Archbishop Dolan Meets a Critic of Priests

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Archbishop Dolan

Below Archbishop Dolan recounts a great exchange with a rather harsh critic he met in an airport. It gives a window into how your average priest is experiencing the tragedy of the sex abuse scandals.

(And please read my post here for a more comprehensive response to the sexual abuse scandal in general.)

By Archbishop Dolan:

It was only the third time it had happened to me in my nearly thirty-five happy years as a priest, all three times over the last nine-and-a-half years.

Other priests tell me it has happened to them a lot more.

Three is enough.  Each time has left me so shaken I was near nausea.

It happened last Friday . . .

I had just arrived at the Denver Airport, there to speak at their popular annual “Living Our Catholic Faith” conference.

As I was waiting with the others for the electronic train to take me to the terminal, a man, maybe in his mid-forties, waiting as well, came closer to me.

“Are you a Catholic priest?” he kindly asked.

“Sure am.  Nice to meet you,” says I, as I offered my hand.

He ignored it.  “I was raised a Catholic,” he replied, almost always a hint of a cut to come, but I was not prepared for the razor sharpness of the stiletto, as he went on, “and now, as a father of two boys, I can’t look at you or any other priest without thinking of a sexual abuser.”

What to respond?  Yell at him?  Cuss him out?  Apologize?  Deck him?  Express understanding?  I must admit all such reactions came to mind as I staggered with shame and anger from the damage of the wound he had inflicted with those stinging words.

“Well,” I recovered enough to remark, “I’m sure sorry you feel that way.  But, let me ask you, do you automatically presume a sexual abuser when you see a Rabbi or Protestant minister?”

“Not at all,” he came back through gritted teeth as we both boarded the train.

“How about when you see a coach, or a boy scout leader, or a foster parent, or a counsellor, or physician?”  I continued.

“Of course not!” he came back.  “What’s all that got to do with it?”

“A lot,” I stayed with him, “because each of those professions have as high a percentage of sexual abuse, if not even higher, than that of priests.”

“Well, that may be,” he retorted.  “But the Church is the only group that knew it was going on, did nothing about it, and kept transferring the perverts around.”

“You obviously never heard the stats on public school teachers,” I observed.  “In my home town of New York City alone, experts say the rate of sexual abuse among public school teachers is ten times higher than that of priests, and these abusers just get transferred around.”  (Had I known at that time the news in in last Sunday’s New York Times about the high rate of abuse of the most helpless in state supervised homes, with reported abusers simply transferred to another home, I would have mentioned that, too.)

To that he said nothing, so I went in for a further charge.

“Pardon me for being so blunt, but you sure were with me, so, let me ask:  when you look at yourself in a mirror, do you see a sex abuser?”

Now he was as taken aback as I had been two-minutes before.  “What the hell are you talking about?”

“Sadly,” I answered, “studies tell us that most children sexually abused are victims of their own fathers or other family members.”

Enough of the debate, I concluded, as I saw him dazed.  So I tried to calm it down.

“So, I tell you what:  when I look at you, I won’t see a sex abuser, and I would appreciate the same consideration from you.”

The train had arrived at baggage claim, and we both exited together.

“Well then, why do we only hear this garbage about you priests,” he inquired, as he got a bit more pensive.

“We priests wonder the same thing.  I’ve got a few reasons if you’re interested.”

He nodded his head as we slowly walked to the carousel.

“For one,” I continued, “we priests deserve the more intense scrutiny, because people trust us more as we dare claim to represent God, so, when one of us do it – even if only a tiny minority of us ever have — it is more disgusting.”

“Two, I’m afraid there are many out there who have no love for the Church, and are itching to ruin us.  This is the issue they love to endlessly scourge us with.”

“And, three, I hate to say it,” as I wrapped it up, “there’s a lot of money to be made in suing the Catholic Church, while it’s hardly worth suing any of the other groups I mentioned before.”

We both by then had our luggage, and headed for the door.  He then put his hand out, the hand he had not extended five minutes earlier when I had put mine out to him.  We shook.

“Thanks.  Glad I met you.”

He halted a minute.  “You know, I think of the great priests I knew when I was a kid.  And now, because I work in IT at Regis University, I know some devoted Jesuits.  Shouldn’t judge all you guys because of the horrible sins of a few.”

“Thanks!,” I smiled.

I guess things were patched-up, because, as he walked away, he added, “At least I owe you a joke:  What happens when you can’t pay your exorcist?”

“Got me,” I answered.

“You get ‘re-possessed’!”

