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.


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.



The End of Pregnancy

And the inevitable rise of the artificial womb.

Doctor Tests Positive for Ebola in New York City

How a Company You’ve Never Heard of Took Control of the Entire Porn Industry

The Hot New Strategy for Desperate Democrats

Blame China for everything.

The Questions That Michael Brown’s Autopsies Can’t Answer


Kiev Used to Be an Easygoing Place

Now it’s descending into madness.


Don’t Just Sit There

How to be more productive during your commute.

There Has Never Been a Comic Book Character Like John Constantine

Which Came First, the Word Chicken or the Word Egg?

  News & Politics
The Slate Quiz
Oct. 24 2014 12:10 AM Play the Slate News Quiz With Jeopardy! superchampion Ken Jennings.
Oct. 23 2014 5:53 PM Amazon Investors Suddenly Bearish on Losing Money
Oct. 23 2014 5:08 PM Why Is an Obscure 1968 Documentary in the Opening Credits of Transparent?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 23 2014 11:33 AM Watch Little Princesses Curse for the Feminist Cause
  Slate Plus
Oct. 23 2014 11:28 AM Slate’s Working Podcast: Episode 2 Transcript Read what David Plotz asked Dr. Meri Kolbrener about her workday.
Brow Beat
Oct. 23 2014 6:55 PM A Goodfellas Actor Sued The Simpsons for Stealing His Likeness. Does He Have a Case?
Oct. 23 2014 11:47 PM Don’t Just Sit There How to be more productive during your commute.
  Health & Science
Oct. 23 2014 5:42 PM Seriously, Evolution: WTF? Why I love the most awkward, absurd, hacked-together species.
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.