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John Lunness

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As a boy, he was sexually abused by a priest. Now, in an astonishing (miraculous?) turn of events, he is a priest. The improbable saga of a man and his profound faith. POSTED July 10, 2013

Screen shot 2013-07-09 at 4.47.03 PMYou are a 15-year-old kid. You are molested by a priest. You feel guilty. You feel disgusting. You feel violated. You feel dirty. You feel …

What?
What does a kid feel in the aftermath of such a nightmarish occurrence? How does he go on? How does he live his life? How does he thrive?
In the midst of all the Catholic Church stories of the past years, I’d often asked those questions to myself. I’ve tried—mentally—putting myself in the position; figuring how to cope with something so, well, un-copable. Then, a few months ago, I was directed toward John Lunness. Father John Lunness.
When Father John was 15, he was sexually abused by a priest. Now, in an astonishing (miraculous?) turn of events, he is a priest, recently transferred (along with his dog, Artemus) from a parish in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware to one in Ocean City, Maryland. He has also bravely spoken out about what he experienced as a boy, and how the Catholic Church has (and has not) responded.
Here, Father John discusses the aftermath of a violation; what it is to be sexually abused and how one finds light at the end of a long, dark tunnel.
Father John Lunness, it’s an honor to welcome you to The Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: When you were 15, you were molested by a priest in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Now—sort of shockingly–you are a priest. How can one who suffered such horror and tragedy via a profession (for lack of a better word) then enter the profession? What I mean is, how the heck did you have it in you to follow the path of the man who tried ruining your life and stealing your youth?

JOHN LUNNESS: I need to preface all of my answers with the discloser that I believe 100 percent in God’s grace and as undeserved as it is it is a free gift from God. That’s the only explanation I have or even need.

Unlike so many other victims of clergy sexual abuse, I was always able to separate what was done to me from God’s will for my life. My being molested was not God’s will and I never thought it was. The free will of someone else—in this case the man who molested me—was not chosen by God but chosen by Tom. We all have free will and when we exercise it we can hurt others.  Everyone has a choice to sin or not to sin.

The first inkling of a vocation to the priesthood came to me when I was 7-years old. Being molested didn’t take that away because I knew that it was not God who did it or even willed it to happen.

J.P.: How, and why, did you decide to come forward? Were you nervous how the Catholic Church would respond? And what has the response been? Mainly support? Any derision?

J.L.: Coming forward about my molestation was forced upon me. In 2003 I was a transitional deacon and still in seminary at Immaculate Conception Seminary, part of Seton Hall, in South Orange N.J. That is when the Boston Arch-diocese clergy sexual scandal broke. It was surreal. The scandal became topic No. 1 not only of conversation at the seminary but it also became the topic of a myriad of presentations, lectures, and formation meetings. I just wanted it to stop, just go away but it did not. My incredible depression caused by the relentless discussion of the scandal was noticed. No one ever asked me about my depression, not that I would have told them why I was depressed. The result was that when I came up for the formation vote to go on to priestly ordination I was denied. When I was informed of this by the rector and vice-rector, swearing them to secrecy, and crying, I told them that I was molested by a priest.

Although no one ever said this to me, I knew that if this were known by my own diocese I would have never been ordained.

Because I wasn’t being ordained to the priesthood and the ordination was a month away, I had to tell my family. While driving down the New Jersey Turnpike toward Pennsylvania I knew I had to tell my parents about my current depression, molestation and ordination delay. Good times. My family was very supportive.

Then, in 2005, the Philadelphia district attorney report on clergy molestation was released. I was a priest by then. The priest who molested me also molested seven others (they were the ones who came forward to the diocese when it happened. I did not.). I took a leave of absence.

When I came back from that leave I admitted to the molestation to parishioners. I have found that the better educated the parishioners the more empathetic and supportive they are.  Unfortunately not all of my assignments have been with educated people.

Screen shot 2013-07-09 at 4.47.32 PMJ.P.: Do you feel like the church is, at last, taking the molestation problem seriously? And how damaging do you think it has been to Catholicism?

J.L.: I can only comment on what it is I have seen and experienced. The Church in America blamed everyone else for the scandal. First the media was blamed. Then victims were blamed. Molesters were the next to take the blame. Then it was all the fault of the lawyers who got involved. Finally, blame made its way back to the victims. As I see it this scandal was first and foremost the fault of the bishops who hid molesters, moved them around, silenced victims and their families with threats and bribes and now lie about all of it. It does not inspire confidence.

