CAUTION: Contents may be triggering to some readers.
This 16th century miniature painting, the size of a small book, is up for auction at Sotheby’s later this month— expected to fetch between $50,000 and $70,000. [UPDATE: It sold for $113,400]
But its real value lies in the Good Samaritan story captured by the Flemish painter, Hans Bol. It’s a deep dive into Jesus’ parable—important for us today because messages from great art like this help us interpret what’s going on around us and how we should respond.
Bol’s take on Luke’s gospel story is particularly relevant amidst the Diocese of Buffalo’s clergy sexual abuse crisis. Zoom in the painting to see the details of the priest in the rose vestments who chose to walk past the innocent victim who was beaten and robbed, leaving him on the roadside half naked to fend for himself.
Just before Christmas, a retired Diocese of Buffalo priest chose to rebuke survivors of clergy sexual abuse for their public support of Rev. Ryszard Biernat — the whistleblower priest bishops banned from ministry for exposing officials he said had enabled clergy sexual abusers.
The Buffalo Survivors Group’s letter of support for Father Biernat is detailed in my previous post. This retired priest’s particular response to that letter (obtained from the BSG) illustrates what leading clergy sexual abuse experts have recognized: a shocking inability or unwillingness by too many bishops and their clergy to comprehend the profound damage done to a child raped by a priest— much less to respond with unqualified compassion.1
Although, to his credit, the priest signed his note, I won’t disclose his name. He isn’t alone in his opinion among diocesan clergy anyway, as many of us steeped in the details of this crisis have heard from other priests in the diocese with our own ears. Leaders of the survivors group received his initial response in the form of two handwritten notes on their letter which he returned to them.
Now, if you are a priest writing to people who as children or as vulnerable adults were sexually molested or raped by Catholic priests, would you start out by calling their support of an official who tried to help stop such abuse, “disingenuous”? Would you admonish these tortured souls by addressing them as “you guys”?
Here’s his complete note on the reverse side of the returned letter below the signers’ names:
“It is one thing to be a whistle blower, commendable or not, and another thing to sully one’s priesthood. You guys need to own up to that side of the story. Maybe the abuse committed against him as a seminarian, eventually caused him to enter into a shady world. There are pictures and letters connected to Ryszard, which are out of character for a priest. He needs to embrace spiritual cleansing, then maybe the bishop and presbyterate would welcome him back with fraternal arms. Repent is the key word.”
Note from retired diocesan priest to Buffalo Survivors Group (written on the BSG letter which was mailed last month to all clergy, religious and most lay advisors to the bishop). The priest’s other note on the front side of this letter above states: “I can only say that this letter is disingenuous.”
We recall that the priest and Levite in Jesus’ parable held Samaritans in distain. And so we are hit with another concern with this note to survivors. Such ad hominem attacks do nothing to address the survivors‘ expressed viewpoints. They only serve to bear false witness, if we read the pope’s recent public rant correctly:
In early December, Pope Francis excoriated those who had spread gossip and calumny about the archbishop of Paris concerning allegations of a sexual affair with a woman years earlier. Photos that circulated in the media hinted at an intimate relationship between them which the archbishop flatly denied. The pope did not hold back his ire at the hypocrisy of the gossipers and their unsubstantiated claims.
“The gossip grows, grows, grows and takes away the reputation of the person,” Pope Francis said. “He will not be able to speak because he has lost the reputation … and this is an injustice, and that is why I accepted [his] resignation [from his office of archbishop, not his ministry as a priest]: not on the altar of truth, but on the altar of hypocrisy,” he said.
Such is the case regarding allegations made against Father Ryszard’s moral character, referenced in the retired priest’s response to survivors. He brought up a letter (in which Father Biernat wrote endearing words to a close friend who had recently entered the seminary) and photos with this friend (from a Holy Land pilgrimage in which Dead Sea swimmers commonly take selfies). These the priest waves as proof of grave, immoral, “shady world” activity—which Father Biernat flatly denies. Those baseless allegations were never mentioned in Bishop Richard Malone’s document removing Father Biernat from ministry. There’s a reason. As Pope Francis said of the French archbishop’s case, “If we don’t know the accusation, we cannot condemn.”
Perhaps even more disturbing in this response is the hypocrisy of a priest calling for a whistleblower to repent while clergy sexual abusers and the officials who enabled their abuse are not called to accountability (including prison) much less “penance” or “spiritual cleansing.” That was the initial reaction of another diocesan whistleblower, Siobhan O’Connor. She was Bishop Malone’s executive assistant who, in 2018, exposed the depth and breadth of decades of corruption and coverup in the diocese’s handling of clergy sexual abuse cases.
“It’s really disturbing to hear him [the priest responding to BSG] refer to [Father] Ryszard having ‘sullied his priesthood’ and talk about his need for repentance,” she said, adding:
“When have the criminal priests ever done penance for their crimes? When have bishops ever done penance or been called to repentance for their cover-ups and complicity? It’s astonishing how deeply ingrained this mindset is. Their hypocrisy is blindingly clear to us, but they remain blind as ever,” said O’Connor.
To make matters worse, the retired priest again wrote to the Buffalo Survivors Group, this time in a typewritten letter doubling down on the gossip concerning Father Ryszard. Then, he barked at survivors to get a prayer life and start acting like saints.
Note to this retired priest: Children whose bodies and souls were raped by their trusted parish priest generally have had their faith ripped from them for good, thanks to those monsters. The additional betrayal of bishops and their officials in refusing to handle their abuse reports properly, freeing their molesters to harm others, further slammed the door on the very spirits you admonish them to search.
His letter (obtained from BSG), mailed December 16, 2021 is pictured below. Again, I omitted his name and contact information.
CAUTION: Contents may be triggering to some readers.
Stunning that anyone would shame and re-victimize poor souls who were raped/molested by priests as children by telling them they were complicit in alleged immoral actions of a priest who acted upon his moral conscience to shine light on sexual predators and their enablers. (Please read Saint John Henry Newman).
A leading expert in clergy sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, Thomas Doyle, said this type of rhetoric reveals “a woeful ignorance of the true violence of sexual abuse […] Such crude and heartless accusations are not only baseless but are reflective of an attitude that is sharply antithetical to the spirit of Christ.”2
Our concern should not be with the opinions of this one retired priest. It should be with the diocesan culture that produced such a heartless reaction among its priests.
God have mercy.
On the bright side, leaders of the survivors group said one priest responded to them with a lovely Christmas card expressing, “You are in my heart and prayers for justice and healing.” And that brings us back to the little painting…
We see, in the tiniest detail, the priest and the Levite—clean, serene, and walking perfectly erect down an easy incline towards the stately house of worship. Oblivious to their surroundings, they read what are surely little spiritual books cupped in their hands yet held out enough for all to see.
Meanwhile, peasants carrying heavy burdens travel the more difficult path uphill. They too could get beaten and robbed. Who will care for them?
That easy downhill path ultimately leads to an eerie sight way off in the distance. A body hanging from a noose at the top of a hill is in a direct visual line above the scene with the Samaritan. The executioner barely visible, is standing next to an empty gallows which awaits.
Salvation, Our Blessed Lord teaches us in this parable, is tied to our response to the innocent ones among us who are beaten and broken and robbed of their humanity, their dignity and yes, their very souls.
Now take a look at that Samaritan who got off his high horse to help the broken, half naked man, robbed of all he has. Let us too respond generously with love and with truth and with compassion–which we witness in the Samaritan’s generous outpouring of ointment on the injured traveler’s wounds.