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A Calling in Crisis

Conversations with Catholic priests

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Mike Fones has his hands full. With one, he totes a slide projector. In the other, he balances a stack of plastic containers full of leftovers. He scans the building's directory for Alice Kennedy Hooten's apartment and buzzes to be let in.

Once the chicken and potatoes, pasta and beans are stowed in Mrs. Hooten's refrigerator, the two sit by the living-room window overlooking this river town. In the distance, steam rises from the pulp mill where the late Mr. Hooten worked for 37 years.

The Rev. Fr. Fones is younger than Alice Hooten's three sons, but to her he is "Father Mike," a Roman Catholic priest. They face each other, hands folded, as the familiar litany is performed, the sacrament administered. She is recuperating from a fall, and Fones prays aloud "for wholeness of body and heart and spirit."

Once the private service is finished, the two join Pat and Richard Armstrong upstairs for tea and scones. It's a quiet Sunday visit – except for the moment when Mrs. Hooten declares herself "very upset with the hierarchy" of her church. Fones is not the target of her ire, but faraway officials whom she perceives as mishandling cases of child sexual abuse by priests. "I'd like to just shake and bake 'em," she says, her Irish dander flaring. Fones lets the moment pass.

The recent sex-abuse revelations have rocked the Roman Catholic Church hard in such places as Boston, Philadelphia, and Palm Beach, Fla., where priests have been jailed or bishops have resigned.

The impact is less pronounced in places far removed from the scandal, like this college town along the confluence of the Willamette and McKenzie Rivers, but it is evident nonetheless. It's on the minds of parishioners, and it most certainly preoccupies priests, who must comfort or counsel their flock even as the scandal threatens to erode the moral authority of the priesthood itself.

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