A Strange Controversy: Fr. Benedict Groeschel

UPDATE: Fr. Groeschel is stepping down as host of EWTN’s Sunday Night Live, a show he began after his near-fatal 2004 car accident, as if to say, “There’s still more that God wants me to do.” Glenn Sudano, a spokesman for the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, had this to say, “At some point you have to take the car keys away from grandpa,” the Rev. Glenn Sudano to the Religious News Service.” A little too cute, but…I get it. The show will continue to air with revolving hosts culled from the order.

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Those who either know Father Groeschel personally or know him through his work—books, videos, retreats—were, what’s an appropriate word, dismayed, baffled, flabbergasted, gobsmacked, pick one, to learn of the controversy he’s found himself embroiled in at this late stage of his life.

The New York Post sums it up thus:

The New York Archdiocese today blasted comments by a Catholic friar who expressed sympathy for Jerry Sandusky and said youths in child sex abuse scandals are often “the seducer.”

Father Benedict Groeschel, 79, told the National Catholic Register that the public doesn’t understand sex abuse cases.

“People have this picture in their minds of … a psychopath. That’s not the case,” he said. “Suppose you have a man having a nervous breakdown, and a youngster comes after him.”

“A lot of the cases, the youngster — 14, 15, 18 — is the seducer,” he added.

A spokesman for the New York Archdiocese, Joseph Zwilling, called the comments “simply wrong.” “The sexual abuse of a minor is a crime, and whoever commits that crime deserves to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” he said. “The harm that was done by these remarks was compounded by the assertion that the victim is responsible for the abuse, or somehow caused the abuse to occur.” . . .

In his interview Groeschel, a member of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, said Sandusky, the former Penn State football coach convicted of years of child sex abuse, was “this poor guy.”

Typically, if I read something like this online, I’d roll my eyes, say something snarky about the priesthood, and hit the sports pages. Same ole, same ole …

But I know Father Groeschel, to the extent that you know someone with whom you have had a few discussions. I used to attend his retreats at a church on the West Side of Manhattan, and he generously gave me several of his books gratis in an effort to help me work through my issues with Catholicism. He also gave me his phone number at the friary if I even wanted to speak further about the Catholic faith. (And this was a very, very busy man.)

Groeschel also wrote for FIRST THINGS while I was managing editor there, which gave me a chance to catch up with him again. I have watched his tape series on the Ten Commandments and the Sacraments almost as many times as I’ve watched The Matrix. When a good friend of mine was producing Lee Strobel’s Faith Under Fire TV show in L.A. and was trying to book clergy to come on the show and talk about the Christian’s obligation to help the poor, I immediately gave him Father Groeschel’s contact information.

A founder of a renewal movement in the Franciscan tradition, Groeschel has spent his life doing three things as far as I can tell: defending the Catholic faith; working as a psychologist (doctorate from Columbia), primarily with clergy; and serving the desperately poor, i.e., the elderly walking the streets of New York in subfreezing temperatures pushing shopping carts poor.

Needless to say, the fundamentalists attached to the Strobel show had no idea what to make of the strange man in the gray habit and declined to have him on. But Father Groeschel could have spoken powerfully on the subject of “the least of these” among us, who have often suffered all manner of abuse themselves.

Which is why these undeniably ignorant, clueless remarks are so damn confounding. Look, in his work as a psychologist, Groeschel most probably has counseled priests accused of pedophilia. I have no doubt he feels that in light of the child-abuse scandals, the church in its entirety has become cannon fodder for every Jack Chick and anti-Catholic secularist who was just waiting for the Vatican to implode. Consequently, he can become somewhat defensive about any Catholic accused of abuse. (I remember a mini-rant he indulged about new rules that permitted priests to be temporarily stripped of their faculties if they were just accused of abuse.)

Add to that the fact that Groeschel “was recovering from a fall where he hit his head when he gave the interview to the National Catholic Register, said Father Glenn Sudano, a member of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal. ‘He is a counselor and he is very dedicated to the poor, and the oppressed, and actually people who are victims of everything,’ Sudano told Metro of Groeschel. ‘This is why it’s shocking that he even said this. It doesn’t even sound like him.’

