Priest tells of sex scandal’s impact

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The Republican (Columbus, Indiana)

20 June 2012

By Deena Yellin  The Record (Hackensack N.J.)

HAWORTH, N.J. — A New Jersey priest is providing a rare, intensive look inside a Roman Catholic priesthood tarred and shaken by the child sex-abuse scandals.

The crisis didn’t just harm victims and test the faith of believers, asserts the Rev. Stephen Fichter, pastor of Sacred Heart parish. It also affected priests innocent of any wrongdoing.

Some priests were angered at diocesan leaders for their lack of action, and others felt shame for the church and for themselves as its representatives. There was paranoia they could be accused falsely, and many said the incidents made them wary of interactions with congregants, especially kids. Some even stopped wearing their collars in public for fear of heckling.

Those are among the findings of the recently published book, “Same Call, Different Men: The Evolution of the Priesthood Since Vatican II,” (Liturgical Press 2012), in which Fichter and co-authors explored changes in the priesthood over the past 40 years through interviews with hundreds of priests nationwide.

“I felt great pain. It was terribly hurtful. … It’s like losing a member of the family,” one interviewed priest said in the book. “One accused priest in my order had been my confessor and spiritual director. There was a lot of pain hearing what was being said about him and others.”

Fichter, who has a doctorate in sociology and does research for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, said, “We knew we couldn’t stick our head in the sand and pretend it didn’t happen. We recognized what a horrific tragedy it was.

“The weekend the news came out about the scandal in Boston in 2002, I tried to deliver a homily in church and I broke down and cried. We realized that what we were trying to address was a tragedy. … But in our book, we try to look at how it affected the good priests — the 99.9 percent who never molested a child — what was it like for them, who maybe knew the guy and served in the same church and thought he was a good guy and then found out he was fondling an altar boy.”

Fichter himself could relate to the sense of betrayal and mourning: “I found out a guy I was friends with was a monster,” he said. “It absolutely shatters you.”

James Davidson, professor emeritus in the sociology of religion at Purdue University, called Fichter’s findings “an important book” and said “the reason the book is going to get a lot of coverage is because it’s got some of the best data out there on today’s priests. It’s got a longitudinal look out there dating back to the 1970s and gives us a sense of how they are different from priests 40 years ago.”

And Davidson agreed that the child-sex scandals “continue to haunt the American Catholic Church. The fact that there has been such an episode seems beyond belief. … The priests have been as troubled by it as anybody. It’s been their colleagues who have been entangled in this episode. It affects their sense of who they are and the careers that they have dedicated themselves to. … As a result, everybody is looking for answers and wanting to look at implications of this whole mess.”

Another topic in the book is the graying of the American priesthood. In 1970, the average age of a priest was 35 and now it’s 63, said Fichter, 44. As a result of a shortage of Americans going into the priesthood, many bishops have turned to other lands. That multiculturalism brought with it blessings as well as challenges, Fichter said. “In some dioceses, the majority of priests were born outside the U.S.”

Davidson called the demographic information one of the book’s “most important findings.” But he also notes indications that even with their increasing average age and dealing with a growing Catholic population, “it’s remarkable that they are as satisfied with their ministries as they are, considering the conditions that they are working under.”

Fichter’s own calling came gradually. He grew up in Tenafly, N.J., graduated from Bergen Catholic High School as salutatorian and received an Air Force ROTC scholarship. He planned on college. And when his best friend told him he wanted to join the priesthood, Fichter talked him out of it: “I told him he was crazy and asked why he’d want to waste his life.”

But after high school, he left church one morning and an elderly woman placed a Miraculous Medal in his hand, saying: “When you are a priest one day, I want you to give this to someone.” Fichter had no idea he’d be a fit in the priesthood, but the incident got him thinking. And while hitchhiking through Ireland in 1986, he encountered many types of clergy that further stirred him.

One night he prayed for divine guidance. The next day, as he walked on a beach, he met a nun, who told him she saw the “priestly vocation” in his eyes. Several weeks later, he was in a car that flipped. As it crashed in a ditch, Fichter vowed that if he came out alive, he would become a priest. Everyone survived, and he stuck to that vow.

Now at Sacred Heart, Fichter said the best part of the priesthood is being there for the big moments in peoples’ lives: “People share their difficulties and struggles, and you help them work through a crisis. But you also share happy moments with them, like at baptisms. You become part of their family.”

On a given Saturday, he might conduct a funeral at 10 a.m. and then during the afternoon preside over a wedding, hear confessions and celebrate Mass. “Dealing with people in this way is a beautiful career or, as we call it in the church, a vocation,” he said.

