Friday, October 16, 2009

A Close-Up on Priestly Indiscretion

The New York Times is running an article that serves as a kind of case study of what happens when Roman Catholic Priests have affairs with women in their congregations. Father Henry Willenborg was serving as a spiritual director for a retreat for Catholic women when he became attracted to Pat Bond, one of his directees.

“Here I am this small-town girl, and at the time I didn’t feel that I was very attractive,” she said, “and yet he’s putting his vows on the side and he wants to be with me, in the most intimate, loving way. It was quite an honor.”

“It’s such a powerful thing because you think — and this is the illness of it, too — you are led to believe and you let yourself believe, that you are a chosen one. That you are so special,” she said, adding of the priest, “It’s not that they’re putting God aside, it’s that they’re bringing you up to their level.” (Source)

When Ms. Bond became pregnant the first time, she said that Father Willenborg wanted to her to have an abortion. She refused, but the baby was lost to a miscarriage. She became pregnant again, and this time carried the baby to term. She entered into a legal agreement with the Franciscans that they would pay her about $85,000 in child support over the first 18 years of the boys life.

Still, Father Willenborg and Ms. Bond continued their relationship with little consequence to the priest.

An unexpected turn of events brought their idyll to an end. A young woman showed up at Ms. Bond’s house in a rage. She told Ms. Bond that she had been in a sexual relationship with Father Willenborg for years, since she was in high school. (Reached by phone last week, the woman confirmed the relationship, and said it had caused her a lifetime of pain. She asked to remain anonymous.) Immediately, the Franciscans sent Father Willenborg to a treatment center in New Mexico run by a religious order, for priests with sexual disorders and substance addictions.

Ms. Bond says that after that, they had sex together only once more: immediately after he returned from seven months at the center. She still has the receipt from the hotel room. (Source)

In a court deposition years later, Father Willenborg said that he was never disciplined and never counselled to leave religious life. Ms. Bond got help from a group that was originally founded to help priests and their lovers discern whether the men should leave Orders an marry or break off the relationships.

“We were naïve,” Mrs. Finnegan said. “We quickly discovered that many of these priests were playboys. They weren’t looking for any discernment, they were simply staying and playing. It was the women who needed the support. Unfortunately, many women accept the kind of abuse from a priest that they would never accept if they were dating another man.”

She said that in 25 years, Good Tidings had been contacted by nearly 2,000 women who said they were involved with priests, many who had signed child support and confidentiality agreements like Ms. Bond’s. There are similar support groups in at least seven countries.

A landmark study in 1990 by the scholar A. W. Richard Sipe, a former Benedictine, found that 20 percent of Catholic priests were involved in continuing sexual relationships with women, and an additional 8 percent to 10 percent had occasional heterosexual relationships. (Source)

That's right, 20% of Roman Catholic Priests were involved in continuing sexual relationships with women. That's not just occasional boundary slipping--that's ongoing relationships.

The situation with Ms. Bond and Father Willenborg became more complex. She wanted help from the Franciscans to pay for her son's college education. They resisted, but after a paternity test confirmed the priest was the boy's father they eventually settled at paying half the cost. But then son, Nathan, was diagnosed with cancer. The church has been reluctant to help with the medical costs.

This sort of situation does make a case for ending mandatory celibacy for Roman Priests. My guess is that there will probably be Married priests before we see women priests. Indeed, there are already a few married RC Priests. It might also help with vocation crisis in the RC Church.



patrickcain (@) said...

It's interesting - this case becomes a sort of litmus test for attitudes about the two issues involved, being 1) Willenborg's failed celibacy and 2) his relationship with his son.

1) I can forgive the sex easily enough, though it shouldn't have happened - neither of them were married and both were mature enough to know what they were getting themselves into.

2) The part of this story which is absolutely outrageous is his abandonment of his son, and his superior's connivance in it. Both seem to have seen it as a problem to be solved by writing a big enough cheque, as if he'd wrecked someone's car or something. Both put his career over the need to actually be the kid's father, with all the time and work that that involves. Both chose metaphorical fatherhood over actual physical fatherhood.

As if this could possibly get worse, *his kid is terminally ill*, and he still can't rouse himself to do anything serious about the relationship.

I can't even begin to express my contempt properly, except to point out that it takes a man to be a dad.

Tay Moss said...

I think you're right about the abandonment part. The whole reaction of the hierarchy seemed to smack of an inability to see that there was any non-financial responsibility at all.

Tay Moss said...

I remember hearing a lecture by a woman often brought it to deal with situations like this. She said most people suing their church (whether it is Roman Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, etc.) are only doing so because the Church has refused to offer an apology or corrective action (often based on misguided advice by their lawyers to admit no fault). She said that most of these cases would go away if the Bishops/Priests would simply apologize and make a few changes.

movabletype said...

I think that's true of organizations in general, as well as individuals.

This case goes a lot deeper, though - they seem to have seen the pregnancy as the basic issue, and Nathan as an awkward reminder of it. There's something of an adolescent view of sexuality there, though I'd need to put my finger on exactly how - something about sex being something naughty which could lead to embarrassment, rather than a participation in the deep forces of human life.