Thoughts on the Arrest of My Parish Pastor for Sex Trafficking

Last Tuesday, the pastor of my parish, Fr. Michael Zacharias, was arrested for sex trafficking. He seemed like a nice and normal person. He did not come off as creepy. I knew him casually in the way most active parishioners knew him. Talks in confession, his homilies, questions after Mass. I liked him. In Findlay, Ohio, a town with only one Catholic parish, he was an important part of the community.

Sex abuse in the Catholic Church is up there with my least favorite topics to talk about. Like many Catholics who take their faith seriously, I get questions from friends when Catholic sex scandals blow up. I am happy to share my thoughts, but it is embarrassing. When something is an important part of your life, it hurts to have it become associated with child molesters. Some other institutions that I have been associated with have had sex abuse problems (see Michigan State University and the United States Air Force) but it is different when the abuse is in your religion.

So, I was horrified and depressed to find out that on my pastor was arrested by the FBI after Mass and charged with sex trafficking. As a lawyer, I am strongly in the “innocent until proven guilty” camp, but if my priest’s indictment is to be believed there is damning video and text message evidence in this case. Apparently, Fr. Mike liked to make “confession” videos for one of his now adult victims. In one highly disturbing video described in the indictment, Fr. Mike, wearing his clerical outfit, admits, among other sordid details, that he met one of his victims in 6th grade and says that “I got to know him over the years. I knew that he was, that his dad was out of the picture, and I started grooming him . . . . So I kept going over to his house and I got to know him over the years.” In his text messages with the victim, Fr. Mike asked, “I used you. I groomed you…Didn’t I? How old were you?” To which the victim replied that he was 12. In an effort to get the victim to destroy the confession video, Fr. Mike allegedly told the victim that “it would only take one cop to tell the Bishops’ and he would never be able to give Victim #1 money again, everyone would know Victim #1’s face, and the Parish would be ruined.”

Not only was a priest who I liked and respected accused of a horrible crime against children, he admitted his predatory motives. By his own words he sought out and groomed a boy who’s “dad was out of picture.” The indictment also detailed how Fr. Mike used the victims’ drug addiction to get them to submit to his advances. Pope Francis’s description of priest sex abusers as “ravenous wolves” could not be more apt.

A bad day.

After all the Church has been through in the last 20 years, it is painful to see that the wolves are still devouring the sheep. Arguably, the Church has made significant to eliminate a system that used to protect sex abusing priests and reassign them to positions where they can abuse again. Priests are suspended, law enforcement is notified, parishioners are trained, awareness is pervasive. I even recall Fr. Mike talking about the “vile filth” of sex abuse in his homilies and reassuring the parish of all that is done to prevent the very conduct that he engaged in. Our parish, as well as other in the Diocese of Toledo, began to say the St. Michael prayer after each Mass to fight the evil of clergy sex abuse.

Now, after each new sex abuse scandal in America, I hear big picture conceptual changes that tend to fall into the camp of either a) there should be married priests (as an article in our local paper suggested) or b) the church needs to go back in time to before the 60s sexual revolution. I find both solutions unsatisfying. In terms of married priests, reading the daily news suggests that there are plenty of married men also committing sexual abuse. Just look at the married executives and entertainers caught up on the #MeToo scandals and it is clear marriage is no panacea to prevent sexual abuse. As for taking the church back in time, I do not see that helping either. Priest sex abuse seems to transcend notions of “progressive” versus “traditional” with offenders coming from across the theological spectrum. Additionally, even in the 1950s there were many reports of clergy sex abuse. These are complex conversations, but the bottom line is that these types of changes will not help as much as some people think.

So where to go from here? There is still something wrong. Fr. Mike was ordained in 2002, the year the Church really began to take sex abuse seriously after reports of abuse in Boston. There still seems to be something culturally in the Church that attracts bad apples and allows them to successfully live double lives. Why would a priest stick with a vocation for almost 20 years that is constantly teaching that what he is doing is the worst kind of evil?

The problem is power. Power that often comes in the form of clericalism. Clericalism is having an attitude toward clergy, of presumed superiority and excessive deference. The power of clericalism makes being a priest appealing to some with questionable motives and allows bad priests to live secret lives. Clericalism does not directly cause priest sex abuse but it creates fertile ground for it to occur. Clericalism is an attitude that creates a dynamic of the priest being above parishioners an even it its most innocuous forms prevents the priest from responding to others as Jesus would respond to them.

I have to utmost respect for priests and can unquestionably state that a few priests have changed my life for the better and helped me to make good life choices. What these good priests had in common was that they knew what a priest’s most important job was. And what is a priest’s most important job? To perform the sacraments and preach the gospel.

