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My Memories of a Pedophile Priest

Just as the wounds of the American Church began to heal after the excruciating, drawn-out crisis of clerical abuse that exploded in 2002, we are again seeing the crime of clerical abuse being manifested in other countries.

Shortly after the passion of the American Church, the tsunami of shame inundated Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The Vatican insisted it was a peculiarly Anglo-Saxon issue. Then the Church in Ireland imploded. The Vatican said it was a problem of English-speaking nations.

Now we hear of cataclysmic crises of sexual abuse striking in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, The Philippines and Brazil. The Vatican can no longer claim it is a problem peculiar to those who speak English. Now they say it is either a plot by the media, a conspiracy of homosexuals or a symptom of the Sexual Revolution in the 1960s (despite the fact that many of the cases occurred before then).

One of the more innovative excuses floated by the Vatican was by no less than Benedict XVI himself in his letter to the people of Ireland, where he also suggested that the solution to the problem was for the laity to go to confession and practice Eucharistic adoration. He opined that the crisis was caused by a misinterpretation of the Second Vatican Council. This is a continuation of his famous theory of the “hermeneutic of discontinuity,” whereby he offers a view of Vatican II that it intended to change really nothing from the past, and that those who claim the Council intended changes are misinterpreting the Council.

Following this line of argument, in the “conservative” Catholic blogoshpere one can read many charges that the clerical abuse crisis was caused by “dissident” priests who strayed from doctrinal orthodoxy with disastrous results.

To these people I would like to offer the story of my high-school religion teacher, Fr. Richard Coughlin, who was a paragon of “conservative” orthodoxy and a pedophile.

Coughlin was ordained for the Archdiocese of Boston in 1953 and was an assistant pastor at St. Patrick’s Church in Stoneham and St. Mary’s Church in Lynn. In 1965, he inexplicably and suddenly moved to Orange County, Calif.

As you might imagine, Coughlin had molested children while at St. Patricks. He was moved to St. Mary’s, where he continued to terrorize young children. Eventually, Cardinal Law was only to happy to ship him off to California without notifying the Diocese of Orange what he had done. Even after a victim came forward in 1985 to tell the Archdiocese of Boston what had happened to him, Boston did not bother to do anything–not even notify the Diocese of Orange, the high school where he taught boys or the boy’s choir where he had unlimited contact with children–even though Coughlin was still under their jurisdiction.

During the time that Coughlin was teaching me religion at high school, he was also sexually abusing children in a boy’s choir he had founded and was directing. Yes, the Archdiocese of Boston knew that this predator was actually in daily contact with children in this boys’ choir and did nothing. One of these victims, Eric Zapala, was being abused by Coughlin during the time that I was actually attending that school. After having his case dismissed by the diocese and receiving no recompense or apology, Eric Zapala committed suicide. Look at his memorial website. That’s him on the home page, wearing the costume of Coughlin’s boys’ choir, with an expression that seems to say it all.

Coughlin taught us religion in a very conservative school. I served at his Latin Masses (and this was in the late 1970s); I do not recall that he ever celebrated Mass in English. He taught from a text by the author Fr. John Hardon, who is celebrated in conservative circles. His heavy, ornate chalice was solid gold and encrusted with precious stones, a reproduction of a famous Romanesque artifact. This was no Vatican II priest.

We students discovered that it was very easy to get Coughlin off on a tangent during class. And often these tangents would last until the bell rang, so no homework could be assigned. One of the easiest way to get him off on a long tangent was to ask him about his boys’ choir. it was creepy but effective. He would rhapsodize at great length about individual boys; how this one 10-year-old boy was so smart, talented and handsome and so forth. It was like listening to a teenage girl go on about her crush.

We would shift uncomfortably in our seats, but at that age it seemed better than getting homework. I don’t know that I really understood what was going on. It made me uncomfortable, and I resisted his invitations to visit him in his room, but I certainly did not grasp the full extent of the situation.

