A high-profile American priest in the Legionaries of Christ has acknowledged having had a sexual relationship with a woman and fathering her child, adding another chapter to the growing scandals surrounding the controversial religious order.
Fr. Thomas Williams, known for his work as a TV commentator and popular spiritual writer and speaker, issued a statement today confirming he had fathered a child with a woman “a number of years ago,” and said that he and the superiors of the order have decided that he will take a year off without any public ministry “to reflect on my commitments as a priest.”
“I am truly sorry to everyone who is hurt by this revelation,” Williams said in the statement.
Out of what he described as “respect for the privacy of the woman and her child,” Williams declined to identify the woman or provide other details. He confirmed, however, that the relationship had occurred while he was already a priest and a member of the Legionaries.
Williams told NCR the woman has declined economic assistance, and that she was neither his student nor someone to whom he had offered spiritual direction. [...]
Fr. Luis Garza, the top official for the Legion in North America, sent a letter to members today informing them that Williams will undergo “a period of reflection, prayer and atonement.”
“In the wake of all that we have been through as a movement in the past several years, it won’t surprise me if you are disappointed, angry or feel your trust shaken once again,” Garza wrote, saying that any further information “is at the discretion of those involved.”
Because Williams’ relationship did not involve a minor or accusations of abuse, it is not subject to the Vatican’s anti-abuse procedures. Traditionally, the Vatican has left discipline for transgressions involving a consensual relationship to the priest’s superiors, in this case the leaders of the Legion and the papal delegate appointed by Benedict XVI to oversee the order, Italian Cardinal Velasio de Paolis.
In the wake of this, there are a couple of things I want to get out of the way right away.
First, it is not the sin of detraction to engage in thoughtful discussion of these sorts of incidents when the incidents have already become public knowledge. It is not uncharitable, either. It is human nature to be stunned by sin and to ask, "How did this happen?" as well as to remain mindful of one's own sinfulness and beg God for mercy for all of us sinners.
Second, it is not necessary for most of us to say much about the specifics of this situation except that we will pray for Fr. Williams, for the woman, and for the innocent child who is the true victim here--not in the terrible sense that other children have been victims, but in the injustice inherent in the consequences of his parents' sinful behavior.
Third, and this is the important one: it is neither uncharitable nor unjust speculation about the specifics to raise the question as to whether or not this is yet another proof that the Legion is fatally flawed, whether the sins of Maciel are continuing in the members of the order he founded (considering that one category of his sins was to father children out of wedlock in violation of his priestly vows), and whether it's even possible, at this point, for true reform to occur?
Consider the example of a large Catholic family. They go to Mass every Sunday and sometimes to daily Mass as well, they pray together, they encourage frequent confession, they do their best to raise and educate their children in the faith--and yet one of the children falls into serious sexual sin, involving out-of-wedlock pregnancy. Can we say that there is anything definitely wrong here--or must we just consider the mystery of sin's powerful attraction to us all?
But suppose there's another large Catholic family that on the surface looks as good or better than the first family: Mass, confession, prayer, raising and educating their children in the faith. Behind the scenes, though, as their neighbors learn to their horror, something terrible was happening. Their father was accused, not just once, but repeatedly, of molesting children. Somehow, no charges were ever filed (but the local D.A. is a close friend and relies on this family's money for his election campaigns), and the family spoke sorrowfully of how uncharitable all these "false" accusations were. But then the father dies, and the community learns of his second family, the one he fathered with a mistress (and there may be more than one "extra" family). If, after this, child after child in that family falls into serious sexual sin, is "Gosh, sin is mysterious and powerful..." really the only conclusion we can draw? Or is the family's dysfunction directly related to the father's example, his way of teaching his children, and his own inability to give good spiritual advice in matters related to the Sixth Commandment?
If we think of the Legion as a dysfunctional Catholic family, their tendency to keep insisting that everything is fine and that these matters have nothing whatsoever to do with the Legion itself starts making a terrible kind of sense--the same kind that we recognize when a dysfunctional family closes ranks and pretends to the outside world that nothing is wrong. But if we think of the Legion as a dysfunctional family, it becomes harder to understand why some powerful members of that family are still calling so many of the shots.