Though I wandered away from the Roman Catholic Church decades ago, for many years I still considered myself “catholic.” It was largely cultural and historical, for in my living daily spiritual practice and faith, I have long transcended it, thanks be to God. My own story of abuse and recovery in that regard is briefly recounted here.
Still craving the comforts of religion as well as intellectual freedom, in 1991 I was ordained as a priest in the Church of Antioch – Malabar Rite. This is an Independent Catholic denomination which maintains apostolic succession and the sacraments but is not in communion with Rome. There are many such small churches around, but they all differ widely in doctrine and practices.
The Church of Antioch is one of the most liberal and mystical. Gender, sexual preference, or marital status do not matter in determining who can be priests. There are women and gays, married, divorced, and unmarried clergy. In fact, for many years, the Church of Antioch was head by a female archbishop, Matriarch Meri Spruit of blessed memory. It is generously non-dogmatic in other ways as well: all sincere seekers, not just baptized members in good standing, are freely admitted to the Lord’s table.
I was lucky enough to be mentored and eventually ordained by the bishop of Santa Fe, the Most Rev. Richard A. Gundrey, who later became Patriarch of the Church after ‡Meri. Yet my clerical career didn’t quite work out. My first attempt to start a parish failed miserably. Shortly after I joined with a fellow priest, a prison chaplain named Fr. Dennis Bryan, to try again years later, he succumbed to cancer. I did have the honor of ministering to +Dennis through his passing, a blessing that I still cherish.
These days, I pray in the chapel I made out of an old brick chicken-coop in the backyard, and am largely content.
Yet throughout all this, I had never officially sundered my ties to the church I was baptized in as a baby. Not even the recovery of horrific memories of sexual and ritualistic abuse at the hands of a priest which became the inspiration for my novel, The Harrowing, could make me take that final step. It took a closer examination of the history of the Roman Church to prompt that
This radically changed with the discovery of a translation of canonical instructions, Crimen Sollicitationes. Because of this document, I requested and received a formal, written, signed and sealed excommunication from the Roman Catholic Church.
Crimen Sollicitationes was quietly approved on March 16, 1962, by the so-called “good pope” John XXIII, revered for bringing together the Second Vatican Council which for better or worse has opened the Church to the light. Issued by the Supreme and Holy Congregation of the Holy Office — now known as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and formerly known as the Holy Inquisition – it contains the procedures to be used in the cases of priests accused of soliciting sex while hearing private confessions.
But despite this – and thirty years of continuing crisis – none of these sins merit excommunication. Indeed, not a single priestly predator has ever been excommunicated for their heinous offenses which Christ himself condemned. No matter how notorious, they may have been laicized under pressure but still only at their own request.
Yet laicization only removes the legal right, not the power or ability, to perform the sacraments. Removing the priestly power, like the “indelible mark on the soul” made by baptism, cannot be done according to Catholic doctrine. “Thou art a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek,” the ordination ritual proclaims, and the clerics take it seriously.
Not James Porter, not David Holley, not even John Geoghan were ever booted out. Indeed, as revealed in a prison interview, Geoghan, who raped possibly 150 children, believed himself to still be a priest and a faithful Roman Catholic until his murder in prison.
Secrets upon secrets
Since all was to be kept secret under papal seal, victims who speak out later give scandal to the Church, and should be thus automatically excommunicated as well. No wonder they have been treated so poorly.
Victims are treated as enemies by the Catholic Church because that is how the hierarchy sees them. It will take more than organizational reforms to change this: the entire clerical culture must be changed, and that is anathema.
Moreover, the bishops were required to keep the policy secret as well under the pain of excommunication as well. So they have lied, lied, and continue to lie, under the direct orders of the Vatican.
The propagandists were right about one thing – Crimen Sollicitationes is not an extraordinary document. It is merely a restatement of how things have been done for centuries. The Catholic Church has held itself to be above secular law from the beginning. At best, the state existed to serve the Church, never the other way around.
