"Father Ron"

By Damien Cave

Published March 11, 2002 8:34PM (EST)

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I think I might have encountered a priest with a problem similar to Father Ron's.

I was 15 and, in confession one day, that priest pressed me to confess some sins he was certain I was committing. But I hadn't the faintest idea what he was talking about in such oblique terms, and became increasingly confused and upset the more he continued to press me. Eventually he became angry and refused me absolution. It was only as I walked home, shaken and in tears, that the penny dropped: He'd been talking about sex! He'd wanted me to confess my sexual sins, and was completely unwilling to accept that a 15-year-old girl could be as obliviously asexual as in fact I was.

That experience broke my heart and drove me from the Church. Obviously I'd been lied to: Priests in the confessional are not acting as God's agents. If they were, that priest would have known I was telling the truth. But he didn't, so he was only a man. They are all only men.

Was that priest a sort of voyeur? I think he must have been. Certainly he appeared to have a need to hear about sex acts, and it overcame his good sense.

Should he have been defrocked? Should Father Ron? At the time I would have said yes, but now, 46 years on, I don't think so. I think that the priest I encountered shouldn't have been hearing confessions, because he had human needs that were getting in the way. But if his pastoral performance otherwise was fine, as I imagine it was, then why shouldn't he be allowed to contribute in the ways he was able?

Similarly, I don't think Father Ron should ever have been discarded as he was. That was simply awful, as giving and humane as he apparently was in all other ways. He should probably not be working with kids of the type to which he felt attraction. I say "probably" because we distinguish in the rest of adult life between sexual looking and touching. There are even jokes about it. So I'm not convinced that simple looking should ever be punished, even if it's looking at children. Certainly someone with that attraction should have psychological assessment and help in case there's a potential for looking to become touching. But punishing looking itself? That feels too close to thought crime, doesn't it?

What about Cardinal Law? I don't believe Mr. Law should resign or retire. He is not someone being driven by intrapsychic forces over which he has little or no control. He is someone who repeatedly condoned -- colluded with -- criminally destructive behavior simply to avoid damage to himself and his fiefdom. That skates close to the clinical definition of what used to be called criminal psychopathy. So I believe Mr. Law should first be sacked by Rome, and then prosecuted as a criminal accomplice by the civil authorities. It's the least they can do.

But Mr. Law will walk away untouched, of course, even while poor Father Ron goes on suffering for his sin of looking. Only the little flies ever get caught in the law's web. The bigger ones always break free and go on their way unharmed. Why should this case be different?

-- Anonymous

I enjoyed your piece on Father Ron and his little problem.

I wonder, though -- as you seem to struggle for the right point of view on men like Father Ron -- if you didn't find the answer and missed it.

You wrote: "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."

Well. He might have answered in various ways. "Because the boys could be traumatized" might be one. Or even, "Because it would be wrong."

No, he didn't actually molest because he figured he might get the holy shit -- pardon the expression -- beaten out of him. How ... charitable. Not quite ready for the priesthood yet, I submit.

Self-obsession is one of the hallmarks of pedophilia. A wholesale collapse of empathy for their targets. It's the engine for their crimes. Excuse me if I fail to see the ambiguity in judging them.

-- Berkeley Breathed

I was deeply troubled by Damien Cave's piece concerning Father Ron, the priest defrocked for voyeurism.

"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."

What I find objectionable about this statement and the overall tone of the article is that it treats pedophilia merely as an unattractive desire rather than a mental illness and a physical and mental assault. While I admire his compassion for Father Ron despite his transgressions, I think his empathy is somewhat misplaced. The position of a Catholic priest is one of strict denial. The Church calls upon its parishioners to live lives of self sacrifice. Why should we expect less of our priests?

Moreover I don't believe that it is asking too much for the church to make sure the priests do not prey upon our children. I expect the same of those who are not sworn to a life of celibacy. If the backlash seems rather virulent against the Catholic Church it is because it's been centuries in the making.

-- Lenora Warren

The answer is to repeal the celibacy requirement. Father Ron needed a sexual outlet. That doesn't make him a monster. That makes him human. We're biologically programmed to reproduce. Perhaps I'm sympathetic toward Father Ron because he committed a victimless crime. For example, I wouldn't excuse child rape as a normal biological response to repressive sexual conditions. Father Ron, however, is a compelling case for repealing the celibacy requirement.

The celibacy requirement has another indirect effect. It leads to a shortage of priests, which, in turn, leads the archdiocese to endeavor to rehabilitate the pedophile priests, rather than remove them, as common sense and justice would require. All the more reason to repeal the requirement.

