Tuesday, November 23, 2021

The root of the Catholic Church's endless crisis? Lying to itself.

Amongst the too-many pieces of unsolicited advice I give my children is to not lie to themselves, either. Once falsehood becomes one of your mental navigation tools, you are headed to shipwreck.

Lying always takes a toll on you. Even if no one else sees it and there are no immediate repercussions.

But when it becomes institutionalized? 

It wrecks other people's lives, too. No matter how much you would like to pretend otherwise.

Which brings me to this Pillar story about the hellish priest from Cleveland, Robert McWilliams, whom the federal authorities have thankfully locked away for life.

When a federal judge decided this month on a prison sentence for Fr. Robert McWilliams — convicted of child abuse, child pornography, and child trafficking — she had two versions of past events from which to choose.

In the account of McWilliams’ lawyer, the priest needed help, therapeutic treatment, to address the “demons from his childhood” which influenced the heinous crimes of his adult life.

The “demons” were not specified, but since a prosecutor’s memo spent several pages discussing the correlation between suffering abuse and committing it, it’s reasonable to presume that’s what McWilliam’s attorney was getting at.

But the prosecutor argued that McWilliams was not “corralled into a crime by a series of unfortunate life circumstances.” Instead, her assessment was blunt: McWilliams was “cruel,” “calculating,” and a “sociopath.”

The judge who sentenced McWilliams to life in federal prison seemed to align with the prosecution.

But whether McWilliams is more like an unfeeling Hannibal Lecter or instead a damaged, criminally unmoored Buffalo Bill, both accounts leave the Diocese of Cleveland in a difficult position.

Either its seminary was unable to weed out a sociopath ordained a priest just five years ago, or it was unable to realize that a deranged and unstable trauma victim was unsuitable for priestly ministry. 

That is the sort of horror that makes honest people and institutions take stock and make changes.

So what is the response of the leadership of the Cleveland diocese to their ordination of Buffalo Lecter?

Seminary screening is not perfect, nor is it foolproof. But when the system is beaten, most observers would expect a thorough postmortem — the kind that results in a clearly articulated set of changes, and a public commitment to follow through on them.

In Cleveland, seminary administrators have said thus far that the McWilliams saga hasn’t really suggested to them any particular changes they ought to make. That prompted one victim of McWilliams to suggest last week those administrators need, as it were, to take “their heads out of their asses.”

If a seminary doesn’t see an evaluative failure in the ordination of a sociopath, some Catholics have asked, what certitude can be had that McWilliams is the only one to graduate from the place? If there aren’t specific failures to recognize and to change, is it reasonable to conclude the failures are systemic, and the changes must be, too? 

But a thorough, impartial investigation might turn up blameworthy clerics. 

Worse, it could upset the leadership's equilibrium, cause it to question itself and tell it that real penance and reform are necessary.

Better to just maintain the self-deception that everything is basically fine.

We are an Easter People.

Forward in Hope. 

Your Preferred Tuneful Whistle Past the Graveyard.

Despite the blaring klaxons, closing parishes and all the other evidence to the contrary.


  1. I observe it's been a long process. No quarter of the Church has been spared confrontation, embarrassment, and hard poking at their tendency to disbelieve the crimes, pass the blame, and level their criticisms at the "other side."

    The truth is that human sin is widespread, and the Church is indeed, tattered and dirty, despite those who dislike PF and his phrase. Sin, and making excuses for it, came to light in the mid-1980s, and it certainly stretched back centuries into the past. It is the nature of sin to self-medicate with "it's not so bad." JP2 wasn't my favorite pope, but his 1984 document on Penance and Reconciliation has some points many of his episcopal fanboys have missed. Recommended reading.

  2. He would have entered seminary in 2011 and was arrested at the end of 2019. Seems like it was all an elaborate scam to gain access to adolescent males. Question, what sort of instruments and techniques of inquiry and supervision have reliably smoked him out?


    1. Closer observation by and interaction with seminary formators are two things that leap out.

      There were red flags with this individual's behavior while a seminarian, as another Pillar story points out"

      "But Rachel [the victims' mother] told me there were red flags, and the Cleveland seminary should admit that.

      The seminary, she said, should have wondered why McWilliams spent so much time in her community, during his internship and after — an amount of time that former seminarians told me was 'excessive' and 'highly unusual.'

      'Why was he always over here? Why was he always at other houses? Wasn’t the seminary watching him or wondering why he was always over here?' Rachel asked.

      Seminary formators should have done more to monitor McWilliams’ use of his cell phone, or paid some attention to the massive collection of child pornography that seems to have begun amassing before his ordination, Rachel said."

      * * *

      "Other Catholics who knew McWilliams saw red flags too.

      Several Catholics in Cleveland told me that they had observed McWilliams interact with teens before his ordination, and that his closeness, and familiarity with them seemed inappropriate for an adult.

      One Catholic in Rachel’s parish community recalled that McWilliams had several 'furry heads' — large, expensive animal faced masks, associated with the furry subculture. Parents were mostly unaware of the alternative culture associated with the masks, and McWilliams encouraged children to wear them. More than once, he posed for pictures with children wearing the mask.

      Had he owned the heads during seminary? Had anyone noticed them?

      The same Catholic said her family visited McWilliams at the seminary. His behavior was unusual, she said. 'He laughed about how much control he had over the other seminarians. Because they were not allowed to go into his room, they were not allowed to touch anything. They knew their place. Even so much as in the tv room, he had a place on the couch. When he walked in, they did not sit in his place. They got up and moved for him.'

      A former seminarian, who studied at St. Mary’s for five years with McWilliams, was surprised when he learned about the priest’s arrest, but said in hindsight, he sees things about McWilliams’ years in seminary which give him pause.

      * * *

      The former seminarian recalled a specific instance when McWilliams explained that he used his cell phone to avoid firewalls placed on internet use at the seminary.

      'There was a firewall, and your formation advisor had access to anything that you searched [on your computer]. And I remember Bobby saying to us, waving his phone around, ‘Well, what’s the point of this? If you have [a cell phone], you can do whatever you want.’'

      The former seminarian said McWilliams also would tell fellow seminarians that he could offer them guidance or counsel to get over pornography addictions — unusual behavior between seminarians, but one which seminary administrators seemed to approve.

      Rachel told me that as a seminarian, McWilliams would sometimes boast about guiding other seminarians who struggled with pornography.

      Rachel, and several other Catholics, said McWilliams often claimed that seminary faculty would sometimes send seminarians to him, for help dealing with pornography. Given that he had no training in the subject, she said, the seminarian’s interest in discussing pornography with anyone who wanted to talk about it should have been a red flag. At the very least, seminary formators should have looked into it more."


  3. Nothing will change until the bitter cup is drunk to the dregs.

    The Church can remember what it has been tasked to do and do it again. Or it can choose to rot in comfortable complacency until that is taken away and it has no other choice.

    Smart money is on the latter.


Be reasonably civil. Ire alloyed with reason is fine. But slagging the host gets you the banhammer.

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