Charged with fraud, Byron Canada pleaded guilty. So it's understandable that people look upon him with suspicion. The headline in the South Bend Tribune read:
Purported priest pleads guilty to fraud in South Bend federal court
The story opened: "A man who presents himself as a priest pleaded guilty today…"
The headline and the lede would cause an ordinary reader to infer that Mr. Canada conned his victims by making them think he was a priest. That's not the case. He pleaded guilty to a fairly straightforward swindle. Yes, it's possible that his victims were more inclined to believe his promises because they thought he was a priest. But his claims to clerical status were apparently more honest than his claims to be a financier. Read on:
The Rev. Robert Zahrt of Fort Wayne, Metropolitan Archbishop of the Orthodox Catholic Church of America, an offshoot of the Roman Catholic Church, has told The Tribune that Canada had been affiliated with his church but left it last year.
Zahrt has said Canada then joined another, much newer Catholic splinter group, the Columbus, Ohio-based Reformed Catholic Church, but that church has since disbanded.
So at various times Canada has been recognized as a priest by two different denominations. If he was ordained by a bishop of the "Orthodox Catholic Church in America," he might even have a plausible argument that he received valid orders. He's not a trustworthy character; we've established that. But unless you've been avoiding the news for the past 20 years, you already know that it's possible to be both a priest and a louse. Why is the South Bend Tribune balking at references to Father Canada?
Maybe it's a healthy sort of skepticism. It might be a salutary development if journalists began questioning the bona fides of exotic religious groups, asking whether they could claim any substantial membership, and whether they held regular scheduled services in their own buildings, and whether a self-ordained "archbishop" really deserved serious treatment. In fact…
Think about this the next time you read a story about a woman who claims to have been ordained as a Roman Catholic priest. Does the headline identify here as a "purported" priest? Does the lede announce that she "presents herself" as a Catholic cleric? Not likely. Yet a woman who claims to be a Catholic priest can't point to any existing religious body* that attests to the validity of her orders. The unfortunate Father Canada can point to two.
* In this case the endorsement of a Unitarian assembly won't do, since the woman claims to be a Catholic priest.
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