A Catholic priest who traveled the country performing exorcisms and launching fierce attacks against anyone he viewed as insufficiently tough on abortion -- he once suggested Fox News host Sean Hannity was a "heretic" for saying birth control could be a better option than abortion -- has been removed from ministry for sexually exploiting at least one woman he was treating for demonic possession.
The surprising revelations about Father Thomas Euteneuer, who was for a decade the charismatic leader of Human Life International (HLI), a Catholic anti-abortion lobby, have not only stunned his many fans among church conservatives but have also left them sharply divided.
Some of Euteneuer's avid disciples continue to praise him as a prophet who confessed to a single and very human failing, while others feel betrayed and say the priest and his organization are so hypocritical they have hurt the sacred cause of protecting the unborn. Critics also say that the full story of Euteneuer's misdeeds has still not been told, and that policies on exorcism must be tightened to prevent further abuses.
"In my opinion, from now on, for the good of the faithful, all exorcisms should be done in the presence of at least one other person besides the priest," Matt Abbott, a Catholic columnist for the conservative website RenewAmerica.com, wrote in an e-mail. "That person, or persons, should be vetted by the Church and law enforcement and should not be a personal friend of the priest performing the exorcism."
Church officials say that there is currently no requirement that someone be present during an exorcism apart from the priest and the person who is possessed, though some dioceses and individual exorcists do encourage a "team approach" to exorcism.
Exorcism is enjoying something of a renaissance both in popular culture and in the Catholic Church. "The Rite," a movie about training priests to perform exorcisms and starring Anthony Hopkins, was released in January to strong reviews and box office returns. The movie is based on the real-life experiences of a California priest, Father Gary Thomas, who went to the Vatican to learn about exorcisms.
And just last November, 66 priests and 56 bishops turned out for a two-day seminar sponsored by the American hierarchy to teach clerics about exorcisms and hopefully ease the shortage of priests authorized to formally cast out demons; reports of demonic possession are overwhelming the handful of exorcists in the United States, church officials say.
Euteneuer was one of those few priests with a mandate to conduct exorcisms, and that job, along with his campaign against abortion for HLI (based in Front Royal, Va.), kept him traveling around the country and in demand in conservative Catholic circles. That popularity also made his fall from grace all the more disheartening for those who had seen Euteneuer as an inspiration.
"I'm drained and depressed, not to mention angry. Cynical as well," Abbott wrote in a Jan. 29 column.
Questions about Euteneuer, a handsome, square-jawed 48-year-old, first arose last August when he abruptly resigned as president of HLI. He had been living in Virginia while heading up the organization, but as a priest of the Diocese of Palm Beach, Fla., he was subject to the authority of Bishop Gerald Barbarito, who ordered him back to Florida.
Euteneuer portrayed the move as a return to the life of a parish priest that he had always wanted, and as a much-needed respite from his labors.
"It has been 15 years since I last had any significant time for renewal, and after traveling more than 1.1 million miles, authoring two books, visiting 58 countries and making thousands of public appearances, I am ready for a break!" Euteneuer wrote in the HLI bulletin. "I intend to continue to do pro-life work wherever I may be called to serve, and my bishop agrees that this is a vital charism of my priestly life. A true pro-lifer is not oriented to a job so much as to the daily task of fighting the culture of death and building the culture of life!"
Fellow conservatives like Deacon Keith Fournier praised him as a "heroic priest" and the board of directors of Human Life International released a statement on Aug. 27 effusively praising Euteneuer for 10 years "of meritorious service to HLI" and for "his leadership, hard work and dedication."
In reality, however, Euteneuer had been forced to resign after being accused of inappropriate relations with a "young adult woman" on whom he was performing an exorcism.
Euteneuer's departure from HLI, while lamented, did raise some eyebrows because it was such a sudden about-face from his longtime public profile.
Indeed, for years Euteneuer had been known as a no-holds barred campaigner against abortion who never missed any opportunity to blast a foe and earn a headline. When Sen. Edward Kennedy died in 2009, for example, he wrote that the liberal Democrat "will not be missed by the unborn who he betrayed time and time again, nor by the rest of us who are laboring to undo the scandalous example of Catholicism that he gave to three generations of Americans."
Euteneuer's verbal punch-up with Hannity during an on-air exchange in 2007 was also a classic, as Euteneuer suggested Hannity was a heretic and said he would deny him Communion because the Fox News host thought it might be better that non-Catholics use birth control rather than risk having an abortion.
In 2010, Euteneuer ripped a well-known Jesuit priest, Father James Martin, because Martin had criticized Pope Benedict XVI for seeming to rank gay marriage as a threat to life on par with abortion. "If the Holy Father's proclamation of the unchanging truth makes Father Martin uncomfortable, then it's time for Father Martin to hang up his collar," Euteneuer said.
