An Interview with Msgr. Charles Pope

“It’s hard to find Christ on this terrible hill of Golgotha right now, but this is where he is.”

(photo: Register Files)

Matthew Bunson: Monsignor, welcome.

Msgr. Pope: Good to be here. Thanks.

Matthew Bunson: You are a pastor at Holy Comforter-Saint Cyprian here in Washington, D.C., I know.

Msgr. Pope: Yeah, right nearby.

Matthew Bunson: What is your flock like?

Msgr. Pope: Well, it’s becoming more diverse. It was, when I first got there, it was a solidly African American congregation. I’d say we’re about now 35 to 40 percent white and other mixed groups. It’s just become much more diverse like the city is now.

Matthew Bunson: Yeah. I asked because this is a scandal, the sex abuse scandal that seems to touch everyone in the Church and even far beyond the confines of Catholicism.

Msgr. Pope: It does. And as I say, I think everyone has a very common human reaction to it and we’re angered. We’re dismayed — you know, you keep thinking, well this has been cleared up and then come to find out there’s huge gaps still, that the bishops, there was no one watching the bishops. And then likewise, we still find some struggles in some of our seminaries. We have several investigations going on now. Even in a place like Wichita [Lincoln?] that we thought would be wholly free, there’s trouble going on there. And so it’s a dismay that people have - sorrow. And you know, to me, also a lot of anger, that any of my brother priests would misbehave in these ways.

Matthew Bunson: And how are your brother priests dealing with this? And you yourself? I know that you’d be the first to say it’s not about me, but for you this is a cross to bear as a good and faithful priest.

Msgr. Pope: It is. You know, I suppose if there was ever a time that I took pride in wearing my clerics in a sinful way, God has certainly taken that away. And as I walk up and down the street now, I feel almost a little embarrassed. And so I say, well Lord, I’m going to take the humiliation. I’m going to take the humility and I am going to offer it up because I think it’s just... it is just so angering to some of us priests who have tried so hard to live faithfully that some of our brothers be smirched all of our reputations — and now again, not just about our reputations. There’s victims... people have been hurt and this just angers and upsets us. You know, you want to kind of almost like a father, any good father — I mean, I’m saying this allegorically of course — but if his daughter has been hurt by a neighborhood boy, he wants to grab his shotgun, you know? And a lot of us have that kind of anger. Let’s go get these guys. I mean, these are our children too. I mean, we were called spiritual fathers and even if some of them are close to us in age, there’s still, there’s this fatherly care we have for our flock and it’s just so offensive to me that some fathers would turn on their own children in a kind of a spiritual incest.

Matthew Bunson: And what are you hearing from your own parishioners? Your own flock?

Msgr. Pope: Yeah. Again, the same anger and dismay. But I will say this, and I was able to say this to them on Sunday — I’m so grateful for your faith that you came today in spite of hearing all these things and somewhere in all of this, you can still find Jesus. And one of the images of the Church I gave them, you know, we think of these images like the Church is the body of Christ, the Bride of Christ. We think of these beautiful exalted images, but there’s another biblical image of the Church as Christ crucified between two thieves. And I said, I think that’s kind of what we feel like, and it’s hard to find Christ on this terrible hill of Golgotha right now, but this is where he is and I’m so glad and I just said to them and so grateful for your faith, so grateful and I’m angry with you, but together we’ve come to find Jesus.

Matthew Bunson: And wonder which thief you want to be.

Msgr. Pope: Yeah, try to be the good thief who stole paradise. [laughter]

Matthew Bunson: That anger is directed at priests. I know. I’m sure you, even, you feel that anger at times, but this second round so to speak, is really more and more focused on our bishops, on our shepherds. Is that what you’re hearing?

Msgr. Pope: It is. And there’s a sense, I think that people have said, what do you mean the bishops were exempted? You know, it’s a little bit like a lot of our politicians who pass laws and they exempt Congress from following them. It’s very angering to people and to think that so much of this has been allowed it strains credibility for most people to think, well, nobody really knew about what Theodore Cardinal McCarrick was doing. I think that a lot of people knew and now I think it’s fair to say that maybe they didn’t have anything they could act on legally, but that doesn’t, the Church, shouldn’t wait for that. We should be self-correcting. And if I hear rumors about a brother priest that are consistent, I’m going to go say “my brother, what is going on, what am I hearing?” And if I really think there’s something to it, then they have an obligation to point it out to higher authorities. Why that didn’t go on? Well, we know there’s canonical problems. Well fix canon law then, you know. And as I say, it’s a sense of betrayal and a sense that, if the shepherds aren’t at the helm, who is?

Matthew Bunson: Yeah. And finding those solutions, as you note, there are canonical questions, there are even theological questions, because the bishops in the end are answerable to the Holy Father as a successor to the apostles. It is the Holy Father’s task to fix this. So if you were called in and asked to give your advice on a couple of things that need to happen to fix this now. What would that advice be?

