Home Fires

My Priest, the Child Molester

Why was the congregation so quick to forgive him?

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.

“Father Mark is not only my priest, but my friend,” said a third parishioner, Donna Maurer. “He always has time for you.”

It wasn’t that Ms. Maurer doubted the charges. Still, she, too, called the attention they were getting “very unfortunate.” She explained, “There are a lot of murderers who get more respect than these priests. I understand their victims do have rights, but I don’t feel like Father Mark should be condemned.”

This kind of reaction isn’t unusual. On the same day, in nearby Celestine, Ind., the Rev. Michael Allen stood before his congregation and confirmed the newspaper’s account that he, too, had had sexual contact with a teen-age boy years earlier—a relationship that started when the boy was hospitalized for depression following the death of his father. The priest received a long standing-ovation.

When the Rev Michael Pecharich was recently removed from San Francisco Solano Church in Orange County, Calif., some even spoke of naming the new parish center after him.

In Lowell, Mass., those loyal to the Rev. D. George Spagnolia, who was removed from ministry pending an investigation into past abuse allegations, began wearing purple ribbons to show their solidarity. “People here are all for Father,” one woman tearfully told the Boston Herald. “Father married my daughter. He baptized my grandson. He’s done nothing but good for the people around here.”

Without question, core Christian beliefs work in these men’s favor. There is, after all, no such thing as one last chance in our faith. We have the hubris to ask God to forgive us as we forgive those who trespass against us, so we’d better at least aspire to compassion, deserved or not.

But more to the point, just as in families, where sexual abuse is often denied and victims blamed, church communities that have trusted and leaned on these men are deeply, viscerally reluctant to believe allegations against them.

David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, says priests who prey on children and young people tend to be exceptionally helpful, popular, and charismatic. Without charm, he said, these priests would get no parents to allow their children to spend time with them and no children willing to be around them. “But I think these men also know they’re doing something awful, so to compensate they become super-priests, who visit more sick people and do more volunteer work in the community than anybody else,” Mr. Clohessy said. “Then people say, ‘It can’t be Father George.’ ”

I did not say, “It can’t be Father Mark,” maybe because he was not someone I had grown up trusting or had turned to in a crisis. We met only because he happened to have been assigned to the parish in New Harmony, Ind., near where my parents live, where my husband and I wanted to be married.

A priest friend I’ve known since college actually married us, but under church rules, it was Father Mark, as the local pastor, who had to co-officiate at the wedding mass and do the paperwork. Officialdom also required that my husband and I receive one session of token premarital counseling from him. It fell to this man, in other words, to certify our suitability for the sacrament and covenant of marriage.

Maybe a year later, Father Mark showed up in New York, angling to be taken to lunch. I remember whining on the phone to my mother that this was the last thing I had time to do that day. But I was admonished to be nice to nice Father Mark, so out we went. In the course of the conversation, he complained boastfully that the priest shortage had turned him into a “sacramental stud” who was everywhere in demand.

A couple of years later still, after our twins were born, we went back to the Midwest to have them baptized. As much as anything, we went home because I wanted to include my friends and my mother’s friends—and all the others who had nagged God on our behalf—in one of the most joyful occasions of our lives. Unfortunately, the sacramental stud was called into service again.

After that, Father Mark energetically pursued our friendship and stopped by to see us in Washington, D.C., where we were living by then. He neither said nor did anything overtly inappropriate while he was there. Still, one day when I was nursing one baby while he was briefly alone with the other child, I panicked.

“How could you even think such a thing?” my mother wanted to know. “You have nothing to base this on.” True, the fact that he gave me the creeps would not hold up in court. Nonetheless, we cut off all contact and threw away his subsequent letters, unopened.

Now that I know rather than merely suspect the worst, however, I have to accept the fact that even if I could cut him out of the wedding and baptismal photos, I can never change the role he has played in my Catholic life. (And no, though more than one friend has suggested it, I cannot have the kids re-baptized. It still counts.)

I do know one Catholic who has been radicalized by the revelations. My mother not only e-mailed the initial news account to me but also added a little note: “You were so adamant,” she said, “and I didn’t want to believe it.”

This week, church officials announced that Father Mark had finally been deemed unfit for the ministry, any ministry. Why? Because, as they had known all along, Father Mark had not stayed out of trouble since 1981. In 1998, he had admitted to soliciting sex from his own 17-year-old nephew.

The decision to remove him, however, came only after the nephew, Rick Kurzendoerfer, now 21, told the local paper about his experience. “If going public helps somebody else come forward to report abuse, then it’s worth the embarrassment,” he said. “I needed to tell my story if it meant keeping Father Mark from returning to another parish with children.”

He also said he had wearied of hearing people express sympathy for poor Father Mark, whom he described as “the smartest priest I know.”

“People kept saying, ‘I feel so sorry for your uncle,’ ” Rick Kurzendoerfer said. “But they didn’t know the whole story.”

Now they do.