We both laughed and separated.

Notwithstanding the happy ending, I was still trembling . . . and almost felt like I needed an exorcism to expel my shattered soul, as I had to confront again the horror this whole mess has been to victims and their families, our Catholic people like the man I had just met . . . and to us priests.

10 comments Add comment

Lauren April 14, 2011 at 2:50 pm

It’s so sad that the topic even exists, but Fr. Dolan did a good job of engaging the man in conversation. He’s a great spokesman.

Sara April 15, 2011 at 10:48 am

It’s a shame that these things happen, but I think Archbishop Dolan is correct in saying that it is “more disgusting” when these crimes are committed by priests. They have publicly vowed celibacy, and they
are representatives of Christ and His Church in a manner that is different than others. Some degree of understanding can be afforded the man in the story because such criminal acts by priests have caused
a huge amount of pain, sorrow, shock, scandal, shame, anger and embarrassment to the average faithful Catholic, not just to the average good priest.

J.W.B. April 15, 2011 at 2:59 pm

Well handled, Archbishop Dolan. And the story powerfully told.

Trish April 15, 2011 at 3:32 pm

Truly, the man who confronted Archbishop Dolan was seriously rude, lacking charity and most definitely inappropriate. Yet, as I read this story I felt anger rising within for other reasons. Teachers, scout leaders etc do not, as I was taught, hold themselves out to be the representative of Christ on earth as is a priest’s role. When a child is molested by a priest it takes on an entirely more devastating result. In times of despair and deep personal suffering most people turn to their faith to get them through. How is that possible when the victimizer is a priest? This inability to trust church clergy is further intensified by the challenges the victim and their family faces in dealing with the church as they ” circle their wagons” to ” protect” their own.

I know there are new things in place to help with this situation now but considering the cover-up and corruption within the church that I experienced I doubt their is much change. While not for one second do I believe all priests are victimizers in the truest sense of that word, I feel far too many, if not most, have been involved in some form of collusion….at least where my experiences where. Many knew and ignored, knew and covered up!

I did not read these studies cited with regards to % etc of pedophiles in the various professions. Honestly,the numbers reported in this article still pales in comparison to the consequences of the severity and devastation caused as a result of CLERGY abuse. Further more, I would question the validity of these studies with regard to much reading related to this issue over the years.
In conclusion, let me state for the record I do not support the behavior of the gentleman in the airport… yet I do understand his anger. May I humbly suggest that the GOOD priests that are confronted in this way use it as an opportunity to grow ever stronger in their vocation and offer up their suffering to Christ …and in empathy for the many victims whose lives have been ruined FOREVER! Likewise, It is my hope and prayer that these harsh and inappropriate confrontations when they do occur may also be seen as the root and force of change within the church as the good priests tire of this hurtful situation and move from any complacency they may feel at times to action for victims, past, present. & future.

Matthew Warner April 15, 2011 at 4:15 pm

Trish – thank you for your thoughtful comment! I wrote a post discussing more on this general topic: A Catholic Response to the Sex Abuse Scandal

Fr. Reginald Sander OSB June 17, 2011 at 2:16 pm

Thank you for the great response to the “critic”. All of this “stuff” that the press comes out with and I also include the catholic press, makes the priest look guilty until proven innocent!

Bill Franks August 10, 2011 at 10:35 pm

This never happened. This is a nice story you made up, but I do not believe any of it. No one talks to people like this. Nice try to blame the accusers and say the church is the victim and people are after the church’s money. That might work on some brainwashed Catholic, but not a thinking person.

Ian December 28, 2011 at 4:04 pm

What about this story is unbelievable? That a man facing an accuser could provide an answer in an instant? Or that one with misconceptions can experience a change of heart? Perhaps that greed and hatred can drive a person to make a false accusation?

These things happen often. If you are Christian you will notice that they are also mentioned in Scripture often. If you aren’t a Christian I respectfully invite you to read the gospels with an open mind and heart so that you can make an educated decision for yourself.

Charles J Murphy January 8, 2012 at 6:45 pm

I believe this is an apocryphal story. The good archbishop created a situation for himself from another situation. I don’t believe this sort of thing really happens.

Charles J Murphy January 8, 2012 at 6:47 pm

Did the archbishop impinge on the man’s religious liberty? Abp. Dolan is exceptionally attuned to this issue. Nothing like finding a way to be persecuted. This persecution is not real persecution. It’s only…I don’t agree with you or your ways. Catholic seem to be incredibly sensitive to any criticisms or divergent viewpoints.

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