Father John Corapi's Kafka-esque Catch-22 ordeal

religion | Jun 26, 2011 | By Gordon J MacRae

When a good priest’s good name is under siege these days, the situation he faces is best summed up in a combination of two terms from classic literature used in my title. What Father John Corapi and other accused priests face is an all-too-familiar “Kafkaesque Catch-22.”

“Kafkaesque” refers to an oppressive, nightmarish situation from which there seems no escape. It’s a reference to the fictional worlds created by Czech writer Franz Kafka (1883-1924) who wrote in German. “Kafkaesque” is today used to describe a scenario like that in Kafka’s most famous novel, The Trial (1925). It’s the story of an innocent man accused and facing trial, but subtly prevented from offering any defense because the tools for doing so elude him at every turn while prosecutors lurk in the shadows with agendas and motives that are never clear.

 A “Catch-22″ is also a situation with no hope of resolution because two mutually incompatible conditions are imposed, each countering and contradicting the other. The term comes from the title of a famous American novel, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (Simon and Shuster, 1955). In Catch-22, a World War II U.S. Air Force pilot desperately wants to avoid combat duty. The only way to do so is to be judged insane. But wanting to avoid combat duty is itself seen as evidence of his sanity. So in the end, a claim of insanity to avoid combat ends up proving his sanity and fitness for combat.

A “Kafkaesque Catch-22″ sums up what is now faced by Father John Corapi since he was accused of sexual misconduct and placed on administrative leave months ago. I first wrote of the Father Corapi case on These Stone Walls in “Father John Corapi and Fifty-Eight Times Around the Sun” in April.

According to a statement on Father John Corapi’s website, he learned on Ash Wednesday that a former employee of Santa Cruz Media, which markets Father Corapi’s work, sent a three-page letter to several bishops accusing him of drug addiction and multiple incidents of sexual exploitation of her and other unnamed women. I write “unnamed” women, but I am not certain whether anyone was named in the accuser’s letter. She and any other possible complainant remain unnamed in any public forum that I know of.

This is the Kafkaesque part of this story. The U.S. Bishops meeting in Dallas, Texas in 2002 enacted the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People” resulting in what has widely become known as a policy of “zero tolerance” for sexual abuse. In my series, “When Priests Are Falsely Accused,” I wrote of some of the wreckage left behind when a Church embraces a one-size-fits-all policy like zero tolerance. There is much more to be said of this.

One tenet of that policy is that every priest accused of misconduct involving a minor, from however long ago, is placed on administrative leave pending investigation. While on leave, he is barred from celebrating the Sacraments in public, barred from wearing a Roman collar, and barred from presenting or identifying himself in public as a priest when speaking or writing. The policy applies if the priest is accused, say, by a fourteen-year-old, and it applies retroactively – as in the vast majority of such cases – when a priest is accused by a forty-four year-old who waited thirty years to make the accusation. As the John Jay College of Criminal Justice report has demonstrated, seventy percent of the claims against priests were not brought by minors, but by adults seeking financial settlements claiming to have been molested as minors.


Tne result of the bishops’ policy is that a case alleged to have occurred last month and a case alleged to have occurred fifty years ago are approached in the same way with the same rules and restrictions. But they are very different. The case alleging misconduct a month ago will be investigated, but there is no legitimate investigative tool known to exist that can determine truth or falsehood in any case alleged to have occurred decades ago. Most of the unfortunate priests so accused have seen the end of their ministry as priests, and many of them are simply discarded.

As I wrote in “Are Civil Liberties for Priests Intact?” the fact that so many give carte blanche credence to decades-old claims reflects a mantra that has greatly benefitted false claimants and contingency lawyers. The mantra, cited over and over by victim groups, contingency lawyers, and the news media, is that sex abuse victims are generally unable to report their victimization for many years or decades, so punishments should apply retroactively.

I cannot help wondering about that. My very environment refutes that claim. Just across the hall from me in this prison, some 180 prisoners live in a unit designated as a sex offender treatment program. In the prison system in this one small state, some 1,700 out of its 3,000 prisoners are on a years-long waiting list for admission to the sex offender treatment program which is a requirement for any hope of parole. Thousands more are on parole or otherwise monitored by the state as registered sex offenders. In seventeen years in this prison seeing thousands of accused and convicted sexual abusers come and go – often serving short sentences due to plea deals – I have never heard of a single other case of someone being accused twenty or thirty years after the crime was alleged to have been committed.

