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the envelope, please ...

By Diogenes ( articles ) | Mar 20, 2006

The former vice-chancellor of the Archdiocese of Boston, Msgr. Frederick J. Ryan, was defrocked by the Holy See last week, judged guilty of having repeatedly molested male high school students.

His departure marks something of a milestone in the clergy abuse crisis, as Ryan is the first Elmo Award winner to be definitively dismissed from the clerical state. This prize, accompanied by a trophy in the form of a Tickle Me Elmo toy, is bestowed upon deserving churchmen in recognition of statements that, in the words of the citation, "give voice to an exceptionally outstanding insouciance" in the matter of clerical sexual abuse, and that "illustrate an obtuseness beyond the capacity of unaided human imbecillity." Elmo winners say the kind of things that, examined in light of their authors' commitments and responsibilities as ordained ministers of religion, make you cease to wonder how it happened that we got where we are.

Ryan bagged his Elmo back in March of 2002 when being interviewed by journalists at his Kingston, MA, rectory. Asked point-blank whether he had molested former student Garry M. Garland, Ryan replied:

"I don't think that's a fair question. Let me find out what this is about."

Congratulations, Fred! There's a bottomless universe of cynicism underneath that remark. Enjoy your Elmo.

While we're at it, let's review some of the more celebrated specimens among our other Elmo awardees:

One of the all-time greats was Archdiocese of Portland priest Fr. Maurice Grammond, the man chiefly responsible for his diocese's bankruptcy. Referring to his more than 50 boy-victims, Grammond insisted:

"I'd say these children abused me. They'd dive in my lap to get sexual excitement."

To the manner born. As in his own way is the classically querulous St. Petersburg Bishop Robert N. Lynch, who was caught rolfing his communications director :

"Do I wish I didn't feel his biceps?"

No doubt about it: he's a natural. And speaking of naturals, high on everyone's list is former USCCB president and three-time Elmo winner Bishop Wilton Gregory, who scored back-to-back grand slams in 2003: in February with the press-conference closer, "The terrible history, recorded here today, is history," and again in June, with his contention that the bishops' progress to date was "nothing less than miraculous." I confess, however, my personal favorite remains the lead-off homer he jacked way back in January of 2002, reacting to the news that sexual abuse is a crime:

"We have all been enlightened."

Even four years after delivery that line can still bring a few tears. Yet we can't forget the bishops' consultant and St. Luke's exec Fr. Stephen Rossetti, with his knack for grabbing the horns by its bull:

"What I'm afraid of is we're going into this witch hunt for gays."

Three hundred years from now, wherever church historians are gathered, they'll be shaking their heads over that one. And Rossetti's fellow St. Luker Fr. Canice Connors, though more prolix, did his bit for the team as president of the Conference of Major Superiors of Men, bewailing the Zero Tolerance clause:

In paying this purchase price for their moral credibility, the bishops in effect could be perceived to have become one with the voices of the media, unreconciled victims and a partially informed Catholic public in scapegoating the abusers.

Catch that? "Scapegoating the abusers." If Elmos were awarded with an Oak Leaf Cluster, that phrase alone would deserve it. There are certain expressions, often uttered without thinking, that in a single glance reveal the moral landscape of an entire profession. Many of us will never again think of therapy or therapists without remembering Canice -- and his scapegoats.

It's hard, considering the caliber of the competition, to single out individual Elmo laureates as uniquely worthy of the honor. That said, my own candidate for Best of Show would have to be Louisville priest Fr. Louis E. Miller, who, having pleaded guilty to more than 50 counts of child sexual abuse -- and whose victims included his own relatives -- was asked to assess his lifetime's work as a priest. Said Miller,

"I did a very excellent job, except for the damn abuse."

Now there speaks a man who takes his Holy Orders seriously.

You will have noticed one glaring omission in the Elmo Stakes, that of Joliet Bishop Joseph Imesch. The fact of the matter is that Imesch has uttered so many Elmo-worthy remarks that he warps the distribution curve. It is no disparagement of his contribution to say that an Elmo would be superfluous, if not an outright impertinence, to a man of his accomplishments. He's in a class by himself.

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