CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — Over the past decade, Lent has coincided with fresh clergy scandals, and 2011 was no different: Father John Corapi, of the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity (SOLT), among the nation’s most popular Catholic evangelists, was placed on “administrative leave” following allegations of misconduct leveled against him by a former employee.
Announced on Father Corapi’s personal website, the news shocked Catholics who have been inspired by his robust articulation of Church teaching and his powerful personal conversion story.
He stated, “On Ash Wednesday I learned that a former employee sent a three-page letter to several bishops accusing me of everything from drug addiction to multiple sexual exploits with her and several other adult women.”
As Internet pundits reacted to the headlines, his supporters questioned whether the formal process of investigating such claims conveyed the impression that the accused was “guilty until proven innocent.”
SOLT, Father Corapi’s religious order, as well as the relevant diocesan authorities, affirmed the Church’s guidelines for responding to allegations of clerical misconduct. But an intense debate on the Internet testified to the priest’s iconic status among Catholics who relish his homiletic gifts and charismatic persona.
Critics, including Father Corapi in the past, have argued that the present framework for dealing with such allegations is a “one-size-fits-all response” that blurs distinctions between minor infractions and criminal behavior. That said, in the wake of the recent clergy-abuse scandal in Philadelphia, the U.S. bishops have been attacked for allowing priests “credibly accused” of sexual abuses against minors to return to ministry.
While the Catholic hierarchy struggles to tighten its implementation of diocesan child-protection policies, the public reaction to the treatment accorded Father Corapi underscores the equal priority of protecting the right of accused clerics to due process.
When Father Corapi announced his leave of absence, he noted that the allegations leveled against him did not include any criminal behavior or any improprieties involving minors. While promising to “cooperate in the process,” he criticized Church policies designed to protect the vulnerable from clerical predators.
“There seems to no longer be the need for a complaint to be deemed ‘credible’ in order for Church authorities to pull the trigger on the Church’s procedure, which was in recent years crafted to respond to cases of the sexual abuse of minors,” Father Corapi stated in the March announcement posted on his website (FatherCorapi.com).
Clearly mindful of the priest’s national reputation, Church authorities stressed the presumption of innocence as the investigation moved forward.
Father Gerard Sheehan, regional priest servant of SOLT and Father Corapi’s religious superior, confirmed that he had “been placed on administrative leave from priestly ministry, in accordance to the Code of Canon Law of the Catholic Church.” He referred to the allegation as “a manner unbecoming of a priest.” But Father Sheehan also noted that “this action in no way implies Father Corapi is guilty of the allegation.”
The allegations against the priest, Father Sheehan said in a March 18 statement, would be “investigated internally, and unless and until information suggests otherwise, it will not be referred to civil authorities.”
In a statement, Bishop George Leo Thomas, the bishop of the Diocese of Helena, Mont., where Father Corapi resides, also underscored the importance of “due process” for the accused priest, while describing the case as a “very complex situation.”
In the statement released by the Diocese of Helena, Father John Robertson, the chancellor, clarified the priest’s status: “Father Corapi has a personal residence in Kalispell, Mont. He does not hold priestly faculties in the Diocese of Helena.”
While Church officials promised justice for the accused, many of his supporters were disturbed to learn that his upcoming public speaking events had been canceled. Tempers flared when EWTN, which has long provided a forum for the popular evangelist, pulled his television and radio shows.
“We are aware that many of our supporters are disappointed in EWTN’s decision to remove Father John Corapi’s programs from the network during his administrative leave,” said Michael Warsaw, CEO of the global Catholic network and publisher of the Register, which was acquired by EWTN earlier this year. “We can assure you that it was made with much prayer and careful discernment.”
EWTN took action, Warsaw explained, after “Father John’s own religious community placed him on administrative leave from priestly ministry.”
Father Francis Hoffman, executive director of Relevant Radio — a radio network that broadcasts Catholic programs on 33 stations in 12 states — and a canon lawyer, said that Catholic media have a duty to support Church discipline.
