July 23, 2015

The Church needs better ministry to priests in prison

By Msgr. M. Francis Mannion *

A recent article in the National Catholic Reporter by Thomas C. Fox, entitled “Vincentian visits imprisoned priests,” drew my attention to the plight of priests in prison, especially those convicted of the sexual abuse of minors.

The article took the form of an interview with Fr. Paul Sauerbier, a Vincentian priest, who has established the Prodigal Father Foundation—so-called because of the lavish generosity of the father toward the repentant son in the Gospel story of the Prodigal Son.

Fr. Sauerbier’s ministry is to reach out to priests imprisoned for the sexual abuse of minors—whom Sauerbier calls “the modern-day lepers in our society.” When priests are convicted for the abuse of minors, he says, “Most people in the church and society back away in horror. When he ends up in prison, he is usually abandoned by his church, his family and his friends.” “No one,” Fr. Sauerbier says, “is more outcast than an outcast priest.”

Fr. Sauerbier states: “Most of the guys I visited haven’t been visited in years. Sometimes I am the first visitor they have ever had. I find many of the men suffering from extreme isolation. . . . I spend a lot of time with [priests] who have had almost no human contact. I’ve found these priests depleted, often with having had no one to share their pain or shame.”

When word gets out in jail that they are child abusers, Fr. Sauerbier says, they get singled out for abuse by fellow inmates, and if they are known to be priest child abusers, they are subject to even greater violence, psychological and even physical.

I am not for a moment suggesting that priests jailed for sexual abuse deserve more pastoral attention that do lay people in a similar situation. But the point Fr. Sauerbier makes is that jailed priests have far less support from the Church and family, and are much more isolated.

What can the ordinary Catholic do for such priests in jail? They can include them (even if they don’t know their names) in their prayers. They can write letters and send Mass cards, if their names are known. They can support financially organizations like the Prodigal Father Foundation (address available on the internet). The money goes to provide basic necessities like a bar of soap, a razor, underwear, personal toilet paper, and the like.

What can a parish do? On occasion it could mention priests jailed for abuse in the General Intercessions. This may be shocking to some parishioners, but, if properly explained, I believe people will support the gesture.

What can a diocese do? Perhaps provide a list of all jailed abusive priests within the boundaries of the diocese to a priest (possibly a retired one), who can, like Fr. Sauerbier, make contact with them.  (Fr. Sauerbier says that generally incarcerated priests only get a visit from someone in the diocese when a chancery official goes to tell them that they have been laicized. What a great gesture it would be if the local bishop were to visit a jailed priest!)

What are the theological bases for the outreach I am suggesting? It is the Gospel stories of the Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan, and the healing of lepers. Jesus (following Isaiah) saw his ministry as bringing freedom to captives. Freedom in the situation I am describing here obviously does not mean physical freedom, but spiritual and psychological freedom.

This ministry is one that Catholics could undertake during the upcoming Year of Mercy announced by Pope Francis.

Msgr. Mannion is pastor emeritus of St. Vincent de Paul parish in Salt Lake City. He holds a Ph.D in sacramental theology from The Catholic University of America. He was founding president of The Society for Catholic Liturgy in 1995 and the founding editor of the Societys journal, Antiphon. At the invitation of Cardinal Francis George of Chicago he founded the Mundelein Liturgical Institute in 2000.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.

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