Bob Stefko for Newsweek
Maher: 'On Call'
April 4 issue - Joe Maher never knows what to expect when he picks up the phone. Sometimes there's a trembling pause before a priest, choking back tears, tells him a disturbingly familiar tale: an accusation of sexual abuse, exile from his community. Other times, there's a caller screaming obscenities, furious that Maher would even speak to these "sinners." A mild-mannered, devout Roman Catholic, Maher is the founder of Opus Bono Sacerdotii—Latin for "Work for the Good of the Priesthood"—the only lay advocacy group for priests accused of sexual misconduct. Some of the priests seeking help are likely innocent, others are not. But Maher believes in supporting them all. "Priests are out there destitute, abandoned and desperate," he says. "And they need help."
After the sexual-abuse scandal exploded in 2002, the Catholic Church adopted a zero-tolerance policy, instructing bishops to quietly suspend accused priests from their duties until the church had fully investigated. (The statute of limitations has already passed for state action in most of the cases Maher hears about.) During the investigations, accused priests are supposed to continue receiving stipends, room and board. But that isn't always the case: some bishops, anxious to assuage their congregations, have gone public with the accusations, cutting the priests' stipends and forcing them off church property. That's where Opus Bono steps in. Tucked away in a factory building on the outskirts of Detroit, Maher and a half dozen priests field calls and e-mails from the accused. Part therapist, part social worker, Maher calms down the men and determines what they need: legal advice, money to cover the rent and lawyer's fees, or just a sympathetic ear.
A 44-year-old former financial consultant, Maher didn't set out to become a champion of this cause. But in 2002, when a priest in his parish who was visiting from Africa was accused of rape, Maher felt pity for the man. He paid the priest's $5,000 bail and hired him a lawyer. When the priest was acquitted, Maher's efforts caught the attention of the media, and the calls came pouring in from other men of the cloth. So Maher quit his job advising CFOs and set up Opus Bono with donations from Catholics who shared his sympathies. Since then, Maher says he's been contacted by more than 1,000 priests. And each week four or five more find their way to him. He makes no personal judgment as to their guilt or innocence; he's knelt to receive a blessing from a priest behind bars, and he addresses even defrocked priests with a reverent "Father." Those actions have made him a lightning rod for victims' advocates. "There's almost a blind loyalty to the institutional church," says Barbara Blaine, head of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, who believes that public support for priests prevents victims from coming forward. More-militant opponents have even phoned in death threats and thrown human feces at Maher's car.
But the priests are deeply grateful. "Joe has given me hope," one says. Besides losing their reputations and the right to perform the sacraments, suspended priests often find themselves without a job or a home for the first time in their ordained lives. Maher says that many are shocked to learn that landlords typically require first and last month's rent, plus a security deposit. Even landing a menial job can be difficult. One priest, who asked not to be identified, says he was hired on a Friday and fired that Monday, once his employer learned of the accusations against him. The church insists that it provides adequate support for accused priests, but that in the face of a seemingly credible accusation, a bishop must protect his flock. "In the society that we live in, somebody has to address the pastoral needs of the people," says Mark Chopko, general counsel for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Maher doesn't want to drive a wedge between accused priests and the church. In fact, he won't pay legal fees for priests who want to sue the church for defamation, a route that a small but growing number are now choosing. (Already, accused priests have filed defamation suits in at least six states, including Illinois and Louisiana.) "It just adds more salt to the wound," Maher says. For him, Working for the Good of the Priesthood means healing those wounds.
© 2005 Newsweek, Inc.