I once met a man who was filled with the Holy Spirit. A man who began each day in meditative prayer, singing God’s praises in the chapel of the Catholic high school where we both worked. A man who organized beautiful campus liturgies and before each one spoke passionately to the student body about the need to die to the self and put on Christ. A man who inspired that year’s senior class to complete more community service hours than any of its predecessors. A man who, for a brief moment, was my friend.

Or so I thought.

From the moment I first encountered “Jack”* in the teachers’ lounge, I was instantly drawn to  his magnetic personality and sympathetic nature. He was hired as campus minister in November, at the end of the first quarter (the previous campus minister had quit unexpectedly when her husband was offered a new job overseas). It was my first year of full-time teaching, and I’d been thrown into the job with almost no administrative support, other than a brief orientation held for new teachers at the beginning of the year. I remembered how overwhelmed I’d felt, and I immediately offered to make myself available to Jack as a kind of unofficial mentor.

Over the next few days, I did my best to familiarize him with the school’s database for entering grades and online system for reporting said grades to the students’ parents. I also briefed him about the  more seniors whom he would be teaching in his Morality class – a notoriously rowdy  group that would go on to have three of its members expelled throughout the year. We experienced an instant rapport, and soon he was telling me his own life story. He confided in me about the abuse he’d experienced as a child and his youth on the mean streets of New Orleans, where he spent his teenage years as a gang leader before experiencing the conversion inspired by the devoutly Catholic woman who would soon become his wife. He told me about the birth of his three children and the family’s 2006 trip to Rome, where they met Pope Benedict XVI and were commissioned into a new vocation as a missionary family. He then told me about his current hardships – his wife had been recently diagnosed with cancer, and, afraid that she wasn’t going to make it, he asked me to pray for her. I immediately agreed, filled with concern for this man who seemed like he could have been a relative to me.

But then, slowly, the situation between us started to change. It started out small. “You’re the only one whom I trust in this school,” he told me. And then, the request came. “I didn’t want to tell you this at first, but they’re not paying me a regular wage here. They’re only giving me a small stipend. It’s because I’m a missionary and I’m going to be leaving soon.”

Not his exact words, but close enough. Someone less naive than me would have recognized instantly that something was fishy, but all I could see was that my dear, sweet new religious friend needed help. His wife was sick, after all – everyone in the school knew it. Later, his father was dying. His son was losing his scholarship at his own Catholic school. His daughter had a hole in her heart. On and on the stories went, and it was only a few months later – when the administration finally sniffed out what Jack was doing to other teachers as well as me and fired him – that I realized that I had been had.

I was more than hurt. I was more than betrayed. It wasn’t just the issue of the money I lost, and it wasn’t the fact that this false friend had turned me into a fool. It was the contradiction between his private deeds and his public mission – he’d been an ethics teacher, for God’ sake! If he had lied about his personal circumstances, what else had he lied about? Did he even believe in God? Was all his singing and preaching and trying to talk the students out of their marijuana addictions just a sham? At that point, all my faith in Jack was lost, as was some of my faith in people in general. But now, as a few years have put this unfortunate incident in perspective for me, I realize that the proper response to this situation is not bitterness or disillusionment, but empathy, compassion and what my dear undergraduate Ancient Philosophy professor would call a “positive skepticism.”

By now I can assume that most of this blog’s readers will have heard of the unexpected resignation of (former) Father John Corapi amid rumors of drug abuse, concupiscence and other behaviors not normally considered appropriate for one of the most widely popular Catholic public figures. If not, you can read more about it here:

http://moralmindfield.wordpress.com/2011/06/21/john-corapi-deserts-the-priesthood/

You can also read the July 5  press release on his resignation here: http://marysaggies.blogspot.com/

Apparently, some rumors are flying that this press release is a hoax. Here is one argument as to why it is not: http://catholicism.about.com/b/2011/07/05/solt-release-on-father-john-corapi-a-hoax.htm

While I personally was not a follower of  Corapi, I still feel compelled to respond to the issue of his resignation, which should not be viewed as an isolated incident but as part of a larger pattern that can be traced back to the Middle Ages and beyond: the trope of the polluted priest, the false prophet, the  leader who lets us  down. While we may react with disdain whenever we encounter yet another corrupt politician or business leader, there is something about the fallen religious leader – the pedophile priest, the corrupt church official –  that is especially disturbing.  These are the people whom we are supposed to be able to trust as moral paragons who’ve devoted their entire lives to the faith, as spiritual guides on whom we might model ourselves.  If they let us down, then surely the whole system must be unreliable!  Why should anyone put their faith in these supposedly incorruptible leaders who in the end prove to be much too corrupt?

I remember a statement which one of my Catholic elementary schoolteachers made. “The Church is 99% human and 1% divine, and it’s that 1% that has kept it going for these two thousand years.” While religions are built upon the desire to understand and experience the Divine, it is humans who do the building. And while I remain convinced with Anne Frank, that people really are good at heart, the truth is that we are all  vulnerable to temptation. Can Corapi’s followers really be so positive that, if placed in his circumstances, they themselves would not have been tempted to make the same choices that he did? As for me, I may condemn the ethics teacher who let me down, but I have also taught ethics, and I have also done things which by my own code are morally wrong. And while I may not be a public figure in the way that Corapi is, I am still public to those people who happen to know me. I call myself a Catholic and can expect to be judged as such, just as all individuals can expect to be judged by the standards of whatever group to which they claim membership. At the end of the day this whole issue is just another cliche,  captured so astutely in John 8:7:  But when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.

Does this mean that we should trust blindly in our religious leaders? Of course not. However, it also means that we should not mistrust them. Everyone has some positive quality that we can admire, and very often, the people who have these qualities in greater measure – courage, compassion, whatever characteristic we happen to value – become the people whom we uphold as role models for our own lives. And most of the time, these people do not disappoint us. But, on those rare occasions when they do let us down, can we really be so shocked?

People like John Corapi, my former friend Jack, and all those who betray our collective trust need to have their dishonesty exposed; they need to be censured; they need to be looked upon with disappointment. But, they also need to be approached with compassion and empathy, to be understood, to be prayed for. And, in the long run, so do we.

* The name is false, of course. I would never want to grant this individual the satisfaction of seeing his name in print.