I’m heartbroken. I’m demoralized. I don’t know how else to describe it. Allegations of misconduct have been made against the inimitable American Catholic priest, author, and speaker, Fr. George Rutler.
He has denied the accusations. An investigation is ongoing. But no matter what, this feels like a kick in the teeth.
I’ll return to his story in a moment. First, I want to take the lay of the land.
When I saw the dark and foreboding storm heading for the Church in 2013, it startled me, and consequently, shook me from a period of religious malaise I had been struggling to shrug off.
By early 2014, with talk growing of a forthcoming synod on the family that was going to change everything, I was more than just alert; I was growing zealous. Catholicism was about to be battered in a terrifying way, and I wanted to prepare as many people as possible.
I started 1P5 because I believed God was calling me to do it. I thought, consequently, that I could perhaps make a difference. Anger, much (though perhaps not all) of it righteous, fueled my defense of the faith and my attempt to expose the rot within the ecclesiastical structures. I worked as tirelessly as I could to defend Holy Mother Church from her infiltrators, and to defend those who sought, as I did, to guard and protect her.
But the more I dug into things, the more I realized that the corruption was…bottomless. The Catholicism I had always believed in as pristine, untouchable, afflicted only on the margins by evil men began to appear more illusion than fact. I realized that in the ranks of the priesthood and episcopate, good men were in the minority — at least in positions of power and influence.
And in fact many of the good men one could find amongst the clergy were beaten down, broken, obsequious to a system of bishops — and now, a pope — who would never respect their desire to live their vocations faithfully, and would, in fact, often punish them for it. These men, in many cases, learned to survive by reflexive flinching. They maintained their God-given calling by embracing a sort of Stockholm Syndrome with the fervor of a sailor who lashes himself to a mast during a tempest at sea. After all, they had taken vows of obedience to men who hated them and their pleas for “reverence”; men who arguably also hated the God they offered their lives to serve. So they died to themselves until there was nothing left of themselves. They strapped on blindfolds and forged ahead. They told themselves that they couldn’t help anyone by worrying about what was going on in the Church, so they just had to focus on the souls closest to them. Even if they couldn’t give them the best. Even if they were forbidden to exercise their priestly ministry the way they believed God was calling them to do so. Even if they saw that many of the modern liturgical and sacramental practices of the Church were poisoning the very flock they were asked by Our Lord to shepherd.
Because they believed that if they did their jobs, even with both hands tied behind their backs, and did it out of love, it was better than ceding their position just so they could stand on principle, knowing that they’d be banished to the hinterlands. If that happened, some other priest would, of course, replace them — a priest they knew full well would be an odds-on favorite to be a wolf in shepherd’s clothing. At least they could try to make a feast out of thin gruel for the good of the souls entrusted to their care. Their brother priests were as likely as not to simply devour them.
With this as the backdrop of much of clerical life, it has become an exceedingly rare thing to find a priest or a bishop who will risk sticking his neck out and saying the hard things that need saying. Who will risk declaring that the emperor has no clothes. And this is why, when we do find them, we celebrate them as champions.
One of these men, one of the most consistent of these priests over my own lifetime, has been Fr. George Rutler. He is considered an absolute treasure by virtually every orthodox Catholic who has had the pleasure of reading his writings or hearing him speak. I first heard about him from my late grandmother, who enjoyed him greatly decades ago in his early appearances on EWTN. I went to a talk by him in college, and was delighted by both his intelligence and dry wit, savoring most the quip he made to himself as he was pawing through the selection of teas at the refreshment table: “Decaf, decaf, decaf — all this Novus Ordo tea. I’m looking for the Tridentine tea!” (I was not a traditionalist at the time, but his little joke helped point the way to a greater realization on my part.) I wrote a couple of articles back in 2015 about the stripping of the icons he had placed at Our Savior, his former parish in Manhattan, and wound up receiving some very encouraging correspondence from him. Of my piece, “Naked In New York: The Unceremonious Stripping of Our Savior,” he wrote: “A lot is being written these days about this. This is the best. Absolutely the best.”
Praise like that from a man of his caliber was very rewarding indeed.
All of this is prelude to the reason for this article. This week, I was, for all the reasons above, shocked to hear that allegations of a sexual nature have been made against Fr. Rutler. They are as yet unproven, and I hate to repeat them here. That said, they are not a secret; in fact, they are now part of the news cycle, and it is better, I hope, to discuss them among the like minded in order that we might grapple with them.
The allegations are especially troubling inasmuch as they are not just the word of one person against another. There is a video of a man who looks very much like Fr. Rutler (the video is taken from behind, so the facial features aren’t visible) engaged in the viewing of homosexual pornography while being filmed by a young female security guard who alleges that he knew she was in the room when he began viewing it.
Still, there is much we (ie., those watching the story from a distance) don’t know.
We don’t know if it’s his office in the video, but I assume that much is easily verifiable by those who have been to it. It is, visually speaking, a very distinctive location.
We don’t know for certain that it’s him sitting in the chair watching the video (that has been, mercifully, blurred out) on the screen, but from the partial profile of his face, it certainly looks like him.
We don’t know if the assault the young woman claims he perpetrated on her when she tried to leave actually happened at all, as it was not part of the video thus far released.
There is much about the story that doesn’t add up. Much that is suspicious. I find the accuser, on an instinctual level, less than persuasive. (But my speculative misgivings aside, I am loath to not give a full hearing to any such accusers in our present context.)
Nevertheless, the existence of the video lends a level of credence to the claims that cannot simply be dismissed.
