Tuesday, January 31, 2006

glutton for punishment

Couldn't believe the video they ran the other day of James Hanley, an ex-priest in NJ, who confronted the people he abused nearly 30 years ago. They found out where he was living and gathered outside his residence. Hanley took them on in the street. It was one of the most bizarre and pathetic scenes imaginable.

Why would he go back to live in the very same place that it all occurred? Why would he expose himself like that to his accusers after the $5 million settlement had been paid? What kind of retort is: "Your brother Jimmy I abused, but you I never touched!"

A glance at the sex offender registry, state by state, shows how widespread the madness is. And the nearly 500,000 members of this elite club are only those who have been prosecuted and registered. This guy Hanley was never criminally prosecuted because the statute of limitations ran out and is therefore not a registered sex offender. But folks are scared of him all the same.

40 year old Joseph Druce was convicted last week of first degree murder for strangling John Geoghan in a MA prison. Druce said he had been 'chosen' to bring retribution to the pedophile ex-priest and would accept the consequences of his calling.

Another, totally different story is that of Alfredo Vargas. I originally read about it in the NYTimes in greater detail, but that article is now on the pay site. You can get the gist of it here. The story of the prosecution and eventual exoneration of Vargas, a Nicaraguan immigrant, contains many elements that reveal just how unverifiable and haphazard the judgement of these cases often is.

Vargas' condemnation was based almost entirely on the roundabout, contradictory and inconclusive account of the confused little four year old he allegedly abused. The prosecution was fueled by the parents of the girl, both lawyers, both obsessed with sexual abuse: on multiple occasions they have claimed that their other children were abused by other predators at the same synagogue...

Vargas never wavered in his insistence of innocence, to the point of rejecting a bargain that would have freed him with a guilty plea. The young girl, on the other hand, never told the same story twice. She changed key details of the supposed episode. When asked to indicate who had touched her, she pointed to two different male jurors.

All the same, Vargas served five years before concerned members of the synagogue where he was caretaker managed to reopen the case and get the verdict changed. Ironically, he is not yet a free man because he faces deportation due to immigration issues.

Our society produces an abundance of violent, deranged people who prey on children. This is obvious to anyone who can the stomach the evening news on a regular basis. But the justice system often appears to be egregiously inconsistent in its judgement of sexual abuse cases.

A judge in Vermont gives a six month sentence to a felon who admits to raping a handicapped girl during a four year period. In Florida, multiple offenders get reduced sentences and are released having served only a fragment of their time. Across America, dioceses are expected to dish out endless streams of money to folks accusing priests of deeds that occurred 30 and 40 years ago. Few of the cases are adequately investigated (that is as much the Church's fault as anyone else's) and, even if there were the will to do so, many of the accused are dead or incapable of defending themselves.

The members of a synagogue rallied to the cause of their caretaker. I wonder in how many parishes in which false accusations have been tendered the parishoners have gone the extra mile for their priest... Or should we just accept the fact that it's "guilty until proven innocent" for a certain class of people?

Is it any wonder the Exorcist is so confused?

Sunday, January 29, 2006


Came across a thought from Josef Ratzinger in a 2000 interview he gave German journalist Peter Seewald at Montecassino.

"When it comes down to it, everyone has to undergo his own Exodus. He not only has to leave the place that nutured him and become independent, but has to come out of his own reserved self. He must leave himself behind, transcend his own limits; only then will he reach the Promised Land..."

So true.
So revealingly true.

Friday, January 27, 2006

get out and vote

I was watching one of those 'year in review' programs recently. Is it just me or was there an unusual number of political elections, real and ersatz, in the year gone by? Voting goes on almost everywhere, all the time, for all kinds of things. Kind of like the American Idol model applied to the world political scene...

Lots of noise over the Palestinian elections. The press banters about words like 'stunning' and 'shocking' to describe the Hamas leap in power, but I, like others, am not so sure how surprising it is. Did anyone really think that the Palestinians, so steeped in poverty and fear, so easily frenzied by radical religious and political discourse, would choose the path of moderation?

Back in July of 2005 the Iranians 'elected' the truculent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, one of six mullah appointed candidates to the presidency, as a clear sign of where their leadership wants to go.

Free elections may not be the panacea for the Islamic world that the US is looking for.

The electorate in Iraq chose a majority of Shiite leaders who pledge to rule by religious law, albeit tempered by internal political opposition and the nervous influence of the US. For some, the nightmare of the rebirth of a 'greater Persia', Islamic world power is just starting.

Viktor Yushchenko was sworn in as Ukraine's president on January 23 after a bizarre campaign and three failed election attempts.

George W. Bush began his second term on January 20.