There have been people who have left the Church over this. That is a real shame, because the Church is God’s Church and only God matters. And God never changes. Just because some corrupt, very sinful, very human men schemed and lied about this issue does not mean that they were doing the will of God. Once again, free will is in operation. These men could have chosen to do the correct thing, the good thing, but they chose to embrace evil. Evil is not from God.

J.P.: What is it like, being the adolescent victim of sexual abuse? What I mean is, are all the different things that have been said more or less true? Feelings of guilt, of dirtiness, of shame? Is it deeper than that? And is it even remotely possible to not be permanently scarred by such a circumstance?

J.L.: All victims of every kind of abuse experience the same things but in different degrees. The one constant for all of us is an inability to trust anyone.

The overwhelming question I tortured myself with was, “What did I do to make him do that to me?” Turns out I didn’t do anything. I did go on a psychological and spiritual retreat called Grief to Grace, which was intense but healing. I had already been in therapy but this retreat helped me to bring all my issues into a focused whole. Up until that time I was on my way toward healing but I was very scattered. It is harder to heal when you are scattered. The retreat is expensive so any donations would be put to good use for those people who want help but cannot afford it.

As far as being scarred permanently, I would have to say that the goal is to be able to incorporate what has happened not to let it control your thoughts and actions forever. Abuse really does effect every aspect of your life, even if you are blind to it.

J.P.: Why did you become a priest? I’ve always been fascinated by this sort of life move. When I was a teenager, my big decision was whether to buy a Coke or Pepsi. Can a person really be mature enough, at that age, to know he is being called to serve God?

J.L.: Everyone knows someone, either directly or indirectly, who has known their vocation from an early age. I think of all the kids I knew in grade school who had it in their heads—I’ll be a doctor, policeman, teacher, lawyer. They had an idea what their vocation was.  But to be totally honest, I did not really understand what it would mean for me to become a priest.  (For the record, Coke.)

J.P.: How do you know—like, know know—you’re right about God. Heck, there are Jews, Muslims, Hindus, atheists, etc … etc who are just as convinced in their path as you are in yours. Is it, in your mind, remotely possible that the Catholic Church’s rendering of God is, well, incorrect? Is it possible—even remotely possible—there is no God at all?

J.L.: As far as I know devout Jews and Muslims also believe in God. I can’t really speak for Hindus because I don’t know what they believe. I have met atheists who are more agnostic than atheist.

We must remind ourselves that God is infinite. There is no question in my mind about that. It is impossible to know an infinite being, God, since we are finite creatures. Looking at the history of the Catholic Church we were the first. There were Jews, there were Jews who believed Christ is the Messiah, and there was everyone else, a.k.a. Greeks. When the Jews threw the Jews who believe Jesus is the Messiah out of Judaism the Christian sect as a standalone belief system was born. All other Christian faiths either broke away from Catholicism or broke away from those other sects that broke away. Because of Catholicism we have the bible as it is. When Martin Luther broke away from the Catholic Church he removed some books from the scriptures. That is why there is a Catholic bible, (bible as first put together), and a Protestant bible, (the one that Martin Luther edited).

J.P.: You’re probably not going to like this, but I place much blame upon the Catholic Church for the damning and stigmatizing of gays. I’m serious. Here are people who simply want to live their lives, usually in committed and loving relationships—and they’ve been branded sinners by the church and, therefore, by millions of people. Tell me why I’m wrong. And, perhaps, should the church adjust its thinking at all?

J.L.: The first thing that needs to be addressed is that if you are not in the Catholic Church then why would you give a whit what the Church believes? The second thing is do you actually know what the Church teaches and why they teach it? There are a lot of people who think they know but really have no idea. Third, as Catholics we are not supposed to hate anyone. Speaking the truth is not hate. The Commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Hoss, talked about protests against concentration camps as hate campaigns, and of course blamed the Jewish people.  Really … calling opposition hate … really … it’s not very original yet is exactly what’s happening today.

In the Church it does not matter who you are attracted to—having sex outside of marriage is sin (People today hate the word sin). That leads us to examine what the Catholic Church understands and teaches about marriage. (Here is where people display their ignorance of Catholic Church teaching.) There are two criteria for marriage. The first is as a remedy for concupiscence. Two men can do that for each other and two women can do that for each other. The second criteria is the begetting of and raising of children. The begetting of children needs one man and one woman. The Church understanding is you cannot go outside of the marriage covenant for that. That is why the Church opposes surrogacy, invitro fertilization, sperm banks and egg banks and the like. Part of the marriage covenant is also to be open to the possibility of the transmission of life with every marital act. That is why the Church also opposes artificial birth control. This will never change. Refraining from sexual relations for all unmarried people is what we are all called to. This has always been a contentious issue but the Church has not turned their back on gay people. The teaching is very clear—gay people have turned their backs on the Church. If you reject the teaching you reject it, which is where free will comes in. Not everyone in the gospels was clamoring to follow Jesus.

