Fac­ing the flock

His as­sis­tant priest was just jailed on charges of molesting a child. Now he must de­liver his homily.

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY TER­RENCE MC­COY

Brian Chris­tensen is on his way to jail again. Cler­i­cal col­lar around his thin neck, rosary dan­gling from the rearview mir­ror, the priest sets out on the same trip he has taken al­most ev­ery day that week. First was Mon­day af­ter­noon, when he fol­lowed the de­tec­tives down this road, then up to the third floor of the po­lice depart­ment, where he waited out­side the in­ter­ro­ga­tion room. On Wed­nes­day, he went to the pre­lim­i­nary hear­ing, where the felony charges were an­nounced: two counts of sex­ual con­tact with a 13-year-old. On Thurs­day, and on Fri­day, he re­turned to ar­range a vis­i­ta­tion with the Rev. John Praveen, 38, whom he last saw be­ing cuffed and led into a po­lice car, and who is now be­ing held on a $100,000 cash bond and fac­ing 30 years in prison.

Now, Mon­day again, Chris­tensen pulls out of the park­ing lot at the Cathe­dral of Our Lady of Per­pet­ual Help, where as lead pas­tor he over­saw Praveen’s cler­i­cal du­ties. He makes the five-minute drive to the Pen­ning­ton County jail, where he plans to speak with the in­car­cer­ated priest for the first time since his ar­rest.

“Aren’t you tired of all this?” his

mother asked him on the phone that morn­ing, and he could only sigh and say, yes, “I am tired of this.”

This: a string of child sex abuse scan­dals that — span­ning decades, con­ti­nents and thou­sands of vic­tims — has fun­da­men­tally al­tered how the world views the Catholic Church and priests like him, in par­tic­u­lar. With ev­ery cri­sis, Chris­tensen had al­lowed him­self to hope that now, per­haps, it would be over, only to see an­other year like this one, when ev­ery day seems to bring news of sex crimes and coverups in the church. A grand jury re­port in Penn­syl­va­nia ac­cused more than 300 priests of abus­ing about 1,000 chil­dren, spurring fed­eral au­thor­i­ties to in­ves­ti­gate. Two U.S. car­di­nals have been dis­graced. And ap­proval rat­ings for Pope Fran­cis, who once was the world’s most pop­u­lar leader, have plum­meted among Amer­i­cans.

But far be­neath those head­lines are churches like Chris­tensen’s, where the same themes that have come to de­fine the scan­dal at large — be­trayal, hypocrisy, abuse of power, de­fen­sive­ness — are play­ing out in a mi­cro­cosm.

Ever since po­lice ar­rested Praveen, who has pleaded not guilty, Chris­tensen’s thoughts have been dom­i­nated by the same con­flicts, the same ques­tions. He be­lieves it’s his re­spon­si­bil­ity as a Catholic leader to find a way to for­give sins, but could he this time? Al­ready, he’d faced his flock once at week­end Mass, where he’d strug­gled to ex­plain the un­ex­plain­able, but how does he ste­ward the faith of thou­sands in a church be­set by cri­sis? And how does he pro­tect his own?

Chris­tensen, 53, parks his Ford SUV near the jail. He kills the en­gine. He thinks about the day he be­came a priest, about two decades ago, and how he imag­ined his life would be. This is not a day he en­vi­sioned. “Priests go visit peo­ple in prison,” he says aloud. “They don’t visit priests in prison.”

He climbs out, a tall, grace­ful man with hair as trim as it was dur­ing his mil­i­tary days. He walks past the mir­rored glass in the jail lobby, then to a chair in front of a mon­i­tor and a phone. The mon­i­tor screen says that his ap­point­ment is be­gin­ning and that the call is be­ing recorded. The lights on ei­ther side of the mon­i­tor come on. He picks up the phone.

“Come on, Fa­ther John,” he says and waits for the priest to ar­rive.

Two days be­fore this jail visit, back at the cathe­dral, Chris­tensen had stepped out of the con­fes­sional. Feel­ing har­ried, he’d looked at his watch. It was 4:18 p.m. on a Satur­day. The con­fes­sions that af­ter­noon had gone way over sched­ule, and now lit­tle more than an hour re­mained un­til the week­end’s first Mass, barely enough time to plan how he would ad­dress what had be­come the most wrench­ing and com­pli­cated episode of his life as a priest.

