than if they had been appointed to wash the feet of their confreres.”
--St Francis of Assisi
Early last year I received a letter from a classmate of mine from St. Anthony’s Seminary who wrote to tell me he was coming to Santa Barbara in April and hoped to get together with me. His youngest boy, a high school senior, had been accepted to UCSB. Father and son were now making the trip from their home in the southwest to visit the campus. Like me, David (not his real name) had been molested during his freshman year at the seminary. Unlike me, he hadn’t been back to Santa Barbara since he left the school in 1967.
Now, after all these years, he was looking forward to revisiting the seminary and reclaiming a part of his past. He told me he was prepared for the anxiety he might feel, too. He realized there would be a flood of good and bad memories that would wash over him, and he welcomed it. But one of the places David most wanted to visit when he returned to Santa Barbara was the Solidarity Memorial on the grounds of Mission Santa Barbara. To be able to sit on the same athletic bench he sat on almost fifty years ago filled him with a peculiar longing. He had been following my work with SafeNet since the beginning in 2003, and he felt he understood the safety and quiet power of this sacred space better than most. He planned to bring stones from his desert home to place on the memorial along with a small card that bore the handwritten names of every boy in our freshman class.
When David got into town that first day back in April I was in meetings all day. We left messages on each other’s phones with plans to get together that night for dinner.
After checking in at his motel he drove straight to St. Anthony’s Seminary. He parked his car on Garden Street and walked up the shared driveway that divided the seminary on the left and the Mission on the right. I had warned him that the seminary was now a gated, private school with strict security and that it was unlikely he would be able to roam the grounds freely. He and his son found a rear gate open at the far end of the ball field where students were practicing and together they slipped through. In a matter of minutes a security guard approached them. David explained his presence and was told he could stay for awhile if he confined his visit to the field.
So father and son sat on the outfield grass in approximately the same area where the father once played right field as a young teenager. The massive stone buildings stood in the foreground like ancient sentinels as David talked about things he remembered and his son asked questions. He would tell me later that It felt okay to see the seminary from so far away and not be able to walk the grounds. Viewing it from a distance helped him see it more clearly.
He and his son stayed for about two hours before leaving St. Anthony’s. Then they walked across the road to the Mission side where they found the Solidarity Memorial beneath the palm trees in a grassy area near the entrance to the Mission Renewal Center parking lot. As they lingered near the site, a Franciscan friar who was standing near the exit area of the parking lot called out to them in a firm voice and asked: “Can I help you?” This was a bit startling for David since he hadn't spoken to a Franciscan in more than 45 years. As he began to walk over to where the friar was standing, explaining that he was there to visit the Solidarity Memorial, the friar dismissed him. “This is private property,” he said. Then turned abruptly and walked off.
This brief and disturbing encounter was so unsettling to David that he felt his whole body shake. He attempted to sit on the bench with his son and collect his thoughts but found he was incapable of focusing on anything else. It was difficult for him to accept that he could still feel so vulnerable after all these years. Finally, after looking up through the fronds of the palm trees and catching a glimpse of the seminary tower next door, he carefully placed the stones he brought from his home onto the main rock of the memorial and lit a match, burning the small scrap of paper with all our names on it. Then he and his son left the area.
One week later, on April 11, 2013, the Solidarity Memorial was vandalized by a Mission employee.
The Human and Divine
This past month marked the one year anniversary of the Solidarity Memorial’s desecration. It also marked the one year anniversary of the Franciscans’ failure to respond to the memorial’s desecration. I ask the reader to think about that for a moment. On April 16, 2013,
a letter from the board of directors of Instruments of Peace, sponsors of the Solidarity Memorial, was sent to the Franciscans and their provincial minister, Friar John Hardin, OFM, who directs the Province of St. Barbara. The letter expressed the board's grave concerns. It posed four vital questions about the destruction of the memorial and called for a proper pastoral response from the Franciscans. Instead, there's been absolute silence from the Order of Friars Minor regarding the willful destruction of a sacred space on their own property.
This failure to respond prompted a second letter to the provincial on May 24, 2013, from SafeNet, the organization that’s been assisting survivors and the Franciscans on healing issues for more than ten years. In this letter, SafeNet called on the provincial to conduct an independent investigation of the memorial’s destruction and to remove from office those Mission personnel responsible. But once again, there was no response. And three weeks from now will mark another one year anniversary of another letter sent and yet another failure by the Franciscan leadership to communicate in good faith on this matter.