Msgr. Pope: Well, again, I don’t know all of the Canon Law either and that’s not my expertise, but I would say that it’s unrealistic to expect, I think the Pope’s probably sitting down to pasta about now in Rome, and you know, he’s 6,000 miles away. That’s not realistic. I would recommend something similar to what we have at the diocesan level. We have deans who are... usually the bishop will have about, maybe, depending on the size of the diocese, a dozen to 25 priests who oversee a certain number of parishes and it’s our job to sort of check in, to field any complaints to make sure that the books and the records are being kept. To interviewed the staff once a year. And I would recommend something like that for bishops. I think that there needs to be, the older system, I think the older code had something called Metropolitans or Archbishops who oversaw suffragan sees.

Matthew Bunson: Well it’s still there, Yeah.

Msgr. Pope: Technically, but it’s been, what do you call it rooted, you know, all the real oversights been rooted. It’s more ceremonial now. So I don’t know I think the candidates need to really look to this and there should be some more local oversight and certainly they work with the nuncio and then of course ultimately Rome.

Matthew Bunson: Yeah. And it looks more and more as though some sort of a Vatican investigation and Apostolic Visitation is likely to happen. Are you hearing from your parishioners and Catholics that you talk to, because, I mean you talk to Catholics of a wide variety, that there is now this expectation that at the end of the day there have to be resignations and serious changes made?

Msgr. Pope: Yeah. And I have very mixed feelings about quick or sudden resignations. I know a lot of people will call for Cardinal Wuerl to resign. I want to say he’s a good administrator. There are certainly gaffes that were pointed out in that grand jury report, but I think he could also be part of the solution. I think though, that what we’d want to do, I think is have a more of a forensic examination. If there really are bishops who really did handle this poorly, I don’t know if I, you know, I think for example, we’ve heard about Cardinal O’Malley who had received some information and said, well, that’s not in my purview. And I’m like, well, those things should be, who really should have been overseeing this and calling it to somebody’s attention? And if we find out really clearly who that should have been, I think yes, certainly they should resign and that’s going to take time. I think people want instant action, but that’s typically American and modern. It’s going to be a little slower. I think we should be fair and just.

Matthew Bunson: Right, and there’s a temptation to deal with a problem quickly so it goes away. But as we discovered with the Dallas Charter, there was something missing from that, and we’re paying the consequences for it now.

Msgr. Pope: We most certainly are.

Matthew Bunson: So any investigation, any work toward solutions must inevitably try to get at root causes. And what would you say are some of the root causes of this crisis?

Msgr. Pope: Yeah, you know, I think first of all, we do want to say that there is a kind of struggle we have in the Church to find a balance between what we might call honest confidentiality, this really is needed in the Church. We can’t just be blabbing everybody’s sins. That’s not... our nature is to receive sinners and confidently. That’s obviously under the confession, that is absolute, but even in more open settings like, counseling and so on, there’s a professional discretion. We don’t have that balance right though with times where we need to simply say, look, clerical secrecy and protecting the institution at all cost, and we don’t want to open ourselves to a possible lawsuit here. Well, at the end of the day, it shouldn’t take threats of lawsuits. It eventually comes back to us and now the law, the threats of the lawsuits are far greater. So we have little fears in the short run that just mount up in the long run. This is this idea of protecting the institution or protecting a certain bishop or what it all cost is getting very costly. So that’s the first thing. I think also though in this I wrote recently in the Register, I think we just, if we’re going to have an honest conversation about this, we have just simply got to get out and talk about the problem of active homosexuality and a kind of homosexual subculture that’s been going on in the churches and in the seminaries for too long now. And it’s created in the seminary system, and then it comes out from there. Kind of, as I say, a certain subculture — and again, let’s be clear, most homosexuals do not offend in this way, whether it’s pedophiles or ephebophiles — but we do have to accept the fact that 81 percent of the cases of offenses against minors were actually of, you know, had male victims and all the victims in total, almost 80 percent of them were post-pubescent. We’re not dealing with real pedophilia. We’re dealing with, well what some call ephebophilia, but whatever the term, it’s clearly a homosexual attraction to young men. And there are again, a certain number of heterosexual men, priests who have offended against younger girls, but it’s much smaller. And why is the number.

Matthew Bunson: And for the record, to your point, that was made very clear in the John Jay report, which is the most comprehensive study in the history of American Catholicism, in 2004. And it has even been confirmed again in all of the individual state reports that you see. So you’re absolutely right, statistically.

