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The Case of Fr. John Corapi

The Black Sheep Dog Saga

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On Ash Wednesday 2011, Fr. John Corapi announced that the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity (SOLT) had ordered him to suspend his public ministry, pending the investigation of allegations of sexual impropriety and drug use. Thus began a little over three months of speculation about the nature of the allegations, with many of those who had benefited over the years from Father Corapi's ministry rising to his defense, convinced that the allegations had to be untrue, while others took a more cautious, "wait and see" approach, and a small number of people decided that they did not need to wait for the results of the investigation to condemn Father Corapi, since the allegations were consistent with John Corapi's self-described behavior in the years before he became a priest.

What no one expected, however, was what would happen in June 2011, before the investigation concluded. The following is a timeline of coverage of, and commentary on, the case of Fr. John Corapi here on the About.com Catholicism site, from June 2011 on. This article itself provides a brief overview of the Black Sheep Dog saga; you can read more in-depth analysis by clicking on each of the headlines below.

Those trying to understand the complex issues involved in the Father Corapi case may also find my four-part series on detraction and calumny, illustrated by a discussion of Father Corapi's case, of some use:

1. A Priest Forever: The Strange Case of Fr. John Corapi

On June 17, 2011, Fr. John Corapi released a video in which he declared that, as of "both Trinity Sunday on the Catholic liturgical calendar and Fathers' Day on the secular calendar" (that is, June 19, 2011), he was "not going to be involved in public ministry as a priest any longer." The announcement was unexpected, given the fact that the investigation of the allegations against Father Corapi had not yet concluded. Even odder was Father Corapi's reference to himself as "John Corapi (once called 'father,' now 'The Black Sheep Dog')." Under the guise of the Black Sheep Dog, he declared, he would continue to speak out, especially on political matters.

In the video, Father Corapi looked thin, drawn, and exhausted. His goatee and eyebrows had been dyed black, and the overall image was enough to convince some observers that the allegations of drug use (at least) must have been true. Supporters rallied to his cause, declaring (against Father Corapi's own words) that he had no intention of leaving the priesthood, but others saw the handwriting on the wall.

2. Give Me Your Body, O Christ

In the course of a meditation for the Feast of Corpus Christi, I discussed the most puzzling aspect of Father Corapi's decision to leave the priesthood, which he revealed in a second video message: namely, that he claimed he was not bothered by the suspension of faculties to celebrate the sacraments. "I didn't do very much of that, quite honestly, in the twenty years that I did minister," he declared. While most priests place the celebration of Mass and the consecration of the Eucharist at the center of their priestly life, Father Corapi argued that "My particular mission was speaking, and writing, and teaching—not so much within the sacraments, but outside of them, in conjunction with them." After leaving the priesthood, he declared, "what I'm going to be doing in the future is pretty much the same thing . . . "

3. Putting Father Corapi in Perspective

As the saga of the Black Sheep Dog unfolded, many of Father Corapi's supporters lashed out at those who were reporting on the case. Their devotion to Father Corapi was evident, and many of them declared that Father Corapi had saved them from a life of sin. Some even declared that, without Father Corapi, they would leave the Catholic Church. But no priest himself can save souls; only God can. The priest is simply his instrument in the world—something which some of Father Corapi's most ardent defenders seemed in danger of missing. Likewise, the truth of the Catholic Church does not depend on any one man. Even if Father Corapi were innocent of the allegations against him, his innocence would not give anyone an excuse to leave the Catholic Church, thus putting his or her own soul in danger.

4. A Falsely Accused Priest Looks at Father Corapi

Father Corapi's actions stood in contrast to many other priests who claimed to have been falsely accused, including one, Padro Pio of Pietrelcina, whom Father Corapi had often cited as one of his inspirations. When Padre Pio, who was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 2002, had his faculties to say Mass publicly and to hear Confessions suspended, he complied with the order.

There are contemporary priests who have done the same, protesting their innocence while suffering the consequences of allegations made against them. One, Fr. Gordon J. MacRae, has now served over 18 years of a 67-year prison sentence, and between the time of Father Corapi's announcement of his suspension on Ash Wednesday and his abandonment of his priestly ministry in mid-June, he weighed in on the case. Father MacRae was particularly concerned with the role that new procedures to handle allegations of clerical sexual abuse, adopted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in the wake of the scandals of 2001-2002, may have played in the way that Father Corapi's case had been handled. One could acknowledge problems with the process, however, and still believe that Father Corapi should not have abandoned his priestly ministry.

5. Should Priests Live in Community? Reflections on the Case of Father Corapi

One thing that might have helped Father Corapi remain in the priesthood, and may well have prevented any allegations from being leveled against him in the first place, would have been if Father Corapi had lived with his fellow priests in community. Father Corapi was a member of the Society of the Most Holy Trinity (SOLT), a diocesan society of apostolic life whose members are normally expected to live in community. Through a combination of circumstances, which included a recognition of Father Corapi's public ministry as a preacher, he had been allowed to live on his own in Montana rather than in community in SOLT's home diocese of Corpus Christi, Texas.

For several years before the allegations were made against Father Corapi, SOLT had tried to encourage him to leave Montana and to return to living in community. Some of Father Corapi's supporters declared that this overture was proof that SOLT was convinced of Father Corapi's guilt, and that SOLT, therefore, could not conduct a fair investigation.

