Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Nathan Halbach, Son of a Catholic Priest, Dies

By their fruits you will know them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?  Just so, every good tree bears good fruit, and a rotten tree bears bad fruit.  A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a rotten tree bear good fruit.  Every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.  So by their fruits you will know them. 
-Attributed to Jesus of Nazareth (Mt 7:16-20)
     Just over a month ago, The New York Times published the article, "A Mother, a Sick Son and His Father, the Priest," about a young man, Nathan Halbach, with brain cancer who was speaking out for the first time (and bravely breaking the Catholic church's gag order) about being the abandoned son of still-practicing Catholic priest.  Here is the link to a two minute slide-show and verbal interview with Nathan and his mother, Pat Bond, that the Times published in October.  It's worth watching.

     On Friday November 27, Nathan died of cancer, without his biological father at his bedside.  So much for the "family values" that the Catholic church and its clergy are preaching to the nation in their current attempts to derail LGBT rights and women's reproductive rights.  But, don't worry, Nathan's biological father, Rev. Henry Willenborg, OFM,  was praying for him from afar, and I'm sure that meant so much to Nathan as his brain was being painfully eaten from within.

     Sexual abuse and exploitation in the Catholic church is not just of children, it is also of adults.  Nathan's mother Pat Bond's story of abuse started, like many stories of clergy abuse, including my own, a vulnerable and wounded person seeks help from their trusted and revered priest only to be taken advantage of by a disturbed individual, who is under the protection of powerful bishops.
     With three small children and her marriage in trouble, Pat Bond attended a spirituality retreat for Roman Catholic women in Illinois 26 years ago in hopes of finding support and comfort.What Ms. Bond found was a priest — a dynamic, handsome Franciscan friar in a brown robe — who was serving as the spiritual director for the retreat and agreed to begin counseling her on her marriage. One day, she said, as she was leaving the priest’s parlor, he pulled her aside for a passionate kiss.
    The sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy is horrendous and deserves the media attention and outrage that it's been getting, but lost in the cracks have been the stories of numerous adult women and men who have abused and exploited by priests.   The New York Times reports: "one study found  that 20% of American Catholic priests are involved in ongoing sexual relationships with women."  Nathan and his mother's story is just one example of how the church has tried to cover this up.

     After giving birth to Nathan, Fr. Willenborg abandoned Ms. Bond.  The Franciscans did their best to silence her and cover everything up:

     Ms. Bond’s case offers a rare look at how the church goes to great lengths to silence these women, to avoid large settlements and to keep the priests in active ministry. She has 23 years of documents, depositions, correspondence, receipts and photographs relating to her case, which she has kept in meticulous files.
      Those files reveal that the church was tightfisted with her as she tried to care for her son, particularly as his cancer treatments grew more costly. But they also show that Father Willenborg suffered virtually no punishment, continuing to serve in a variety of church posts.

      Willenborg was suspended with pay (only after last month's New York Times story was published) by Bishop Peter F. Christiansen of the Diocese of Superior.  Bishop Christiansen, in an interview by  Fox 21, said that he suspended Willenborg not because he exploited women and fathered a child (because that's "not criminal"), but only because of an allegation of Willenborg having sex with an underage girl.  Furthermore, Christiansen stated: "If Father Henry is proven to be tried and true, that he has taken care of some things in his life that go back twenty-three years ago, um, I'm willing to say, 'Okay, that was then this is now, come home.'"

     Has Bishop Christiansen learned nothing from the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church?  Willenborg has been living a duplicitous life for his entire priesthood and in his wake has left a series of wounded and scandalized people, and you, Bishop Christensen, would put him back into a parish where he is liable to abuse again?  Hypocrite!

     This is just another example of how the Catholic church is anti-women, and how the people in the pew support the system.  Many in the Catholic church have blamed the clergy sexual abuse of minors on sinful individuals (the whole church of sinners, but not a sinful church argument from Vatican II), but the truth is that many of the people in the pews want their abusive priests back.  They prefer the illusion of the vestment-wearing holy priest standing in persona Christi capitis and don't want to know (and thus don't give a fuck) about the children and adults that their revered clerics have abused.  As for Willenborg's congregation, the news report shows many parishioners saying they forgive their serial-womanizing and child-abandoning priest and want him back in their parish.  One of Willenborg's parishioners said: "We've all made mistakes.  Otherwise as the bishop said, 'We wouldn't need a savior.'"  Translation: it's okay for priests to abuse people, because god will forgive them.

     Conclusion: the complicit people in the pew are as much a part of the problem of abuse in the Catholic church, as are the deviant priests and bishops.

     Nathan Halbach's death is a tragedy.  The abandonment and abuse he and his mother endured at the hands of the holy Roman Catholic church is deplorable.  I can only hope that Mr. Halbach's bravery will make a difference in the life of others like himself, for that was his dying wish:
     Mr. Halbach said he knew there were other children like him who had been fathered and abandoned by priests, but it was such a taboo to talk about it that he wanted to give them a voice.
     Rest in peace, Nathan.  May your voice live on, never to be silenced.

Nathan Being Baptized by his Father, Fr. Henry Willenborg
Image Credit: Pat Bond

Do not give what is holy to dogs, or throw your pearls before swine, lest they trample them underfoot, and turn and tear you to pieces. 

-Attributed to Jesus of Nazareth (Mt 7:6)