Thursday, August 01, 2002

Zero Tolerance Hits Home

I haven't published anything about this so far, since, frankly, I haven't been sure what to say. Today's New York Times ran an article on Fr. Tom DeVita, (LRR) who stepped down as pastor of St. Mary of the Lake Parish in New Buffalo, Michigan, yesterday. Fr. DeVita was the subject of an earlier NYT piece shortly after the Dallas conference, when it became apparent that Fr. DeVita would have to leave under the "Zero Tolerance" guidelines.

Fr. DeVita is a priest of my diocese, and in fact, his parish neighbors my own. As I have watched this drama unfold, I have had many conflicting reactions, hence my reticence to write on it. But I have several observations to make which I think are relevant to Fr. DeVita's situation. I don't claim to know Fr. DeVita well, but I have talked with him on a number of occasions, and I know he has been well regarded and respected by my brother priests.

Firstly, I would point out, that though the story is written in a style characterized by Amy Welborn as "self-aggrandizing rot", the aggrandizing is being done by the Times and its reporter, not Fr. DeVita himself. Fr. DeVita didn't write the piece. The reporter did, and she clearly has an agenda, as she demonstrates by using words like "secretive" to describe the canonical process by which Fr. DeVita is appealing his removal. Being acquainted with Fr. DeVita, the last word I would use to describe him is "self-aggrandizing." He is a soft-spoken, quiet, and humble man. The Times may be trying to turn Fr. DeVita into a "poster boy", but that has much more to do with the Times' agenda to portray the Big Bad Church as the heavy than anything Fr. DeVita intended.

Secondly, back in June, after the original Times article came out, Nightline ran a segment about Fr. DeVita, which included a rather lengthy (by TV standards) interview. Fr. DeVita's humility and resigned acceptance of my bishop's judgement were apparent to me. He spoke movingly of his willingness to accept his punishment, if that was what the Church required of him. "I did something terrible 25 years ago," he said, "and I have to pay the price for it now." Fr. DeVita has never encouraged parishioners to lobby or agitate for him, as some others have done. In fact, he has done the opposite: he has encouraged parishioners to accept the bishop's judgment and acccept his replacement willingly. He said at one of his Sunday Masses, "This isn't about me, it's about Him," as he pointed at the crucifix.

Thirdly, by every evidence I can see, Fr. DeVita is one of those perhaps rare cases where a priest fell terribly, did something grievously wrong, but then repented, did penance, got help, and has genuinely straightened himself out. Fr. DeVita's priesthood has been exemplary since then, especially since he came to my diocese about ten years ago. To say these things is in no way to diminish the wrong that he did, as he himself has readily admitted (and is the reason he has publicly stated his acceptance of the Church's judgment).

If the issue is one of strict justice, removing Fr. DeVita is just, and there is an end of the matter. But as Catholics, the issue cannot be solely about strict justice. As the Holy Father himself said, we must also take into account repentance and the restorative grace and mercy of God. Under that standard, it becomes more problematic to decide what to do with Fr. DeVita. I am not qualified or worthy to make that judgment. Fr. Andrew Greeley has rather insightfully observed that the brother priests of an accused or offending cleric cannot be the ones to render judgment about him, as they will be tempted to give in to a "false compassion." So I will not suggest what could be done with Fr. DeVita. But I will suggest that satisfying the demands of "justice" cannot be the end of the matter.

If the issue is about more than strict justice, then a logical question is, "is the priest a further threat?" My bishop's judgment on that matter, when he reviewed the matter shortly after becoming bishop 4 years ago (Fr. DeVita came to my diocese before our current bishop took office, under the reign of his predecessor), was that Fr. DeVita was in no way a danger to anyone (having served 20-plus years in a fruitful ministry). He reaffirmed that judgment this spring when, under criticism by the local press, which demanded Fr. DeVita's removal, he stated that he had full confidence in Fr. DeVita. Now some may howl at my bishop's judgment in this circumstance, but my bishop was actually doing what bishops are supposed to do: He examined the circumstances personally, weighed the facts, and came to a judgment, which he put his name to and stood behind. And the fact is that I trust my bishop's judgment. I know my bishop, and his care for his office and his flock. I know his orthodoxy and love for the Church. So I trusted his judgment about Fr. DeVita, as I do on other matters. It is a great misfortune and scandal, that because some bishops misused or abused their discretion, most people no longer trust any bishop to make such judgment calls. But the fact the some bishops made bad or self-serving judgments does not mean that my bishop did so in deciding to keep Fr. DeVita before the Dallas conference norms (seemingly) precluded that possibility.

Is removing Fr. DeVita just? Yes. But, as I wrote above, justice is not the only consideration. The fact that the wrong-headedness of the bishops' Zero Tolerance policy plays into the New York Times' agenda is unfortunate, but the bishops are the architects of that situation, not Fr. DeVita. If the case of Fr. DeVita leads the bishops to re-work their "Norms" and come up with something that is actually Catholic, then that will be a good thing. If Fr. DeVita's situation remains merely one more thing that the establishment media can use to flog the Church, that will be unfortunate, but that outcome will not be of Fr. DeVita's doing.

I don't have any fancy comment function (yet), but I welcome your feedback or observations. E-mail me! I'll publish relevant comments on my next blog.