Last week it became public knowledge that Fr. Frank, the Vice President of the Paulist Fathers, had been suspended from his priestly duties after admitting, with great remorse, to having made unwelcome sexual advances towards an adult woman. A spiritual leader had fallen and when that happens, the debris field is scattered far and wide.
When the news broke at my Paulist parish, a friend asked me if I had heard. Once she was aware that I had, her body language changed. This small woman appeared to grow even smaller before my eyes. Her downcast eyes and softly spoken promises of prayers for the situation were saying to me, “Now that I know that we share this sorrow, we can bury this conversation, go on with our lives and never mention this again.”
At first, I admired her for not gossiping, and for what seemed to be the “Christian” thing to do. But I remained ill at ease. I realized that there is a middle ground between gossiping and burying your feelings. As a Church, we are stumbling our way toward being less secretive and more transparent. We are emerging from decades of circling the wagons and holing up until our heartaches, blunders and tragedies pass us by. That’s exactly what got us into so much trouble in the first place. As difficult as it is, it’s time to face our demons and open ourselves up to the Spirit’s invitation to actually change. This is my attempt to do just that.
When I heard about the incident between Fr. Frank and the victim, my knee jerk reaction was “Thank God it was an adult.” Then I caught myself. I realized that with regard to clerical sexual abuse, I have been hyperfocused on the horrific sexual abuse of minors in the Church, and rightly so. But many men and women have been traumatized from being sexually abused by members of the clergy in adulthood, and I have felt very little real compassion for the harm they have suffered. The relief I would feel that another child had not been damaged usurped the empathy I could have felt for them.
My newfound empathy was seeded by the way I received the news, which arrived via a letter from Paulist President, Fr. Rene Constanza C.S.P. It was the best letter I have ever read by a churchman regarding clerical misconduct. Fr. Rene showed utmost concern for the harm this incident caused the victim. He wrote: “It was heart wrenching to hear the traumatic effect the words and actions of a priest can have on someone.” Fr. Rene also indicated that Fr. Frank profoundly regreted the harm he has done.
Fr. Frank is a friend of mine – someone I have known and admired for many years, so this has left me in a peculiar state of moral confusion.
How do I separate out all the good he has done, from this dramatic fall from grace? In this era of cancel culture, am I supposed to boycott his poetry, books, and film work? Do I write him off as someone I once knew? Or as my friend implied, bury the conversation, and never bring it up again?
I contacted Fr. Frank when I got the news, assuring him of my prayers and continued friendship.
My prayers for him and for all those caught in the debris field of this situation are mostly wordless prayers of bruised love.
I don’t know what actually occurred between Fr. Frank and the victim. And, never having been a victim of sexual assault myself, I have no context for what justice should look like in this situation. As his friend, I cannot help but hope that justice may, at some distant time, also provide forgiveness and reconciliation that includes a return to priestly ministry. But I then have to ask myself would I have the same hope for a priest that I did not know and care about? And if not, why not?
Earlier this year Fr. Frank was interviewed on the "Deacons Pod" regarding, of all things, his book entitled “Can You Let Go of a Grudge,” subtitled “Learn to Forgive and Get On with Your Life.” Perhaps in some serendipitous irony, Fr. Frank’s own words can be a place to begin the healing process. In his book he provides an acrostic poem using the letters “LET GO” to explain the steps to forgiveness:
“L – LOOK DEEPLY AT WHAT WENT WRONG. Really examine the hurt. How it happened. Your part in it. Their part in it.
E – EMPATHY. Do you have any empathy for the other person? Can you at least
summon up the smallest sense of empathy? You don’t necessarily have to love
them right off the bat, but can you see where they are coming from? Or can you at least understand them?
T - TELL THE STORY DIFFERENTLY. You have a story in your head about this hurt. Is there another way to tell that story? Ultimately you want to get to the place where the story changes from so-in-so hurt me to, so-and-so hurt me and I’ve forgiven them. Because when you do that, you go from being a victim to being a victor over your own hurt.
G - GIVE THE GIFT OF FORGIVENESS. Recognize that forgiveness is a gift. The other person may not deserve it, and that’s why it is a gift. But you choose to extend this gift, which means that you choose to emotionally cancel the debt they owe you. You don’t hold on, waiting for something from them.
O – ONE-DAY-AT-A-TIME TO KEEP FORGIVENESS STRONG. It’s hard to always feel forgiving and so when you find yourself slipping back into feelings of anger, hurt, or resentment, reassert the decision you made that you are going to forgive the person and let go of whatever emotional debt you feel that they owe you.”
But still love.
Relying on the slow work of God.