing said that Americans have never dealt with the bombings, which Pope Paul VI called “butchery of untold magnitude.”

“The bottom line is we as a country haven’t dealt with it at all,” Cushing said. “I feel like that is a moral crisis which has been shoved under the table, and we can’t really even talk about it. I feel like it’s been a gaping wound since World War II.”

The apology “to the People of Hiroshima and Nagasaki” was from the Pax Christi-Augusta community, and included the names of about 500 people who signed on. It opened with: “We are citizens of the United States who wish to express to you our profound sorrow for the atomic bombing of your cities in 1945.”

When he returns, Cushing said he will have lots of paperwork to complete as he refers parishioners to other people for help with “the weddings, the baptisms, the marriage annulments, the counseling situations and the divorces I’m trying to help people get through. It’s going to be painful for the parish for a while now.”

The bishop told Cushing he could assign him to the pastorate of a small parish, but Cushing said he plans to take some time in the next few weeks to think about his options.

According to Cushing, Boland said he could stay at St. Teresa until the end of August, “but then I don’t know what to do with you.”

“This is true, Bishop,” Cushing said he replied. “I don’t know what to do with me either.”

Patrick O’Neill writes from Raleigh, N.C.

‘I can’t say somebody else is responsible’

Fr. Robert Cushing’s path to war resistance was no simple matter. Growing up the son of a military officer, he admired friends of his father and dreamed of being a military chaplain, an ambition he pursued after he was ordained in the Augusta, Ga., diocese.

But during his preparation for priesthood he had encountered other heroes, advocates of nonviolence.

Shortly after ordination, Cushing met Fr. Sal DeAngelo, an Army colonel and chaplain. Cushing told DeAngelo his life story and his dream of being a military chaplain. “I’m glad to hear your story, Bob, but with heroes like Gandhi, Francis of Assisi, Dietrich Bonhoffer, Martin Luther King, I think that you really ought to check into the Pax Christi thing,” Cushing said the priest told him. “Bob, if you became a military chaplain you’d either reform the whole system or you’d be in jail a lot.”

DeAngelo suggested that Cushing go to an upcoming lecture by the late Jesuit Fr. Richard McSorley, a pacifist with ties to Pax Christi and the Catholic Worker movement. It was no immediate conversion, but Cushing began a different journey, one that his elderly father, also Bob Cushing, does not understand.

On Aug. 1, Cushing left for Japan to apologize for the 1945 U.S. atomic bombings of two Japanese cities.

“My father is absolutely sullen about this whole thing. He won’t talk about it.”

Another turning point for Cushing was counseling B-52 pilots who asked for his help to study the question of the formation of conscience and nuclear weapons. Cushing said the event “that absolutely pushed me over the edge” was when he heard an air raid siren blast off in a small military town where he was visiting during the height of the Cold War. Though it was only a test, Cushing thought it was signaling nuclear war.

“It went off and it kept going on and on, and my hair stood up on my body and I said, ‘It’s happening. It’s too late. Oh my God, it’s too late,’ ” Cushing recalled.

“My hair was standing on end. My heart was pounding and with tears in my eyes, it was the end of the world. And I said, ‘Oh my God, I didn’t do what I could do, and now it’s too late.’ ”

Then the siren stopped and a neighbor told him the siren was just a test, that it sounded every Wednesday morning at 11 o’clock.

“I sat back in the car and just cried, and I said, ‘I’ve got to do something because if it ever does happen, I’m responsible. I can’t say somebody else is responsible. I’m responsible.’ ”

-- Patrick O’Neill

National Catholic Reporter, August 12, 2005   [corrected 08/26/2005]

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