“Benefit of clergy,” after all, did not mean a condemned person got to see a priest before execution. In the Middle Ages, it meant that if an accused person could prove he was a cleric, usually by reading the parish’s Latin Bible, he would not be tried in a secular court, but turned over to the local bishop, who had the Church’s own prisons, the “monasteries of strict observerance” to incarcerate him in.
The greatest punishment that the Church can ever inflict was excommunication. For millennia, the mere threat of it was effective on emperors and kings as well as the simple folk, for it was a sentence of death, often physical as well as spiritual. In the Age of Faith, excommunication not only cut one off from the sole source of sanctity without which there is no salvation, it barred one from all Christian society. Excommunicated persons had no rights; they could hold no office; no allegiance or even assistance was due them. In short, excommunicants were regarded as enemies of the state and outlaws.
In modern times, with members of different denominations living cheek by jowl, reality had to be accommodated. So along with excommunicants who were not allowed in a church, there were also the “tolerati“, those whose presence was tolerated by the Catholic Church. Types of excommunications were specified, too. The less serious kind can be done by the act of an ordinary (an abbot or bishop); in which case, that prelate (or a superior) would be the one to lift it. Or it can be much more serious, and reserved for the pope or his representative to deal with it.
None of this mattered to me much as long as I was ignorant of my past. As for my abuse, Crimen Sollicitationes, signed the very week my ordeal began at the hands of the Rev. Thomas P. Wilkinson, would doubtless apply. There was solicitation (along with threats and false teaching) in the confessional from the very start.
To say I was utterly shocked and horrified by this document is an understatement. By my interpretation, since I lacked the courage to tell even my poor mother of the full extent of my torment, I thus failed to notify the bishop (in this case, the Most Rev. James P. Davis) and thus have not been a part of the Roman Catholic Church for most of my life.
Yet ironically, all these monsters remained Catholics. My perpetrator, who with another clerical accomplice had not hesitated to violate the secrets of the confessional in order to conceal his crimes, had probably been caught at some point and confessed. When he finally died (rumor said of hepatitis B), he was the revered pastor of the oldest parish in the city, and was accompanied by an honor guard of seven priests for his burial in his hometown, at least one of whom was later disgraced.
All of this was too much to be endured. Therefore, I wrote a letter to the then-current Roman Catholic Archbishop of Santa Fe, the Most Rev. Michael J. Sheehan, outlining the situation and politely asking for a formal excommunication. I even enumerated the offenses I had committed as an adult worthy of censure, and which canons I had trampled. (Indeed, for several decades before and even after my ordination, I played priest in a medieval recreation society, though I have always carefully restrained my worst heretical tendencies.)
To my considerable surprise, His Excellency most graciously granted my request. Here are the relevant portions of his reply:
Your reference to being excommunicated for not denouncing a priest of the delict of solicitation would not count against you because had to have knowledge of the norm of the Church in order for that to apply. However, as I mention there are several matters in your letter that move me to give a positive answer to your request.
Therefore, at your request, I excommunicate you ferendae sententiae from the Catholic Church. I hope this will give you the peace of soul that you request and I know that you are acting in sincere good faith that this is what Our Lord seems to want from you.
Thus, at last, I am out. I take considerable satisfaction that I am no longer any part of an institution claiming to be from God that punishes victims of its clergy far more than it does that clergy.
In my worst moments, the Roman Catholic Church seemed no less than the Scarlet Woman, the very Whore of Babylon, a wicked mother steeped in two millennia of corruption deserving neither respect nor obedience. If Jesus came back tomorrow, I sometimes fancy that he would at the very least say, “Come out from her, o my people,” before sending the rest to hell.
But in more rational moments, I know the Roman Catholic Church is full of genuinely good people who love God and his Son. But these souls have been surrounded by a web of self-serving con men, who hide behind the saints to practice evil.
But my quest did not end there, thanks be to God. For I was granted a completely unexpected miraculous healing.