To Chris­tensen, the stakes were clear. No other ma­jor re­li­gion in the United States had lost more ad­her­ents than Catholi­cism over the past two decades. The com­bi­na­tion of rapid so­cial change, rigid church doc­trine and a steady ac­cu­mu­la­tion of clergy sex abuse scan­dals had plunged the church into tur­moil. Mil­lions of Amer­i­cans raised Catholic — 41 per­cent of them, ac­cord­ing to the Pew Re­search Cen­ter — no longer iden­ti­fied them­selves that way. The losses were steep­est in the North­east and the Mid­west, once the cen­ter of the Catholic life in Amer­ica, and among whites. Those de­scrip­tions char­ac­ter­ized al­most all of the 1,400 fam­i­lies in Chris­tensen’s con­gre­ga­tion, some of whom he wasn’t sure would, de­spite ev­ery­thing, still come to Mass and hear his homily.

He’d stepped into his of­fice, try­ing to ex­pel the fre­neti­cism of that week — the wed­ding re­cep­tions, church re­treats and trips back and forth to jail — and brought out two notepads, a pen and a book of ex­e­ge­sis. He headed to the place where he did all of his best think­ing. Inside, the chapel smelled of in­cense. It was quiet ex­cept for the sound of thin Bi­ble pages be­ing turned in prayer.

He knelt, hunched his shoul­ders over a pew and low­ered his head into his hands.

He’d al­ways wanted to say, “Not on my watch,” and that was how it had been at his parish. Even if the kids com­plained or the cour­ses seemed repet­i­tive, he’d de­manded bian­nual abuse train­ing for chil­dren so they could rec­og­nize what it would mean to be touched in­ap­pro­pri­ately. In ev­ery church bath­room hung lam­i­nated signs en­cour­ag­ing vic­tims of clergy abuse to “speak out.” But now, a scan­dal he’d once as­so­ci­ated with far­away Bos­ton or Mil­wau­kee had ar­rived here, too. And it hadn’t just al­legedly hap­pened on his watch but inside the cathe­dral it­self, down in the base­ment, on a late Septem­ber day when hun­dreds of peo­ple, in­clud­ing him, were at the church. And none of them had any idea.

He’d made the sign of the cross, picked up a notepad and started writ­ing.

The first time he heard about child sex abuse in the church was when he was at sem­i­nary in Wi­nona, Minn. It was 1995, and he met a re­porter who was ask­ing sem­i­nar­i­ans what it was like to en­ter the church at a time when pe­dophilia al­le­ga­tions were roil­ing parishes in Ire­land and Aus­tria. The ques­tion star­tled him. What abuse? In his whole life — from ring­ing bells as a Long Is­land al­tar boy, to es­cap­ing to chapel dur­ing morn­ing marches at the U.S. Air Force Academy, to his growing church in­volve­ment while fly­ing B-1 bombers — he’d never seen any­thing re­motely ap­proach­ing abuse.

Chris­tensen sat back in the chapel pew, wrote the words, “What do we do?” and un­der­lined them twice.

His faith in the clergy, then so strong, be­gan to wa­ver only af­ter he put on the col­lar. He wit­nessed one el­derly priest get too “chummy” with boys — crude con­ver­sa­tions, too much time to­gether at the rec­tory — and ul­ti­mately re­ported him to church lead­ers. He watched a South Dakota priest be re­moved be­cause of abuse al­le­ga­tions. And then in 2005, he got his first solo pas­toral as­sign­ment. It was a small church in Fort Pierre, S.D., where a priest had abused chil­dren in the 1980s and early 1990s. On Sun­days, Chris­tensen no­ticed an ab­sence of 30-some­thing men in the pews. And soon peo­ple were telling him that the priest had abused them, too, and that, no, they didn’t want it re­ported, they just wanted him to know that it was true, that it had hap­pened.

He closed his note­books, shut his eyes and thought about the con­ver­sa­tions he’d been hav­ing since Praveen’s ar­rest.