His biggest sacrifice, he conceded, is not being able to marry and have children of his own. But that, he said, is part of the compact. “Every good priest I know has struggled with this.”

Apparently, many colleagues also have similarly made their peace: Amid all the recent turmoil, priests reported being content.

“One might think that all these older guys who have more work and are spread so thin (sometimes in several parishes) would be burnt out and unhappy,” he said. But he found just the opposite.

“Does this vocation have its share of trials and difficulties? Without a doubt,” he said. “As a priest, you’re never really ‘off duty.’ Even on my days off, I always keep my cellphone handy in case someone needs me.”


Catholic Order Jolted by Reports That Its Founder Led a Double Life

The New York Times

Published: February 3, 2009


The Legionaries of Christ, an influential Roman Catholic religious order, have been shaken by new revelations that their founder, who died a year ago, had an affair with a woman and fathered a daughter just as he and his thriving conservative order were winning the acclaim of Pope John Paul II.

Before his death, the founder, the Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, had been forced to leave public ministry by Pope Benedict XVI because of accusations from more than a dozen men who said he had sexually abused them when they were students.

But most members of the Legion continued to defend Father Maciel, asserting that the accusations had not been proved. Father Maciel died in January 2008 at the age of 87, and was buried in Mexico, where he was born.

Now the order’s general director, the Rev. Álvaro Corcuera, is quietly visiting its religious communities and seminaries in the United States and informing members that their founder led a double life, current and former Legionaries said.

The order is not publicly confirming the details of the scandal.

Jim Fair, a spokesman for the Legionaries, said only: “We have learned some things about our founder’s life that are surprising and difficult for us to understand. We can confirm that there are some aspects of his life that were not appropriate for a Catholic priest.”

Some former members said they expected the order to renounce its founder, but Mr. Fair said: “He is the founder and he always will be the founder of the order. That’s one of the mysteries that we all see in life is that sometimes good things come out of less than perfect human beings.”

In Catholic religious orders, members are taught to identify with the spirituality and values of the founder. That was taken to an extreme in the Legionaries, said the Rev. Stephen Fichter, a priest in New Jersey who left the order after 14 years.

“Father Maciel was this mythical hero who was put on a pedestal and had all the answers,” Father Fichter said. “When you become a Legionarie, you have to read every letter Father Maciel ever wrote, like 15 or 16 volumes. To hear he’s been having this double life on the side, I just don’t see how they’re going to continue.”

Father Fichter, once the chief financial officer for the order, said he informed the Vatican three years ago that every time Father Maciel left Rome, “I always had to give him $10,000 in cash — $5,000 in American dollars and $5,000 in the currency of wherever he was going.”

Father Fichter added: “As Legionaries, we were taught a very strict poverty; if I went out of town and bought a Bic pen and a chocolate bar, I would have to turn in the receipts. And yet for Father Maciel there was never any accounting. It was always cash, never any paper trail. And because he was this incredible hero to us, we never even questioned it for a second.”

Mr. Fair said he had no comment about whether Father Maciel had misappropriated money, fathered a child or sexually abused young men.

The Legionaries, founded in 1941, have grown as the church in many countries has shrunk. It has 800 priests in 22 countries, and 70,000 members worldwide, many of whom are lay people in its affiliate, Regnum Christi.

Tom Hoopes, managing editor of The National Catholic Register, which is affiliated with the Legionaries, posted an apology on the Web on Tuesday for having dismissed the sexual abuse accusations, saying, “I’m sorry to the victims, who were victims twice.”

1 Response to Priest tells of sex scandal’s impact

  1. Sylvia says:

    This book Same Call, Different Men: The Evolution of the Priesthood Since Vatican II by Father Stephen Fichter looks like an interesting read and another perspective on the impact of the clerical sex abuse scandal.  

    I looked up Father Fichter – turns out he is former Legionaries of Christ priest who got out of the order and became a diocesan priest.  Good for him.  I am sure that news of the life of debauchery led by the Legionaries founder Father Marcial Macial had a profound impact on Father Fichter and led him to examine and share his thoughts on the sex abuse scandal and cover-up in the Church. 

    I tacked on a 2009 article in which Fichter recounts his dealings as the chief financial officer for the Legionaries with Father Maciel ( “I always had to give him $10,000 in cash — $5,000 in American dollars and $5,000 in the currency of wherever he was going.”)

    I think I may just order this book to see what Father Fichter has to say. It may be a disappointment, but, on the other had,  it may well be very enlightening.

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