“Sudano would not disclose Groeschel’s whereabouts. When asked whether Groeschel would face any consequences for his actions, Sudano replied, ‘He is recuperating. I can imagine him being confused, and frankly, knowing him, when it sinks in, he is going to be devastated that he hurt people.'”

In fact, Groeschel has issued an apology:

“I apologize for my comments. I did not intend to blame the victim. A priest (or anyone else) who abuses a minor is always wrong and is always responsible. My mind and my way of expressing myself are not as clear as they used to be. I have spent my life trying to help others the best I could. I deeply regret any harm I have caused to anyone.”

I wouldn’t have stuck my nose in this were it not for the comments I was reading on the Post site. You can imagine their nature:

I would bet that Father Benedict Groeschel has been “seduced” by many a young boy over the years…what a POS.

Ieeeew! Something is very wrong with these people.

Such infantilism. A kid seduced me? I couldn’t control myself? What a man. Someone should investigate Father Nambla immediately.

Father Benedict Groeschel is guilty. Someone should investigate the pig. Never happen though. Never happen. And if it did he would be wisked off to Rome and a temporal reward.

I understand why the diocese had to denounce the friar: “The harm that was done by these remarks was compounded by the assertion that the victim of abuse is responsible for the abuse, or somehow caused the abuse to occur,” spokesman Joseph Zwilling said. “This is not only terribly wrong, it is also extremely painful for victims.” Catholic hierarchy around the world protected and lied about child rapists and molesters for decades—and truth be told, for centuries*. Now even a hint of scandal has to be addressed immediately and vociferously. I wonder whether EWTN will feel compelled to kill Groeschel’s Sunday Night Live show, too.

I have no great need to defend Catholic clergy or (heaven help us) the bishops (whose skulls, as John Chrysostom stated, pave the floor of hell). I’m not on the road to Rome, despite the best efforts of some very smart, devout, and good men. Nor do I think the sheer awfulness of what Groeschel said in this one interview should be defended in any way, shape, or form. But the man is 79 years old. Take the “excuse” about his recently hitting his head for what it’s worth (I do wonder why he would agree to an interview at all if he was not himself). About eight years ago, he was hit by a car and almost died; before that, he suffered a serious heart attack. In other words, this is a man no longer playing at the top of his game.

Moreover, I don’t believe Father Groeschel is himself guilty of child abuse or anything like it, despite the contentions of the Post’s commenters and what will certainly be many others down the line. Why he chose to come to Sandusky’s defense by redirecting the guilt and thus mitigating the evil of what the man did can only be a matter of speculation from this distance.

And until there is real evidence to the contrary—and by that I mean more than just his calamitously daft comments about Jerry Sandusky and his supposed “seducers” (good grief)—I will continue to believe that Benedict Groeschel is a good man and a good Christian, who had a very, very bad day, defined by an extraordinary lapse in judgment, which should not be allowed to redefine his entire life.

Cynical as I am, and as willing to think the worst about almost anyone, I hope I am not proved wrong in this case.

*See Fallen Order by Karen Liebreich, about Fr. Jose de Calasanz, founder of the Piarist teaching order in 1621. Calasanz, a canonized saint and patron of parochial schools, moved a known pedophile around from school to school in order to protect the reputation of his burgeoning order, which was under attack by the Jesuits, who resented anyone stepping onto their turf. Also see Sex, Priests, and Secret Codes by Thomas P. Doyle, et al. Doyle is a Catholic priest and canon lawyer who has counseled sex-abuse victims in the wake of the most recent series of scandals. Also consider Betrayal of the Innocents by Timothy Mitchell, which details sex abuse among Spanish clergy over centuries, which may have ushered in the intense anticlericalism of the pre-Franco (and now post-Franco) era. Finally, warnings about and suggested penalties for clergy abuse of children (specifically boys) dates back to The Didache, which predates some of the New Testament books. The Council of Elvira (309) and the Penitentials of Bede (eighth century) also reiterate warnings and punishments for clergy child abuse. For a short intro, see here.

(Forgive this diversion from the usual silliness, which will resume tomorrow.)

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