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Inside a Church Scandal

When I was in graduate school I was a parishioner at the Cathedral parish in Las Cruces, NM. It was an exciting time to be involved in church ministry. Several people from the parish down the road were instrumental in bringing the LifeTeen ministry to the diocese, and the Cathedral was determined to be the best venue for this youth ministry which immediately involved over 200 teens. Father Louie, the priest chosen as the spiritual director and the main celebrant at the LifeTeen Masses, was an incredibly dynamic speaker who called things as they were (even if was hard), knew how to preach, and who related amazingly well to the youth. I quickly started attending the LifeTeen Masses and got involved in the ministry, which involved taking significant leadership in youth retreats, leading youth activities, and being one of ten or so Confirmation teachers to a class of over 100. It was one of those times where I learned a lot about both the good and not so good side of Christian ministry, made some good friends, and experienced a lot of growth in my faith.

Around that time the Cathedral implemented perpetual Eucharistic adoration. This means that the Eucharist is exposed constantly in a side chapel and two people commit to praying there for an hour–enough people commit so that there are always two people in the chapel round the clock. Prayer takes place seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day. My schedule was unpredictable enough that I did not commit to a particular time during the week but I often came after work, or sometimes after late night socializing with friends, several times a week. I am convinced that all this prayer on the part of many parishioners played a huge role in the outcome of what follows.

After LifeTeen had been humming along for about a year (I don't remember the details about the timeline any more), Father Louie made the unfortunate discovery that the Cathedral parish was missing a significant amount of collection money. When it was all said and done it turned out that the main priest at the Cathedral (not the Bishop) had a gambling addiction and had gambled away $300,000 of offering money. He was able to keep his habit secret due to some weird accounting practices allowing for secret accounts (among other things) which probably started for innocent enough reasons but which over the years (decades?) had gotten out of hand. Father Louie was the whistle blower.

The Bishop with some reluctance got on with addressing the issue and assigned a Monsignor (whose name I've forgotten) in the diocese to oversee the church side of the investigation (the local police had also been notified and were conducting their own criminal investigation). I knew this Monsignor mostly from having attended daily Mass at his parish on occasion and having had those brief conversations as you're shaking the priest's hand walking out the door afterwards.

As more and more news came out both through the newspaper and from church insiders (and I knew a few), people in the diocese understandably got upset and there was much talk about it all over the town. By this time Father Louie was already complaining about not being treated well as the whistle blower and he had a lot to say on the matter.

After several months, the Monsignor called a meeting in the parish hall of the Cathedral where he succinctly but thoroughly presented the story of the scandal as he knew it as well as the steps that had been taken and were going to be taken to both address it and make sure this kind of thing wouldn't happen again.

The priest who had gambled away the collection money was told to sell his home and many of his possessions to at least partly repay what he'd stolen (I believe his house appraised at around $100,000), which he did. He was removed from his duties as parish priest and sent off to some sort of treatment center in Chicago for people who suffer from extreme gambling addictions. I never saw him again but I hope that he has been successfully rehabilitated and is doing well in life, hopefully even fully restored to the ministry.

The entire diocese, and I believe possibly even several other dioceses in New Mexico, were going to be subjected to a major external audit of all the financial business in every single parish and all accounting procedures were going to be brought up to more current and transparent methods. Specifically, all secret accounts everywhere would be abolished, and general good accounting practices would be implemented. I think the impact of this may have extended beyond the state of New Mexico (or other Catholic parishes had experienced similar issues) because right now financial accounting in US Catholic parishes, including the one I currently work in, is extremely meticulous and thorough, requiring all kinds of signatures and records, and statements are regularly tabulated and made public. I don't think a parish priest would be able to spend $5.00 of church money at McDonald's without at least three people knowing about it.

Father Louie experienced some pretty harsh resistance when he first brought the matter to the attention of his superiors, and it was determined that he had been seriously hurt in the process. He was asked to take a short leave of absence from his priestly duties and spend a month on a healing retreat as a way to help him process through and recover from the ringer he had gone through.

Along with all those explanations were frequent apologies made on behalf of the Bishop to the people in the diocese for all the pain we had gone through and for having our offering money gambled away instead of spent on the work of God.

