The Legion of Christ religious order was hit today by another scandal after one of its best known priests, the Rev. Thomas Williams, an American moral theologian, prominent author, lecturer, and television personality admitted he had fathered a child.
Fr. Williams said in a statement he was "deeply sorry for this grave transgression" against his vows of celibacy and that he would be taking a year off to reflect on what he had done and his commitment to the priesthood.
The Legion has been beset by scandal following revelations that its late founder, the Rev. Marciel Maciel, fathered three children and sexually abused his seminarians. Maciel died in 2008 and in 2009 the Legion admitted to his crimes.
Williams, the author of "Knowing Right From Wrong: A Christian Guide to Conscience," taught theology, promoted his books and lectured.
His personal website, which lists his numerous books, speaking engagements, articles and appearances as a CBS commentator, has been taken down. Fr. Williams, who is currently undergoing medical treatment for a form of cancer, said he’s likely to spend his year with his parents in Michigan.
In an email sent to all Legion priests that accompanied Williams' announcement, Fr. Luis Garza, who heads the Legion in the U.S., said he was relaying the news with great sadness given the Legion's recent turmoil. He said, “I hope that you will join me in praying for all those who have been affected by his actions, and for Father Williams during his time of prayer, penance and renewal of his priestly ministry.’ Fr. Oscar Nader, the territorial director for Italy, (Williams resides in Rome), sent a similar message.
I don’t have much to add except to say:
I wish the Legionary superiors would have been as immediate and forthright in their communications about the scandal caused by their founder, Fr. Maciel.
A priest, especially one who is as well known as Fr. Williams, who has gravely sinned in his ministry is a difficult challenge. Trust has been broken. Spiritual lives may have been destroyed. The hierarchy, Legionary superiors, and his fellow priests now have to live with and help their "fallen" brother. In marriage both parties are married "for better or for worse." A priest is part of his community for better or for worse. So, just as spouses have to try to love each other even despite grave failings, so must the Church, through the Bishops, superiors, and the rank and file faithful love their "fallen" priests back from sin.
Fr. Williams has contracted serious responsibilities with his child and the child’s mother. As a parent he must do what is right for the child. It will be no less a challenge to work for reconciliation with the Church family as well. No easy task.
Hence, I note that I appreciate Fr. Garza asking others to join him in prayer for Fr. Williams and for those affected by his actions. We have heard much from the Catholic Church hierarchy regarding the need for healing and reconciliation for the victims of priests and for their accusers. We rarely hear of prayer requests for brother priests who have fallen yet we glibly profess in our Creed that “we believe in the forgiveness of sin.”
More than one priest has been heard to exclaim “God always forgives; man sometimes forgives; the Church never forgives.” That cannot make us proud.
Some of those who comment on the Legion of Christ and Regnum Christi have already unleashed predictable mudslinging and are engaging in judgmental analysis of Fr. Williams, a case that provides more grist for their mill. I’d like to suggest that we are dealing with a tragedy: a mother, a child, and a priest-father who no doubt have been going through a living hell for the past three years. In “Driving Straight on Crooked Lines” I wrote, “In the Gospel of John, in the New Testament, we read the story of a woman caught in adultery. This story, beloved for its revelation of God's mercy, is found only in John. It was almost certainly not part of his original Gospel. The law condemned the woman’s sin, and therefore people condemned her. However, Jesus didn’t condone her sinful act - instead, he called for the one without sin to cast the first stone. In this, Jesus invites us to reflect on ourselves, before we dare to judge others. It reminds me of Saint Augustine’s comment, pointing out we’re in danger from both hope and despair - we can have a misguided optimism that tells us, "God is merciful, do as you please," or a despair that says, "there’s no forgiveness for the sin you have committed." John’s story shows we should keep these two tendencies in balance. Jesus doesn’t explicitly forgive the woman, but by not condemning her, and telling her not to sin again, forgiveness is implicit.”
With regard to our criticism of individuals involved with the Legionaries of Christ, I say let’s sober up and stop dethroning God from the judgment seat. Let’s reflect on our own human frailty before we so arrogantly choose to dare to judge others.
Frankly, I think it’s despicable to use Fr. Williams in order to engage in more puritanical muckraking and self-righteous criticism of a religious congregation that Benedict XVI explicitly wants to save. Do the Legionaries have serious problems? You bet! Was Fr. Maciel a criminal? No doubt! Has Fr. Williams messed up big time? Obviously! Is the Legion undergoing a process of deep reform? Apparently so. Does all of this give a bunch of whining “Holy Joes” free license to vent their anger, frustration, and personal problems in the name of “healing” and “recovery?” No way.
As I recall, Jesus advised that “the one without sin cast the first stone.” It is indeed a challenge to advocate forgiveness and reconciliation in this Church of ours. It is said that “Priests carry a treasure in vessels of clay.” Sometimes those vessels get broken. They need healing too.