Thursday, February 09, 2006

The Unhappy Ending of What Could Have Been a Fairytale (Or More Lessons for the Church)

The breaking news today reported the tragedy of abuse by Rev. William Winston, a priest of the Diocese of Paterson, New Jersey.

It's really impossible to measure the tragedy of child sexual abuse or any violation of the sacredness of the priesthood. But if there's a way figuratively to mark some cases as complex or more tragic tragedies, then I would so mark the case of Fr. Bill Winston.

You see, prior to the public outing of his multidimensional abusive ways, Fr. Bill Winston represented promise and hope for the future of the Catholic Church. That's what they often say about young/newly ordained priest, but that's not why in the case of Fr. Bill Winston. The reason in his case is that he is one of (only about 120 in the United States)former Episcopalian married Catholic priests. In my recollection over the span of about 20 years or so, he is the only one I know of in the entire state and probably the general region. While I do not know him or his family personally, I do know of him.

It's not my intention here to start a debate on mandatory clerical celibacy for Roman rite Catholic priests or an evaluation of the (un)fairness of allowing converts to remain practicing spouses when accepted into Catholic priesthood. There are just some thoughts that come to mind in light of this tragedy that I would like to put forward for reflection.

At the time when he was first received into the Catholic priesthood, he served in a parish in the Paterson Diocese about 25 minutes from where I lived in the neighboring diocese. Since first learning of Fr. Bill Winston's presence in the Paterson Diocese (some 18 years ago), I have believed that his witness and the witness of his family provided a powerful gift to the Church and quietly and unassumingly challenged many hidden assumptions.

At the time his world began to unspiral publicly, Fr. Bill was pastor of Saint Virgil's Parish in Morris Plains, NJ. Prior to that, he served, among other places, in a parish in Chatham, NJ.

As I saw it, Fr. Bill's two dimensional vocation -- to marriage and the priesthood simultaneously -- placed Christian family life and the relationship of people and priests in a new light. Clearly the presence of the Winston's on life's best days contributed to building up the Body of Christ. Yet, on the darker days, the family of the priest experienced the crosses that many in society face on a daily basis. Extraordinarily committed to their family life, breaking the silence around the spousal abuse had to be heartbreaking for Mrs. Winston. Yet it was something she clearly needed to do for her well-being and the wholeness of her children.

Added to the tragedy and complexity of domestic violence within the family of a married Catholic priest is the revelation of his struggle with alcoholism and the "allegations" (allegations that he "could not dispute" -- HIS words) that he on multiple occasions fondled a young boy.

All fairytale images shattered, a version of Camelot comes to an end. Whatever healing had begun for the Diocese of Paterson in light of its particular experience of the Church's Sexual Abuse Problems have, at least momentarily, come to an end as it once again grapples, not only with the public admission of child sexual abuse but in a context most within the Church never even imagined possible.

Thoughts on this sad situation cannot be wrapped up in a single post. I'll be back with more on this in the near future.

In the meantime, join me in praying for Fr. Winston and his family, his victim and his family, the people of the Fr. Winston's past and present parishes and the Paterson Diocese, and the leadership of the Church of the Diocese of Paterson.

Some things only God can handle.


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