For accused parents, step-parents, grandparents, foster parents, uncles, teachers, ministers, scout leaders and so on, the typical length of time between abuse and a victim coming forward to report it has been measured in weeks or months, not years, and certainly not decades. The passage of time seems to be a remarkable rarity in other cases of sexual abuse while it is the norm in claims against Catholic priests, and virtually without exception, monetary demands are central to the claims against priests.


But Father John Corapi was not accused of misconduct involving a minor. His sole accuser is an adult, and was an adult at the time the behaviors were alleged to have taken place. Father Corapi was also not accused of committing a crime, so there is no criminal investigation, no arrest, no trial, and no forum in which evidence could be aired. This makes one wonder why any announcement of the claim against Father John Corapi was made at all, and why the zero tolerance policy adopted in the 2002 bishops’ Charter even applies to him. There have been no clear answers, and this makes the case against Father John Corapi a Kafkaesque tale.

The Catch-22, and the affront to Father Corapi’s civil liberties, is this: a public announcement was made placing Father Corapi in the category of “Administrative Leave” as required of those accused of misconduct with minors. Father Corapi is bound by obedience to observe certain rules. He cannot exercise his priestly ministry in any public forum, and he cannot present himself in public as a priest. In Father Corapi’s statement regarding these allegations on his website, he wrote:

I’ll certainly cooperate with the process, but personally believe that it is seriously flawed, and is tantamount to treating the priest as guilty ‘just in case’. . . The resultant damage to the accused is immediate, irreparable, and serious, especially for someone like myself, since I am so well known.”

And that is exactly what makes the case of Father John Corapi a classic “Catch-22.” If he is to defend himself at all, he must be able to do so publicly with statements that clearly and decisively refute what is claimed of him. That is not only his right under both the U.S. Constitution and Canon Law, it is also what Catholics expect of him.
But if Father Corapi is barred from presenting himself publicly as a priest, then he is effectively barred from presenting himself publicly at all. Does anyone really expect that Father Corapi is to offer a defense and address this case in public as “Mr. John Corapi” as though Catholics won’t know who he is? Does anyone really expect him to treat the accusations against him as unconnected to the fact that he is a priest? It is, today, his very priesthood that makes him and all priests vulnerable to false accusations. Being forced to pretend otherwise is to be effectively silenced.

I have heard from several people that they are concerned at the lack of “anything new” on this subject. They point out that [until this week] Father Corapi has remained silent since his initial statement, and there is a growing, uneasy feeling that his silence itself gives credence to the claims against him. I believe it is a mistake to interpret his silence as anything more than acquiescence to the bishops’ policy, but in effect his silence leaves him vulnerable to further false claims. A rolling stone gathers no moss, but administrative leave requires Father Corapi to be more like a sitting duck than a rolling stone.

I commend Father John Corapi for his obedience and fidelity to legitimate authority in the Church, but that authority must also recognize Father Corapi’s “Catch-22.” If he is a priest falsely accused, he also has a moral obligation that may be commanded by a higher law. He has a moral obligation to the truth. So do I. But as I wrote in “The Scandal of Catholic Abuse of the Catholic Abuse Scandal,” “The truth really will set us free, but you have no idea how precious freedom is until someone takes it away from you with a lie . . . To serve a lie is to serve the master of all lies.”

There are only two people who know the truth in the “she said / he said” situation faced by Father John Corapi, and one of them has been effectively silenced. If Father Corapi cannot present himself as a priest, then he cannot defend himself as a priest. If he cannot defend himself within the very context in which the accusation against him arose, then he cannot defend himself at all. That’s what makes this case a “Kafkaesque Catch-22.” It is one person’s word against another’s, and one of them now has no word at all.


