It was just a year ago that the latest media priest crashed and burned. Father Thomas Williams, a priest of the Legionaries of Christ and a well-known writer and television commentator, acknowledged in May 2012 that he had fathered a son many years ago. He took a leave of his public ministry.
The Legionaries have now announced that Williams has asked to leave religious life and the priestly ministry, petitioning the Holy Father for permission to do so.
The Williams case hit rather close to home. While I was not a friend of his, we worked in the same circles, and crossed paths off and on for more than 10 years.
More recently, I would meet him annually on the summer seminar on Catholic social teaching run by George Weigel in Krakow, Poland. I started teaching there in 2009, and Williams – a collaborator on-air with Weigel in covering the 2005 papal funeral and conclave – had been on the faculty for some years before that.
It was revealed last year that Williams' illegitimate son was known to the Legionary superiors as early as 2005, and they did ask him to lower his profile. He evidently declined to do so, accepting speaking engagements up until days before the news was revealed.
The Legionaries allowed him to act as a spokesman, most notably in 2009 when the facts of Father Marcial Maciel's double life were exposed. Most egregiously, he agreed to address the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences even after he knew that his previous sinful behaviour would soon be made public, creating acute embarrassment for the leadership of the academy.
Fr. Thomas Williams
I was present for that lecture, delivered without any hint that all would come crashing down only a few days later.
I am not one who thinks that a priest having an adult affair means that he cannot continue as a priest, even in the more complicated cases where children are born of the sinful union. Like a marriage in which there is adultery, there are cases where the marriage can survive and be healed, and there are other cases where the wound is too deep, fatal to a continued life together.
Life does have to change though. A penitent husband seeking reconciliation has to be penitent. That Williams was weak enough to allow himself to fall into an affair, and lead the woman into sin, is not unprecedented and not beyond repair.
But that he allowed his very public life to continue, despite the requests of his superiors, was reckless and exacerbated the scandal. It also speaks poorly of his superiors in the Legion.
Williams' decision to leave the priesthood to care for his soon-to-be adolescent son is understandable. The only priestly life plausibly available to him would be a quiet and removed life, perhaps in a monastery or retreat centre. He could not have returned to his public work in the media.
A friend of Williams, Legionary Father John Connor, wrote the following blog post on the news that Williams is relinquishing his priestly ministry:
"Such decisions are not easy. We all balance success and failure, joy and sorrow in our lives. None of us escapes sin and the need to ask forgiveness.
"I have known Father Thomas well for the better part of a decade. I have appreciated and enjoyed his friendship, his wisdom and counsel and I deeply respect his decision about his future.
"After recently finishing spiritual exercises he wrote me saying 'I came to the serene conviction that what God expects of me now is to devote myself to caring for my child and his mother. By responsibly and lovingly accepting the consequences of my actions, I will continue to serve God and his Church. I know I should be with my son and try to be the kind of father he needs.'
"I have complete confidence that Father Thomas will continue to be a valuable instrument in God's plan and positively influence many, many people for the good of Christ's kingdom. I hope all of you will join me in praying for the success of Father Thomas in his new life."
There is something off-putting in all that. Priests who leave the priestly ministry after falling into sinful behaviour often get that kind of treatment – it's all terribly sad, all of us fall and need forgiveness, he will continue to serve in a different way, let's all pray for the success of his new life.
Of course, that is all true, but would we say the same of a husband who abandoned his wife to begin a new life with his mistress? Sin is messy, life is complicated and there but for the grace of God go I.
Yes, that's true, but the equanimity with which we accept gross priestly misbehaviour seems to lighten the gravity of it all. Promises were made and were not kept. The work of the Church, or mercy and redemption, is not frustrated by that.
But at least those who comment can express their frustration at being let down by those who would lead us.
Fr. Raymond de Souza – firstname.lastname@example.org