I was in my office at the seminary where I was teaching when the telephone rang. I answered, only to be assaulted by a barrage of foul language. After the caller cooled down, he explained that he had just read a piece I had written, months before, about a priest I knew during my days as an altar boy at a small New England church.
Father “Smith” was the parish curate (parochial vicar), whose Masses I had served fifty years prior to that telephone call. In the piece I’d written, I thanked Father Smith for his sterling priestly service and his entirely positive impact upon me. During my whole time as an altar boy, I was most impressed by Father Smith.
He was transferred just before I entered high school in 1960. High school, college, the Army, the start of married life, graduate school, and college teaching came in rapid succession. I had never thanked Father Smith and, by the time I finally thought of it, he had died.
Still, I wrote, even after his death, to express my public appreciation to this fine priest, who had been a part of my idyllic boyhood: wonderful parents, great priests and teachers, baseballs, bicycles, books – and, in time, a hometown bride.
Father Smith was a loyal son of the Church, I had written. Everybody in my parish loved him. He treated altar boys with respect, kindness, and good humor. If, for instance, I made errors serving Mass, he would offer patient correction. He was “there” for everyone in need – counseling, celebrating, consoling, baptizing, witnessing marriages, visiting in hospitals, and presiding at wakes and funerals.
Then my caller told me that Father Smith was a rapist; he was among the boys whom Smith had raped.
This was utterly beyond my ability to comprehend. In the six years that we knew him in our small town, there was not a single negative incident and not one manifestation of the ephebophilia (an adult’s sexual attraction toward adolescents), of which Father Smith was now being accused.
I was told that Father Smith was a member of a ring – terrible noun – of priests who took teenage boys to a rural camp, plied them with drinks, drugs, and pornography, and then had sex with them. Worse, Father Smith’s successor at my old parish was also named as a member of that ring.
There was little solace in learning that this vile activity had taken place about twenty years after I’d been an altar boy.
I thought – and told the caller – that the charges must not be true.
But they were true – confirmed by various credible sources and by personal testimony of people I had known years before. My mind reeled. How could this pious priest have participated in these debaucheries, these felonies, these mortal sins? Father Smith? The devout, kind, sincere, genial Father Smith?
I don’t know. I will never know. I still remember Father Smith at Mass, turning toward the people, and saying, Dominus vobiscum; invoking the help of St. Michael the Archangel against the wickedness and snares of the devil; his obvious devotion to Our Lord and to His Church.
In the movie The Sand Pebbles, Steve McQueen plays U.S. Navy sailor Jake Holman, who, after a misadventure in China, is trapped; just before he is shot, he asks, “What the hell happened?”
It has been almost sixty years since I saw Father Smith, who had once urged me to consider entering the priesthood (I did not). He prayed the Mass with great reverence, he was obviously devout in his teaching and preaching, he was kind and gracious and appropriately funny, and he was an exemplary priest. I still have fond memories of someone I knew as a holy priest and as a good man.
We writers are thought to have answers to the questions we raise. Well, I don’t have any answers about Father Smith. I don’t understand. I am still stunned by this mystery of iniquity. (2 Thess 2:7)
I do know, as the aphorism has it, that Corruptio optimi pessimum est (“The corruption of the best is the worst.”) We looked to Father Smith and his kind for the sacred, and we were given the profane; for virtue, and we were given vice; for purity, and we were given perversion. He was called to be worthy of his office. (cf. Eph 4:1) But he betrayed his promises and his priesthood. The vows and priestly potential of the best Father Smith somehow degenerated into the moral malignancy of the worst Father Smith.
We fervently pray, of course, for all victims of evil. I also think of Father Smith from time to time, and I pray for the repose of his soul. He had been such a good parish priest, such a good influence, that at least one of his former altar boys would seek him out many years later to say thank you. He must have done great good (which I remember) as well as great evil (which, thank God, I never saw or heard of when he served at my parish).
Did he, toward the end of his life, think of the many ways he had betrayed his solemn priestly vows and of those whom he had so cruelly violated? As he lay dying of heart disease, did he repent (CCC #982)? And did he ask himself and God, as he died, “What the hell happened?”
I pray that he did.