Why Catholic congregations forgive pedophile priests.

Snapshots of family life.
May 23 2002 5:37 PM

My Priest, the Child Molester

Why was the congregation so quick to forgive him?

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

I recently learned, via the front page of the Evansville Courier & Press, the newspaper in my parents' hometown in Indiana, that the priest who signed my marriage certificate and baptized my two children also happens to have allegedly sexually molested a 14-year-old boy two decades ago.

There he is, smiling, in what had once been my favorite photo of our wedding day. There he is again, pouring holy water over our twins' foreheads.

As in so many other cases of sexual abuse by priests, the 1981 allegations against this man, the Rev. Mark Kurzendoerfer, 47, were kept quiet until now. They were certainly never reported to the police, though the diocese of Evansville has acknowledged that there was "an improper and wrongful physical relationship" between him and a student at Washington Catholic High School, where he was teaching at the time.

Church officials knew this when they subsequently assigned him to two other Catholic high schools. Right up until the day the news hit Page One, earlier this month, he was counseling boys in his parish elementary school in private, one-on-one sessions.

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Yet bishops aren't the only ones protecting their own. In Father Mark's case and a slew of others, Catholic laypeople have reacted with stunning ambivalence. Though lay involvement in abuse allegations is widely seen as one possible solution to the problem, many Catholics seem as willing as our church leaders have been to let this protected class of predators off the hook.

Others, of course, are in full revolt, and surveys indicate that attitudes have shifted seismically since the days when photo ops with Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law were part of George W. Bush's Catholic strategy. But then, polls also show that Americans hate Congress but tend to think well of their own representatives, and it's a little like that with priests; Catholics seem to want to see pedophiles punished in the abstract, but they are far more forgiving when the offender is their own pastor. (Christ turned the other cheek, but he wasn't squishy on child abuse. He had this to say to anyone who dared harm one of the little ones: "It would be better for him if a great millstone were put around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.")

As a friend of mine who is a priest at the Vatican said, "There is still this latent clericalism that says you can't say anything about the clergy, and we think the worst sin of all is to be judgmental."

After the 1981 incident, Father Mark was supposed to avoid contact with children as a condition of his return to active ministry. Yet several times a week, he pulled a couple of boys out of class at Sts. Peter & Paul School in Haubstadt, Ind., to meet with them alone. Sometimes, over the summer, he took them out for ice cream treats.

The boys' parents say they have no evidence of abuse but still feel wronged because they were not told about this man's history. When it finally did become public, Father Mark's superior, the Rev. Francis Schoering, noted that the private sessions did not actually constitute a violation of the order that he keep away from kids, since Father Mark had only been barred from contact with children 12 and older, whereas both of the boys he was counseling were 11. This kind of hair-splitting might be funny if the possible implications weren't so tragic.

Yet after mass on the Sunday the story came out, several of Father Mark's parishioners told a reporter for the Courier that they were standing by him, too. "We love Father Mark,'' one man said. "It's too bad it gets so much publicity,'' said another.

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