A priest was recently placed on administrative leave in my own Diocese of Charleston. Fr. Raymond Flores, parochial vicar at St. Mary Help of Christians Catholic Church in Aiken, South Carolina, was discovered to have been exchanging explicit images with a minor on Grindr. Because the minor had listed himself on Grindr as age eighteen, however, Fr. Flores will not be charged.
It was subsequently revealed that in 2014, Fr. Flores was removed from ministry in the Diocese of Brooklyn for an “inappropriate relationship with a consenting adult.” According to a statement from that diocese, “after years of counseling and discernment, Fr. Flores expressed to us that he wished to return to active ministry, which required that he accept celibacy.”
On St. Mary’s website, the church pastor, Fr. Gregory Wilson, wrote:
Although Father Raymond’s past behavior was clearly inappropriate for a priest, albeit not unlawful, it is now an internal personnel matter. I hope and pray that you will respect the privacy of and be in prayer for all involved in the incident, as well as for me and our entire parish and school community.
Fr. Wilson’s statement echoed a Diocese of Charleston press release, which stated: “Although Father’s past conduct is clearly inappropriate for a priest, albeit not unlawful, it is now an internal personnel matter.”
There is one element of truth in all this: The minor’s privacy, and that of his family, should be respected. Neither his name nor any further details of his identity should be sought after or divulged. But in several other respects, these statements are misguided. Their guiding theme is privacy, but the Church has a responsibility to transparency that must not be ignored.
The first step should be greater forthrightness about the gravity of Fr. Flores’s transgressions. The declaration that his actions were “inappropriate…albeit not unlawful” is a misleading understatement. Sexual sins by clergymen, who are consecrated to fulfill in their persons Our Lord’s purposes, are forms of sacrilege. They thus grievously harm the Body of Christ, the Church. And “inappropriate” barely begins to describe the irreverence of a priest consecrating the sacred Body and Blood, hearing confession, and administering the other sacraments after sharing obscene images on social media.
For this reason, “inappropriate” is not merely erroneous, but scandalous: It suggests that where priests are concerned, the dividing line between what is taken seriously and what is not is the law of the state, not God’s law, the moral law, or even canon law. How can such an attitude not contribute further to lack of chastity among our priests and those preparing for the priesthood? Fr. Wilson’s language encourages people to believe that the Church simply does not take its sexual teaching seriously—or that if it does, then it does so hypocritically, demanding of the laity what is not expected of the clergy.
These concerns are theological, yet they are the concern of the whole Church, and of the members of the Diocese of Charleston and the parish of St. Mary’s in particular. They are not merely an “internal personnel matter,” nor are they in any way private. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI went to the heart of this issue in his April letter on the Church and sexual abuse: “It is important to see that such misconduct by clerics ultimately damages the Faith.”
The second step involves acknowledgment of diocesan error. Fr. Flores was, despite his past, the “official chaplain” of the Young Adult Ministry at St. Mary’s. Whoever knowingly allowed this is guilty of an enormous failure of judgment. Did the diocese inform St. Mary’s pastor of Fr. Flores’s past? If so, that pastor should not plead for privacy, but for forgiveness, and repent of his lack of concern for the welfare of St. Mary’s young adults. Or was the failure on the part of the diocese? Did Fr. Wilson not know of Fr. Flores’s past? Someone with Fr. Flores’s history should have been under observation from both his bishop and his supervising pastor to make sure that his recommitment to celibacy was genuine. He should not have been placed in a situation where he would be surrounded by single young women and men, much less given the opportunity to be their “official chaplain.”
It is the Diocese of Charleston’s responsibility to identify where things went so wrong, and to give a public account. Over and over again serious failures of judgment on the part of our bishops have been ignored or covered up as “private” issues or matters of “internal personnel.” The consequences for the Church have been grave, and the authority of her leaders has been undermined.
The scandal of Fr. Flores is an opportunity for the Diocese of Charleston to take a different path: a path of openness and transparency, of responsibility and repentance. The diocesan and parish statements, with their invocations of “personnel matters” and “privacy,” go in the wrong direction, and I would encourage our Church leadership in South Carolina to adopt a different approach.
They should acknowledge that Fr. Flores should never have been allowed to lead the Young Adult Ministry at St. Mary’s, they should take responsibility publicly, and they should adopt a posture of penance, not defensive reserve. In these ways they can provide a model and witness to our Church’s leaders, and thus serve the Lord as His good and faithful servants.
Christopher Tollefsen, a senior fellow of the Witherspoon Institute, is a professor of philosophy at the University of South Carolina and author, with Robert. P. George, of Embryo: A Defense of Human Life.