The Saudis held municipal elections for the very first time ever in Riyadh. Interesting, though not exactly a major victory for the proleteriat: only a third of those eligible voted and women were excluded. When King Fahd bin Abdel Aziz al-Saud (82) died in August he was succeded by the younger, more reckless Prince Abdullah (81).

The Egyptian parliment said it might start thinking about thinking about having some sort of very controlled if not all together symbolic election of someone to some honorific post sometime in the undetermined and improbable future. That encouraging announcement was made in February.

Actually, Mubarak allowed elections when seeking his 'fifth term' later in the year. He shocked all the pundits by taking 98% of the vote.

After the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the Lebanese government was disolved to free itself from the pro-Syria faction widely believed to have killed the ex-prime minister. The incumbent prime minister, Omar Karami, was reelected and, unable to form a new government, resigned a few weeks later.

Kyrgyzstan had fraudulent elections. Zimbabwe held fake elections. Afghanistan had dangerous elections. And it seemed that everytime the news went on during 2005 the Iraquis were voting for one thing or another.

Liberia elected Harvard-educated economist Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf over former soccer star George Weah. How being elected to anything in Liberia could be considered 'winning' is beyond me.

Tony Blair won a third term, the Italians dissolved and reformed government at the usual rhythm and zee Germans elected Angela Merkel as their first female chancellor.

Check out Latin America: Tabare Vazquez in Uruguay (first time socialist rule); Evo Morales in Bolivia (Viva la nacion aimara!); Michelle Bachelet in Chile (mas de lo mismo)... all of whom can snuggle with Hugo in Caracas and Fidel in La Habana to make the southern hemisphere a worrisome place for Uncle Sam. And when the PRD candidate Lopez Obrador wins in Mexico on July 2, the fiesta can really begin.

The Equatorians threw out President Lucio Gutierrez and VP Alfredo Palacios assumed power. I believe the government of Equador remains basically pro-USA, so W can breathe easier...

Of course, Pope Benedict XVI was elected to succede John Paul II. Not a 'popular' election nor one born of democratic process in the strict sense of the term. Very newsworthy, nonetheless.

You know, now that I think of it, I don't believe I've ever voted in any election. I had better get with the program. This could be my year...

Monday, January 23, 2006

thou shalt not smell

In these times of waning interest in the sacrament of reconciliation among the faithful, we administrators of the sacraments should go the extra mile to make confession as available and inviting as possible.

As Demagistris admonished us constantly back in the day: "Non fare oneroso il sacramento!!!"

A youngster's first confession is often a make-it-or-break-it experience. Years down the road the penitent may not remember what he or she confessed that day, but the impression and feelings of the moment will linger for a long time.

I heard first confessions this weekend at St.Michael's, an African American parish in the heart of this city's war zone. If, along with grace and forgiveness, the kids left the church with a smile and a desire to come back some time, I'd say I did my job.

The Exorcist humbly offers a few tips to brother confessors that may help make repeat offenders repeat penitents.

1. Do not smell. More folks have abandoned the confessional because of the padre's doggy breath or fermenting socks than were 'reeducated' during the Inquisition. For most kids, the reconciliation room is as close up as they've ever been to that guy who stands behind the altar in the flowing robes. They simply will not get past a bad odor. Brush your teeth. Use mouthwash. Shower. Shave. Soap and deoderant are real crowd pleasers. Wear clean clothes. Don't gross the folks out.

2. Assuming you've gotten #1 down, SMILE. A sincere, friendly smile tells the penitent that he'll probably come out all right. It seems to imply that the priest has pretty much heard it all and will not get all medieval on him. It definitely means that the padre is not in a hurry, not bored, not wishing he were somewhere else or with someone else.

3. Be serious. Not mean, not harsh, not threatening. Listen and guide, but don't belittle or make light of anything you hear in the confessional. If it meant enough to the penitent to bring it to the confessional, it is to be taken seriously.

4. Restrain yourself from asking unnecessary questions. A good confessor knows how to glean what the penitent means from what he has actually said. If you get it, move on. There is such a thing as a confession that is TOO detailed.

5. Give a penance that means something. The ol' "three Our Fathers and three Hail Marys" isn't terribly pedagogical, whereas "say a personal prayer of thanksgiving for all the good things God has done for you", "go out of your way to be charitable to someone you dislike", "sacrifice some of your free time to help out around the house", "read and meditate on the parable of the good samaritan"... and the like work a lot better.

6. Be there. After a couple of years without set confession times in the parish, I began sitting in the confessional from day one for half an hour before each Mass. It is never a waste of time.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

conscientious objector

Today is National Hugging Day.

In this deranged country you can be slammed with a sexual harassment suit for telling the receptionist her hair looks nice.

How good an idea is this hugging business?