In the second of a well-researched two-part article for The National Catholic Register (”Priests in Limbo,” February 27 – March 12, 2011) writer Joan Frawley Desmond referred to my own case as “perhaps the most publicized case of a priest challenging his conviction,” and cited These Stone Walls “written in his overcrowded prison cell.” I was grateful to see The National Catholic Register tackle this subject. Ironically, Father Corapi was accused in the very week that the Register series ran its second part.

In a comment on Part II of the article, writer David Pierre, Jr. cited “the eye-opening” report of former Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney Donald H. Steier published at The Media Report. Former DA Steier concluded that ONE-HALF of claims against priests are either entirely false or so greatly exaggerated and distorted that the truth would not support a sustainable claim of abuse. David Pierre is author of Double Standard, a 2010 book I reviewed on The Media Report.
In an article for Catholic Lane, “Father John Corapi and the State of Due Process for Accused Priests” (April 4, 2011) writer Ryan MacDonald emphasized that zero tolerance and the conditions imposed in its resultant state of administrative leave “must not be the last word in a Church built upon the truth of the Gospel.” Ryan MacDonald has written a good deal for These Stone Walls, and I consider him to be a champion for truth and justice in the Church.

On the case of Father Corapi, however, I disagree with Ryan. He pointed out the rampant unfairness of priests like myself defending against allegations that are decades old in a Church that now presumes their guilt. He held the Father Corapi case out as something more hopeful:

“As unjust as the Father Corapi case is, it is at least current. He and his supporters at least have an opportunity to gather information that could point to less than stellar motives for his accusers’ claims. Already, the claim has surfaced that his accuser – whose name, to date, has been shielded from public scrutiny – had previously threatened to ‘destroy’ Father Corapi. If clear evidence of Father Corapi’s guilt is not forthcoming soon, then it is time for the true voice of the faithful to help restore Fr. John Corapi’s good name and ministry.”

I admire Ryan for his hopefulness for a just and happy resolution, but it is just not that simple. By being placed on administrative leave, and barred from presenting himself as a priest, Father Corapi is prevented from participating in his own defense in public.  This fact causes too many people to interpret silence as guilt. It is sad, but true, and will only worsen over time.

There is another factor that influences this matter, however. Guilt or innocence aside, I believe support for Father Corapi within the Church and priesthood is already influenced and overshadowed – and eroded – by another case, that of Father Marcial Maciel. That’s another story, and in a few weeks I plan to tackle it head-on.
Catholics concerned for the plight of Father John Corapi should have a look at an important essay in this debate. Writing in First Things (January 4, 2011), Father Thomas G. Guarino published “The Priesthood and Justice.” Though it precedes the Father Corapi case, the central premise applies. In just two pages, Father Guarino summed up the great threat to the priesthood itself, and to the Catholic Church’s theology of priesthood, when policies like “zero tolerance” and administrative leave prevail. I was glad to see Father Guarino take this up, especially in First Things which has been too silent on these issues since the deaths of Father Richard John Neuhaus and Cardinal Avery Dulles. Both were strong voices in opposition to “zero tolerance.”

In my post, “At the Twilight’s Last Gleaming,” I made a case for how the priesthood scandal emerged out of Boston just weeks after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Bishops have not been immune to the reactionary hard line on a national scale that has prevailed in the wake of 9/11.

Just a year earlier, in November, 2000, the U.S. Catholic Bishops published “Responsibility and Rehabilitation,” a conscience-stirring critique of the American criminal justice system. As a prisoner, I was much moved by the courageous Gospel truths within that document. The bishops decried the injustices that occur when slogans like “zero tolerance” and “three strikes and you’re out” supplant justice and create one-size-fits-all penalties in civil society. They wrote of the inherent injustice of mandatory sentences with rigid formulations that have crept in to replace the discretion of judges dealing with individual cases in the justice system. I cheered our bishops on.
Since then, other voices have compromised those ideals with the rhetoric of a witch-hunt. In 2000, the U.S. Bishops wrote a masterpiece of justice in “Responsibility and Rehabilitation.”  Now, if they would only read it.

“But when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he made no answer.” Matthew 27:12

Rev. Gordon J. MacRae is a regular contributor to Spero News and writes weekly for www.TheseStoneWalls.com.  The above article was modified from one previously published at www.TheseStoneWalls.com.




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