open wounds

By Diogenes ( articles ) | Jan 14, 2006

Multiple molester Fr. Paul LeBrun, C.S.C., was sentenced to 111 years in prison yesterday. His lawyer tendered the standard plea for mitigation used when members of the "helping professions" go wrong.

Ken Huls, LeBrun's attorney, said the priest "helped hundreds of thousands of people," ranging from troubled youths to death row inmates. He said LeBrun would appeal his conviction and sentence.

One thinks in this connection of Cardinal Law's farewell letter to John Geoghan: "Yours has been an effective life of ministry, sadly impaired by illness." To what extent is it true that we can separate the priest from his pederasty, and declare his non-felonious ministry a gift to the Church? I'm not being captious here; the question is a complicated one.

1) Take the case of a surgeon who makes a single disastrous mistake -- by an oversight, let us say -- that puts an end to an otherwise brilliant career. In this case, there's no question but that those patients he healed were healed in truth and that no subsequent blunder could change the fact. Here we have total isolation of good deeds from bad.

2) On the opposite extreme, take the case of a mole, a spy employed as an agent of the intelligence apparatus he is trying to subvert (Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Robert Hanson, &c.). Here it's impossible to find "positive contributions" made to his putative employer by the villain: every virtue, favor, or benefit exhibited by the mole turns out to be an instrument of his treachery and, far from having profited his co-workers, contributed to their subversion. To plead in extenuation, "He may have been spying for the enemy, but on the other hand he did work many extra weekends" would be imbecile. Here we have zero isolation: all seeming "good deeds" are retroactively understood to be bad.

So how do we assess a Paul LeBrun? Catholics believe, of course, that "the unworthiness of the minister hindereth not the effect of the sacrament" (I'm assuming for the sake of argument that LeBrun's mischief was "extra-ministerial," that he said a licit Mass and preached orthodoxy, &c) whence there's no question that LeBrun's Masses were true Masses, his confessional absolutions real absolutions, and so forth. If this ex opere operato sacramental work is the "help" to which his lawyer is referring, we'd have to agree that the help was help indeed.

What's harder to decide is whether LeBrun's role in this "help" objectively belongs on the credit or debit side of the ledger. Is he is more like the surgeon or more like the mole?

In terms of LeBrun's personal intentions for his conduct of priestly ministry (as opposed to the objective ecclesial intention), we can imagine it was a mixed bag. Perhaps sometimes he used the ceremonies as occasions to scout out new victims; perhaps other times he was just doing his job. More to the point is the subjective harm visited upon those persons who trusted LeBrun. After the fact of his sexual crimes became known, it seems to me, much of the edification LeBrun gave to the faithful would, retroactively, turn to disedification or disgust. Former NYT reporter Melinda Henneberger, reacting to the news that a priest she knew was a predator, probably speaks for many in registering her dismay:

I recently learned ... that the priest who signed my marriage certificate and baptized my two children also happens to have allegedly sexually molested a 14-year-old boy two decades ago. There he is, smiling, in what had once been my favorite photo of our wedding day. There he is again, pouring holy water over our twins' foreheads.

For Henneberger, what had earlier been a cherished memory became soured by the revelation of the pederast inside the pastor. Even if her faith in the Church is not damaged, her ability to take joy in the Church is. On a more trivial level, I had an analogous reaction when learning of Msgr. Eugene Clark's relations with his secretary; the introduction Clark wrote for a favorite collection of Ronald Knox's writings, once edifying, now dishonors its subject and gives a brief tweak of pain. In the case of LeBrun, perhaps many remembered words of comfort or catechesis, after his crimes became known, not only lost their power of consolation and instruction but took on a contrary force and roused embitterment toward the Church. The long-term impact of the "help" LeBrun gave those "troubled youths" mentioned by his lawyer doesn't bear thinking about, but the counter-reaction applies more widely. No one likes to be duped, and to ask the faithful to keep their regard for Catholic faith distinct from the scoundrel who used that faith to delight them is to ask a lot. Of those who find the effort too much to bear, some crumble by abandoning the Church that employed such a scoundrel, others crumble by refusing to admit he was a scoundrel at all. Both types suffer the same harm, having been alienated from the truth by fraud.

LeBrun's attorney said the priest "helped hundreds of thousands of people." Objectively, this number includes every person on whose tongue LeBrun placed a communion wafer. Apart from that, only those who died or will die without learning who he is could be "helped" without qualification. It's hard to enlist these dead folks in LeBrun's cause. In his upcoming 111 years of sabbatical from active ministry, LeBrun will have ample time to contemplate his past and make reparation by prayer and fasting: that is a help that genuinely lies within his gift, and we can hope that, on the occasion of his eleventy-first anniversary, we are all his beneficiaries.

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