“I was raised Catholic,” one re­cently re­turned parish­ioner, Les­lie Bo­stick, told him over lunch about her mind-set when she aban­doned the church fol­low­ing an ear­lier abuse scan­dal. “This [sex abuse] is­sue came up, and it both­ered me, and I stopped . . . . I would never go to con­fes­sion. I felt like, ‘Why should I con­fess my sins to some­one who has com­mit­ted a crime?’ ”

Joe Car­lin, 78, told him over cof­fee on an­other day: “I would not ad­mit to peo­ple that I’m a Catholic right now if they’re not Catholic.”

“Do you feel un­com­fort­able wear­ing that?” an­other woman, who de­clined to give her name, cit­ing the sen­si­tiv­ity of her work with sex abuse sur­vivors, had asked of his cler­i­cal cloth­ing while at a church re­treat.

“I don’t, but, you know, um, no, I don’t,” he’d replied, fum­bling, be­cause it was a ques­tion he’d asked of him­self be­fore, and some­times he didn’t know the an­swer. Some emo­tions were eas­ier. He felt an­gry — an­gry that pe­dophile priests had been shuf­fled from parish to parish. He felt frus­trated. Why all of the church se­crecy? Why the sealed court cases, the priests qui­etly re­tired, the ac­cusers si­lenced with con­fi­den­tial­ity agree­ments? And some­times, most painful of all, he felt be­trayed. He had sac­ri­ficed his life to be­come a priest, a de­ci­sion that hadn’t been easy. It was only in Au­gust 1993 that, af­ter years of think­ing about it, he saw a pro­ces­sional for Pope John Paul II while fly­ing over Den­ver. In that mo­ment, he heard God’s voice — the clearest it had ever been — telling him he be­longed down there, with them. He soon gave up his mil­i­tary ca­reer, and the pos­si­bil­ity of mar­riage and a fam­ily, and now to have this act of ser­vice be­come so twisted in peo­ple’s minds? To have some­one ask if he was un­com­fort­able wear­ing his cler­i­cal cloth­ing, when he should feel only pride? It hurt to think about it.

He’d stood and, smooth­ing out the folds of that cloth­ing, stepped out of the chapel, hav­ing de­cided what he would say dur­ing his homily. He looked out into the main church hall.

Ten min­utes un­til the ser­vice. Hun­dreds of peo­ple al­ready in the pews. All eyes on him.

Days later now, at the jail again, John Praveen’s face ap­pears on the com­puter mon­i­tor against a back­drop of white walls, closed doors and a stair­way lead­ing out of the cam­era frame. It is a face that looks swollen, un­shaven, on the verge of cry­ing. Chris­tensen stares at it, blink­ing in dis­be­lief, be­fore he speaks.

Ev­ery day since his ar­rest, he has thought about talk­ing with Praveen and all of the ques­tions he wanted to ask him. Ev­ery­thing that had hap­pened that week still didn’t make any sense to Chris­tensen, who couldn’t, no mat­ter how hard he tried, square the man he had thought Praveen was with the man the po­lice say he is.

He first heard of Praveen shortly be­fore he moved to South Dakota last Novem­ber from Hyderabad, In­dia, to help fill the Rapid City Dio­cese’s short­age of priests. Praveen ar­rived at the

cathe­dral in June, car­ry­ing him­self with a child­like earnest­ness that al­most ev­ery­one found dis­arm­ing. He wanted to put ev­ery parish­ioner’s birth­day in the church bul­letin. He asked if he could re­dec­o­rate the church’s un­der­stated al­tar with bright pur­ples and blues. He fol­lowed church staff mem­bers around, re­peat­edly ask­ing if they needed help with any­thing. “Al­ways had a smile on his face,” said Mar­garet Jack­son, a parish­ioner who took him out to an In­dian restau­rant days be­fore his ar­rest.