Yet there is a ton of power that comes along with being a parish pastor that has nothing to do with the sacraments and is, at best, tangentially related to preaching the gospel. Contrary to the impression of many, a pastor is not a branch manager of the bishop and has considerably more power at the parish level than one would expect. The pastor has power over finances, hiring, education, activities, social programs, and more. Parishes have financial councils and parish councils, but these are just advisory bodies without decision-making authority. Even the power of the bishop over the pastor is limited. As described by one pastor: “The bishop can have oversight; his permission can be required for the spending of money or the sale of property. But it is the parochus [pastor] who is the CEO of the parish or parishes in which he holds office.”

The current structure of Catholic parish life often places relatively young and inexperienced men in positions of vast power and resources from the earliest years of their vocation. In addition to spiritual centers, large parishes are multi-million-dollar non-profits. Given the priest shortage, associate priests who stick around for a few years will be pastor of their own parish. Compare that to the experience of achieving similar levels of responsibility such as becoming the executive director of an equally large nonprofit, CEO of a regional business, or superintendent of a small school district. Most people struggle for years to rise to such levels of responsibility developing trust and leadership skills while under the microscope of their peers and bosses.

Some priests will correctly view the worldly power of being a pastor as a burden and rise to the challenge with humility. However, I am afraid that for others this worldly power is what attracts them and facilitates their ability to live secret lives apart from the parish community.

While it would be a mistake to try and run a parish like a corporation, society has learned a lot about ensuring accountability in organizations that is not reflected in the canon law. It is not a unique phenomenon that power causes problems with leaders. Descriptions of the impact of power on leaders even suggests the connection between power and sexual abuse:

Once we become socially isolated, we stop simulating the feelings of other people. As a result, our inner Machiavelli takes over, and our sense of sympathy is squashed by selfishness. The UC Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner has found that, in many social situations, people with power act just like patients with severe brain damage. “The experience of power might be thought of as having someone open up your skull and take out that part of your brain so critical to empathy and socially-appropriate behavior,” he writes. “You become very impulsive and insensitive, which is a bad combination.”

How Power Corrupts, The Atlantic

If there is one lesson that has yet to be learned of all the years of clergy sex abuse scandals is that worldly power, when not carefully controlled, is a danger to men’s integrity and tends to attract those with lifestyles that benefit from the protection that it provides. Regardless of the theological bent of the pastor or whether he is married or not, human nature is that power corrupts if not carefully limited by outside safeguards.

In addition to the risk of abuse of power that is present in any organization, clericalism in the Church has an added spiritual risk. When priests focus on activities outside of their sacramental/ gospel spreading job description, it cheapens both the true mission of a priest as well as the vocations of the lay people who are devoted and trained to do these worldly activities. St. Josemaria, never one to shy from inflammatory language when it gets the point across, called the commitment to priests doing their sacred mission and lay people doing what they do best “healthy anti-clericalism.” As opposed to the unhealthy/murderous anti-clericalism of revolutionary Spain and Mexico, an attitude healthy anti-clericalism insists that there is something wrong when priests spend most of their time doing activities that do not necessarily require a priest. The consequence of this is that Catholic lay people develop the misconception that all works of spiritual good at the parish much go through the priest. The priest becomes the parish in the eyes of many. The priest begins to see himself as the indispensable figure head of the parish, separate and apart from the lay people. According to St. Josemaria, healthy anti-clericalism “proceeds from a love for the priesthood and opposes the use of a sacred mission for earthly ends . . . .”

Clericalism is simply contrary to the universal call to holiness of all people. The more power held by the priest over worldly activities, the fewer opportunities and less motivation that lay people have to flourish in their own lay vocation to sanctify the world. This creates an unhealthy imbalance in parish life that is bad for both priests in lay people. Clericalism makes it okay for a priest to live a separate life and secretive life away from the lay community where his behavior, lifestyle, and priorities cannot be questioned. I believe this is why Pope Francis connected clericalism with sex abuse stating:

Such is the case with clericalism, an approach that “not only nullifies the character of Christians, but also tends to diminish and undervalue the baptismal grace that the Holy Spirit has placed in the heart of our people”.  Clericalism, whether fostered by priests themselves or by lay persons, leads to an excision in the ecclesial body that supports and helps to perpetuate many of the evils that we are condemning today.  To say “no” to abuse is to say an emphatic “no” to all forms of clericalism.

Letter of Pope Francis, August 20, 2018

In Fr. Mike’s own words, the parish would “be destroyed” if people found out about his criminal activities. Thinking like that is clericalism. And Fr. Mike might be correct. In the eyes on many Catholics, because of clericalism, the parish is the priest. I am sure that our parish will lose families over this scandal. For those families, the parish is destroyed. I cannot judge them for this, but would suggest that the priest is not the parish. Our parish is remarkably high quality in many regards and the despite the secret crimes of our former pastor that has not changed.