What does this mean? What sort of message does it send? And what does it say about a provincial minister who professes to be the spiritual leader of a religious order?
In some ways it’s as though the Franciscans have entered into some unholy, alternate reality where religious leaders trust men who are untrustworthy. Where incompetence is rewarded and irrelevance is valued. Where The Peter Principle is revered more than The New Testament. How else are we to explain friars like Richard McManus, Angelo Cardinale and Brian Trawick who, incredibly, still “run things” at Mission Santa Barbara? And what are we to make of Robert Koehler, the mission’s “excitable” maintenance supervisor, who twice destroyed the Solidarity Memorial and twice denied doing it? How is it possible that he's still employed by the Franciscans? If this were a murder mystery one might imagine that all the suspects had the goods on each other. But it’s more like a screwball comedy.
As for what the message might be, I’m stumped. I’ve been scratching my head over the whole concept of “Franciscan communication” for years. Getting these men to reveal anything on any level requires a PhD in cryptography. I still can’t figure out what the provincial is trying to say, for example, when he complains that the Franciscans are broke. Correct me if I’m wrong, but these are Franciscans, right? They follow the poverello. They’re not supposed to own expensive gadgets, new cars or prime real estate in upscale communities like Danville and Malibu. Or are they? Maybe I’ve got this vow of poverty thing all wrong. I thought being poor meant living poor. I thought the inner life is what made you rich. That’s a Franciscan virtue. It’s the human and divine in all of us that St. Francis spoke of. Or at least, that’s what I remember being taught by the Franciscans themselves.
Today, when I hear the “poor mouthing” by some friars followed by the “bad mouthing” of clergy abuse survivors, it makes me wonder: are survivors being punished for all this Franciscan “poverty?” Surely the provincial doesn't blame survivors overtly. At least, I don’t think he does. But a passive-aggressive policy of dismantling programs, discontinuing services and pulling back support are hardly bright banners--they're red flags. They signal the myth of the end of the Franciscans’ clergy abuse problems and promote the fallacy that there are less and less survivors who need the friars’ help.
Is it possible that some Franciscans actually believe there are limits to pastoral care? When is it enough to feed someone who is hungry? To clothe and shelter a homeless child? To comfort a battered woman? When is it enough to care? Because I received some kindness from you yesterday when I was in need, am I exempt from receiving the same kindness from you today? Is my hunger and thirst any less real now than it was then? And more importantly: if you refuse to help those you've harmed, what sense is there in helping those you haven’t harmed? What are your true intentions?
Such policies don’t exactly inspire confidence or encourage others to act with compassion and understanding. Just the opposite. A good case in point is the friar who re-traumatized my classmate, David, at the Solidarity Memorial. The poor attitude and insensitive behavior of this one Franciscan, regarding the memorial in particular and survivors in general, are the direct result of a breakdown in communication at the very top. One has to wonder what kind of message the provincial is sending. These are reckless acts that are learned and adopted. One reason some friars might believe they are immune to any criticism or reprimand could be due to an unspoken rule that overlooks and even condones such conduct in the first place.
Stop me if any of this sounds vaguely familiar.
I’m hard pressed at this point to know how things could be any more unreal than they already are. It brings to mind the whole question of reality. As I see it, a large part of this problem has to do with the insulated world some friars live in. While it’s often true that the church moves slower than a snail on Valium, a provincial minister’s long, strange silence on the matter of the desecration of a memorial honoring clergy abuse survivors on his own property is not only questionable, it’s deplorable. In the end, it has little to do with “movement.” If it did, we would all be in Alaska by now. Instead, it’s about the inability to demonstrate clear, moral fortitude in the face of one’s own mistakes. Some call this the sin of pride. Others prefer to call it cowardice. I make no judgment either way. I rely on my own experiences to guide me through this mess of a maze that could have been avoided years ago.
