Religiosity can often be confusing
Forgiveness is a wonderful thing. Denial, not so much.
Since his felony conviction for physically abusing a vulnerable woman who sought his counseling, the Rev. Charles Michael Abdelahad of Shrewsbury has received a remarkable and baffling outpouring of support from the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese. Not only have lay people rallied to his side, but the church hierarchy has made clear their belief that they consider the priest a martyr, not a molester.
Not since the Catholic Church transferred pedophile priests from parish to parish have we witnessed such appalling abnegation of responsibility from the clergy.
In May, the longtime priest known as Father Mike was found guilty of beating a 45-year-old woman who testified that, over counseling sessions lasting three years, he slapped her, yelled profanities at her, kicked her in the shins, struck her with a miniature bat, knocked her head against a radiator, ripped her clothes off and bit her. When she complained, Father Mike, then pastor of St. George Antiochian Orthodox Cathedral, explained that the two were engaged in “spiritual warfare” and that her body was “a battleground.”
Convicted of two counts of assault and battery, he was sentenced to serve 90 days of a two-year jail term. But rather than move to discipline the disturbed priest who oversaw his own private exorcism, the church leadership has instead sought to demonize the dutiful priest who testified against him.
In June, while Father Mike was doing time at the Worcester County Jail and House of Correction, a relative of the Rev. Donald Peters wrote to the presiding priest of the New England Antiochian region. Rev. Peters had testified in court that he overheard Father Mike yelling “bone chilling” profanities at the victim, and once saw her curled in a fetal position on a chair, shaking and sobbing.
In her letter to the head priest, Rev. Peters’ relative expressed dismay that he had called Rev. Peters and his family “evil” for testifying against Father Mike.
“Where are you getting your information?” the relative asked. “Using the word evil so freely as a priest is unacceptable to me.”
In response, the Very Rev. Edward Hughes, dean of the New England archdiocese, denied calling the family evil. Instead, he wrote, he had said that to use Rev. Peters “as a symbol or a rallying point to organize opposition to Father Michael is pure and naked evil.”
Then, the head priest wrote this on behalf of the convicted priest: “As for Fr. Michael, the entire deanery has unanimously expressed its support for, trust and confidence in, and love for Fr. Michael. He continues to be a source of inspiration to all of us (italics mine) and others he meets. We hold him close as our brother.”
Lest there be any doubt of the hierarchy’s support for the disgraced cleric, the letter was distributed to priests throughout the archdiocese.
So, as far as the good old boys network of priests is concerned, Father Mike is the victim and his female accuser is a nut case. And the good Rev. Peters, volunteer associate pastor at St. George for 17 years, has inexplicably become the scapegoat, ostracized by the majority of his fellow clergy, who apparently believe he was driven to perjure himself based on a personality conflict with his outgoing, gregarious pastor.
Never mind that three other lay witnesses also testified to hearing screams and profanities coming from the office at St. George cathedral. Never mind that he was found guilty by a judge, who described the woman’s injuries as “horrendous.”
Rev. Peters left the church in August of 2010, about a month before Father Mike was charged by police.
Father Mike is now reportedly working with the choir and wearing his priestly robes at Antiochian churches in Dedham and Norwood, although he has not been officially assigned to any church. He declined to return a telephone call, as did his lawyer, James Reardon Jr.
But his victim, Susan Manter, said she’s concerned that other women may be at risk if he continues to act as a priest.
“He doesn’t know his limitations, and he still believes he did nothing wrong,” she said yesterday. “He’ll cause more harm. When you wear the priest’s collar, you gain instant trust. He’s continuing to tell people that he was railroaded and that I’m crazy. But the fact that he was convicted and served jail time should be enough for (the hierarchy) to act.”
There’s a big difference between mercy, and enabling. If Father Michael’s colleagues continue to welcome him back to the fold as though he just returned from vacation rather than jail, they’re turning the other cheek at the expense of his victim, and justice.