Mad About The Church In The Past, Women Were Reluctant To Talk About Liaisons With Priests. But More Are Speaking Out Now. And They're Very, Very Angry.

Posted: September 29, 1993

She was 19 and dreamed of being a missionary in Appalachia; he was 24 and studying to be a Roman Catholic priest. Their friendship and their burning desire to serve God gave way to a burning passion for each other.

For 15 years they had a secret love affair, which continued off-and-on after he was ordained a priest and promised to remain celibate. Tormented, they tried several times to break it off but somehow they always found each other again.

Then in 1990 she told him she was moving far away. Before she could pack, she became pregnant.

"I went through this big period of denial. Even though physically and intellectually I knew I was pregnant, I was like this can't be happening, what am I going to do," said Tess Engelhardt, a 36-year-old, critical-care nurse

from Allentown.

One of the first things she did was contact Good Tidings, a Poconos-based support group for women who are sexually involved with priests. Cathy Finnegan-Grenier, who runs the group, said she has counseled some 1,500 women in the last decade who have had priest lovers, from one-night stands to long- term relationships. About 30 of the women have had children whose fathers were Fathers, she said.

The Conference of Catholic Bishops says it is aware that some of its priests are sexually active but maintains that their number is few. But former priests and others familiar with the issue say relationships between priests and women - including secret marriages - have become increasingly common.

A parish priest makes a solemn promise to remain celibate, that is, to not marry. Because the church forbids sex outside of marriage, a priest may not have sex. A member of a religious order makes a vow of chastity, that is, to abstain from sex and marriage.

In the past, few women broke their silence surrounding liaisons with priests. But emboldened by a few highly publicized cases recently, more women have spoken out. Many are angry at the church for insisting on celibacy, which they say does not work and goes against human impulses. Many are angry at priests, who they say are hypocrites for maintaining a veneer of celibacy. And many are angry at both the church and its priests for shrugging off philandering clerics as aberrations.

Finnegan-Grenier and others say the marriage ban is not only an affront to women but the reason the church suffers from a crippling shortage of priests.

"When you tell every priest in the world that they can't marry, what you're saying is that a relationship with a woman is not holy enough for the priesthood, women are inferior and marriage is a second-rate institution," said Anthony T. Padovano, president of the Corps of Resigned Priests United for Service (CORPUS), which has 3,500 members nationwide. In the last 20 years, 20,000 priests in the United States have resigned.

Said Finnegan-Grenier, whose group crusades for optional celibacy for priests: "Women have been treated like Eve caught with the apple in her belly. Mostly, it's a matter of trying to shut her up."

Good Tidings was started in 1983 by a woman whose friend killed herself after she fell hopelessly in love with a priest who wouldn't marry her, Finnegan-Grenier said. Over the years some women have revealed that they've had abortions at the urging of priests and others have said they were so distraught over their affairs that they have considered suicide, she said.

"This is not unusual. The difference is we're starting to talk about it," said the onetime novice whose husband, Joseph Grenier, is a former priest.

Some 1,000 people worldwide receive Good Tidings' newsletter and and the couple open their Monroe County house on Saturdays to anyone who chooses to celebrate Mass, enjoy a buffet dinner and share love stories.

Few have happy endings.

One woman bore two children by a priest who beat her and refused to give

financial support, Finnegan-Grenier said. Another couple stayed together for 40 years and, like any devoted wife, she picked up and moved whenever he was transferred to a new parish.

Some couples secretly marry, either before a judge or a sympathetic priest, and, said Finnigan-Grenier, sometimes with the tacit approval of a bishop who doesn't make waves as long the marriage remains quiet.

Such a case represents "total, total dishonesty. They are representing themselves as celibate priests when they are not," she said.

Chris Baumann, a spokesman for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, D.C., said that he did not have any statistics but that he believed a "low percentage" of priests slept with women.

"It would be valid to say that of the 51,000 priests in the United States that all 51,000 probably aren't being true to their vows of celibacy, but as far as how many, it's very few," he said.

As for priests condoning abortions, Baumann said, he did not know of any specific cases but had "no reason to doubt" it has happened.

"I can see a scenario where a priest might panic and say how can I make this right and rationalize that abortion is probably the right thing to do to get back on track," he said. "Nobody's perfect, and certainly priests are human beings like anybody else."

He said he thought it was "very rare" for a priest to father a child. Those who do, he said, are supposed to be dismissed and the mothers given

financial settlements.

Engelhardt, a high-intensity woman who lives on a farm in Lehigh County with her son, John, now 3, says that when she told Allentown Diocese officials she was pregnant by one of its priests, they offered her money and urged her to give the baby up for adoption and keep the father's name under wraps.

Engelhardt sued the Rev. Robert J. Dreisbach for child support, then spoke openly about the affair on CBS's Street Stories.

"Not only would my rights be violated but the rights of my child (would be) if I didn't speak up," she said.

On Jan. 11, a Lehigh County judge ordered Father Dreisbach to pay $350 a month in child support and $10,000 in expenses, and to carry a $50,000 life insurance policy with the child as the beneficiary. Dreisbach left the diocese in April, according to a spokesman, and could not be reached for comment. In May, at Dreisbach's request, support payments were suspended for six months or until he finds a job, according to court records.

