Several readers contacted me today to express sorrow at the passing of Rev. Robert McLaughlin - affectionately nicknamed Father Mac - whom I'd first written about five years ago, when he was a vociferous critic of the Philadelphia Archdiocese for the despicable cover-up of its sex-abuse scandal.
In honor of Father Mac's courage, I reprint, here, the two columns I wrote in October of 2005 about him, shortly after the release of the grand-jury report into the cover-up.
I've got good news and bad news for Philadelphia Cardinal Justin Rigali. The good news is that Mass attendance is way up at St. Basil the Great Roman Catholic Church in Kimberton. The bad news is that it most certainly isn't because of him.
That honor belongs to St. Basil's pastor, Father Bob McLaughlin, affectionately known as "Father Mac" - not just to the 1,200 families of his Chester County parish, but to me.
Father Mac is one of the "men of God" I was referring to in a column I wrote three weeks ago, about how I would not let the repulsive sex scandal in the Philadelphia Archdiocese tarnish my memories of the wonderful priests I knew growing up.
Shortly after the column ran, Father Mac contacted me, saying he'd read it and appreciated the vote of support. It had been nearly three decades since we last spoke, but his laugh was as recognizable to me as it was when I'd hear it roar infectiously through the church hall and rectory of my childhood parish. What I loved most about Father Mac back then were his blunt honesty and unwavering moral compass, forces you could count upon when feeling whipped by life's curveballs.
I was thrilled to find, in my face-to-face reunion with Father Mac last week, that he has not allowed sheep-like loyalty to the lying higher-ups of the church to dull those precious qualities.
Father Mac cherishes his church. But he is incensed by his church's leadership.
"They betrayed everything I pledged my life to," Father Mac told me. "When the scandal broke in Boston, I went to our leaders and said, 'Tell me the truth about Philly.' They assured me - to my face - that there was no cover-up because 'We handle things differently in Philadelphia.'
"I took that message to my people, and they believed me."
When the grand jury report was released, he spent a soul-shattering two days reading its 400-plus pages and realized the extent to which he had been duped - and to which he unwittingly duped his congregation by assuring them that the practice of shuffling pedophiles among parishes was unique to Boston.
"For the first time in my 60 years, I felt ashamed to be Catholic," he said simply. "Their crime wasn't a crime of passion, where you fly off the handle and do something stupid, like commit a murder. This was a cold, calculated series of lies, designed to protect the church's assets at the expense of protecting children's lives. It's just chilling.
"I've seen them fire priests for having their hands in the collection basket, yet they never fired a priest for having his hands down an altar boy's pants!"
I told you Father Mac was blunt.
"I questioned my vocation," he continued. "I thought, 'I don't want to work for liars.' And then the Holy Spirit hit me upside the head with a two-by-four - which he has a habit of doing - and said to me, 'You don't work for those liars downtown. You work for the good people of St. Basil's.' "
And so, when Cardinal Rigali released his lawyered-over, five-page statement addressing the grand-jury report, Father Mac refused to read it to parishioners at Mass, the way he'd usually read a missive issued from the archbishop's opulent downtown mansion. Instead, he said, at four services, he spoke from his gut to a congregation that he knew needed to hear the truth as much as he needed to say it.
"I told them that, all my years of preaching, this was the first time I'd rather hide in the woods than face them," he says. "I told them, 'I will not stand here and defend the indefensible. We were lied to, again and again and again.' "
He cried, he said, when he shared how deeply it hurt to suddenly be regarded with suspicion, because he'd devoted so much of his life to youth ministry and education.
And his voice boomed when he pulled from his pocket, right there on the altar, his license to carry a firearm and told his people, "I have a license to carry a gun, and I promise - I promise - that your children will be safe in this parish as long as I am your pastor!"
Did I say Father Mac was blunt?
It took a long time for the standing ovations and thunderous applause to settle, for everyone to wipe tears of relief that finally, at last, a church leader had been human enough to acknowledge their pain and to share his own hurt at the damage the church had wrought.
Father Mac ended his sermon, he says, by saying, "I don't know where we go from here, but we will muddle through this, together."
Four times he did this, and after each Mass there was a line of grateful Catholics, wounded beyond words by their church, waiting to embrace the man whose honesty might finally allow them to begin healing.
And the following week, the pews were more filled than they'd been in years. Not because of Cardinal Rigali's clueless dissembling on behalf of church hierarchy.
But in gratitude for a man of God who speaks the truth.
And here is the follow-up column I wrote a week later about Father Mac, in response to the avalanche of calls, letters and e-mails from readers, in appreciation for this wonderful man.
IT'S BEEN A week since I wrote about Father Bob McLaughlin - or "Father Mac," as he's known at St. Basil the Great Roman Catholic Church in Chester County.
And the e-mail continues to pour in from Catholics who are grateful for this brave pastor's willingness to speak from his anguished heart about the church's sex-abuse scandal.
He abhorred the cover-up, bellowing that the Philadelphia Archdiocese had fired priests for having their hands in the collection basket, "yet they never fired a priest for having his hands down an altar boy's pants!"
He also vowed to do whatever it took to protect the children of his parish, even if it meant - ahem - putting to use his license to carry a firearm.
Such jaw-dropping bluntness was a tonic for lifelong Catholic John V., who was moved to tears by Father Mac's honesty.
"For the first time in a long time I felt good about someone associated with the Catholic Church," he wrote.
Father Mac "may bring me back to Sunday Mass," e-mailed Karen P., adding that she "never realized that there are priests out there feeling the same as parish members - betrayed."
While Father Mac is reader Frank M.'s "new hero," e-mailer Raymond C. thinks Father Mac should head the Philadelphia Archdiocese.
"This man is the one who should be in the position of cardinal, so he can bring [the church] back to holiness and truthfulness," Raymond declared.
And reader Jean M. echoed others when she promised to keep Father Mac in her prayers because, she feared, "his bishop will soon try to transfer him" as punishment for being honest.
After all, if the church promoted liars and pedophiles - as maintained in the grand jury's report on the Philadelphia Archdiocese's handling of its sex scandal - is it unreasonable to assume they might demote an honorable and outspoken man of God?
Gee - is the pope Catholic?
Having been raised in the Philadelphia Archdiocese, I logged a lot of time in church confessionals over the years, taking counsel from men of the cloth. So it feels both weird and presumptuous now to offer them some counsel of my own.
But indulge me.
Because what I want to say to the good priests who feel the way Father Mac does but are afraid to speak out is this:
Just do it.
Your people are hungry for you to declare that you're angry that the church coldly bartered the safety of its children for the protection of its financial assets.
You know it's true. Your people know it's true. And they are desperate for you to say it for them, because they know their official church leaders never will.
If you can find the courage to speak out as vociferously as Father Mac has, your people will not throw you to the Archdiocesan wolves.
They will rally behind you.
But don't take my word for it.
Take the word of reader Ruth L., who wrote, "Our pastor is nice but has addressed this problem in a lukewarm fashion, without any courage, and I am so frustrated."
And Stephen M., who swears that "if the church was filled with more Father Macs, it would be a much better organization, worthy of our trust and respect."
And John R., who refuses to put another dime in church coffers "unless I decide to drive down to St. Basil's and hear a Father Mac sermon."
Wow - honesty in the pulpit leading to more coins dropped into the collection plate?
That's a sound that the church actually pays attention to.
And it might make them start heeding what you - and Father Mac - have to say, too.