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Never underestimate the self-giving of the Catholic priesthood

We easily forget those good priests whose reputations can be permanently tarnished by false accusations

By on Tuesday, 22 November 2011

John Vianney: 'The priesthood is the love of the Heart of Jesus' Photo: CNS photo/Crosiers

John Vianney: 'The priesthood is the love of the Heart of Jesus' Photo: CNS photo/Crosiers

There were two items in The Catholic Herald of last Friday which caught my attention. The first was a Letter to the Editor by Mrs Maureen Findlay-Wilson (mother of Fr Chris Findlay-Wilson), commenting on Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury’s address to the British Confraternity of Catholic Clergy in October. Quoting John Vianney, the Curé d’Ars, Bishop Davies had told his listeners, “The priesthood is the love of the Heart of Jesus.”She writes, “How long have we waited to hear those uplifting but pious sentiments uttered about our wonderful priests by a bishop, their spiritual father? Never underestimate the prayer, humility, work and self-giving that go with the Catholic priesthood. Remember their whole life is one of service to God and us. Where would we be without them? May God bless them always.”

Amen to all that. As one priest commentator said of Bishop Davies speech, “He took us to the essentials of the priesthood, to what really matters, not projects or plans, politics or strategies, but holiness…”

In my recent blog about large families I made the same point; instead of pastoral letters about future diocesan strategies, the laity and in particular married couples, need to be reminded by our bishops of the encyclical Humanae Vitae and its corresponding invitation to be open to life – and therefore to holiness.

The second item, also relating to priests, showed the sufferings good priests sometimes endure. Apparently allegations of sexual abuse in the 1970s at a children’s home have been made against Fr Wilfred Baldwin, late of the Portsmouth diocese, by an unidentified woman. Bishop Crispian Hollis is disputing the woman’s claim because at the time of the alleged abuse this priest was based at the other end of the diocese and had no connection with the children’s home. He spoke of Fr Baldwin as “a priest of unblemished character until these allegations were made shortly before his death and who had no opportunity to respond to the allegations made against him”.

A solicitor who represents those who believe they have been falsely accused of abuse, commented in the newspaper report: “It’s time the public woke up to the fact that in addition to genuine cases… false allegations, whether through conscious lying or delusion, are common.” Apparently, out of 92 allegations made last year, 46 were dismissed after investigation as being unfounded. We tend to focus so much on the genuine cases that we forget those good priests whose reputations can be permanently tarnished and whose wellbeing might be permanently undermined by false accusations.

The late Archbishop Bernadin of Chicago was falsely accused of abuse; so was Cardinal Pell of Sydney. Both men forgave their accusers in an act of Christian generosity. But there are also others of lower profile in the hierarchy who lead lives, as Mrs Findlay-Wilson points out, of self-giving and service and who might be forced to undergo this very modern form of martyrdom. May God sustain them.

  • Anonymous

    I could not agree more. This cannot be said too often.

  • Nick

    Mrs Findlay-Wilson is in a good position to make the observation; not only is she the mother of a priest, she has two more sons training in a seminary.
    In my parish a priest falsely accused of abuse had to spend almost ten years out of active ministry, under suspicion. Only now has he been allowed back.

  • Anonymous

    > We tend to focus so much on the genuine cases that we forget those good priests whose reputations can be permanently tarnished and whose wellbeing might be permanently undermined by false accusations.

    It is time for the Church – both hierarchy and laity – to stand up more vigorously for such priests.

  • Anonymous

    I think it is particularly troubling when accusations are made of events that allegedly happened decades ago and important defence witnesses may have died or are no longer available. And while there are undoubtedly genuine abusers that have got away with it so far (as with any other caring profession and don’t forget that priests if anything have a lower incidence of abuse than those other professions), there is always the danger of “compensation seekers” trying it on knowing that mud sticks and such claims are difficult to disprove.

  • theroadmaster

    The priesthood is pre-configured on the life of the ultimate High Priest Jesus Christ, whose mission was as much a radical counter-cultural challenge to the social ills of Roman-occupied Palestine as it is to our’s.  The status of priesthood has received huge body blows from the flurry of scandals which have emanated from around the globe and it seems that one is directly swimming against the tide to proclaim the inherently real spiritual benefits which are accrued from living fully the life of an “Alter Christus”.  I think that this is the nature of Christianity in general which can never afford to get too comfortable with the ephemeral, false promises and lures of this world.

  • Anonymous

    Wow – what a Mum! I wonder whether Bishops or vocations promoters ever speak to mothers such as her and ask about their family life and customs to get a better idea of the environment in which vocations flourish?

  • Cannon P

    What has happened over recent weeks in the Diocese of Shrewsbury continues unchallenged by those in authority who should be challenging these injustices.
    “All It Takes for Evil to Prevail… …is for good people to do nothing”. “Good people” including the laity, Bishops and priests— who willingly go along with evil being perpetrated in the name of the church. The specific evil is that of the easy destruction of peoples’ lives when they dare to question spiritual authority. As a Christian Community do we have the courage to stand up for what is right.
     Ecclesial obedience is something essential in the Church. The priest receives his ecclesial mission from his Bishop. As Saint Ignatius wrote, “the priests of a diocese are to the Bishop as the strings are to a harp. Priests receive delegated jurisdiction from the Bishop to sanctify, govern and teach. Without the Bishop’s faculties, a priest cannot absolve validly except in danger of the penitent’s death and any marriage he attempts to solemnise will be invalid. Indeed, the only priests to receive ordinary faculties for marriages are parish priests,. That is how it has been in the Church for a very long time. A priest cut off from the Bishop is like a branch cut off from a tree. He does not lose the priestly character, but cannot exercise the Church’s ministry legitimately”.
     Is a priest always obliged to obey his Bishop without any conditions and regardless of how and for what purpose His Lordship uses his authority? All moral acts are evaluated by their finality by the intention of the subject. If, for example, a Bishop tells a priest to stop blogging because his doctrinal teaching is not impeccably orthodox, then he is bound to obey, because he is using his authority for the good of the faithful.
    How do we judge? God has given us objective criteria to work by. First of all, there is the authentic Magisterium of the Church, and we know a Bishop does not have the right to teach or act differently from the Church. Secondly, we have the use of reason and logic. Thirdly, and most important, we have a moral conscience and a healthy sense of right and wrong. St. Martin DePores once said to his superior “Forgive my error, and please instruct me, for I did not know that the precept of obedience took precedence over that of charity”. Does the precept of Obedience take precedence over justice? I One’s obedience to the Word of God trumps fidelity to any human being. Acts 5:29 says, “We must obey God rather than men.”

     We can not continue to stand by and be neutral. “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.Bishop Desmond Tutu
     Clearly many priests fear standing up to their Bishop, they relish their power as parish priest or leader in their community. However it is worth remembering the words of Mahatma Gandhi “Power is of two kinds. One is obtained by the fear of punishment and the other by acts of love. Power based on love is a thousand times more effective and permanent then the one derived from fear of punishment”.
     What we are seeing in the Diocese of Shrewsbury at present is an abuse of power. It is right that we challenge those in authority when we believe they are wrong. Blind obedience and complicity is dangerous. “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”  Abraham Lincoln

    What will it take for the Bishop’s Conference of England and Wales, or the Papal Nuncio to take action and be counted?
     We must seek Justice everywhere, but particularly in the diocese of Shrewsbury. In the words of Martin Luther King “Justice denied anywhere diminishes justice everywhere:”.
     P. Cannon