Meeting a "Monster"

Visiting a Priest Behind Bars

Matthew’s Gospel, the source of the Catholic “corporal works of mercy,” includes “visiting the imprisoned,” probably the least practiced of them all. I have only visited prisons a few times. Years ago, I visited Fr. Carl Kabat on Thanksgiving Day when I was home from the seminary. He had been imprisoned in my hometown for a peace action in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania.

Later, on weekends when I assisted at a parish in Columbia, Maryland, I would celebrate Mass at a state correctional facility. I was rather anxious at first, but gradually grew more comfortable with each visit. I was especially moved as the men shared their responses to the Gospel reading and expressed in prison argot what Jesus meant to them. I came to a richer appreciation of God’s grace working powerfully in one of the most difficult of human circumstances.

But visiting a convicted pedophile priest was something different. I had been corresponding with him for a few years after he had first contacted me. He is a fine writer, and his letters are always more detailed and more interesting than mine. He keeps abreast of church news, and he has read more current theology than I have. He uses a typewriter because he is not permitted access to a computer. His letters are honest and amazingly upbeat, despite his situation. I suspect they help him cope with his incarceration by providing more human contact than prison life generally allows.

For me, however, corresponding was initially just another aspect of pastoral work and support for a brother priest. When I asked him if he needed anything, he said he used to read America but that a fellow inmate, a Jesuit who subscribed and used to share his copy, had been transferred; so I got him a gift subscription. (His cellmate is also a priest, serving a similar sentence.)

I had read a little about his case on the Internet, and knew how he had “gotten into trouble,” as he put it, shortly after his ordination in the mid-1970s. Allegations were later raised at several of his early assignments, but none ever became public. Eventually he was sent to an out-of-state residential therapy facility for the treatment of pedophilia.

Following his stay there, he was permitted to work in another diocese. He was assigned to two parishes, despite warnings from his home diocese and a letter from the treatment center advising that he not be placed “in a position to minister to minors.” In both placements he abused as many as six young boys under the age of eighteen. None of the cases became public immediately, but in 1991 he was sent to another residential treatment center, after his host diocese received a complaint involving rape and molestation. Around the same time he resigned from the priesthood (he was eventually laicized by the Vatican) and moved to another state. The second diocese later settled several lawsuits related to him, totaling more than $2 million.

A few years later, he was arrested in another state for the sexual abuse of two boys and served three years of an eight-year sentence. While in prison, he completed a program for sex offenders, and after his release he managed to find a job and put his life back together. He continued to participate in a program for sex offenders for six years, even though he was not required to do so. But in 2005, in his mid-fifties, he was convicted again of rape and indecent assault and sent back to prison for an eleven-year sentence.

Late last September, a friend who was going to visit another priest at the institution where my correspondent lived invited me to come along. We flew to the nearest airport, rented a car, and drove an hour to the prison. It was a beautiful day—bright sun, blue skies, crisp autumn air—but I was feeling apprehensive. At first sight, the state correctional institution could have been mistaken for a research center on a well-kept campus, except that there were signs that warned it was a crime to do this or that.

The man I was visiting is not housed in the general prison population, but is part of a segregated group that needs special protection (clergy, cops, snitches, etc.). Visiting hours were from one to four. I planned to stay overnight with friends in the area, and to pay a second visit the next day. The thought of having to visit for six hours with a person I had never met, and under such unusual circumstances, was a bit intimidating.

Getting into the prison was a real education. The correction officers were polite but distant. I had to complete a form indicating whom I was visiting, certifying that I had never been convicted of a felony, and declaring that I was not bringing in any contraband. I had to relinquish my driver’s license to the officer on duty, who, I was later told, ran it through a national database to make sure I didn’t belong “inside” myself. I chose not to wear a Roman collar so as not to make anyone uncomfortable—including me.