On a Sun­day af­ter­noon three months af­ter Praveen ar­rived, a lo­cal fam­ily re­ported to po­lice al­le­ga­tions against him — de­tails of which are un­der court seal — and the next day, in­ves­ti­ga­tors were at the cathe­dral. They said they wanted to talk to Praveen, not at the cathe­dral, but back at the sta­tion. Chris­tensen fol­lowed them, then waited out­side the in­ter­ro­ga­tion room for more than an hour, count­ing tiles, pray­ing, un­til the door opened. Praveen came out. His eyes were red. His hair, nor­mally combed, was a ruf­fled mess. Dis­be­lief was on his face. A de­tec­tive took Chris­tensen aside and told him. Praveen had been ac­cused of sex­u­ally abus­ing a child. Chris­tensen felt numb, then drove back to the cathe­dral in near si­lence with Praveen, who im­me­di­ately went to his room, where he sat awake with the lights on all night.

The next day, af­ter the po­lice had again come to the cathe­dral, af­ter Chris­tensen had asked Praveen to change so he wouldn’t be seen cuffed in his cler­i­cal clothes, af­ter po­lice had pho­tographed a class­room in the cathe­dral’s base­ment, Chris­tensen got on­line. He wanted to in­form the cathe­dral’s few Face­book fol­low­ers of all the in­for­ma­tion he had, but many al­ready had found out from the po­lice on so­cial me­dia ev­ery­thing they needed to know.

“Is it just me, or is the vast ma­jor­ity of th­ese cases that we con­tinue to hear about, in­volve Catholic priests?!” one per­son wrote in re­sponse to the po­lice depart­ment’s Face­book post.

“NEVER go to a Catholic Church,” an­other per­son said.

That type of re­ac­tion, the ab­so­lutism of it, was per­haps most up­set­ting of all to Chris­tensen. He knew there were abu­sive priests, but the messy re­al­ity was that most weren’t. In fact, he’d come to see clergy mem­bers as no more likely to be sex­ual preda­tors than peo­ple in other pro­fes­sions with ac­cess to chil­dren. Some stud­ies, in­clud­ing a re­port in 2004 by the John Jay Col­lege of Crim­i­nal Jus­tice, put the num­ber of sex­ual abusers among priests at about 4 per­cent, roughly con­sis­tent with cler­gy­men of other faiths. Other or­ga­ni­za­tions, in­clud­ing Bish­opAc­count­abil­ity.org, placed it at just un­der 6 per­cent. Anne Bar­rett Doyle, the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s co-di­rec­tor, says it may be shown to be higher still — es­pe­cially if au­thor­i­ties com­pel trans­parency.

And what to do about the priests who abuse? How to balance the sec­u­lar need for pun­ish­ment with the Catholic com­mand to for­give? Could anger and com­pas­sion co­ex­ist?

Now star­ing at Praveen, who is wip­ing his eyes and snif­fling, speak­ing so mut­edly that he’s barely in­tel­li­gi­ble, Chris­tensen can’t help but feel sym­pa­thy, per­haps not as much as he has for the vic­tim and her fam­ily, but sym­pa­thy nonethe­less.

He leans for­ward, presses the phone tightly to his ear.

“Fa­ther John, how are you?” he says softly.

He de­cides not to ask the ques­tions most on his mind.

“Did you know that you can get e-mails?”

He de­cides not to ask about ei­ther of the dates listed on Praveen’s charg­ing doc­u­ment, Sept. 3 and Sept. 28, both of which were days the two priests had spent to­gether. The first had been La­bor Day, when they’d gone to a bar­be­cue at the home of a lo­cal Catholic. Chris­tensen didn’t see the girl there, but he did see Praveen play corn­hole for hours and hours. And the sec­ond date had been the day of a cer­e­mony at the cathe­dral, at­tended by hun­dreds, to honor an Ital­ian saint, and Chris­tensen had urged Praveen, dur­ing lunch, to try some Amer­i­can food for once. “What do you need?” He will not ask how, if the al­le­ga­tions are true, Praveen could have pos­si­bly tog­gled, on both of those days, in two sep­a­rate lo­ca­tions, be­tween his fes­tiv­i­ties with con­gre­gants and his abuse of the same child, and with­out any­one notic­ing. (The girl’s par­ents have not re­turned mul­ti­ple re­quests for com­ment.)

