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Wednesday, June 19, 2024
The Observer

The self-regulated spiritual upper-class

On the first day of July 2009, exactly 49 days after I turned nine years old, Fr. Geoffrey Drew was named the new pastor of Saint Maximilian Kolbe, my parish since I was nine months old.

Almost immediately, he became my favorite priest. The way he preached was bold and provocative. He was unafraid to call out the congregation and often proposed radical moral change.

Although my obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) was not diagnosed until age 13, I realize in hindsight that it manifested in my childhood as an obsession with Catholicism and a compulsive devoutness to traditional morality and capital ‘T’ Truth. So, naturally, the priest whose messages were the most in-your-face was my favorite. No frills, no grey area. Just the cold, hard, Catholic Truth.

Outside of his intense moments at the pulpit, Fr. Geoff was friendly. He knew my name and the names of my six younger siblings. We shook his hand after mass each Sunday. He patted my brothers on the back and asked if they were doing their job of annoying their big sisters. He often joked about which member of our family was “the ugly duck.”

All around, Fr. Geoff seemed like a good, perfectly safe guy and an admirable priest.

As it turns out, he is none of those things and the capital ‘T’ Truth that I loved so much was preached from a mouth of lies.

Because, on August 19, my favorite childhood priest was indicted on nine counts of rape.

I served Mass with an accused rapist.

I received communion from him.

I was confirmed in his presence.

I took his advice on matters of morality.

I listened to him preach nearly every Sunday for nine years of my life.

I confessed my sins to him.

Over the past weeks, I have relived every interaction I or one of my siblings had with him. Every behavior I recalled as his friendliness was cited as “concerning,” which gives me all the more reason to spend copious amounts of my time in recollection. I wonder not only who he hurt, but also how many people he would have gone on to hurt if it weren’t for the testimony of one incredibly brave man who has lived with the painful, lonely torture of Fr. Geoff’s abuse for over 30 years.

The abuse in question began in 1988, 16 years before Geoff Drew became Fr. Geoff. This means, by the time he was ordained in 2004, the nine instances of rape he is now charged with had already occurred.

How this man was even able to become a priest is baffling to me. That he remained a prominent one for 15 years before his Truth was revealed shocks me even more.

In 2013, Bishop Joseph Binzer, the man who confirmed me, was notified of Fr. Geoff’s concerning behavior toward minors in my parish. He passed the information to our local authorities but failed to report up and out when the authorities returned that they found no criminal behavior or evidence thereof. Binzer, also the head of priest personnel, failed to share the complaints with other members of the priest personnel board.

More allegations were brought to Binzer’s attention in 2015, but these were also declared not criminal by local officials, and thus never brought to the attention of the priest personnel board or the Archbishop. It was reported that the allegations were never even included in Fr. Drew’s personnel report, so when he applied in 2018 to become the pastor at the parish with the largest elementary school in our Archdiocese, the concerns about his interactions with children were not known, and he received the position.

I remember the announcement that Fr. Geoff was leaving St. Max for St. Ignatius. It was made less than two months before I would move from Cincinnati to South Bend.

Since my junior year of high school, I have been in a state of spiritual limbo — deeply concerned about the leadership structure and moral superiority of the Catholic Church, but also deeply devoted to spirituality and the values instilled by my family.

I felt negatively about many priests, but Fr. Geoff supported me through my concerns about the faith since I was nine years old. In my mind, he was one of the few priests worth listening to. One of the “good ones.” When I heard he wouldn’t be our pastor anymore, I decided to stop attending St. Max. “What’s the point?” I asked and went to Mass at a different local parish out of respect for my family until I arrived on campus and stopped attending mass altogether.

When I was informed of Fr. Geoff’s indictment, I spent five minutes gagging over a sink, positive I would throw up. That night and the two following it, I slept with the lights on, knowing that the darkness would inundate me with questions I wasn’t ready to ask and answers I didn’t want to face. As I completed my research for this column, the pictures of his mugshot at the top of every article have made me queasy.

Fr. Geoff played such a major role in the development of my faith. Even when I came to terms with the fact that the obsessive nature of my childhood spirituality led to an inauthentic experience of God and that strict adherence to Catholic codes of morality led me to become closed-minded and hateful, I still found value in the lessons of ‘Truth’ he taught me. Stepping into his Mass on Sunday was one of the constants in my life for nine years and hearing his voice boom from the altar gave me comfort.

I trusted him.

I stopped adhering to the Church because I took issue with the hierarchy and the way that its “boys’ club” nature perpetuated violence against women, young children and even nuns. I struggled with its institutionalized cisheteropatriarchy and, to be honest, I was tired of being reminded of how immoral we are as human beings.

Priests are not better than laypeople. Wearing a collar does not make you a saint. Sure, respecting people with greater knowledge about any topic is important, but I firmly believe members of the Church need to stop putting leaders on a pedestal, worshipping priests like false gods. We give them so much power, so much authority, so much forgiveness. We assume that they never do anything wrong, and we have allowed them to be a self-regulated-spiritual-upper-class for too long.

I know how hard it might be to read that. It took me a long time to be able to say it, but I must call the structures of the Church what they are. If I don’t, if we all don’t, men like Fr. Geoff will continue to hide in the shadows. The Bishop Binzers of the world will continue to enable them and the little girls like me will continue to accept moral advice from people who least deserve to give it.

I don’t have the strength to love the Church anymore, but I am begging those who do to fix it. Demand that laypeople sit in spaces of leadership alongside the ordained. Ask for the most radical structural changes. If transparency continues to be nonexistent, violence will continue to perpetuate and people will leave the Church until there is no one left.

 

Ashton Weber is a sophomore with lots of opinions. She is majoring in economic and film, television and theatre with a journalism, ethics and democracy minor. Making new friends is one of her favorite things, so feel free to contact her at aweber22@nd.edu or @awebz01 on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.