It is important to note that Fr. Rutler has never been accused of any kind of sexual misconduct before. He is 75 years old, and has been a priest for half a century. This seems a very odd time indeed to begin such activities. The actions described, if they are true, are not those of a man unfamiliar with predatory behavior. Most men who might fall into the temptation to view pornography would do so only in secret, because they are ashamed; only those accustomed to exposing others to their perversions do so openly when they know they are being watched — think Harvey Weinstein or Louis C.K.
This doesn’t fit the profile of Fr. Rutler as we know it.
At the same time, we have been fooled before. I’ve both written and talked at length about my involvement, first as a child, then as a young man, with the Legionaries of Christ – a Catholic cult founded by one of the worst sexual predators in the history of the Church. I’ve also mentioned, in the past, the good friends I have who spent many years receiving profitable spiritual counsel from and attending retreats with the late Jesuit, Fr. Donald McGuire, who died in prison for crimes of sexual predation. Some of these predators use the truly good, orthodox work they do as diabolical cover for their misdeeds. I’ve watched people react to the revelation that some priest they knew was actually a predator or a pervert – almost always they are shocked, because they knew the man to be someone else entirely.
All of this knowledge and the uncertainty it breeds sits in my mind, as I expect it does for many of you, festering, poisoning my ability to see straight.
I hate this story.
I hate that it could be true, even though I desperately don’t want to believe it.
I hate that I feel compelled to consider that it might be true, and talk about it here, knowing that I might be contributing to damaging of the reputation of one of the truly great priests in the Church if it is false.
I hate that I know that if I don’t talk about it, I’ll feel guilty if it does turn out to be true, and that I, like so many others, would have refused to believe something horrible because I simply didn’t want to accept it about a man — a priest — I greatly respect.
It is, as I said above, a demoralizing situation. When I look at the Church these days — at the ascendancy of evil, at the relentless attacks upon what is good, at the endless (though sometimes justifiable) infighting, at the inability to trust anyone — I feel like a beaten dog, wanting to flinch away into the safety of a hidden place to lick my wounds.
There is no disposition one can adopt in a matter like this that feels like solid ground. Our ability to trust in our priests has been utterly shattered, and that is a tragedy.
Of course, we are also all-too-aware of our own propensity to sin. Most of us, if we’re being honest about it, should be horrified by what we are capable of: “There but for the grace of God go I…”
But how? How do men who start out with good intentions go so wrong? How is it that all of us are capable of shocking betrayals of our consciences and beliefs?
I was struck, earlier this year, by an essay written by Jordan Peterson about Reserve Unit 101 in Poland during World War II, and the atrocities they committed. It’s an examination of how easily ordinary men can become monsters, simply by failing to resist evil when it first rises to meet them, and going further into darkness one little bit at a time. He tells the story of how these men, under the command of Major Wilhelm Trapp, were “tasked with mopping up after the Nazis had marched through and subdued Poland.” Major Trapp, he recounts, was, in the beginning of his duties, “by all accounts a decent man.” But over time, and after repeatedly carrying out horrific orders, that changed:
By this time, the once compassionate Trapp appeared to have had little compunction about carrying out his duties. There is no reason to be triumphant about this, or to feel comparatively morally superior: it is an indication that even those who are not temperamentally or, shall we say, philosophically or theologically inclined to delight in mayhem can certainly train themselves to participate in it. This should be an object lesson to us all, given that it is far from obvious that the typical person would have been as merciful as Trapp was to begin with. To me, what the story of Trapp produces is excess and deeper horror, providing evidence as it does for the hell that can await anyone willing to move forward, despite themselves, one terrible step at a time.
We should never assume that we are unable to become monsters. There is a darkness within all of us that only the light of God’s Grace can exorcise.
To return to Fr. Rutler, I can only insist that we know far too little, and have too many unanswered questions. He has publicly maintained his innocence, but declined to comment on the matter further when I reached out to him.
He did, however, provide a statement to his parishioners at the Church of St. Michael the Archangel, dated November 20, 2020:
Dear Parishioners of Saint Michael’s Parish,
In our uniquely confusing times in the nation and in the Church, I write some personal news.
A woman security guard who was temporarily assigned to provide security at our parish at the time of the election has alleged that on one occasion I improperly touched her. Responsible authorities are investigating her allegation. I strongly deny this allegation, which I maintain is incoherent and painful to my reputation and inconsistent with how I have conducted myself in 50 years of ministerial service without any accusation of misbehavior.
After consultation with Cardinal Dolan, who has been supportive, and for the good of our parish, I have willingly offered to step aside at this moment from my duties in our beloved parish.
I maintain my presumption of innocence. No charges have been brought against me at this time, and I urge you to ignore any misleading accounts should they appear in the media.
Please keep all involved in this matter in your prayers and hope that divine Providence will bring it to a just and happy conclusion, and through this experience will strengthen our beloved parish to serve in the great challenges facing our culture in which Holy Church is March set up on.
St. Michael the Archangel, pray for us!
Faithfully in Christ,
Fr. George W. Rutler
He has been a good priest who has done much good for the Church. He is certainly a man who has enemies — after all, he has chosen to be an outspoken defender of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful in a time these transcendentals are often actively suppressed by the the hierarchy. It is possible, with these things in mind, that we have been given only partial truths, or none at all. It is possible that he was set up. It is also possible that he has done things we would not like to accept.
We will have to wait and see.
Despite our confusion, our heartbreak, and our broken capacity for trust, we should all also maintain Fr. Rutler’s presumption of innocence unless he is proven guilty. And we should certainly follow his instruction to pray for all those involved, as well as for a just conclusion.
We are powerless to do anything else.
This post has been updated.
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher and Executive Director of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. His commentary has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Crisis Magazine, EWTN, Huffington Post Live, The Fox News Channel, Foreign Policy, and the BBC. Steve and his wife Jamie have seven children.