After this first hurdle I was instructed to empty my pockets and put everything in a locker. I was allowed to keep my glasses, but not my blazer, which had a small lapel pin representing my religious order. An officer then searched under my button-down collar and examined my shoes. I could purchase a magnetic card to buy drinks, sandwiches, and other snacks in the visiting area. I walked through a metal detector and had my right hand stamped with a mark that could only be seen under an ultraviolet lamp. Finally, a door clicked open to a small hallway that led to another door. It remained locked until the first door clicked shut. Then I found myself outside, on a pavement walkway enclosed on two sides by ten-foot-high metal fences topped with razor wire. It led to another building and to the visitors’ room.

I was late, but my correspondent was waiting for me in the spacious, well-lit visiting area. It had long rows of wooden, orange-cushioned chairs. Visitors and inmates were able to sit side by side. He was dressed in a plaid shirt and jeans rather than the garish orange jump suit so familiar from courtroom dramas on television. This, at least, had a humanizing effect on the encounter. Two officers on a raised platform eyeballed the area constantly, although there were only two other inmates receiving visitors that day. He told me the room was continuously monitored by closed-circuit TV.

I explained why I was late and conversation took off in a very relaxed, familiar way. He is in his late fifties, well educated, and in good health. He will be eligible for parole in 2010, though he does not expect it because, he said, that particular state is “hard on sex offenders.” At best, he might be released when he is sixty-five. He seems resigned to his fate and is striving to make the best of his situation. His hope is to return to his home state and start anew.

We talked about what life is like in prison, and about church events and personalities. I did not want to pry into his own situation, but he volunteered a few details. He said that he had pleaded guilty to charges brought against him in two states. (“I am pleading guilty today because I am guilty,” he had been quoted as saying in one news report. “To my victims, I want to say I know I violated your trust and your innocence.... I know that I took from you what I cannot give you back.”) He also expressed his admiration for the courage of five young men who came forward to testify against him—all but one of whom did so without bitterness or recrimination, he said.

He has the loyal support of his sister who lives far away. He expressed sadness that he had not been allowed to attend the burial of his mother, who had died recently in her nineties. He has several regular visitors, including a friend who has established a trust fund for him when he is released. Inmates, he said, can receive monetary gifts and, by working in the laundry and other places, can earn very small amounts to purchase items at the canteen. Nothing can be received by mail other than books, and these must be sent directly from publishers or distributors.

Pastoral ministry there seemed thin. There is no permanent chaplain. A deacon brings the Eucharist once a week, apparently in a perfunctory manner. On one occasion, a retired bishop came to the unit to confirm an inmate, and spent some time visiting the priest inmates. But no one from his ordination class has made contact.

To my surprise, the time went quickly and the conversation never faltered. He harbors no resentment, and believes his incarceration is well deserved. I sensed, however, his regret at the almost total absence of any emotional support, pastoral care, and institutional concern for priests convicted of sexual abuse. Perpetrators like him are vilified by society, isolated and ignored by family and friends, shunned by their bishops or religious superiors, and, in the prison culture, targeted for special disdain. They are often beaten brutally by fellow inmates, whose attitude toward them mirrors that of the rest of society.

I returned the following day, went through the entire security process, and spent two more hours chatting and sharing sandwiches from the vending machines. By the time it was over, it seemed as though I had known him for many years. To judge by external appearances, theological formation, and mutual interests, we could easily have been priests who lived and worked together. But our paths had not crossed until that beautiful fall day—a day I could fully appreciate but he could not.

I did not meet a monster that day, nor had I expected to. I sensed that he might have accomplished much good as a priest, and that except for his involvement in what John Paul II called “the mystery of iniquity,” we might have worked well together in ministry. I hope that he gets a chance to live out his later years with some dignity and grace.

The experience brought home to me the insights of Sr. Helen Prejean, who works with death-row inmates. “Every person is more than the worst thing that person has done,” she has said. And that “more” can never be denied to anyone, including priests like my newfound friend.


Read more: Letters, June 19, 2009

Published in the 2009-05-22 issue: 

Robert Nugent, a priest of the Society of the Divine Savior, does parish work in New Freedom, Pennsylvania.

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads