Parishes still blessed with good priests

April 28, 2002|By GREGORY KANE

BETRAYAL. That's the word John Pfannenstiel used to describe the actions of those "priests" who have engaged in sexual acts with children.

The story has been in the news for weeks. Revelations of another child abused seem to surface daily. Stories of archdioceses who protected such "priests" are abundant. The crisis was so great that Pope John Paul II called the church's U.S. cardinals to the Vatican to say publicly that the church was anti-pedophilia. No kidding.

In situations like these, a Catholic might want to talk to a priest, not a cardinal. So I sought out Pfannenstiel - or Father John, as he's better known to his flock at St. Ambrose Roman Catholic Church on Park Heights Avenue.

"I don't know anyone more angry at this than priests," Father John, who has been St. Ambrose's pastor for 11 years, said Thursday afternoon. "There's a sense of betrayal by the people who did these things."

Father John is 48 and has been a priest for 20 years. He is of slender build. His goatee and spectacles make him look more beatnik than priest. But it may be the perfect look for a guy who worked 10 years with the homeless in Washington, D.C.

I look at Father John and remember the real priests I encountered at St. Pius V at Schroeder Street and Edmondson Avenue in West Baltimore. It was there that I received my first Holy Communion and confirmation. It was at the St. Pius School, where I took catechism lessons to prepare me for both, and where I went to Sunday school.

I remember Father Razza, a portly, robust, feisty man who railed against segregation and racism before it became popular to do so. Razza was also the guy who banned slow dragging at the Friday night Catholic Youth Organization dances, much to our consternation and dismay.

Then there was Father Sadlier, a tender, compassionate soul who was always ready with spiritual advice and a smile. Sadlier tried, unsuccessfully, to turn a neighborhood thug named Sharp away from crime and toward God. Sharp looked up to Sadlier, admired him, respected him. It's possible that if Sharp hadn't been blasted into eternity the night he pulled his famous switchblade on a guy named Butch, Sadlier might have converted him.

I hope Fathers Razza and Sadlier forgive me for not remembering their first names.

But it's guys like them - and Father John, who preached at the funerals of two of my siblings - whom I think of when I hear the word priest. I sure don't think of those pedophiles who masquerade as priests to hide their iniquity.

"There's a realization that there's a very small number of men involved in this," Father John said of the pedophiles in the ranks of the priesthood. He has discussed the church crisis with his parishioners.

"The response was overwhelmingly supportive," Father John said, "which has been a source of strength to me." A source of strength, but no doubt not surprising. Good Catholics know a good priest - a Razza, a Sadlier, a Pfannenstiel - when they see one. They know the molesters are not the rule, but the exception.

No one knows that better than Father John. He wanted to be a priest since at least the second grade. He remembers the priests from his youth in the farming community of Hays, Kan.

"They were protective of us and expected a lot of us," Father John recalled. "They expected us to do what was right, and that scared us."

Pedophilia among priests was unthinkable.

"It never occurred to us as children," Father John continued. "If it had happened, people in my hometown would have run the guy out of town. I never experienced it. I never saw it."

These days it's impossible to think of Catholic clergymen without linking them to "it." Good priests will probably be tainted because of the immorality and criminal actions of a few.

Similarly, Father John feels all archdioceses will take the weight for those that didn't crack down on the problem.

"This archdiocese has been very strict about this the past 10 to 15 years," Father John said. "A lot of church leaders have been very vigilant and responsible."

The unfairness of the media in lumping the good archdioceses in with the bad "makes me angry," Father John said.

What should the church do to purge its ranks of pedophiles? Is ending the celibacy requirement for priests, as some have suggested, one answer?

"As a confessor and a person who hears the problems of many people," Father John commented, "I know 95 percent of sexual abuse of children happens with a father, a mother, an uncle. It's in the family. The celibacy issue isn't pertinent to the issue of pedophilia."

Still, Father John feels "it would not only be healthy but helpful for our church to discuss ordaining married men." Married clergymen would "give the church a sensitivity we inherently lack of the protectiveness parents have for their children."

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