That said, I am not Catholic and therefore do not feel entitled to tell the archdiocese how to conduct itself, or to pass judgment on the standards they impose on priests. I do have a sense that this is their problem.

Incidentally, the Catholics I have spoken to on this topic have summarily dismissed the idea of repealing the celibacy requirement as compromising their moral standards.

-- Anonymous Boston resident

Damien Cave is a confused man. Let me put it to you in black and white by quoting Mr. Cave himself: "Sex is not a clear black and white issue."

Sorry, Mr. Cave, sex in this case is a black and white issue. Do you want to know the difference between the affairs of Lady Chatterley and gamekeeper Mellor and Father Ron's perverted personal affairs? Or Father Ron's infatuation for voyeuristic pictures and former President Bill Clinton's infatuation for trailer trash skanks? Or even the photographs of a half-dressed child compared to Hustler magazine's pictorials?

Two words: consenting adults.

Don't get me wrong; I do sympathize with your reexamination of your childhood with Father Ron, but I do not sympathize with your sympathetic tone to an adult, trusted by his community by the way, who used photographs of children so he can help himself become sexually aroused.

Children are the defining difference between your confusion for what is in the "gray area" of acceptability in sexual tastes and what is considered sexual perversion. You ask any child, or former child, who was photographed if he wanted his pictures taken exclusively for the purposes of helping Father Ron masturbate and he will tell you no.

That is the reason for Father Ron's exile from the Church and the community. He had become a deviant using unwanted advances of voyeuristic methods. The fact that you had to question whether Father Ron should have reprieve because he is no Father Geoghan tells me you have missed the point. Whether Father Ron touched the boys is not the line you must measure by, but the emotional trauma it had inflicted.

By assumption, one can only guess it is the same. It's the emotional violation of trust. A mental rape if you will.

Should Father Ron be forgiven? Sure. Can Father Ron be rehabilitated? Absolutely. But should Father Ron be reinstated into the Catholic Church and its community, thereby letting holy water flow under the bridge? No. Is that fair? Yes.

-- Larry Guo

You have hit on, and scampered right over, the hub of the problem. We have become a more Victorian society than the Victorian era itself, it would seem.

As a criminal defense attorney who handles various kinds of sex cases, I can assure you that Father Ron probably doesn't even have a problem, in the larger sense. There is no harm in looking at pictures.

What we have is a joinder of the right and the left in a new era of totalitarianism. There is now abroad in the land a belief that there is no sex before 18. (One wonders why all those Florence Crittenton homes existed. That's before your time.)

We have various "leftists" like Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin railing against porn. We have all sorts of groups railing against child pornography and child molestation. We now have cases brought in court where the charge is child pornography and there is no actual child pornography involved. (See the case currently before the U.S. Supreme Court entitled Free Speech Coalition vs. Ashcroft, argued last Oct. 30.) We have MADD talking about (and demonizing) the alleged scourge of drunk driving.

All these folks are alleged leftists, people who argue they are trying to create a better social order. On the right, we have the usual suspects. These folks have gotten together in order to criminalize virtually everything.

In all these priest/teacher/coach cases, we have all sorts of folks pretending that children are not sexual. We are continually told that children are innocent. They are neither asexual nor innocent.

Remember, more important, that Clinton's impeachment because of his little games of slap-and-tickle with a Beverly Hills prostitute was compared, with a straight face, to the crimes against the state of Watergate and Iran-Contra.

I believe that George Orwell wrote that eventually everyone would be registered for something. That's where we are headed. We simply criminalize everything and then everyone will be a criminal, except for a class of empty-headed totalitarian ideologues. (I tend to agree with Southern writer Florence King, who claimed she couldn't understand child molesters because she couldn't believe anyone would want to be with the little urchins long enough to do anything.)

Remember, you could be next for writing about Father Ron and claiming that some cases are not black and white.

-- Steven Flowers

In Damien Cave's piece about the sexual abuse of children by priests, he writes of Father Ron: "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." There is a connection being missed here. Would it have been better if Father Ron had gotten married? If he had then had children? Most pedophiles are married, they are not priests. The vow of celibacy is not what leads these priests to indulge their pedophilia. There is the possibility that men with sexual problems or discomfort might join the priesthood in an effort to avoid facing these issues. That is different. The vast majority of pedophiles have not vowed to be celibate.

-- Jen Deaderick

By Salon Staff

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