Also in 2010, Euteneuer's high-octane campaign against an abortion clinic in Fort Pierce, Fla., became the subject of an HBO documentary, "12th and Delaware."
(Even small fry were not beyond Euteneuer's notice; he so disliked my report on the resignation of the bishop of Scranton -- a friend of Euteneuer's -- that he issued a statement calling me "anti-Catholic" and a "dishonest hack" with a "sick media mind." I've been called far worse, of course, and I was in good company in that Euteneuer included "many" American bishops in his condemnation.)
Finally, in January, The Palm Beach Post wrote a story raising questions about Euteneuer's fate, and noting that HLI had dropped Euteneuer's new book on exorcism from its website despite strong sales. But even then the pro-life organization denied anything was amiss.
"Rumors that the book was 'pulled' or 'recalled' are not true," HLI spokesman Stephen Phelan told The Post. He said the book, "Exorcism and the Church Militant," sold out in three months and HLI decided not to publish any more since Euteneuer was no longer president. (Used copies still sell for hundreds of dollars in the Internet.)
That story seemed to crystallize suspicions that Euteneuer was involved in a scandal, and on Jan. 31 the priest acknowledged in a lengthy statement that while performing an exorcism, "one particularly complex situation clouded my judgment and led me to imprudent decisions with harmful consequences, the worst of which was violating the boundaries of chastity with an adult female who was under my spiritual care."
It wasn't clear exactly what Euteneuer did with the woman, as he said the "violations of chastity happened due to human weakness but did not involve the sexual act." ("Bill Clinton would be proud of that," Hannity quipped on his show a couple days later.) Euteneuer insisted it was a lapse with one person only, and he apologized repeatedly and took full responsibility for his failure.
But he also could not resist taking a swipe at his detractors, writing that "I am shocked to the depths of my being at the malicious efforts by supposedly faithful Catholics to destroy a priest who has served the Church faithfully for 22 years." He denounced efforts to drag out the truth as a "sinful campaign" and asked that this single episode not undermine all his work on behalf of the unborn.
At the same time Euteneuer was coming clean, Bishop Barbarito circulated an internal memo to the priests of the Palm Beach diocese informing them that Euteneuer was "undergoing intensive evaluation and counseling to address admitted inappropriate crossing of adult heterosexual boundaries on the occasion of carrying out his priestly ministry." Barbarito said no decision had been made on when Euteneuer would return to ministry.
Then, two days later, Human Life International released a statement confirming that in fact they had received allegations against Euteneuer in August last year that led to his departure. But HLI defended its decision not to disclose any wrongdoing at the time by citing church teaching on "the duty to avoid scandal."
The HLI statement also noted that, contrary to Euteneuer's confession, HLI had "subsequently learned of additional allegations in connection with his exorcism ministry." The organization did not provide details on the other cases and there has been no further word from the Palm Beach diocese about where the investigation of Euteneuer stands.
On Feb. 4, the interim head of HLI, Monsignor Ignacio Barreiro-Carámbula of New York, added to the uncertainty about Euteneuer's case by announcing that the organization had been "under legal constraint not to speak publicly about the matter" and that the victim in the case had been "gravely harmed" by Euteneuer.
In the absence of further information, the Catholic blogosphere lit up with battles between Euteneuer's fans and foes. Hannity had a bit of schadenfreude over Euteneuer's predicament, but elsewhere Catholic conservatives have been arguing fiercely.
Blogger Mark Shea cut off comments on his post about Euteneuer, saying he had made "a manly and forthright act of contrition. Good enough for me. . . . There but for the grace of God go I."
And commenters at other blogs suggested that Satan was getting back at Euteneuer for his exorcism work. "Being exposed to demons is not an easy thing," one person wrote. "Sometimes the demons will purposely twist the bodies of their victims that will have their sexual parts touch the one who is trying to remove the demons. This, I am sure must have happened several times to Father Tom." Others pinned the blame directly on the women who accused Euteneuer.
Likewise, hundreds of supporters left comments on the site hosting Euteneuer's confession, almost all of them praising him for being "courageous" and "humble" and citing Jesus' admonition, "He who is without sin, let him cast the first stone."
But others, like Matt Abbott at RenewAmerica.com, who called Euteneuer's story "a whitewash," have argued that pro-lifers must be rigorous in calling out failures among their own if the movement is to maintain its credibility.
The woman behind the Catholic blog "Journey to Therese," who would only be identified by her first name, Adele, also took that approach and has published on her site some of the toughest criticism of Euteneuer.
Adele said she felt personally betrayed because Euteneuer had traveled to her home on more than a dozen occasions between 2008 and 2010 to try to treat what she believed was the demonic possession of a family member.
Adele told me she was deeply upset with Euteneuer over his failing and said she believed there were many other instances. But she also said that because of her critical coverage of Euteneuer she had received numerous "threatening" e-mails that were so disturbing she had referred them to the authorities for investigation.
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