When it comes down to it, the problem of clergy sex abuse is seemingly simple. The Church needs to create a culture where being a priest is not an appealing job for sexual abusers. If the Church cannot do that, no amount of safeguards will solve the sex abuse problem. I would propose that the one way to attract and retain good priests and driving away the bad is by rooting out clericalism and the carefully limiting the worldly power that comes with being a pastor. Priests need to administer the sacraments and preach the gospel, all the other power can foster a dynamic of apartness that is unhealthy and lead to abuse when not limited.

Of course, there are other forms of worldly power that can cause problems in the Church. I think of the recent allegations against prominent lay Catholic celebrities David Haas and Jean Vanier. While all I knew about Haas was his name in the hymnal for his inescapable music, I had great respect for Jean Vanier’s writings as a parent of a child with special needs and news about him hurt. While clericalism had no role in theses allegations of lay abuse, I do suspect that the ever-growing power of celebrity played a role. Even in the absence of clericalism, becoming a “Catholic celebrity” is a path that is frequently corrupted by power and money. I would go as far as to say that getting famous and/or rich off the Church is contrary to the Gospel and should be treated with extreme suspicion.

This post is depressing for me to write, but I do think there is still hope. As I mentioned, there are good priests in this world who have help me immensely. There are also priests who are willing to go against the status quo to root out sexual abuse. I think of the late Bishop John D’Arcy.

Bishop D’Arcy was the bishop of South Bend when I was in law school. He was a good guy. Then, as now, was a time of deeply politicized culture wars at Notre Dame. In this combative atmosphere, Bishop D’Arcy was a level-headed and reasonable person. He disagreed with people who did not see things his way, but he did it in a way that did not vilify or demean those he disagreed with. Not everyone liked Bishop D’Arcy, but if you listened to what he was said, he respected and understood other viewpoints. Bishop D’Arcy also had an interesting role in trying to stop sex abuse in Boston.

In the 1980s, while serving in Boston, he repeatedly tried to stop sex offending priests from being reassigned. He wrote letters making the commonsense recommendation that priests with histories of child abuse really need to be kept away from children. He was one of the very few in the Church to push back against the hierarchy protecting abusing priests at the time. Bishop D’Arcy realized that, “[y]oung people are open to priests, and, when assaulted in this way, their souls are often irreparably damaged.” He also realized that some men are attracted to the priesthood who have no business being there. Bishop D’Arcy admitted that he, “soon realized that one of my jobs was to get people out of the seminary — while helping the good men become holy priests.” According to Bishop D’Arcy, “I was known by some of the seminarians as ‘D’Arcy the hatchet man.’ I was focused on whether their vocation was authentic.” Unfortunately, his advice was not heeded in Boston until it was too late.

My family and I with Bishop D’Arcy. When I was the Bishop’s altar server for the consecration of the Notre Dame Law School chapel, I set off the fire alarm with incense in the middle of the ceremony. He was cool about it.

While Bishop D’Arcy was ahead of his time, I do not think that priests who are genuinely committed to eradicating sexual abuse from the priesthood are rare. I think good priest are the majority now. And I have hope that the Church is headed down the path of eliminating sex abuse.

So why remain Catholic? It is hard to think of any stigma worse than to be associated with child sex abuse. It is disgusting and unappealing. I could point to all the good works done by the Catholic Church or that the parish is more than just the priest. But ultimately, what keeps me Catholic is that it is true.

When I was just becoming interested in Catholicism in 2004 after returning from an incredibly stressful tour in Iraq, I started going to Mass. Though I had been to Mass before and had done the sacraments when I was younger, it had been a long time and I was not very interested earlier. I did not remember what to say, when to kneel, when to use holy water, et cetera. So I went to Barnes & Noble and looked in the Catholic part of the Christian book section. The most official looking book there was the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which I thought would certainly answer these basic questions.

I took the Catechism of the Catholic Church home and started looking through it. It did not answer my basic liturgy questions. Far from it. However, it was interesting and I read it. What struck me was that the Catechism presented an entire world view that that transcended how I understood things. It was a world view that was compelling, inspiring, and supported by scripture, the teachings from thousands of years of saints, as well as reason. This was deep stuff and I was hooked.

The Catholic Church that I want to see is one where the beauty of Church and its teachings are not imprisoned by the evil of sex abuse. I am hopeful that this will happen and that I live to see it. Eliminating will require the Church to examine how its power structures can foster abuse. But it is still worth being Catholic, even in a time of crisis. In the words of St. Peter when Jesus asked him if he was going to leave with all the rest, “To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” John 6:68.

