Rev. Michael Salvagna, C.P., M.A.
Passionist Retreat Center, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Father Francis is a friend of mine. I have long appreciated his learning, facility with words, and ability to do lots of things simultaneously. A popular professor, preacher, author, and spiritual advisor, Father Francis had it all. He displayed zest for life and related well to his students. Yet his religious community roots were never far from is identity and mission in life. But now he is no longer known as Father Francis. In fact, he no longer teaches, preaches or does other ministry in the Church. He was stripped of his faculties and no longer lives in a religious community. How could this happen?
It’s a long story, far longer than the space I have here. But let me give some explanation from my vantage point. The Internet has opened up a world of information and communications that have revolutionized the planet. Along with this magnificent instrument comes a flood of ugliness and criminal behavior that finds moralist and law enforcers unable to regulate. Francis became another statistic when he let his office commuter, in a public place, be accessible to
multiple users and always password open. Francis was charged by his superior of computer pornography involving minors. Police investigation, using a computer expert, determined that there was no viewing of pornography involving minors, but adult pornography was viewed. Francis denied ever looking at those websites.
A young man eventually came forward admitting his misuse of that computer. He was interviewed by the same computer analyst who had conducted the original investigation. The police were certain that this young man was the guilty party because they asked questions that only the perpetrator could answer correctly.
Francis thought he was in the clear but not so. His superior did not accept the finds of the police report declaring Francis’ innocence, but continued to insist that Francis was the sole guilty party. The decision that eventually came forth against Francis by the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith made no mention of the
police report. Legal authorities exonerated Francis of improper behavior online or due to personal conduct. That should have been sufficient to clear his name. But months of recriminations on all sides had developed deep wounds among Francis, the college administration and his religious superior. From these he could not escape with integrity of vocation and mission. The bad publicity generated by these accusations in print and online dragged on and on. Appeals to the Vatican by all sides did not bring compromise or reconciliation. In the mind of local authorities, Francis had become a pariah and an embarrassment, he had to go.
When strong willed, stubborn Christians go at one another determined to prevail, all sides suffer along with the Church at large. What started as small scale charges of improper behavior and improper use of social media escalated into a war of accusations and rebuttals. The need to defend one’s turf and the rules that govern it brought much scandal and polarity to an esteemed academic community. And a good priest is no longer at the service of the Church. How could things get so far out of hand with no one capable of stopping the roaring engine? I have no answer.
Ecclesiastical authorities always have the upper hand when it comes to accusing an individual priest or religious. The Vatican position acts on the principle that if the ordinary or the religious superior with jurisdiction is the source of the accusation against a priest, then the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith considers its responsibility to be reinforcement of local authority. The case against Father Francis was simply ratified up the chain of command almost by reflex. There is no just when the accuser is powerful and his judgment is not questioned.
Yet Vatican officials have a serious responsibility to dispense justice lest a priest or religious be victimized. Sometimes they get it right; sometimes they are wrong. Church history is replete with decision against Christians by kings and popes that were later reversed. Might that happen here? There is one last resort for my friend, Francis. It lies with another Francis, Pope that is. Pope Francis will need the Wisdom of Solomon to decide this case aright. A decision could be granted in favor of Father Francis that would restore his faculties as a priest, and reinstate him in his religious community. I believe this injustice needs to be corrected. But healing and reconciliation will be very difficult in that religious community. I pray that will happen.
DUE PROCESS, LAW AND LOVE; VOLUME 5, MAY 2014