I first met Father Ron Provost 20 years ago when he suddenly appeared in our parish parking lot and attracted more attention than a pro wrestler. I was 8 years old, it was a warm spring day in New England -- one of the first to tease us with summer heat -- and our entire Catholic elementary school was outside soaking in the sun, playing kickball, competing for attention and letting off steam.
We were completely engrossed in our own small world -- until Father Ron appeared. Tall, trim and balding, he must have come from Mass, walking out of the brick Catholic church into the lot, but I only noticed him because of the screaming: "It's Father Ron, it's Father Ron!"
Everyone around me was suddenly dissatisfied with the games of recess. They dropped what they were doing and sprinted toward Father Ron. With nothing better to do, I quickly followed.
A few weeks later, I joined the local street hockey leagues that Father Ron started and began to understand why he was so well-loved. Not only did he seem to have permanent warmth and a glowing smile for both boys and girls, he also had the ability to make children more than they thought they could be.
I'll never forget the way he bent down to show me how to hold a hockey stick. I was confident in abilities I didn't yet have; he made me feel like a star. It was a form of welcome that I often saw repeated. For eight years, I played street hockey in Father Ron's leagues -- in several Massachusetts towns, on all-star teams that competed on a national level -- and at every venue I saw children meet Father Ron and grow as I did: from shy to confident, asocial to outgoing. He was a man who brought hockey and hope to working-class towns with little more than bars and high suicide rates. To me, he was simply a great and humble man.
Today, it's more complicated. My memories are poisoned, and his good works have been largely forgotten. Defrocked and downtrodden, the 63-year-old former priest lives outside the church, in an old Worcester, Mass., home with his brother Kenneth. After spending seven years digging graves at a local cemetery, he occasionally shovels snow at local parishes, but for the most part, life for Father Ron is simply an attempt to move beyond the past.
"I never know who's going to hate me," he says when I catch him by phone at home, starting our first conversation in more than a decade. "I'm struggling, but I think I'm doing OK."
To those who have been watching in horror as a parade of pedophile priests fall out of New England's Catholic cloister, Father Ron's fall from grace will sound familiar. His story contains the classic elements: sexual desire gone too far, an attraction to young boys and a betrayal of youthful trust that led to a criminal conviction.
In one sense, his misconduct captures exactly what American Catholicism is trying to purge from its presence. It's no wonder Father Ron fears public hate; his sins won't generate much sympathy during a time when half of Boston's 2 million Catholics want Cardinal Bernard Law to resign for ignoring cases of sexual abuse, sympathetic critics like ex-priest and writer James Carroll are comparing the priest-pedophile scandal to Chernobyl and even the Massachusetts House has felt the need to act, passing a bill last month that would require clergy and church employees to report suspected cases of sexual abuse.
But Father Ron's story also highlights the nuances of human sexuality and the human cost of treating all prurient misconduct alike. What's been forgotten in the 10 years since Father Ron was first convicted is that he isn't another Father John Geoghan -- the Boston priest accused of molesting up to 130 victims while the church looked away. Father Ron never molested anyone, never touched a single boy. His "addiction," as he calls it, was to voyeurism. The conviction he received was for taking pictures of a partially dressed 10-year-old boy in a YMCA locker room.
The church, in Boston and elsewhere, has adopted a zero-tolerance stance that allows an accusation alone to justify public disclosure and suspension from the priesthood. While perhaps understandable as a reaction to years of neglect, this extreme position opens the possibility of unfair accusations that will destroy innocent priests. More justifiable, but morally complex, is the church's position that offending priests cannot be rehabilitated. In the case of criminal deviants like Father Geoghan, being permanently cast out of the church is clearly justified. But what about priests like Father Ron? Is there no place for them? There are no easy answers to these questions. Few have been willing to even ask them.
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I first heard about Father Ron's problem while I was in college. When my father called me during my sophomore year -- in 1993, just after Father Ron's trial hit the local papers -- I could hardly believe what I was hearing. How could Father Ron, who struck me as an asexual man more concerned with goals than guys, become a predator?
My father stressed the fact that many of the details were still unknown. The first stories mentioned pictures, but no one seemed to know how many Father Ron had taken or whether the children were even naked. The scope of his activities also remained unclear. Did Father Ron just look at boys, or did he also touch them?
This was the question I cared most about. The thought of Father Ron fondling children or doing even more dastardly deeds turned my stomach and made me want to physically hit him, if given the chance. But whether or not my suspicions were justified, I thought, Father Ron's actions had taken a toll. The photos alone contaminated my memories. The little things that Father Ron did for me and for so many children suddenly seemed sinister. From age 8 to 18, for example, I received a birthday card from Father Ron. Were these actual signs of goodwill or sexual come-ons? How dare he make me ask such questions, I thought. How dare he make me rewrite my own childhood history with a more menacing pen? How dare he prey on boys who trusted him, who loved him in innocence?
My father, a contractor who fixes churches and who did work for at least three priests who are now accused of sexual abuse in New England, had a slightly different take. He was mostly saddened and disappointed by Father Ron's fall from grace. "It was heartsickness that I felt," he says, looking back. "It hurt to see a man I had respected become some other version of himself."