Msgr. Pope: Statistically it’s so. And I say, well, why is there such a high correlation you see with, you know, homosexuality and this type of offense. And I think, you know, I’m not here to give all the answers, but I think it’s just not honest or it’s not going to be a credible conversation until we allow that to be discussed. And right now it’s been, you can’t even bring that up. And all these charges of “homophobia” or “your scapegoating” or bigotry. But there’s an honest statistic to look at here and get to the bottom of it. And I’m not saying I have all the answers, but there’s a definite correlation and you say, “well, correlation is not causation.” Well, I think in this case we need to rule that out. I think, again, let’s be clear, most do not engage, you know, whatever, you know, most men and you know, whoever, heterosexual, homosexual don’t. But there’s a much higher incidence and there’s a reason for that. And I think part of it goes to seminary formation when you put a man with same-sex attraction in an all-male environment and there’s going to be maybe a few others there and they begin to link up and the temptations. I mean, if I was an all-female dormitory, you know, growing up and going through college or seminary, sharing shower facilities, that’s going to take heroic virtue to not offend. And then, you know, especially if a couple of the girls start to wink at me, and say they might be willing, you know what I mean? So I think it starts there and I’m not here to, I think we have to have some sympathy for people who have same-sex attraction and just say that’s just simply not the environment they should be in. And that’s Church policy in the last, you know, 20 years or so has been pretty clear about that, you know, that we shouldn’t admit people with deep seated homosexual inclinations into the seminary. Not all places have followed that norm.

Matthew Bunson: And Pope Francis himself has reiterated that on a number of occasions and just a couple of months ago.

Msgr. Pope: He has. It was very under reported, I think because it doesn’t fit the narrative some people want to create about him. But I think he was quite clear that if this is noted, that we cannot admit them for their own sake as well as for the seminary.

Matthew Bunson: So you also in your wildly well-received piece, I should add, on this very question of homosexuality and the priesthood stress that we actually have a policy already in place to deal with this. And it’s a very simple one called the Sixth Commandment.

Msgr. Pope: The Sixth Commandment. Yeah. You know, I don’t know why, but we’ve come to a place in our culture where a lot of people just wink at the Sixth Commandment and say, “well, you know, people are weak, boys will be boys.” And likewise, there’s a lot of people today who think that people with same-sex attraction somehow get a pass or there should be a different commandment for them. There’s not a Sixth Commandment [Version] 6.5. Or there’s no little clause. Every single human person is called to chastity across the board. And for a married couple that means complete fidelity of mind and heart and body. And for all of us who are unmarried, no genital sexual contact with anyone ever, under any circumstances. It’s just simply not to be done. I don’t know why we want to complicate it. It’s very simple. Now it’s hard for people, but at some level it’s freeing. And I’m 30 years a priest and I can say, as God is my witness, I’ve 30 years I’ve been under the oath or the vow of celibacy. And I’ve lived... I’ve never been inappropriate with anybody ever, not even once. As God is my witness. I think that, you know, we... it’s possible to live this way and many people do. And by the way, most of my brother priests could say that too. Most of them have been very faithful. So I’m concerned that this so besmirches the priesthood. And there’s a lot of “Oh yeah, yeah, they say they live, celibate, yeah, uh-huh. There’s no alternate plan for anybody. And this is, by the way, at the heart of dignity. I mean, why should I say to a person with same-sex attraction, “well, you know, you’re not up to it.” “Don’t worry, you know.” It’s kind of the tyranny of low expectations again. No, I mean, and I know in my parish, a number of people with same-sex attraction who lived beautifully, have chaste lives, and they’re committed to the Church teaching. And so I think this idea that homosexuality or same-sex attraction should, you know, be, there’s a different commandment. That’s actually a reduction of their dignity.

Matthew Bunson: And for a young man, who is encountering same-sex attraction, what advice do you give him. Or a young woman who is encountering the same thing in terms of a same-sex attraction?

Msgr. Pope: We know the Catechism actually has something to say about that. It talks about disinterested friendship. Now, well people go, “what kind of a friendship is that,” But we’ve lost the concept in our culture. I think friendship is on holiday. You know, deep friendships that are chaste and where people share. And they’re... I say I have about five or six priest buddies that, those guys know everything about me. You know what I mean? [chuckles] And they... “Oh, here he goes again, I know what he’s going to say.” I know what they’re going to order at the restaurant, you know, etc. But good healthy friendships I think are very enriching. And in a way, the philosophers always said that friendship is, in a certain sense, the highest love. In the sense that we, you know, we so idolized sexuality and romanticism in our culture, But really even, you know, most people who are married more than six minutes, know, there’s a lot of tensions in marriage. [chuckles] Sometimes one can find a friend and even talk through some of those. [chuckles] But, it’s a beautiful love, don’t get me wrong. But I think at some point we become so fixated on sexuality and romance and so on in our culture that we’ve forgotten that friendship is a very, very satisfying aspect of life. And I think that the Catechism certainly cultivates it. Obviously to stay away from, a lot of these, the gay subculture that sort of celebrates what should not be celebrated. That’s important. And then finally, I would say again, a good support groups like Courage and so on are important.