Screen shot 2013-07-09 at 6.15.30 PMJ.P.: I recently had someone e-mail me “proof” that prayer works. It was the story of a woman who was about to die in a car crash, she prayed, and somehow lived. I responded with, “How many people in the Towers prayed on 9.11? How many concentration camp victims prayed during the Holocaust?” John, is there a real reason to think prayers works—beyond making people feel good?

J.L.: Prayer always works—sometimes the answer is “No.” I’m still waiting to hit the lottery … which would be a real miracle since I don’t play it.

J.P.: What is it like being celibate? I know this might sound like a silly question, but I’m fascinated. Does one have to train his mind not to notice an attractive woman as she walks by? Or does one notice, but knows he shouldn’t? Is there a mental on/off button that can be permanently switched to OFF when it comes to sex and sexual thoughts? And do you ever wonder what it’s like, and whether you’re missing something as dynamite as it’s often described?

J.L.: If there is a mental on off button I would like someone to teach me how to do it. Celibacy is the promise not to marry. With that promise is the implicit promise that you will not have sexual relations.

A priest actually makes the promise of celibacy at deaconate ordination. It was at that time that I really thought about my choice never to marry and never to have children. It was difficult; it was a struggle because it was so finite to me. It helped that I was already in my late 30s so after doing the math for courtship, marriage and then children I decided that I was too old for all of that and it seemed like a lot of work.

Men are cursed with the ability to call up in their minds any sexual experience and/or pornographic image that they have ever participated in or seen. Men are also cursed with having our genitals outside of our bodies. The combination could be deadly from an eternal soul standpoint. Having a consistent prayer life helps but there is no easy or permanent solution.

J.P.: John, my wife is a social worker. She’s never made much money, and she has the most compassionate and sympathetic and empathetic heart I’ve ever seen. She does good because it’s right—not for reward and award. And yet, if I’m not mistaken, her non-belief in Jesus dooms her to an eternity in hell. A. Is my take here off? B. Why would I want to support a system like that?

J.L.: Yes, you are off base with your understanding of this. If anyone is “saved” (not my favorite word), they are saved because of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the second person of the Trinity. Dr. Brant Pitre excellently handles this question. By the way, I worked as a QMRP (Qualified Mental Retardation Professional), before becoming a priest.  NO MONEY IN THAT! I think QMRPs are only in Pennsylvania.

Screen shot 2013-07-09 at 6.22.45 PMQUAZ EXPRESS WITH JOHN LUNNESS:

Rank in order (favorite to least): The Torah, American Idol, Shirley Temple, taco night, cigarettes, Three’s Company, Twitter, Fox News, Philadelphia, Tom Hanks, the Atlanta Braves, the number 23, Gerald Ford: Torah, Tom Hanks, Shirley Temple, American Idol, Philadelphia (the movie or the city?), number 23 (I‘m guessing the movie.), Gerald Ford, Fox News, taco night, the Atlanta Braves, Twitter, cigarettes.

Best joke you know: It’s filthy and I promised my 8th grade teacher I wouldn’t tell it again. (For the record, she laughed at it.)

Should women be allowed to become priests? Why or why not?: I’m going to parrot the answer that Blessed John Paul II gave. No. What makes woman think that they could get through the quasi-satanic formation process? Normal people leave the seminary before ordination saying, “I’m not putting up with this crap.”

I’m thinking priest outfits should be spiced up with uniform numbers and stripes. You in?: Not with stripes, too much like concentration camp or prison. The number thing could work. Would they be tattooed?

Five reasons to make Wynnewood, Pennsylvania one’s next vacation destination?: Sorry, I can’t think of one.

You have a dog named Artemus. Do you believe all dogs go to heaven?: Saint Bridget wants a lake of beer in heaven; she’s my kind of woman, so I don’t see why dogs can’t be there if we want them to be with us.

You’re one of four children. What do your siblings do?: If I tell you I’d have to kill you … just sayin’.

Does Carmelo Anthony hog the ball too much, or does he need to shoot 25 times a game for the Knicks to win?: Since he is making so much money, for God’s sake, get him the ball and support his efforts. He cannot win alone.

One question you would ask Ashley Tisdale if given the chance?: Do you miss being on The Suit Life of Zack and Cody as much as I miss seeing you on TV?

If you hadn’t become a priest, what would you job be right now?: I’m sure I’d be a hopeless, gutter dwelling drunk. Seriously, I would have continued working as a QMRP in some capacity. As your wife would know, it is a job with little money but great rewards.

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life