I remember sitting in that meeting thinking wow, it looks like this is being handled amazingly well. The perpetrator had been confronted, made to pay restitution and sent to a place where he could get help for an addiction which had obviously gotten the better of him, the entire way all the parishes would be handling money would be overhauled, and even the whistle blower was being shepherded. I totally expected people to leave the meeting satisfied that their questions and concerns were addressed and that justice was being done.

Instead, during the Q and A section, there was just a ton of anger as people made statement after statement accusing the diocese of a major cover-up and calling for the Bishop's resignation. People were convinced that the only reason the Bishop dealt with this at all was because he was forced to whereas he had known what was going on for years but had ignored it. People wanted Father Tom (the gambler) in jail, not some posh treatment facility, and I'm not sure what else they were calling for but it all sounded ridiculous. Some people just wanted to express how they felt, which was fine, but there was this sense I got of “Can't you see that this scandal has been addressed? What more do you want?” I had to reluctantly come to the conclusion that what they wanted was blood and revenge, not restoration.

Not too long after, I bumped into the Monsignor at some social event and without really thinking about it, asked him how he was doing. He got really sad for a moment and said in a bit of a broken voice: “It's been very difficult and painful. People have been saying the most hurtful things to and about me. Please pray for me.”

We had a LifeTeen retreat somewhere in there, and I will always remember that retreat because we did this four part skit about redemption which was this courtroom drama where a sinner was put on trial for sinning, found guilty, and of course in some way (I forget the details pertaining to that skit) his guilt is resolved as of course Jesus has abundantly forgiven all sinners who trust in Him. I got to play the part of the prosecuting attorney, an incredibly vicious woman named Lucy Fer (pun absolutely intended), a part no one thought I had it in me to carry out (because I was too nice), but apparently I did it well enough that a few of the teenagers on the retreat were struggling with hating me. I certainly thoroughly enjoyed playing the villain.

One night during this retreat Father Louie and I sat up pretty late at night as he shared with me his experience of being the whistle blower in the scandal and recounted to me how awfully he was treated. I don't remember the details but he was crying and went on and on for a long time. I didn't have much to say. I mean, what do you say under those circumstances? I had this uneasy feeling that maybe I was being confided in too much but I didn't quite have the strength of character to resist wanting to know all the juicy behind the scenes information or the “honor” of being treated as a confidante to someone in the center of such a major happening. I started to think he was taking this way harder than he needed to be and that at some point you have to let go of things, forgive, and move on.

A few weeks later, with that conversation still bothering me, I made an appointment to see Father Louie in his office to share my concerns with him and encourage him to let it go. I certainly did not want to lose him as a LifeTeen priest. Also, some of my friends who were also at the retreat had complained to me that they'd overheard Father Louie talking to the teens about his feelings and they'd felt that wasn't appropriate.

I tried to encourage him to let go and forgive and move on, that there were great things for him that he wasn't seeing from being so focused on the scandal, but I was way out of my element. He quickly overpowered me with his talk about how much scandal there was in the Church beyond even what our own diocese had suffered. He had a two inch thick manila folder on his desk.

“Do you know what is in this file?” he asked me.

“I have no idea,” I replied.

“This is a file of cases involving priests sexually molesting children!” he said with a tone of disgust.

“That entire file?” I asked incredulously.

“I have two more just like it,” he replied.

He went on to give me a lecture about how innocent, naive and unaware I was of just how evil and wicked my own Church was and how you can't just know stuff like what he now knew and let it go, forgive and move on. The weight of the evil was simply too enormous.

At the time I knew nothing about the priest sex abuse scandal (this all happened years before it broke). I didn't want to discount the possibility that this was true, but I struggled to grasp how that could possibly be relevant to what Father Louie and our diocese were going through.

“I don't know anything about all these other scandals,” I said weakly, “but I do believe our scandal was handled as well as could be expected, not that people didn't make mistakes or anything, and you have done your part in it, but now it's time to put it behind you and focus on being a good priest. Those kids in LifeTeen really need you to be there for them, and you can't right now because you are so consumed with your own pain.”

“Yeah, that's exactly what Monsignor told me,” he spat. “He wants to send me on this healing retreat! As if that's just going to make all this go away! They just want me out of the way.”

Father Louie refused to go on the healing retreat and eventually left the priesthood, very much a broken and angry man. Both in that conversation and on the retreat I could see the seeds of destruction already taking root, and I don't think I have ever felt more helpless than I did in that moment witnessing it.

Non-fiction


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