Yet there may have been wisdom in SOLT's invitation to Father Corapi, because, if the allegations against him were true, he would have been much less likely to engage in such behavior while living in community; and, if the allegations were false, the accuser would have had a much harder time making them, because Father Corapi would have been surrounded by his fellow members of SOLT, who would know that he would not have had the opportunity to engage in the alleged behaviors.

6. Fr. Gerard Sheehan Drops a Bombshell on Father Corapi

Unfortunately, Fr. John Corapi never took SOLT up on its invitation to return to community life, and thus, when the allegations were made, SOLT had to rely on an investigative process, rather than its members' experience with Father Corapi, to determine the truth or falsity of the allegations.

On June 21, reacting to Father Corapi's announcement of his decision to leave the priesthood and to adopt the persona of the Black Sheep Dog, SOLT issued a statement that hinted that the investigation had been hindered by Father Corapi's refusal to cooperate. On July 5, after Father Corapi had continued publicly to deny the allegations and had threatened to reveal the name of the accuser and to play tapes of private conversations with her, SOLT quit hinting. A statement released by Fr. Gerard Sheehan, the superior of SOLT, detailed the ways in which Father Corapi had obstructed the investigation and revealed that, in spite of the obstruction, SOLT had "acquired information from Fr. Corapi's e-mails, various witnesses, and public sources" that confirmed most of the allegations.

The statement went on to note that SOLT had "directed Fr. John Corapi, under obedience, to return home to the Society’s regional office and take up residence there" and to warn Catholics that SOLT "does not consider Fr. John Corapi as fit for ministry."

7. SOLT Release on Father John Corapi a Hoax?

Still, Father Corapi's most ardent supporters refused to believe that the allegations could be true. In the hours after SOLT's statement was provided to EWTN, many argued that it must be a hoax. When, on the afternoon of July 5, SOLT confirmed that the press release was real by posting it on their website, those same supporters turned against SOLT, denouncing both the statement and the investigative process.

8. Father Corapi Responds to SOLT: "I Am Not Extinguished!"

Two days later, on July 7, Fr. John Corapi responded to SOLT's July 5 press release, seeming to answer each of the points but in reality sidestepping most of them. (Click on the headline to read the details.) Unlike many of Father Corapi's supporters, SOLT had regarded his June 17 statement as a request to be dispensed from his vows, and they had contacted him to confirm that request. Father Corapi had not replied, so on July 5, SOLT had ordered him to return to community. In refusing to do so, he opened himself up to a forced laicization.

9. Is Bishop Gracida Distancing Himself From Father Corapi?

By now, the writing on the wall was becoming clear to even many of those who had hoped that the allegations against Father Corapi had been false. The retired bishop of Corpus Christi, René Gracida, under whose authority SOLT had first been set up, had been Father Corapi's most important defender from June 17 on. But in the wake of SOLT's press release on July 5, confirming the truth of the allegations against Father Corapi, Bishop Gracida removed all of his blog posts defending Father Corapi. In their place, he added "My Final Comment (Hopefully) on the Case of Father John Corapi," in which he no longer defended Father Corapi against the substance of the allegations, but simply criticized the way in which SOLT and Bishop Gracida's successor, Bishop William Mulvey, handled the investigation of the allegations.

10. EXCLUSIVE: Fr. MacRae Clarifies His Remarks on Fr. John Corapi

In an e-mail to me on July 9, Fr. Gordon MacRae similarly clarified his earlier remarks on Fr. John Corapi, "[i]n light of Father Corapi's decision to leave ministry rather than allow the process of canonical investigation to continue." He expressed his hope "to refocus the issues away from Father Corapi and back on to the matter of due process for accused priests," acknowledging that the facts of Father Corapi's case could be separated from questions of process, and that Father Corapi's "superiors also have a moral obligation to the truth." Whether they exercised that obligation as well as they could have in the investigative process is an open question; but the fact that they had to exercise it, in light of credible allegations, is not.

11. Reader Question: What Should I Do With Father Corapi's Materials?

As more and more supporters of Fr. John Corapi came to the same conclusion that SOLT had stated in their July 5 press release, some began to wonder about the various books, tapes, CDs, and DVDs that they had acquired from Father Corapi over the years, at the cost of hundreds or even, in some cases, thousands of dollars. Since Father Corapi was no longer allowed to exercise his ministry publicly, how should one treat the products of his former public ministry?

There are many ways of addressing the question, but an unfailingly humble and orthodox moral theologian hit the nail on the head when he told me, "The materials may no longer be edifying." That is, even though the materials themselves do not contain error, the use of the materials may well remind the one who reads or listens to them of the situation of Father Corapi, which would distract them from the point of reading or listening to the materials.

12. What Has Happened to Fr. John Corapi?

Between mid-July 2011 and the end of the year, Fr. John Corapi's public presence—on his website, on Twitter, on Facebook, and on YouTube—began to diminish. While he had hinted that the Black Sheep Dog would be very active in 2012, particularly in regards to the presidential election, his announcements became fewer and farther between. He released a set of talks on abortion and held a fire sale on the back stock of his materials, and occasionally issued teasers of greater things to come.

By January 1, 2012, however, Father Corapi and the Black Sheep Dog had vanished into thin air. His new website—theblacksheepdog.us—had gone dark, as had his Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube accounts. Some speculated that he had finally complied with SOLT's order to return to live in community; others noted that SOLT would be bound (if for no reason other than charity) to release at least a short statement acknowledging that to be true.

Yet no such statement appeared. And no further word was forthcoming, either from the Black Sheep Dog or Fr. John Corapi.

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