“You have the Bi­ble there? You have the rosary?”

And he will not ask what he most wanted to, a ques­tion that he re­peated with par­ish­ioners dur­ing a mo­ment of ex­as­per­a­tion and frus­tra­tion days ear­lier: How could Praveen have done this to them, to the Church? In­stead, he will say this: “Many, many peo­ple are pray­ing for you.”

“We’re try­ing to help. We’re try­ing to help.” “Let’s say a prayer.” Chris­tensen low­ers his head and closes his eyes. Praveen does the same.

“We ask for a par­tic­u­lar bless­ing upon Fa­ther John,” Chris­tensen says. “God bless you, with the Fa­ther, Son and Holy Spirit.”

Chris­tensen hangs up the phone, the light turns off, and Praveen’s face dis­ap­pears.

En­veloped in robes of green and gold, hold­ing the Book of the Gospels high above his head, Chris­tensen had stared straight at the cathe­dral’s al­tar and slowly walked to­ward it. The open­ing hymn had started. The con­gre­gants had stood. He knew he had to be strong for this. He was the face of the parish. He was the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the priest­hood. He couldn’t wa­ver, not with so many look­ing to him for an­swers.

Chris­tensen came to the lectern. He looked out at the hun­dreds of peo­ple be­low, barely an empty pew in sight, and glanced down at his notes. For days, he had asked where God had been in all of this, and he thought he fi­nally had his an­swer. One of this week’s read­ings de­scribed how Je­sus’ suf­fer­ing had made him per­fect, em­pa­thetic to the strug­gles of mor­tal life be­cause those strug­gles had once been his, too. So maybe the em­bar­rass­ment and shame they felt now — their own suf­fer­ing — wasn’t with­out value. Maybe it could make them stronger. Like Je­sus. He looked up. “Je­sus knew suf­fer­ing in so many ways . . . . To­day, we as a parish fam­ily are suf­fer­ing,” he said, his words slow­ing as he spoke, echo­ing faintly off the mar­ble walls and stained-glass win­dow­panes. “Suf­fer­ing be­cause our brother has been ar­rested. A child and a fam­ily are suf­fer­ing. The church, the body of Christ, our parish com­mu­nity of the cathe­dral is suf­fer­ing. A priest. A

priest. A brother priest and, in some ways, all priests are suf­fer­ing.” He paused for a long mo­ment. “Fa­ther John was ar­rested on Tues­day morn­ing,” he said.

There was the sound of hun­dreds of lungs fill­ing with a sharp in­hala­tion of breath. Chris­tensen glanced down, then up again and con­tin­ued.

“. . . sex­ual con­tact with a mi­nor . . . ”

A man slowly turned the gold wed­ding band on his fin­ger.

“. . . un­der the cloud of this abuse . . . “

A woman put her hand over her mouth.

“. . . many thoughts, many feel­ings . . . anger, frus­tra­tion, con­fu­sion, be­wil­der­ment . . .”

On and on he went, solemnly, about how prayer was needed for the ac­cused and the ac­cuser, how this didn’t rep­re­sent the priest­hood. He did not bris­tle with anger or speak in dis­gust. There were no echoes of the new calls to end the vow of celibacy or grant women more power. He did not apol­o­gize, on be­half of the Catholic Church or on be­half of him­self, even if the abuse al­legedly had hap­pened on his watch, be­cause he didn’t know what to apol­o­gize for. And as he stood out­side in the mist­ing cold of that evening, greet­ing par­ish­ioners as they ex­ited Mass, it didn’t seem as though they had ex­pected th­ese things of him.

“Thank you, Fa­ther,” a man said, quickly shak­ing his hand and leav­ing.

“Thank you, Fa­ther,” an­other man said.

“Good ser­mon, Fa­ther,” some­one else of­fered.