13 Comments

  1. This was a good read for the catholic soul. Thanks for taking the time. Prayers for strength within your parish.

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  2. Hi Mike, this is eloquently written. Thank you for using your gift of writing to suggest a solution to this deep issue. I’m not sure how our paths have not crossed at St. Mike’s, but I hope they do soon.

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  3. Dear Mike,
    My sister-in-law forwarded your writing on sex abuse to me. I appreciate it very much. I think your analysis is right on target. If I may, I might add or emphasize one more element, the Sacrament of Holy Orders.

    First.
    Ordination in Roman Catholicism is the sacrament upon which the entire organization of the RC church is built. Those who are ordained to the diaconate and/or priesthood (exclusively male)are sacramentally elevated to the ruling class (aristocracy) of the church. At that point they begin to share in all the property, wealth, and power that exists within this formidable institution of 1,000,000,000+ people world wide. That is no small step. One can gain more power and wealth as one then begins to climb the ranks of the clerical ladder: deacon, priest, pastor, Monsignor, Bishop, Archbishop, Cardinal, Pope. Each of these ranks has its own particular form of address or title. But, that is only the beginning.
    Second.
    Ordination also confers a certain spiritual authority with it in that it confers upon the ordinand’s soul an indelible mark, designating that person to be of a special spiritual power that gives the individual the capability of effecting or administering the 7 sacraments. This spiritual power is of far greater consequence than the ecclesiastical rank written about above. The laity in the church are in theory and practice dependent on the ordained ministers. Except in very conservative quarters the saying, extra ecclesiam nulla salus, (outside the church there is no salvation) is not emphasized a lot in these ecumenical times. Nevertheless, it is still a very basic position of RC. So, if a lay person wants to attain eternal salvation they must have those who are ordained.
    Third.
    A man submitting himself to or petitioning ordination must also take on the vow of celibacy. This has so many implications that I could not possibly mention even the majority. However, for the purpose of this brief comment it can be noted right off the bat two things are apparent: a. from the point of view of the clergy this person now belongs entirely to the institution, physically and spiritually. This person is now a member of this elite fraternity. b. from the point of view of the laity this person is now theirs (so to speak). He is not tied to any one person, in fact, he is in very particular ways beholden to the Church(everyone in the Church), and in Roman Catholicism constituted as the shepherd of the lay sheep. The metaphor shepherd/sheep says it all. The priest (starting at the entry level) is automatically the smart in charge of the dumb, the leader without whom the sheep go astray, etc. The vow of celibacy emphasizes and ‘proves’ his complete commitment to fulfilling his role of getting the laity to attain eternal salvation. This immediate and close spiritual relationship is established at the moment of ordination.

    These 3 elements come together in the Sacrament of Holy Orders when a man is ordained to the celibate priesthood. It puts that man in an incredibly powerful position. Can it not be said that this sacrament has created two classes of people, i.e., clergy above and laity below. The more seriously a lay person takes the church the more power the priest has over them. This structure has been built up and perfected over the centuries until we see where we are now. We have a class of people in the RC with absolute power. Absolute power corrupts even within an institution that claims to be guided by the Holy Spirit.

    Conclusions, objections and interpretations galore can be drawn.
    I wonder if clericalism in such a structure is even avoidable. I, too, know and have known many, many priests who in no way thought of themselves in any manner superior to others. In fact, many who took up the role of servant in the most healthy of ways. However, how is an institution that polices itself, promotes within a system of internal loyalty, makes its own laws, claims immunity from any other governance, and claims that what it does is inspired by the Holy Spirit going to avoid the quiet or subtle or open abuse of power and feelings of being a law unto themselves? Humans take advantage of their situations. At every level and rank of the Church clericalism I think will persist, unless there are some structural changes. Nevertheless, where would one begin? Consider the resistance to married priests, ordination of women to any position, worker priests, and all the ways throughout the history of the church the lessening the difference between these two classes have been attempted. I don’t think the male, celibate clergy by any stretch of the imagination is willing to give up its status, and I dare say, I don’t think the laity wants them to give it up. This is a sticky wicket. The laity has what it wants, a group dedicated wholly to achieving their goal of eternal salvation, a group they cannot do without.

    No doubt in every aspect of an analysis or argument there is the appeal to the Holy Spirit, i.e., that the Church is guided by the Spirit, it is founded by Christ, etc. But, are not basic structures of reality to be taken into consideration? I think some way of structuring the church to avoid the class system needs to happen. Clericalism may then be reduced or even avoided.

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