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Sara Foss's Thinking It Through
by Sara Foss

Thinking It Through

A Daily Gazette life blog
Her column and blog rolled into one
 

Diocese’s first step in priest case is good one

By Sara Foss
Wednesday, April 23, 2014

One of the things I enjoyed about working at summer camp was being regarded as something of a rock star by children and teenagers.
Unaccustomed to being popular or cool, I was suddenly surrounded by impressionable young people who hung on my every word and relished my attention. It was a powerful position to be in.
During staff training, our director warned us not to abuse this trust. She told us we would undoubtedly like certain children better than others, but that we should keep our emotions to ourselves. She said we might feel drawn toward a particular camper, and that such feelings were dangerous and not to be indulged. She forbid us from being alone with a child.
“Even if it’s completely innocent,” she said, “think about how it might look.”
At the time, these instructions seemed completely unnecessary. Nobody on staff seemed likely to abuse a camper. Now that I’m older, I can see that my attitude was woefully naive.
A decade or so later, I watched from afar as the summer camp I attended growing up was torn apart by an accusation of sexual contact between a counselor and a teenage camper. As the facts emerged, it became quite clear that an institution I loved had failed to protect the youths in its care.
On Tuesday a Niskayuna priest, the Rev. Michael Taylor, 30, was charged with endangering the welfare of a child, a misdemeanor.
According to Saratoga County Sheriff Michael H. Zurlo, the priest “engaged in an ongoing course of inappropriate conduct with a 15-year-old Clifton Park female involving physical contact, telephone calls, text messaging and photos.” Right now, there’s no indication of forced contact, officials said. “She is 15, he is 30,” said District Attorney James A. Murphy III. “Rather than a sexual offense, we believe at this point that this is the appropriate charge.”
Murphy is right.
Unless new evidence comes to light, Taylor’s alleged crimes are fairly minor. If he wasn’t a Catholic priest — if he was just some sleazy guy — the case against him would not be front-page news. But he is a priest, and that makes all the difference.
The case is of interest for two reasons: the Catholic church’s ignominious history of mishandling and covering up accusations of sex abuse against priests, and the respect, even reverence, that people generally have for clergy.
Under former Albany Roman Catholic Bishop Howard Hubbard, at least 20 Albany Diocese priests were “removed from ministry” because of credible allegations of sexually abusing children. Especially troubling was the practice — not just in Albany but in dioceses throughout the country — of quietly moving priests accused of abuse to new parishes. For instance, Gary Mercure, a former Capital Region priest, was sent to a church-run hospital after allegations of raping young boys surfaced, and later allowed to return to the ministry.
In light of this history, people are interested to see how the Albany Roman Catholic Diocese — and new Bishop Edward Scharfenberger — respond to the case against Taylor. And so far, the diocese is saying and doing the right things.
The diocese notified law enforcement after receiving the complaint against Taylor, and placed the priest on administrative leave after his arraignment. It vowed to cooperate with the investigation, and noted that “sexual abuse is a crime and an egregious sin, and the Albany Diocese has a zero-tolerance policy for sexual abuse of children by clerics.”
Of course, it wasn’t until 2012 that Hubbard signed off on an agreement with prosecutors from 14 upstate counties requiring the diocese to immediately report allegations of sexual abuse to the local district attorney. Which seems a little late in the game if you ask me, but it’s still a welcome change in policy and probably explains the relative openness from the Sheriff’s Department and district attorney’s office in the Taylor case.
The Taylor case seems different from the sexual-abuse cases that roiled the Catholic church in the 2000s.
The victims in those cases described truly disgusting, predatory and coercive behavior. What Taylor stands accused of is wrong, but it’s not in the same ballpark. It might, however, disqualify him from being a priest.
My father is a minister and ran a church youth group for many years.
It was from him that I learned that there’s a right and wrong way to interact with children and teenagers — that it’s important to engage them without overstepping certain boundaries. They might think you’re a rock star, but you’re only human. Which is something Taylor seemed to be aware of when he was ordained, telling The Evangelist, the official publication of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany, that “You learn that the frailties of the human condition exist even in the priesthood.”
Of course they do — as anybody who’s related to a member of the clergy would probably be the first to tell you.
Reach Gazette columnist Sara Foss at sfoss@dailygazette.net or 395-3193. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Her blog is at www.dailygazette.com/weblogs/foss.

 

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