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Thursday, June 13, 2024
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Dr Philippa Martyr: The lure of celebrity faith

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Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche communities, is pictured in 2015 file photo. An investigation by L’Arche found credible allegations that Vanier sexually exploited six women. Vanier, who died in 2019, asked the women to keep their relations secret. Photo: CNS, courtesy Jean Vanier Association

We need to tread carefully when it comes to the Catholic version of stardom – very carefully, indeed

French Catholic paper La Croix has just reported on investigations into Jean Vanier and his sidekick Dominican priest Fr Thomas Philippe.

In 1946, Fr Thomas Philippe set up a ‘formation community’ called Living Water (L’Eau Vive). He sexually abused several women, who complained, and he was dismissed from the clerical state in 1956.

But because the details of his case were kept secret, he and his brother (also a priest) managed to convince people that Fr Thomas was an innocent victim of Vatican intrigues.

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Then Fr Thomas met the young Jean Vanier, groomed him, and founded L’Arche with him in 1964. What followed was a horrible mess of sexual abuse fuelled by private revelations and bogus mysticism – all hidden behind excellent public relations.

Jean Vanier was venerated as a living saint, and I’m sure L’Arche as an organisation did a lot of good for people with disabilities. But behind it was diabolical self-interest and coercive control, which Vanier learned from a dreadful but very charismatic Catholic minor celebrity priest.

I take a dim view of celebrity priests, even the nice ones. My heart sinks whenever I see a celebrity priest on the rise, no matter how lovely he is.

He needs a lot of prayers. This is because he radiates charm and warmth and has quite a way with people.

God gives us all talents, and it’s good to use them. The idea is to use those talents to bring people closer to God.

But being prone to vanity, it’s easy for a good priest to drift into becoming a celebrity priest. Then it becomes less about God, and more about him getting his needs met.

From here, it’s a short step to manipulation and abuse. Abuse needs enablers, and that’s where lay people come in.

Lay followers of celebrity priests are the source of his wealth (there’s always money). They tell him he’s marvellous so often that he starts believing them.

I like the movie The Wizard of Oz because it teaches some useful life lessons. One of them is the existence of ‘flying monkeys’.

In this case, flying monkeys are the lay people who protect their favourite priest. They shut down any queries about his behaviour, no matter how dodgy it is.

This is a long way from giving an accused priest the benefit of the doubt, or the legal presumption of innocence. This is something we all should do, until we know the facts.

But flying monkeys don’t care about facts. They will personally attack anyone who criticises their celebrity priest. They will troll them on the internet and shred them via gossip on social media.

Ask anyone who’s ever tried to make a complaint about a celebrity priest, and they’ll tell you. They immediately get cast in the role of Femme Fatale and/or Finger of Satan.

A woman with a perfectly valid complaint about adult boundary violations will be called ‘crazy’ or ‘possessed’ or ‘infatuated’. She will be ‘a trial sent by God’ to prove the worth of Fr X.

The recent history of the Church is full of examples, the most prominent of which is Fr John Corapi.

Fr Corapi was a gifted speaker and writer who also enjoyed covert relationships with money, prostitutes, and drugs. But he still has people online defending him.

They claim he was set up by a disgruntled ex-employee, his computer was hacked, etc. And yet the most telling evidence of all was Fr Corapi’s behaviour when he was called to account by his superiors. Did he submit in obedience, face up to his documented failings, and repent publicly? Nope. Did he serve an unjust jail term before being acquitted by the highest court in the land? Nope.

He ran away, dyed his beard black, got a Harley Davidson, and tried to start an online presence as ‘The Black Sheepdog’. Anything more like a clerical midlife crisis would be hard to imagine.

Fr Corapi has since reconciled with his religious order and now lives very privately as a priest and is hopefully recovering his vocation. That’s a credit to them, and to him.
Celebrity priests don’t need flying monkeys. They do need our prayers that they are not tempted beyond their strength.

They need us to help them publicly acknowledge their failings, and be reconciled with God so that they can save their vocations. And if we’re going to protect the vulnerable, we need to hand in our flying monkey licenses and accept that celebrity priests are sinners like the rest of us.


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