Since the days of the first ma­jor scan­dal in the Amer­i­can church, in 2002, some have pre­dicted that Catholics would aban­don the church in re­vul­sion. But while many have left, the pri­mary rea­son, ac­cord­ing to Pew re­search in 2010, was the con­ser­vatism of church teach­ings, not the sex abuse crises. “None of them were shaken by it” was how Chris­tian Smith, a so­ci­ol­ogy pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Notre Dame, char­ac­ter­ized 80 or so Catholics he in­ter­viewed in 2003. An­other re­searcher, Michele Dil­lon of the Univer­sity of New Hamp­shire, while won­der­ing whether this time will be dif­fer­ent, said Catholics have got­ten past pre­vi­ous crises through “com­part­men­tal­iza­tion,” tak­ing what they feel is valu­able from the church and ig­nor­ing the rest.

This has ex­tended even to sur­vivors of sex­ual abuse, and their fam­i­lies, whose per­sonal trau­mas are ex­ac­er­bated by church scan­dals but who nonethe­less don’t lose faith in Catholi­cism and the church, a re­ac­tion Chris­tensen had en­coun­tered be­fore and, to his sur­prise, was see­ing again tonight.

“My daugh­ter was 4,” one woman, Lisa Krog­man, told him of the day-care abuse. “We have been through hell and back . . . . The thing I fi­nally said to her was we can’t walk with this crutch . . . . We can let God have it and let it go. And so that’s what we did.”

“I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy,” an­other mid­dle-aged woman, who de­clined to give her name to pro­tect her daugh­ters’ pri­vacy, said to him next about the reper­cus­sions of abuse. “My girls still suf­fer to this day be­cause of what hap­pened to them. It’s hor­ri­ble, but I don’t know ex­actly what hap­pened to this girl.”

What Chris­tensen did know about the girl: that her al­leged en­coun­ters with Praveen had left her so shaken that she quickly told her par­ents what had hap­pened, and they be­lieved her. He knew that, within two days of it be­ing re­ported, Praveen was in jail, and that the sys­tem had seemed to work as well as it could, even if it had failed so many other times. And he would soon know, but not yet, that the girl’s fam­ily would be back at the church within days of Praveen’s ar­rest, along with the girl her­self, all of them par­tic­i­pat­ing in Mass, and that they would re­turn again the week af­ter that. He would shake his head, mar­veling at it. “A tes­ti­mony of their own faith,” he would say.

For now, in the calm fol­low­ing Mass, in this ob­scure cor­ner of a global cri­sis con­sum­ing the church, he thought about the faith of those less de­vout. The com­ing weeks would be dif­fi­cult. There would be Praveen’s crim­i­nal ar­raign­ment. Pos­si­bly even a trial. More head­lines in the Rapid City Jour­nal. The cathe­dral could well lose peo­ple over this. But that, at least, was for later.

He went to the back of the cathe­dral. He took off his heavy robes. He breathed in and closed his eyes.


The Rev. Brian Chris­tensen cel­e­brates Mass at the Cathe­dral of Our Lady of Per­pet­ual Help in Rapid City. He is strug­gling with how to guide the faith of thou­sands in a church be­set by cri­sis.


The Rev. Brian Chris­tensen puts on an am­ice while prepar­ing to cel­e­brate Mass. When a woman at a church re­treat asked if he was un­com­fort­able wear­ing his cler­i­cal cloth­ing, it pained him to think about it.

TOP: Chris­tensen, pic­tured greet­ing young church­go­ers, de­manded bian­nual abuse train­ing for chil­dren at his church so they could rec­og­nize what it would mean to be touched in­ap­pro­pri­ately. ABOVE: Par­ish­ioners greet one an­other by shak­ing hands in a sign of peace.


The Rev. John Praveen is charged with two counts of sex­ual con­tact with a 13-year-old.

The Rev. Brian Chris­tensen opens the church doors af­ter Mass. Af­ter a priest in his parish was charged with sex­ual con­tact in­volv­ing a child, Chris­tensen wasn’t sure how he would talk to his con­gre­gants about what had be­come the most wrench­ing and com­pli­cated episode of his life as a priest. “Je­sus knew suf­fer­ing in so many ways,” he told them. “To­day, we as a parish fam­ily are suf­fer­ing.”

Church­go­ers leave Our Lady of Per­pet­ual Help af­ter Mass. Over the past two decades, so­cial change, strict church doc­trine and clergy sex abuse scan­dals have caused more Catholics to turn away from the Church.

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