Call me unpatriotic, but I'll pass on today's festivities.

Famous Last Hug

Thursday, January 19, 2006

everybody hurts

In times of momentous challenges and threats that hover over entire populations it is the private, personal tragedies that continue to rivet our attention.

A cursory look at the headlines of the last few days show us what news hits home.

1. A handicapped six year old girl is so badly beaten by her mother's boyfriend that her left arm has to be amputated. The girl's mother not only refused to give her daughter immediate medical attention, she invented a series of lies to protect her daughter's assailant. To date no one has been charged.

2. A seven year old girl is tortured in cold water and beaten by her step-father. She is left alone in their apartment by her mother, moaning and pleading for help, only to lapse into unconsciousness and die in the hours before her mother's return. Nixzmary's funeral was held on Tuesday.

3. MA courts ruled that an eleven year old girl could legally be taken off the life support that has kept her alive since a beating at the hands of her adoptive parents last September that left her on death's doorstep. The day after the court's decision (yesterday) Haleigh's doctors reported a change in her condition. She can now breath on her own.

4. Another arrest was made in the case of the homeless folks attacked and beaten by Florida teenagers over the weekend. One man was killed, two others were hospitalized. The teens' families brought in lawyers to negotiate the surrender of the young men in a way that would be sensitive and respectful of their rights. Having seen the security video of the beatings time and time again on the evening news all week, I can understand how sensitivity is a big issue with these kids.

Iran and North Korea pursue nuclear programs. OBL makes more threats over Al Jazeera. Volcanoes erupt in Alaska...

But the really scary shit happens next door. Down the block.
You don't have to go far to realize that what we do best is hurt each other.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

anthony the abbot

An interesting article by an Opus Dei priest is making the rounds out there.

Perhaps the trademark of Catholic faith (in the sense of 'personal belief', not the collection of dogma) is seeing opportunity and grace in what has been experienced as disgrace and defeat.

"...diligentibus Deum omnia cooperantur in bonum." Right?

According to Fr. McCloskey the 'long lent' of the Church in the USA is over and we can optimistically look forward to a true revival of Catholicism in the near future.

The Exorcist is by no means the most upbeat guy on the block (you don't get this job by peddling chicken soup for the soul), but there's enough truth and food for thought in the article to make it worth reading.

Of interest:

  • the relation between immigration issues and the health of the Catholic Church in this country
  • "The US alone has more priests than the top three Catholic countries combined (41,000 in the US to 37,000 in Brazil, Mexico and the Philippines combined). This makes talk of a "priest shortage" in the US almost laughable, at least in comparison with many countries struggling to care for much larger Catholic populations."
  • the aging of the priesthood in the US and the drastic fall off of vocations
  • the state of Catholic education: "Almost half the Catholic schools open in 1965 have closed; 4.5 million students attended Catholic schools in the mid-1960s, while today there are about half that many students."
  • the signs of a revival of Catholic colleges
  • the ambiguous stats of Catholics' adherence to the Church's moral teaching

It's a pretty mixed bag. Maybe in a couple of centuries they'll look back on these times as truly monumentous in the history of the Church. Or maybe they will be hardly noticed as a ripple in the ebb and flow of human events.

But neither of those future possibilities diminishes our responsibility for the present.

The Exorcist has spoken.

Monday, January 16, 2006


The Archbishop celebrated Mass today at the cathedral in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. and in memory of his protagonism and sacrifice for the cause of social equality in this country.

This evening, fittingly enough, the deacons of the archdiocese held a prayer vigil to ask for peace in this violent city. There have been six murders and numerous cases of assault - mostly drug and gang related - since the new years.

2006 is only fifteen days old and it already feels hard and tired.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

behind bars

I finally went to jail.

It must have been back in June when I was approached by a very distraught women after Saturday vigil Mass. Her son had been arrested for reasons beyond her comprehension and was incarcerated at the state correctional institute here in the city. She wanted me to see him, speak to him, help him.

Shortly after that, a lady appears one weekday, very stressed out, and says she needs me to perform her matrimony. Immediately. Her fiance, Nicaraguan by birth, is currently doing time at Northern CI, level 5, maximum security. The wedding must be now, but they're willing to postpone the honeymoon a bit until they can be somewhere together other than the inmate visiting room.

Later, Raul asks me if I can go over to Osborn CI and see his father... and his uncle... and his brother-in-law. The family that steals together, appeals together.

The list continued to grow and it dawned on me that the relationship between many of the undocumented, unemployed members of the parish and the state correctional system is far from casual.

I also discovered that getting approved for prison ministry is no easy task. Ministry from prison to prison in this land of laws is processed separately. It's not like you're approved for one and, therefore, you're approved for all.

