Tim Drake

Tuesday, June 10, 2003
Thank You, Father: Grass-Roots Efforts Seek to Support Priests
By Tim Drake

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The messages posted on ThankYouFather.com are simple yet profound, each revealing a truth about the priesthood.

"Dear Father Joe, You make people laugh. You teach us about God and Jesus. Eddy."

"Dear Father Don, I like you very much. You help people that are sick and dying. Love, George."

Written by second-grade students at St. Albert the Great School in Louisville, Ky., the messages are merely two of approximately 2,500 messages posted on the site from people of all ages and walks of life who want to say Thank You to priests. Most of them have little to do with the current sex-abuse crisis in the U.S. Church. Nevertheless, they have been negatively affected by the scandal's impact.

The idea for ThankYouFather.com came to former television news workers Joe Lilly and Rick Redman one morning during coffee.

"After hearing a homily by the pastor in my parish about the impact the current crisis was having on priests who have been true to their vows, I started trying to think of something that could be done to uplift the 'good guys,'" Redman said. "The vast majority of priests are good men and true to Christ and their vows."

"Priests we knew told us they were afraid to go out in public with their collars on," Lilly added.

"Our television news experience taught us the media would hammer everything negative they could out of this story, and we felt that was unfair to the good priests," Redman said.

At first, the two men tossed around the idea of hosting some type of event. However, with few financial resources, Lilly eventually suggested the idea of a Web site, and it stuck. With the volunteer help of their friends Ingrid Bolton, Bryan Rensel, Steve Costello and Doug O'Donnell, the site was created for less than $200 and went live Aug. 1.

To date, the site has received more than 25,000 visitors and has received letters from Poland, New Zealand, Korea, Norway and China. Father Don Hill, pastor of St. Albert the Great in Louisville, said he checks the site almost every day.

"We've had priests tell us that they have wept as they have read the letters," Redman said.

"The site is not a forum for the crisis," Lilly explained. "It simply posts messages of thanks. It is no substitute for individuals' thanking their priests in person; it offers an alternative."

Money and Faith
Joe Maher of Detroit went a step further in his support of priests: He quit his job.

In May, Maher left his work as a financial systems analyst to start Opus Bono Sacerdotii - Latin for "Work for the Good of the Priesthood" - a financial and spiritual support group for priests who say they are innocent of alleged misconduct or who are repentant and reformed.

Maher made the decision after a visiting priest at his parish, Assumption Grotto Catholic Church in Detroit, was accused of raping a choir member.

Maher set to work and raised money, hired an attorney for the priest's legal defense and paid living expenses for the priest, Father Komlan Dem Houndjame - also known as Father Filicien - during the trial. Father Filicien was acquitted of the charges Aug. 30.

Ever since, Maher has been receiving approximately one call per day from parishioners or priests who are aware of other priests in need of similar support. He said he has raised more than $100,000 and is currently working with 50 priests across the country.

"These priests need help," Maher said. "Once their names are in the newspaper, it's over for them. It's very difficult to overcome it."

"Most people do not realize that once a priest is suspended he has no place to live, he no longer receives stipends and he has no salary," he said. "In most cases they are penniless."

Opus Bono Sacerdotii's network operates independently of dioceses or religious orders to provide support through legal defense, living expenses, transportation and accommodations for priests in need.

Maher has his critics. Mark Serrano of the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests told the Detroit Free Press, "You don't see any legal defense funds established for child molesters in professions like teaching or coaching."

While Maher agreed that victims have rights, he said the accused have rights, too.

But isn't it this sort of presumption of guilt that makes special support of priests necessary? "I feel that the victims currently have much support available to them, and priests have no support other than the work that we are doing," Maher said.

As part of its "In Solidarity with Our Priests" program, the Knights of Columbus has encouraged families to hold clergy-appreciation nights and invite priests to individual homes for a family meal. Not only do the Knights think such efforts will encourage priests, but they also think they will foster potential future vocations. The Knights are also offering an ad that can be used to support local priests.

The West Covina, Calif.-based Catholic Resource Center is also reaching out to families in an effort to support priests and the Church. In reaction to the negative media coverage and in response to requests from inquirers, the center is distributing more than 10,000 copies of its video The Splendor of the Church free to anyone who asks for it.

The video, originally produced in 1993, features Scott Hahn, a theology professor at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio.

"The video provides a much-needed perspective on scandals in the Catholic Church and explains why no scandal gives us an excuse to abandon our faith," Hahn said.

"We realized that there needed to be a voice out there addressing the scandals but also guiding people to the beauty of the Church," said Ruben Quezada, office manager for the Catholic Resource Center. "This is what the video does."

Since first offering the free video in June, Quezada estimates the center has distributed approximately 7,000 copies. "Our goal is to try to reach every Catholic family in the country with a copy," Quezada said.

Each effort, although different in scope, intends to build up the priesthood that has been under attack for the past year. Redman hopes efforts such as his own will remind people to thank their priests.

"We so often take them for granted," he said, "but like Christ, they are always there for us."

© 2002. Article originally appeared in the National Catholic Register, Nov. 17-23, 2002.

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