“If you want to be priest, lie!”That was supposed to be a punch line in “Mass Appeal,” a comedy-drama written by American Catholic playwright Bill C. Davis. First staged in 1980, it was made into a film four years later.
In the screen version Jack Lemmon stars as Father Tim Farley, a popular pastor of an affluent parish in Connecticut. He’s a friendly, feel-good type of priest whose homilies are carefully designed to avoid challenging or upsetting his generous parishioners.
Fr. Farley drives a late-model Mercedes-Benz, loves his wine and Scotch, and spends his day-off at the racetrack. He is “considered to be one of the best priests” in the diocese.
One day he’s asked to mentor Mark Dolson (Željko Ivanek), a highly idealistic young deacon who risks being blocked from priestly ordination because he hasn’t toed the line in the seminary.
Mark’s main offence is that he strongly defended two seminarians that were expelled for a suspected homosexual relationship.
The seminary rector (Charles Durning) thus suspects Mark is also gay. So Fr. Farley, who tells little white lies all the time for “the good of his parish,” counsels Mark to avoid telling the truth about his sexuality so he can become a priest, something the young man desires with all his being.
“If you can afford not to be a priest” – Farley warns him – “tell the truth. But if you want to be a priest, lie!”
Mendacity in the clerical caste
Over the past several months, and even is these last few days, those lines have returned to me over and over again. In fact, one is tempted to alter them and say, “If you want to be a bishop, and especially a cardinal, then lie.”
The sexual crimes perpetrated by priests and bishops, and the criminal cover-up by members of all ranks of the clergy, has shown that not a few men in Holy Orders have told lies.
Some, like Theodore McCarrick, seem to have built an entire career on not telling the truth, at least not the whole truth.
Especially in those countries where the “abuse crisis” is still unfolding (i.e. most places), Catholics are bewildered and angry. They wonder how much more crap is going to come out and how many more high-level clerics will be exposed as abusers and liars.
The latest punch in the gut was a series of revelations concerning Michael Bransfield, the thoroughly disgraced former bishop of the only Catholic diocese in the poor state of West Virginia.
The Washington Post published an exposé on June 5 showing that Bishop Bransfield, who is being investigated for sexually harassing priests and seminarians, gave some $350,000 of diocesan funds as gifts to high-ranking cardinals and the men he’s alleged to have harassed.
McCarrick, who was instrumental in getting Bransfield appointed bishop in 2004, was one of the main beneficiaries of the disgraced bishop’s largesse. The former cardinal headed the Archdiocese of Washington where Bransfield served from 1980-2004 at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
Other beneficiaries of Bransfield’s generous gifts of cash included Cardinals Donald Wuerl (recently retired) and Timothy Dolan (New York), as well as Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore.
The bishop also gifted money to three Americans with powerful posts in Rome – Cardinal Raymond Burke and the now deceased Cardinals Bernard Law and Edmund Szoka.
Two Vatican diplomats also received substantial monetary gifts from the bishop when they were serving as papal nuncios to the United States – the late Archbishop Pietro Sambi and the now notorious Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò.
All roads lead to Rome
But one of the most alarming revelations in the Washington Post article, which is based on legally verified legal documents, is that Bishop Bransfield gave two gifts amounting to $29,000 to Cardinal Kevin Farrell, prefect of the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life.
Farrell got his Vatican post in August 2016 after serving nine years as bishop of Dallas.
But before that he was a priest in Washington and eventually made one of McCarrick’s auxiliary bishops (2001-2007). Bransfield gave Farrell the nearly 30 grand to refurbish the cardinal’s Vatican apartment.
A couple of these cardinals and bishops have protested their naiveté or innocence of accepting a bribe.
Most have said nothing. And none of them at this moment, except Archbishop Lori, who is overseeing the investigation into Bransfield’s sexual harassment activities, have condemned the disgraced bishop or pledged to return the funds.
Did none of these bishops or cardinals even stop to wonder where Bransfield was getting all this money? Did any of them consider whether he had ulterior motives for sending them cash? Or that it might be unethical for them to receive such money?
One might be tempted by charity to insist (or at least strongly hope) that Bransfield’s actions were only those of a lone bishop – a sort of one-off that in no way suggest that such attempts at buying favours is common practice in the priesthood and hierarchy.
But the stronger temptation – supported by the facts of history and the deep distrust of the hierarchy that the sexual abuse and cover-up scandals has generated – is to identify this pattern of corruption and mendacity as more widespread and endemic of a bad clericalist system.
It has happened before
And don’t be fooled into the thinking that this is just “an American thing.” You can bet Peter’s Pence that it continues to happen all over the world.
After all, attempts to purchase influence and ecclesiastical office have been around since the foundation of the early Christian community (Cf. Acts 8,18-25).
The stories of cardinals who are believed to have “bought” their red hats are legendary in Rome.
And those scarlet-clad prelates who have used their own money or the money of others to cover up their misdeeds is more well-known than most people in the “provinces” might ever suspect.
One of the more recent cases to make the headlines was that concerning the remodelling of the residence of Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican Secretary of State under Benedict XVI and briefly under Pope Francis.
After retiring in 2013 the Salesian cardinal shelled out nearly $400,000 to renovate two penthouse apartments inside the Vatican that he joined together to be his retirement home.
It became controversial only because it was discovered that the construction firm double-billed for the project and two officials at the Bambino Gesù Children’s Hospital paid the other half. The two were eventually charged with misappropriating funds.
Bertone denied asking for the cash, but in a goodwill gesture donated about $170,000 to the children’s hospital to help cover the loss.
What was so amazing is that no one seemed to wonder where the cardinal got all that money. He comes from a modest family and spent most of his early life in a religious order, which means he took a vow of poverty.
He was no longer bound by that vow once he became a bishop in 1991. But, nonetheless, Vatican salaries are not that high – even for cardinals. He obviously had some generous friends and benefactors.
Sex and money
A priest friend predicted some 15 or more years ago that the next big scandal or crisis in the Church would be of a financial nature. But he wasn’t talking about the likes of bribery or buying of favors that we’ve seen in the Bransfield case.
And neither did he mean embezzlement or stealing from the collection basket. Rather, he was speaking of the financial ineptitude of the average parish priest and a clerical system that puts “Father” in charge of everything – even the parish purse strings.
Negligence in oversight. The priest said it could be easily documented how bishops continue to transfer such financially inept pastors from one parish to another.
The typical pattern is for the cleric to be appointed to a parish with money in the bank only to leave it with a big debt when he is moved to another place six or 12 years later. And there the pattern is repeated.
“The only thing that infuriates Catholics more than knowing that bishops have protected predator priests that could have ended up molesting their own children, is knowing that bishops are shuffling around priests that are wasting the people’s money,” my priest friend said.
This, too, is a form of dishonesty.
But it is probably not primarily due to malice, although the abuse of sex and money can be a strong temptation even to men of the cloth. No, the problem with so much of the scandalous behaviour we are witnessing among clerics is rooted in “clericalism,” as Pope Francis insists.
Thank God the Catholic Church has as many good and honest priests as it does. Because it sure calls for heroism to be good in a very bad and broken clericalist system where “Father knows best” and the people are expected to do what he tells them.
This, of course, is also a lie. And fewer and fewer Catholics still believe it.
Robert Mickens’ “Letter from Rome” was published in La Croix International, June 7, 2019