Matthew Bunson: Well, while I have you, I know a lot of our listeners and our readers would be very interested in knowing a little bit more about you, because you are one of the favorite authors for the National Catholic Register. So I think they’d love to know a little bit about your background.

Msgr. Pope: That surprises me that I’m one of the favorites. There are so many good folks at the Register. I figure I’m... I was born in 1961 in Chicago in Saint Francis Hospital and I was baptized the same day I was born because I wasn’t supposed to make it, but here I am. I had some kind of a blood-borne thing, RH Factor, or whatever they called it. So I was baptized that day, but I did obviously make it. I grew up in Chicago, came to the D.C. area in 1972. My father had come back from Vietnam and we settled in the D.C. area, part of his military career. And I have three siblings, two brothers. My sister passed away a long time ago now, in 1990. She had mental illness and she was always sort of just a very special member of our family, but she did die in 1990. I have two other brothers. One lives in Florida, the other lives in Seattle. The one in Seattle has nine kids and the one in Florida has three, so I’ve got a good dozen nieces and nephews. I studied at George Mason University here in the D.C. area. I’ve got a computer science degree and then I went to Mount Saint Mary’s from there. I came sort of close to getting married. But for various reasons the Lord called me in a different direction.

Matthew Bunson: Yeah. And your seminary experience, all priests now, I guess they’re being asked, what did you see in the seminary and were their problems when you went?

Msgr. Pope: Well, I would say Mount Saint Mary’s where I went in Emmitsburg had a relatively cleaner reputation, but there were certainly in the eighties, a lot of seminaries with really bad reputations, and I don’t want to repeat some of the things they were called, but I’ll just say that I think at the Mount, if we did have any, it wasn’t nearly as magnified. And generally I would say if there were a couple who were found, you know, a couple of young men, you know, or several men who were struggling with that and they weren’t living chastely they were asked to leave. I think the Mount was pretty solid in those days, but I certainly know many other seminaries that had very different reputations and it’s just went on too long. And as you know, there was a kind of, in the early nineties, there was an examination of all the seminaries and some house cleaning.

Matthew Bunson: And what descriptives would you use for our seminary system today? What are its strengths and what are some of its weaknesses? I mean, clearly the scandal has exposed some potential problems, that we hope are mostly in the past. But going forward, this has to be a major issue.

Msgr. Pope: Yeah. I think that so many things are better with the seminary system than when I went through. I think that that investigation, then also the publication of the Catechism had a huge effect of kind of settling theology down. Solid doctrinal teaching is essential. Right? And then of course proper observation that men can live chaste — both heterosexual and homosexual — that they’re able to live chastely. But again, good insistence on solid doctrine, and insisting that men live very chastely, and if they’re struggling to be honest with that, and there are going to be some men who go to the seminary and discover this isn’t for me for various reasons. And part of that should be whether they’re able to live chastely. Not just among other men, but how they behave when they’re in parishes. Because again, heterosexual men struggle with chastity too. And obviously to, you know, we haven’t really talked about this, but you know, pornography and self-abuse, masturbation, all those things are things that even those who live very chastely can still struggle with from time to time. So a lot of mercy. But again, if these become very deep seated, all those things are factors that need to be, a man needs to honestly assess is this, “is celibacy something that I’m called to.”

Matthew Bunson: And the question is often asked now. It’s what some advance as a potential solution to this sex abuse crisis, is getting rid of celibacy. Where do you stand in that?

Msgr. Pope: Well, you know, I’m a confessor and I hear lots of confessions of all kinds of men and women. I want to tell you, marriage isn’t always a problem [solution?]. You know, many married men still struggle with pornography and masturbation and they are unfaithful at times. These are things that, and I’m not saying this is so widespread. I don’t want it to start a new scandal. [laughter] But I’m saying that it’s a human problem.

Matthew Bunson: Right?

Msgr. Pope: And as I say, I’ve never acted out or any of those things, and I won’t say I never had a dirty thought or never saw a bad picture, but I’m going to just say, I’ve been able to be faithful. I’ve never, never been inappropriate with anyone in 30-some years now of ordained ministry. And so it’s very possible to live this way. And it’s beautiful. In a way, it’s easier to completely abstain than to moderate. And if a priest is, you know, just careful with his boundaries and so on. I think it’s very, most of us do live this well. And so many other priests could say the same thing.

Matthew Bunson: Yeah. Well, Msgr. Pope, I’m so grateful for your time.

Msgr. Pope: Good to be here. Thank you, Matthew.

Matthew Bunson: Keep writing for the Register.

Msgr. Pope: All right. Thank you.

Matthew Bunson: God bless.