Thursday, August 01, 2002

More Thoughts on Fr. DeVita and "Self-Aggrandizement"

A couple of bloggers and their readers, among them Amy Welborn and Greg Popcak, have remarked on what they see as evidence of Fr. Tom DeVita's "self-aggrandizement" or "showmanship" in the article on him in today's New York Times. I take a different view of it in my blog below. I am glad that someone like Mark Shea is in agreement with me, but a recent glance at Amy's comments shows more readers who question everything from Fr. DeVita's "exquisite" (the word used by the Times reporter) planning of his "Last Mass" to his decision to cooperate with the press in the first place.

Firstly, it seems that critics of Fr. DeVita's planning of his last Mass at his parish are getting hung up on a word. Shouldn't every Mass be "exquisitely" planned? The fact is, because the Mass in question was his "last", it was de factonot going to be ordinary. Therefore extra (special) planning was needed to deal with such questions as "Will I remain after Mass and let maudlin "good-bye" scenes proliferate?" No. "Will I allow this Mass to take on a somber "funereal" tone?" No. Will I reiterate my hopefulness and trust in Christ?" Yes. To get hung up in criticizing planning seems to me to strain at gnats.

And to those, such as a commentor on Amy's blog called "mary-m", who question his decision to allow himself to be interviewed or photographed in the first place, and take that of evidence of his search for "self-aggrandizement", I submit, as someone who has been interviewed by various organs of the press from time to time, that things one says or does with complete innocence can be transformed by a reporter with an agenda. Last year I was interviewed by a local paper looking for a "Catholic" perspective on the war in Afghanistan. My remarks that the campaign there was substantively self-defensive and limited, and therefore justifiable, was boiled down to "Fr. Johansen favors an aggressive campaign against the Afghans."

For those seeking to understand possible motives for Fr. DeVita's cooperation with the press, I point out that Fr. DeVita is originally from New York (Long Island), and that is where the incident of his abuse took place. I think that fact alone is sufficient to explain the Times' interest, and Fr. DeVita's willingness to cooperate with the press. I suppose he could have told the reporters to "get lost" and not cooperate with them, but that usually only makes them more aggressive and antagonistic. Everyone knows that when a newspaper prints things like "no comment" or "Fr. X refused to grant an interview" it creates the impression of cover-ups or other more sinister activities under the surface, and induces reporters to tear people's lives apart trying to find those things. I think Fr. DeVita can be forgiven for wanting to avoid that situation.

Furthermore, the more I think about the charge that Fr. DeVita is seeking notoriety or self-aggrandizement, the more the charge appears to be patently absurd. Why? Because Fr. DeVita's notoriety is as an admitted priest-abuser. Forever after, Fr. DeVita will be known across the country as "one of those pedophile priests" (Not that he is in fact a pedophile: he is not). That is a very strange form of self-aggrandizement.

The fact is that neither mary-m nor I knows Fr. DeVita's motivation for cooperating with the press. What I know of the man makes me doubtful that he is seeking fame or
self-aggrandizement. As I showed above, the charge is absurd on its face. It is unjust to attribute motives to the behavior of people we don't know. That is precisely the sort of thing Our Lord was talking about when He said "Judge not, lest you be judged". We can make moral judgments about behavior, but we tread on perilous ground when we start ascribing motives to that behavior.