The diocese declined to answer questions and issued a written statement saying that it, "Deeply regrets the serious personal difficulties in which . . . Father Robert Dreisbach has become involved. . . . He has made every effort to deal with the matter. . . . "

It also said, " . . . matters so deeply personal cannot, by their very nature, be made public, in so sensational a manner, without doing serious harm to all the parties. . . . "

Engelhardt said she believes it is more harmful for the church to ''maintain this facade of clerical celibacy."

"The silence and secrecy," she said, "needs to end."

*

Sex sandals have toppled several members of the church's hierarchy in recent times. Archbishop Robert F. Sanchez of Sante Fe, N. Mex., resigned this year after acknowledging affairs with three women; Bishop Eamonn Casey of Galway, Ireland, resigned last year after an American woman revealed they had a child 17 years ago; Atlanta Archbishop Eugene A. Marino resigned in 1990 when it became known he had an affair with a 27-year-old singer.

Priests struggle between religious and temporal faith with most never breaking their vows. But Richard Sipe, who has conducted hundreds of interviews with priests and priests' sexual partners during a 30-year study of clerical celibacy, said he estimates that 50 percent of all priests are

sexually active, 28 percent of them with women and the rest with men and children.

Sipe, a psychotherapist and a former priest, has been on the staff of Seton Psychiatric Institute in Baltimore, which treats priests, and has been executive director of St. John's University Institute for Mental Health in Collegeville, Minn.

He says there are priestly offspring in every one of the church's 189 U.S. dioceses.

"There is a great deal of evidence of priests and bishops having children," said Sipe, author of A Secret World: Sexuality and The Search for Celibacy.

While supporters of clerical marriages applaud the study as proof that celibacy doesn't work, the church says it is invalid since Sipe used his patients and not a random sample.

"He's way off base," said Baumann.

Two other studies suggest sex is the reason fewer men are becoming priests than ever before. There were 51,907 priests in churches in the United States this year compared with 59,292 in the peak year of 1970. Seminary enrollment has plummeted 60 percent since 1965 to 6,698 in 1992.

"The single biggest deterrent that keeps young men from entering seminaries is the requirement of celibacy," said Dean Hoge, a sociologist at Catholic University who conducted one of the studies in 1985.

At one time, the Catholic Church permitted priests to marry. But in 1139 the Second Lateran Council laid down that Holy Orders and marriage were incompatible. As early as 385, Pope Siricius had decreed that married clergy must abstain from sex with their wives. Pope John Paul II has made it clear that he isn't interested in revoking the rule of celibacy, despite growing grassroots support for a married clergy.

CORPUS says that the overwhelming majority of priests who resign do so to marry, although the church says most leave because of conflicts with authority. Whatever the reason, the nation's 58 million Catholics are beginning to feel a pinch - 350 of the 18,000 parishes in the U.S. do not have resident priests, a figure that is likely to grow, according to Hoge.

The Rev. Joseph Medaglia, a Franciscan priest, married a teacher from his parish and died seven weeks later of a heart attack, which his widow believes was caused by the stress of leading a double life.

"He was a tortured soul. He really and truly was," said Marilyn Medaglia, a divorcee who had moved to Palenville, N.Y.

They met one Sunday after Mass in 1991 and within three months he was spending every night at her house, she said.

The whirlwind courtship led to talk of marriage. Father Medaglia agonized over the choice between the Franciscan order and breaking his vow of chastity. Although he had had an affair before, according to his widow, he loved being a priest, rushing to a parishioner's side whenever he was needed.

They agreed to marry in June 1992, but he kept postponing the wedding date and, in July, his superior found out and transferred him to The Good Counsel Friary in Morgantown, W.Va.

"He was 57 years old, he had been a priest for a number of years. It was unexpected," said the Rev. Roderick Crispo, provincial of the Franciscans' Immaculate Conception Province.

He advised Father Medaglia to pray and "to think about what it is you really want out of life," he said.

Father Crispo "was extremely supportive," said Marilyn Medaglia. "He just said to my husband do what your heart leads you to do. . . . "

Finally, on Dec. 29 the couple married before a justice of the peace. Medaglia said her husband hoped to find a small, country parish that was so desperate for a priest they would hire him in spite of his marital status.

Father Medaglia couldn't break with his past, so on New Year's Day he returned to the Friary. Father Crispo found out about the marriage and Father Medaglia was forced to resign, he said.

Father Medaglia withdrew to a retreat house in New Rochelle, N.Y., where he died on Feb. 5.

"There are thousands of men and women out there who are tortured the way my husband was tortured," said Marilyn Medaglia. "It sapped his very life

from him. What is so abnormal about being married and serving God?"

On their best days, when it seemed as if all they needed were each other, Tess Engelhardt said, she and Dreisbach spoke tentatively of marriage. Though he professed to love her, she said, he truly believed God wanted him to be a priest.

"He was torn."

They met in 1975 at Mount St. Mary's College in Emittsburg, Md. At one point they stopped seeing each other, but they reignited their romance at a

college reunion. After she became pregnant, he was transferred to another parish in the diocese.

"For 2 1/2 years the church knew that Tess was the mother and Bob was the father," said Finnegan-Grenier. "For 2 1/2 years, Bob was on the altar. Only when it became public did Bob have to leave."

Engelhardt said she has not heard from Dreisbach since he left, but still has powerful feelings for him despite all those years hiding in the shadows, a mistress who prayed for both deliverance and redemption.

"When love hits you in the face and gnaws at you," she said, "what do you do?"

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