Anyway, after a drawn out process, Osborn CI today finally told me I can go to jail.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

book of daniel

Help me decide which was more pathetic: the attempt to drum up controversy and stimulate ratings or the show itself.

My decision: NBC's Book of Daniel has been found equally pathetic on both counts.

No doubt Americans could relate to the detatched, braindead Jesus of Daniel. And I found myself feeling grateful, at least, that the protagonist of the show was an Episcopelian priest... until it is revealed that his Catholic counterpart is a fifth rate Mafioso.

But, in the end, everyone can relax - or doze off, as was my case. Book of Daniel is bland, vapid, Housewives style programming of the kind America has made itself comfortable with.

Certainly not the stuff of controversies. Not even for us.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

instant annoyance

Why can't I see or read the news without getting annoyed almost instantly?
Has the Exorcist really grown that ornery during his mid-life crisis?

Two items that immediately bugged me:

1. The tragic report of the West Virginian miners that died in an accident a couple of days ago was instantly eclipsed by the false rumor of their survival that spread the night of the rescue mission. Imperceptibly, in a nano-second, the story was not about the death of the miners, but rather about how their friends and families felt upon hearing the news. Immediately the media began looking for someone to blame for the rumor, asking the miners' kin how angry they were about the false hope they were fed, suggesting they sue someone in outrage, not for the accident that took the miners' lives, but for allowing their feelings to go from elation to despair during the ordeal.

Before our eyes the dead miners were pushed aside and the reaction of those who somehow felt tricked or abused (concerning a situation that was tragically hopeless to begin with) took center stage.

Why does the media do that? Why does it make us think it's always about us?

Twelve miners lie dead, but I feel outrage, hurt... I have a microphone in front of me and a lawyer waiting in the wings so I become the news item.

2. Both the NYTimes and the Boston Globe have published reports this week about the second wave of settlements that is about to hit the Archdiocese of Boston in reference to the clergy abuse scandal that has literally decimated the Church.

In a nutshell, both report on the outrage felt by the new, belated wave of claimants and their pricey lawyers because the Archdiocese has modified its terms for ths new settlement. This time, there will be an average payout of $75G (down from $153G the first time) and - gasp - the Church reserves the right to cross examine with its own lawyers any or all of the claimants that have hopped on the settlement bandwagon this time.

Why the outrage?

First, because the money available is significantly less due to the near bankruptcy of the Church in Boston. The claimant's lawyers are quick to insist that the money never interested their clients, that it is only the deep yearning for justice and closure that impels them.

OK. The money doesn't interest us, we're just pissed off because there's not more of it.

Second, because the Archdiocese has not waived its right to question, examine, investigate the nature and the credibility of the claims made this time around. The claimant's lawyers deem this new attitude a grotesque sign of the Church's insensitivity toward the victims. In their view, the courage it takes to sign on to the claimant's list should be more than enough guarantee of the credibility of their complaint.

If this were a class action suit against the government or a major pharmaceutical company, no one in their right mind would question its prerogative to cross examine the claims.

During the first round of settlements, the Church waived its right to cross examine and paid huge quantities to the victims of its priests' misdeeds. Now it is compelled to scrutinize the claims more closely. Is this injust? If the claimants and their lawyers truly burn with the desire for the truth to come out, how could a new, direct line of questioning be harmful? The Church has already agreed to pay a second round of settlements. Why the outrage?

I do not easily buy into the sorry dirges about anti-Catholic bias or conspiracies to destroy the Church. I am appalled and ashamed by the crimes committed by priests and the suffering of their innocent victims. I think the Church does well to offer generous compensation and reach out to them, knowing that the scars will never really heal.

Yet the litigious animus of our secularized society knows no bounds. Is it so cruelly preposterous to consider the possibility that not all the claims against Boston's clergy - many stemming from incidents that supposedly occurred 30 or 40 years ago and many made against priests who are long since deceased - may, in fact, be equally credible?

Many criticized the Church in the past for paying out private settlements to abuse victims to avoid having cases go to court. Lawyers and advocates were rabid over the Church's unwillingness to surrender private records and files to public scrutiny when they were eager to make their case against the abusers.

Now that the Church considers asking questions of the accusers and not blindly paying out settlement sums there is outrage.

This is the stuff that annoys the Exorcist.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

two monsters

There are, in fact, two monsters.
The one that devours us.
The one we become.

The one outside.
The one inside.
Do the math.

Is life short enough to outrun either one of them?
It seems that our only chance is a quick sprint. A short burst of speed might put us beyond their grasp for an instant.

On a long enough timeline, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero.
I know this because Tyler knows this.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

happy new year

New Year's resolution #1: keep it to yourself.

Peace, y'all.
And Happy New Year.