Coughlin abused several boys in his choir; I don’t know if he harmed any of my classmates. I suspect we were too old for him. But as I read about these cases and especially the deposition of Eric Zapala, there is a chill along my spine. I could have been one of his victims. Had not some instinct made me stay clear of Coughlin, I might have joined Zapala in a lifetime of torment and eventual suicide.

Thank you, Cardinal Law–living in your Renaissance palazzo, attending parties, celebrating Tridentine Masses and choosing our bishops–for nothing. I somehow dodged one of the the bullets you sent flying toward California, but others were not so fortunate. You disgust me, you and everyone in Rome who fawns over your sorry, bloated carcass.

I know some will say a deacon should not call out the pope, but Benedict is plain wrong. It is not the misinterpretation of Vatican II that caused the clerical abuse crisis. I know that because even today I can see Fr. Richard Coughlin celebrating his Latin Mass with total dedication to Fortescue’s rubrics, fingers together and every bow observed, ignoring every reform of the Council.

No, I know that the crisis is rooted in the sin of clericalism the Council sought to stamp out.

6 Responses to “My Memories of a Pedophile Priest”

  1. St. Michael's Prep. says:

    Eric! You are a Nazi piece of cat crap! You were a Norbertine ass hole and was supportive of this conservative nonsense. I remember you beating the high school students dressed in your black suit, white shirt, and black tie. So much like the Nazi’s you followed and kissed up to in those days. You are the last person in the world to critize Coughlin. You, in your own way, are guilty as he! SIEG HEIL, Eric, SIEG HEIL! You are a Deacon now? A “LIBERAL” deacon??? SHESSHHHH! Get a grip! I should write your editors at this site and share with them a number of your actions while a Norbertine. Don’t be so holy than thou. Get over yourself.

  2. Deacon Eric says:

    Comments such as the above are always made by anonymous people. Sometimes they create a fake identity, sometimes not. Anyone in ministry is familiar with what happens with anonymous rants like this; they are disregarded.

  3. Ben Dunlap says:

    “I know some will say a deacon should not call out the pope, but Benedict is plain wrong.”

    I won’t say that. But I will say that no one should call out /anyone/ without a reasoned argument as to why the latter is “plain wrong” — and without saying what specifically you think he’s wrong about. Do you think more confession and more prayer focused on the Eucharist is a bad thing? Do you think the Pope’s other, more active initiatives for Ireland (not mentioned in your piece) are insufficient? If so, what would you have him do in addition?

  4. Deacon Eric says:

    Ben, the entire article is an example of why Benedict claiming that a “misinterpretation of Vatican II” is a cause of the clerical abuse crisis. I said “…Benedict is plain wrong. It is not the misinterpretation of Vatican II that caused the clerical abuse crisis” and I offered a lengthy portrait of a very traditional priest who was a pedophile. That is my main point.

    I have no problem with reconciliation and Eucharistic prayer. The problem is in suggesting that the laity going to confession will somehow solve the sin of clericalism. It makes no sense. Yes, it’s good for the laity to go to confession, but it is not the laity who have sinned in this situation.

  5. Dcn Eric,

    The pope’s point is that reform begins at home. And he’s absolutely right.

    In reading your post, and re-reading the pope’s letter, I suspect that your reading of Benedict making the claim that “the crisis was caused by a misinterpretation of the Second Vatican Council” is far too simplistic. Follow what Benedict is discussing. He goes on to point out, “In particular, there was a well-intentioned but misguided tendency to avoid penal approaches to canonically irregular situations.” This is key, and it matters not whether one is a traditionalist. The point is that everything fell by the waist-side because the precise program for how the renewal of the Council should take place was not well known. And everybody was caught by it.

    Peace be with you!

  6. hi i took five minutwes on net to find referenced page on sexual abuse in catholic church an honest effort i hope and think so it tells me that sexual abuse by clergy has been around as long as the church 2000 years i believe and this summary would agree with my own observations no light weight resaerch here saying it ‘s all vatican 2 fault ireland was i the 1920-50s and it was party time for clergy and brothers alike a fringe benefit of consercrated life well the parties over and lets see what happens

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