“In the case of Father Corapi,” said Father Hoffman, “Catholic media outlets will assist the process by supporting the indications and intentions of his superiors with respect to his temporary suspension from the public ministry of teaching, sanctifying and governing.”
To do otherwise, Father Hoffman added, “may unintentionally undermine the authority of his superior by leading the faithful to conclude that the superior unjustly put him on ‘administrative leave’ because the allegations were not credible.”
Catholics unfamiliar with Father Corapi’s ministry may be surprised by the intensity of the debate swirling around the allegations against him. His admirers, however, view him as a source of profound inspiration and have been quick to rush to his defense.
Many Catholics know the story of his conversion and subsequent decision to enter the priesthood, after a rapid fall from grace fueled by drug addiction. Living on the streets and increasingly desperate, he returned to the home of his spiritually devout mother and allowed the power of the sacraments to heal his wounds.
“People love him because they feel they are listening to a man who has walked in their shoes,” said Joe Condit, the founder and chairman of CMG Booking, which once managed Father Corapi’s speaking engagements, and expects to collaborate with him in the future.
Father Corapi and Scott Hahn are the most requested Catholic speakers in North America, said Condit, who suggested that highly effective evangelists were likely targets of the devil, “the master of confusion. We have to be very hesitant and cautious to judge without knowing 99% of the facts.”
Condit spoke of Father Corapi’s ability to draw 10,000 people to a ticketed speaking event, as the priest did last summer at a Cincinnati engagement. This year, scalpers were already asking $140 and more for seats at upcoming events.
Now those events, including one in March at the Northern Illinois University Convocation Center that drew co-sponsors like Catholic Charities of the Rockford Diocese, have been canceled.
Some commentators, including Elizabeth Scalia, who blogs at Patheos.com and Patrick Archbold and Jimmy Akin, who both blog at NCRegister.com, have suggested it’s time to take a deep breath and wait for SOLT investigators to digest the facts of the case.
But many of the priest’s most loyal supporters and colleagues find that hard to do. Santa Cruz Media, Inc., the small production company that distributes materials featuring the priest, has vowed to continue selling his products.
Bobbi Ruffatto, vice president of operations for Santa Cruz Media, confirmed that the company was “the owner of all of Father John Corapi’s intellectual property and the DVDs, CDs and books that flow from it. We are a secular corporation and not affiliated with the Catholic Church in any way. As such, we are not under the jurisdiction of any bishop or other official in the Catholic Church, although we have the utmost respect for Church authority.”
She said that Santa Cruz Media would continue to make Father Corapi’s material “available as a service to the Church and the world for as long as we possibly can.”
Ruffatto added, “The Church provides no financial support to Father Corapi. He has to pay for his own legal representation, medical costs, food, housing, etc. … Your purchase of products from Santa Cruz Media helps provide the funding for Father’s continued work as well as the legal expenses he continues to incur as a result of these malicious allegations.”
Ruffatto stated that the company had “consulted with a number of canon lawyers. They have assured us that the actions of the bishop [William Mulvey] of Corpus Christi, Texas, are, on several points of canon law, illicit.”
Her statement didn’t outline the contested points, and the reference to Bishop Mulvey was curious. While SOLT is based in that diocese, Bishop Mulvey had already acknowledged the responsibility of SOLT authorities to address the allegations against a member of the order.
“The bishop of Corpus Christi was notified by SOLT of the allegations. The administrative leave was imposed by SOLT, and the order will conduct the investigation,” said Marty Wind, spokesman for the diocese.
He acknowledged that Church authorities navigate a minefield with unpredictable consequences.
“It is frustrating because the Church is criticized when we do take action, and we also are criticized when we don’t take action. We have no choice but to investigate any allegations.”
Ruffatto’s statement provided additional information about the priest’s accuser, who was identified as a “former employee, who, after losing her job with this office, physically assaulted me and another employee and promised to ‘destroy’ Father Corapi.”
Her remarks echo the bitterness of many supporters of priests deemed to be unjustly accused. And as the Lenten season continues, the public spectacle of a beloved priest under scrutiny will likely test the faith of his devoted following.
Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.