The pelican papers

A big bird’s eye view

Soft landings: Getting what we want forever

Posted by Ron George on April 12, 2011

An illustration of Dante's visiion of the rings of hell.

She looked great last week. Relaxed, smiling and talkative as ever, a so-called after-pastor, soon to be on her way to a soft landing in California. You might even call it cushy – she can scarcely afford rent in the neighborhood. (The priest she’ll be working for beginning next month lives in a $2-million rectory.) She’ll be an associate pastor, not the rector, and that’s just as well. An old friend and new boss was calling every few days to make sure all was well with her move. The Californians of the new parish were eager to meet and greet. Short-term after-pastors seldom walk away without a limp, but she’ll recover with time. It’s sad that the parish she’s leaving seems hell-bent not to do so.

A little more than two years ago, she had just begun a new parish ministry in Corpus Christi when sexual misconduct by her predecessor was disclosed by a woman member of the congregation. Bishops in Texas and Georgia moved swiftly to remove the priest from ordained ministry. The new rector in Corpus Christi began the grueling work of an after-pastor who tries to pick up the pieces in the wake of pastoral misconduct. She didn’t stand a chance.

Under the best of lousy circumstances, an after-pastor goes in knowing there’s been a problem, but not this time. This after-pastor was trapped in place by circumstances not of her own making but by years of secrecy, denial and a veritable conspiracy of silence about the previous rector’s sexual misconduct. When rumor and suspicion reached the bishop’s ears a few years back, the pastor lied to him and to anyone else who bothered to ask. Few did, of course, because he was gifted and popular. His successor, blindsided by the problem, had to “dance with them’s that brung her” – the very cadre of lay leaders who had winked, blinked or chosen to ignore the former rector’s misbehavior. The new rector was compromised from the beginning, her authority washed out in the principal matter of pastoral care before the congregation. It was an after-pastor’s worst-case scenario – trying to chart a course for recovery for a congregation in denial about its need to recover.

Dante Alighieri, author of the Divine Comedy

Last week, she said she had hoped to buck the odds. Most after-pastors leave within three years, but she wanted her new congregation to be “the little church that could.” Well, it turned out to be the little church that wouldn’t. Key lay folk rejected her leadership with passive aggression and broken promises while still blaming the survivor of the previous pastor’s misconduct, who is still a member of the congregation, for staining his reputation. By last February, the after-pastor acknowledged her deep pain and defeat. Within weeks the new position was offered. It seemed providential. Many Corpus Christi parishioners will undoubtedly miss her, but among the leadership clique, I have no doubt her leaving was received as good riddance. One of them, in fact, had told her during a meeting at her home that she should “get out of the way.” So, she did, finally; and I presume many lay leaders are pleased, as it were, to have their church back – as though it were their church.

Meanwhile, in Georgia, another player in all this has had a soft landing. The offending priest now walks about with a new title, apparently at the pleasure of his bishop. It is said he provides pastoral care as a hospice chaplain, and he is touted on what might be called the spirituality circuit as a retreat leader in the Diocese of Atlanta. He recently delivered a Lenten program at the church from which he was deposed as pastor following disclosure of his sexual misconduct in Texas. The church’s good ol’ boy network is alive and well, apparently. Perhaps it all comes under the rubric of forgiveness, but it smacks of nothing more than continuing denial. The word back in Texas seems to be that the bishop in Georgia didn’t think the misconduct in Texas was such a big deal. The deposed pastor’s story seems to be that he took early retirement so he could spend more time leading retreats and writing. And what about that business in Texas? All a “misunderstanding.”

The beat goes on. In June, the priest from Corpus Christi deposed for sexual misconduct will lead a retreat in the Episcopal Diocese of Olympia, accompanied by another defrocked Episcopal priest who spent 10 years on probation in Texas after pleading guilty to molesting a child – while on retreat. The Olympia retreat is scheduled for St. Andrew’s House in Union, Wash., a diocesan retreat and conference center. It is said to be a “wisdom school” sponsored by the Contemplative Community on Bainbridge Island and Praxis, a Texas organization run by the defrocked former child molester. (He says he’s reformed and that his conviction is “very old news.” Let us hope that’s true.)

What’s not old news is the former Corpus Christi pastor’s persistent problem: He’s now been removed from ordained ministry for sexual misconduct by two denominations – and yet his bishop in Georgia has invited him continue providing pastoral care. It’s simply astonishing that these deposed clergy continue to peddle themselves as spiritual directors and pastors, even though both have profoundly abused their pastoral authority – and that an institution of the Diocese of Olympia can sell itself to their enterprise without blinking an eye or disclosing their status and history to those who will pay $450 a head for their “wisdom.”

So, in the end, everyone gets what they want. The parish leadership clique in Corpus Christi gets shed of an unwanted after-pastor, and the deposed pastor she succeeded takes “early retirement” and continues to provide pastoral care in Georgia. Fourteenth-century poet Dante Aligheri’s vision of hell was of our getting what we want forever. Compassionate faith compels us to hope that Dante’s vision is swallowed by God’s mercy.

As for the after-pastor, she’s shed of a thankless task and relieved to be away from the hell her vocation had become.

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One Response to “Soft landings: Getting what we want forever”

  1. Jim Abbott said

    Ron, your anger at this mess is evident. I agree that the pastor from Corpus Christi should not be back in ministry, especially in chaplaincy, where the people he will be working with are often at their most vulnerable. Is 10 years of probation, and some years after of good behavior long enough? I don’t know. To call what happened in Corpus Christie “a misunderstanding” does just serve to cover up. All in all a mess, with the only good out of it that the after pastor will have a soft landing. Peace Jim

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