Saturday, March 5, 2011

Abuse Story in Philadelphia Archdiocese Deepens, and Circus Side Show at Chestnut Hill College Continues

The situation in the archdiocese of Philadelphia remains dismal, where Katherine Seelye and Jon Hurdle are reporting in the New York Times that  three weeks following the grand jury report which resulted in the indictment of the diocese's secretary of clergy Msgr. William Lynn, most of the 37 priests credibly accused of inappropriate behavior towards minors in the report are apparently still in ministry.  

Cardinal Rigali initially responded to the report by claiming that no priests credibly accused of molesting minors are still in ministry, but then suspended three priests accused of abuse who were, in fact, still in ministry.  Seelye and Hurdle report that many Catholics in the Philadelphia archdiocese are stunned by this latest report, which is like "Boston reborn" (this refers to the first major round of abuse revelations in the American church in 2002), since Catholics in the area had been informed that the broken system had been fixed and abusive priests had been removed from ministry.

Meanwhile, the story of the openly gay and partnered Old Catholic Apostolic priest who was fired recently at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia becomes stranger and stranger, with reports that Fr. Jim St. George had previously been jailed for mail fraud in the early 1990s.  Despite this, as the Advocate is reporting, support for St. George on the campus and among students remains strong, and students have organized a Facebook group to express support and are planning demonstrations.

Chestnut Hill officials are on the defensive, and on Thursday, the college issued a new statement saying that it expresses its sorrow for not having communicated clearly about a situation that it regards as "rife with complex and complicating factors," and that the college "aches" for the deep pain and anguish the firing has produced for gay members of the campus community and gay alumni.

I have to wonder what's the deeper story here, the backstory to all of this turmoil.  On the one hand, St. George's criminal record certainly doesn't look good.  On the other hand, as someone who has done administrative work as a university department chair, academic dean, and academic vice president, I'd be very surprised to learn that someone with a known criminal record could not have been well vetted prior to hiring.  Just as I'd be astonished to learn that those who hired St. George did not know he was an Old Catholic priest and in a gay relationship when he was hired.

I have to wonder if those digging up dirt now are engaged in a game designed to divert attention away from what's happening with the diocese and its officials.  And if the dirt digging was already going on at the time whoever's been pushing for St. George's firing began that push--that is, if he was carefully selected as a target and a sacrificial scapegoat precisely because someone knew that they could bring out this dirt down the road, to make the decision to fire him because he was gay sound even more plausible.

Given that all of this is happening just as the grand jury report comes out and the seemingly criminal behavior of diocesan officials--behavior that many people would see vastly transcending in ugliness what St. George has been accused of, and behavior that has gone unpunished for years--becomes known to the public, I have to wonder why St. George is being pursued so vigorously.  And who's behind the pursuit.

This is not to excuse criminal behavior on anyone's part, or to suggest that St. George should be given a free pass simply because he's gay, and because that's the ostensible reason Chestnut Hill fired him.  It is to point out, though, that smear campaigns of this sort are not anything new in faith-based institutions,  including Catholic ones, when the target is a gay person who has spoken out against unjust discrimination by these institutions premised on the sexual orientation of the person being targeted.

Meanwhile, in another bizarre twist in the story, it appears Sister Carol Jean Vale, the Sister of St. Joseph who is president of Chestnut Hill, is now also being targeted on reactionary Catholic blogs--for having hired St. George in the first place.  And for being, well, a Vatican II-style nun.

This response to the St. George story on Daniel Hamiche's AmeriCatho blog is astonishing.  Hamiche entitles the posting, "Schismatic, Openly Gay, and Professor in a Catholic College," and under the title, has a picture of Vale with the caption, "All smiles, with a permanent and earrings, a necklace and brooch, this is Sister Carol Jean Vale, SSJ, a perfect idiot."

Hamiche goes on to express astonishment that "Father" St. George, a member of a schismatic "church" in a relationship of "homosexual concubinage," would be hired by a Catholic school (the first two sets of quotation marks are in the original).  He concludes with the hope that the "false priest" (my quotation marks) sues the school and wins.  

Hamiche is, according to a biography at Wikipedia, a royalist Catholic traditionalist, and a French journalist--which makes the fact that he maintains a website whose subtitle says it's devoted to the history of and news about American Catholicism fascinating.  Why would a French journalist who promotes royalism have any interest in blogging about American Catholicism, I wonder?  With a prominently displayed link on his blog's homepage to an essay entitled "The Battle Against Obamacare" . . . . 

Curioser and curioser, the St. George story and the commentary swirling around now about it seem--especially in light of the real story, the really important one, that's breaking in the Philadelphia archdiocese at the moment.  And which the circus sideshow at Chestnut Hill College should not obscure.

And, finally, I have to say it: the declaration of Chestnut Hill College that its administration "aches" for the pain its decision to fire St. George has caused to gay members of the campus community sounds hollow to me, when Sister Carol Jean Vale's initial statement about why St. George was fired still stands: his partnered gay life is "contrary to the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church."  The Catholic church, its bishops, priests, and nuns can't have it both ways: you can't fire people because they're gay and then say your heart "aches" at the pain you've inflicted.

You can't do that and be credible, that is.  What speaks loudly and clearly is not the tinny insistence that your heart "aches" at a cruelty you're inflicting.  What speaks loudly and clearly is your unjust treatment of those who are gay solely because they're gay.  And the cruelty you're willing to practice in the name of church teaching.  No matter how much you claim to be aching about that cruelty.

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