When the conviction came down, we both thought the judgment was fair. Two things stood out: The boy Father Ron photographed showed part of his buttocks in at least one shot; and Father Ron admitted that he had other pictures of young boys, which he sometimes used to sexually stimulate himself. Both facts seemed to justify the court's assigned penance -- a 10-year suspended prison sentence and five years probation. The punishment seemed to fit the crime.
But at some point, I began to question my conclusion. My own sexual mistakes gave me compassion for others' failures, and as sexual scandals became commonplace occurrences in American politics, I learned to separate a person's sexual foibles from their public actions. Father Ron's case kept coming back to mind. If I could respect Bill Clinton as a president while wholeheartedly hating him as a husband and a father, perhaps Father Ron could be both a sexual deviant and a man deserving of respect. I learned a lot from Father Ron, about life, competition and teamwork; perhaps he contained a core that was indeed good, worth nurturing rather than destroying.
The scandals in Boston -- starting with Geoghan and spreading to an estimated 80 priests whose old accusations of sexual misconduct are now being brought to light -- made me dig a bit deeper. I wanted to get an idea of where Father Ron fit into Catholicism's sexual problems.
After poking around the archives of the Worcester Telegram & Gazette to see what had happened to the man I once revered, I discovered that his case was more complicated than I remembered. The boy he photographed had already put on his underwear after the church-sponsored "swim night," and he was "posing for the camera," according to his own court testimony. Police found out about the incident only because a man who entered the locker room reported it, but when they started the investigation, they discovered that Father Ron hadn't developed the film (the authorities did it for him), and that the boy didn't seem to be sure why the case had started. When asked if Father Ron took pictures of him in a bathing suit -- in an interview with the police a few days after the Jan 11, 1992, photo session -- he replied: "Yeah, but I don't think there's anything wrong with that, is there?"
The boy's parents sued for damages. They had previously claimed that the criminal trial put "tremendous stress" on their family, but that didn't stop them from bringing up the case three years later at a well-publicized trial that once again forced their son to testify. He claimed in court to have given up his faith in God and to have trouble socializing, but he also said that Father Ron never made him feel uncomfortable and that he didn't know Father Ron had sexualized him until his mother told him so.
The jury essentially sided with Father Ron. They never awarded damages in the suit -- "They didn't win anything," says Father Ron.
But the emotional damage seemed to be already done. Dianne Williamson, a columnist at the Telegram & Gazette, feared for the boy, writing in a Feb. 1, 1996, column that "some of the testimony made you wonder who, if anyone, was looking out for the boy's best interests." But what about Father Ron? He, too, had to endure another painful trial. One wonders if it would have been better to protect the lives of everyone involved by coming to a private settlement.
I called Father Ron to see what he thought.
The prospect of asking him questions about such a painful subject scared me a bit, but he was surprisingly open and honest. He had little trouble, for example, answering difficult questions about how many boys' pictures he had in the collection that he used to masturbate ("less than 50") and about how many he took of the boy at the YMCA ("I thought I took six or seven pictures but I actually took 17," he said. "That's where my addiction really took over.")
He also said that he never touched boys -- not just because his problem was mostly with voyeurism, but also because of simple fear that "these kids would come back as big strong men and find me."
On the larger subject of sexual misconduct in the church, he argued that frankness should rule the day. He doubted that he would have married because the schedule he kept wouldn't have allowed for family time, but he thought celibacy should be jettisoned as a requirement. More to the point, he said that no one who takes advantage of their parishioners should be allowed to avoid the law.
"Everyone has to be prosecuted for what they do," he said. "Any priest who gets in trouble should be prosecuted as anyone else should be."
He admitted that the church "is really hitting hard" with its new policy, but believed there would likely be clear benefits. "The process that's going on now is going to purify the church," he said. "There will be fewer priests, but it will be a better church."
Where Father Ron diverges from the church's party line is over rehabilitation. His main gripe, coming from his own difficult experience, is with the notion that priests can never serve after being caught in sexual sin.
"After they pay the price and get the treatment, that's where the price goes too far," he said. "I can't help but think that priests shouldn't all be forced to leave forever."
Some priests, like Geoghan, deserve to be exiled, Provost said. "He has no remorse. He's a pure addict. He'll never, never change." But Provost argued that not all cases are so clear-cut. "What about people like Father John Bagley [a priest who has been suspended because of an anonymous rape accusation stemming from an incident in the late '60s]? He's a very smart priest; he had one alleged incident followed by 35 good years of service. Couldn't he come back?"
Father Ron is still trying to figure out the root cause of his own sexual problems. He wasn't molested and seems confident that he isn't a latent homosexual. "I don't really know why I have this problem," he said. "I'm still investigating it."
Immediately after his conviction he spent most of his time working one-on-one with therapists, but now he mixes individual assistance with group help. "I go to a therapist and I go to counseling, group meetings with other addicts," he said. "It's pretty regular. I go to meetings at least once a week or twice a week."