It’s not difficult for some to pretend they’re listening to others they disagree with when they've already made up their minds to disregard the other’s concerns outright. Anyone who’s spent any time in the corporate world knows how this “game” is played. Which brings up the question of when things became “just business” with the Franciscans and how it speaks to the head of a religious order. On this one I’m absolutely clear: I believe John Hardin should resign his office. In my opinion no one entrusted with such power can ignore core principles and expect to be a credible leader. The issue of the Solidarity Memorial alone is just cause to give notice. And while it’s possible that the provincial might believe he’s too vital to his religious order to resign, it would be wise to remember we have a major precedence in Pope Benedict when it comes to a member of the clergy stepping down for the common good of all.
Make no mistake: my personal opinions about the internal politics of a Catholic religious order are, to say the least, inconsequential. Anything I have to say regarding the backroom deals of, what is, essentially, a private men’s club and how it should be run, are virtually meaningless. I’m also smart enough to know by now the difference between what I believe the provincial should do and what he actually does. And to be fair, his silence has already made it quite clear what he thinks of my concerns. Getting him to resign at this point would be like convincing him to get a very large tattoo.
A Worthy Fight to Be Had
The solution is simple: it’s up to the rank-and-file Franciscans and their votes to determine their own destiny. The majority of these friars are good and decent men who have their hearts in the right place even if their heads are not. But it's also problematic. These are the very men who first elected their provincial to a six-year term in 2009, and they’re the same ones who've taken a vow to obey him. It’s like being caught in a catch-22 that has no catch. The Franciscan political system is similar to a democracy but without the congress, supreme court and a free press. As one former seminarian explained recently, “Right now the Franciscans are an unlucky baseball team stuck in last place. Everyone knows they’re not going to the World Series but nobody wants to fire the manager who keeps promising them a ring.”
There’s a worthy fight to be had for the soul of this province and its beloved ideals. And there’s ample time for serious debate before the Franciscans’ next general election in January, 2016. That’s when the friars will need to make some difficult and painful choices. To stretch the baseball analogy a bit further, they can either elect to pick up the option on their provincial’s contract for an additional three years, or, they can release him outright and hope another province picks him up on waivers. Either way, the Province of St. Barbara will find itself at a critical point in its struggle to regain its integrity and contribute to a changing world that values its charity.
I guess I’m optimistic—in a masochistic sort of way. I choose to believe the friars have been paying close attention to what’s been going on in their province and in their name. I don’t expect any one of them to take my word for it. But since we haven’t heard from Jesus in some time, I figure the next best authority on such matters is Pope Francis who’s proving to be someone worth paying attention to. In his apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”) published last year, Francis spoke out against those in the clergy who suffer from the sin of “spiritual worldliness,” a condition he described as hiding behind the appearance of piety while seeking human glory and personal well being. This is what he wrote:
“Those who have fallen into this worldliness look on from above and afar, they reject the prophecy of brothers and sisters, they discredit those who raise questions, they constantly point out the mistakes of others and they are obsessed by appearances. Their hearts are open only to the limited horizon of their own immanence and interests, and as a consequence they neither learn from their sins nor are they genuinely open to forgiveness. This is a tremendous corruption disguised as a good.”
When it comes to this administration’s commitment to clergy abuse survivors, anyone who has witnessed and experienced the slow decline of pastoral response in this province has only to visit the Franciscans’ own website to confirm how hollow are the words “justice,” “peace” and “reconciliation.” The shameful denial, the disintegration of support, and the absolute refusal to communicate applies solely to the decision-making men in this province who act more like calculating CEOs of a failing corporation than the concerned leaders of a religious order. It does not, in any way, reflect or refer to the Office of Pastoral Outreach or its coordinator who continues to assist survivors in spite of ever-dwindling resources and a resistance by its leaders to do the right thing.
I don’t profess to be a Franciscan in the Order of Friars Minor. I don’t display the initials “O.F.M” after my name. I haven’t taken any vows of poverty, chastity or obedience. I don’t espouse the beliefs of a saint who founded a religious order based on human kindness for all living things. And I certainly don’t wear the brown robes that readily identify me as a disciple. But I know that none of this matters. Nor does it make me any less a Franciscan. While I was once instructed in the ways of the priesthood and eventually chose a different vocation, I did not choose a different calling. In the end, I and you and David and so many others are just as much followers of St. Francis as any guardian who runs a mission or any provincial who rules a province.