He admitted that he's still struggling with what the church calls "unclean thoughts," but felt confident in his progress. He believes that he's beating his addiction, and he's sure that he's suffered enough -- economically, psychologically and emotionally. A post in, say, a nursing home, far away from boys, would be safe, he believes. He thinks his addiction wouldn't keep him from doing some good.
"It's like alcoholism," he said. "There's no cure, but an alcoholic can go 30 years without a drink and he can have a good life. Maybe priests with this kind of problem can do the same."
Will it ever happen? Father Ron isn't holding his breath. "I'd love to go back [to the priesthood], and I'm sure the bishop would take me back," he said. "But it will never happen because the paper would get hold of where I was, and I'm sure that the paper would crucify him and me."
Again, I wondered, is this fair? Even if there's no place for secret resolution of such cases -- a point I'm still struggling with -- should people like Father Ron be allowed to return to some safe area of the priesthood? Can an attraction to young boys be overcome, or made irrelevant?
"That's the great big unanswered question," says Paul Wilkes. An author of several heartfelt books on Catholicism, he was a member of one of the parishes where Father Ron was a pastor in the early '90s. His children, now 16 and 18, had attended some of the youth activities that he planned while a pastor in the rural towns of northern Massachusetts.
In a June 7, 1993, New Yorker article titled "Unholy Acts," Wilkes took Father Ron to task for turning photography into a form of sexual attack. "It was a cautionary tale -- that pedophilia was not something to be cured," he says. I wondered if his views, like mine, had started to soften after all these years.
Not quite. Though Wilkes admits that it could be possible for certain mildly pedophilic priests to return to service in, say, a veterans home, he tends to feel that Father Ron is a lost cause. The fact that he helped so many people and feels like he's "dry," to use a term borrowed from Alcoholics Anonymous, only makes his case more tragic. A re-evaluation, he argues, is unnecessary.
"Look at the priests like Geoghan," he said, speaking from his North Carolina office. "In most of the cases not coming out, the priests were beloved. They did a lot of good, and that's wonderful -- but that doesn't make up for what they did."
But isn't Father Ron's case more mild? I asked. Doesn't it show that sexual misconduct can be nuanced, gray, on a spectrum in its intensity? Not necessarily, he says. "If you ever saw the pictures, as did I, in the locker room that were the subject of this case, you will see that Father Ron was talking to him," he said. "[The boy] was worked with -- it was not just a snap and run."
But the trial only seems to have made matters worse, for both Father Ron and the boy, I argued. Is there a place for secrecy at all, ever, when it comes to matters of sexual misconduct in the clergy?
"No, they can't do that," he said. "I don't think there's any way, in any way, shape or form, that they can be allowed to go on in any way as priests. We are going to throw some babies out with the bathwater, but [sexual abuse] is so awful and so debilitating to the Catholic community that I think you need to meet it head on and take some very strong measures."
Most Catholic observers take a similar stance. As James Carroll, author of "Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews," wrote in a recent Boston Globe editorial, "predator priests, still a small fraction, are causing a collapse of the whole structure of ministry, like fuel-rods sparking a meltdown."
Is the Catholic church actually so fragile? I honestly can't say whether Wilkes and Carroll's fears are justified, having largely drifted from the church since my days as an altar boy. But I have a hard time believing that the institution which has endured so many scandals and crises over the centuries will crumble, no matter how many priests are convicted of sexual wrongdoing. And isn't fear for the church's reputation what caused so much trouble in the first place?
Cardinal Law's decision to reassign priests accused of sexual abuse likely had less to do with protecting the priests than with protecting the Diocese's image. It clearly didn't work, but the massive purge of all sexual uncleanliness, regardless of degree, regardless of guilt, could easily be seen as more of the same. It's a political solution to a human problem.
Sex is not a clear black and white issue. It rarely fits well with simple forms of justice. Just look at the history of obscenity law; at every turn, whether in banning "Lady Chatterley's Lover" or failing to remove "Hustler" from store shelves, the courts and society have tried to create a simple set of rules -- and ended up with locally defined chaos.
I don't pretend to have the answers. But I believe that the church needs a model that respects priests and victims as individuals, one that treats each case on its own merits. Private settlements should be extremely rare but not impossible to forge. And yes, some priests' cases should be re-evaluated.
I'm still not sure that letting the church privately decide who should return to the clergy would be a good idea. I tend not to trust people like Cardinal Law to make the correct judgments. He's already let far too many egregious cases slip by. But with the courts acting as a watchdog, there's no reason to believe that the costs of re-instating priests will always outweigh the benefits.
Father Ron's story, and the stories of so many priests whose actions leave them in a moral limbo, are not pretty. I wouldn't feel comfortable letting my teenage brothers hang out with Father Ron as often as I did. But that doesn't mean that such men should simply be discarded. Their past accomplishments in kindness -- whether reviving the spirit of a depressed town or simply helping a few people -- shouldn't be forgotten. Instead of rushing unthinkingly to create another class of victims, we should all seek a higher standard first embodied by Christ: hate the sin, love the sinner.