Facing the flock

His assistant priest was just jailed on charges of molesting a child. Now he must address his congregation.
The Rev. Brian Christensen celebrates Mass at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Rapid City. He is struggling with how to guide the faith of thousands in a church beset by crisis. (Ryan Hermens for The Washington Post)

Brian Christensen is on his way to jail again. Clerical collar around his thin neck, rosary dangling from the rearview mirror, the priest sets out on the same trip he has taken almost every day that week. First was Monday afternoon, when he followed the detectives down this road, then up to the third floor of the police department, where he waited outside the interrogation room. On Wednesday, he went to the preliminary hearing, where the felony charges were announced: two counts of sexual contact with a 13-year-old. On Thursday, and on Friday, he returned to arrange a visitation with the Rev. John Praveen, 38, whom he last saw being cuffed and led into a police car, and who is now being held on a $100,000 cash bond and facing 30 years in prison.

Now, Monday again, Christensen pulls out of the parking lot at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, where as lead pastor he oversaw Praveen’s clerical duties. He makes the five-minute drive to the Pennington County jail, where he plans to speak with the incarcerated priest for the first time since his arrest.

The Rev. Brian Christensen celebrates Mass at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Rapid City. He is struggling with how to guide the faith of thousands in a church beset by crisis. (Ryan Hermens for The Washington Post)

“Aren’t you tired of all this?” his mother asked him on the phone that morning, and he could only sigh and say, yes, “I am tired of this.”

This: a string of child sex abuse scandals that — spanning decades, continents and thousands of victims — has fundamentally altered how the world views the Catholic Church and priests like him, in particular. With every crisis, Christensen had allowed himself to hope that now, perhaps, it would be over, only to see another year like this one, when every day seems to bring news of sex crimes and cover-ups in the church. A grand jury report in Pennsylvania accused more than 300 priests of abusing about 1,000 children, spurring federal authorities to investigate. Two U.S. cardinals have been disgraced. And approval ratings for Pope Francis, who once was the world’s most popular leader, have plummeted among Americans.

Priests go visit people in prison. They don’t visit priests in prison.
The Rev. Brian Christensen

But far beneath those headlines are churches like Christensen’s, where the same themes that have come to define the scandal at large — betrayal, hypocrisy, abuse of power, defensiveness — are playing out in a microcosm.

Ever since police arrested Praveen, who has pleaded not guilty, Christensen’s thoughts have been dominated by the same conflicts, the same questions. He believes it’s his responsibility as a Catholic leader to find a way to forgive sins, but could he this time? Already, he’d faced his flock once at weekend Mass, where he’d struggled to explain the unexplainable, but how does he steward the faith of thousands in a church beset by crisis? And how does he protect his own?

Christensen, 53, parks his Ford SUV near the jail. He kills the engine. He thinks about the day he became a priest, about two decades ago, and how he imagined his life would be. This is not a day he envisioned. “Priests go visit people in prison,” he says aloud. “They don’t visit priests in prison.”

He climbs out, a tall, graceful man with hair as trim as it was during his military days. He walks past the mirrored glass in the jail lobby, then to a chair in front of a monitor and a phone. The monitor screen says that his appointment is beginning and that the call is being recorded. The lights on either side of the monitor come on. He picks up the phone.

“Come on, Father John,” he says and waits for the priest to arrive.

Christensen puts on an amice while preparing to celebrate Mass. When a woman at a church retreat asked if he was uncomfortable wearing his clerical clothing, it pained him to think about it. (Ryan Hermens for The Washington Post)

Two days before this jail visit, back at the cathedral, Christensen had stepped out of the confessional. Feeling harried, he’d looked at his watch. It was 4:18 p.m. on a Saturday. The confessions that afternoon had gone way over schedule, and now little more than an hour remained until the weekend’s first Mass, barely enough time to plan how he would address what had become the most wrenching and complicated episode of his life as a priest.

To Christensen, the stakes were clear. No other major religion in the United States had lost more adherents than Catholicism over the past two decades. The combination of rapid social change, rigid church doctrine and a steady accumulation of clergy sex abuse scandals had plunged the church into turmoil. Millions of Americans raised Catholic — 41 percent of them, according to the Pew Research Center — no longer identified themselves that way.

The losses were steepest in the Northeast and the Midwest, once the center of the Catholic life in America, and among whites. Those descriptions characterized almost all of the 1,400 families in Christensen’s congregation, some of whom he wasn’t sure would, despite everything, still come to Mass and hear his homily.

He’d stepped into his office, trying to expel the freneticism of that week — the wedding receptions, church retreats and trips back and forth to jail — and brought out two notepads, a pen and a book of exegesis. He headed to the place where he did all of his best thinking. Inside, the chapel smelled of incense. It was quiet except for the sound of thin Bible pages being turned in prayer.

He knelt, hunched his shoulders over a pew and lowered his head into his hands.

He’d always wanted to say, “Not on my watch,” and that was how it had been at his parish. Even if the kids complained or the courses seemed repetitive, he’d demanded biannual abuse training for children so they could recognize what it meant to be touched inappropriately. In every church bathroom hung laminated signs encouraging victims of clergy abuse to “speak out.” But now, a scandal he’d once associated with faraway Boston or Milwaukee had arrived here, too. And it hadn’t just allegedly happened on his watch but inside the cathedral itself, down in the basement, on a late September day when hundreds of people, including him, were at the church. And none of them had any idea.

Christensen, pictured greeting young churchgoers, demanded biannual abuse training for children at his church so they could recognize what it would mean to be touched inappropriately. (Ryan Hermens For The Washington Post)
Parishioners greet one another by shaking hands in a sign of peace. (Ryan Hermens For The Washington Post)
A priest allegedly assaulted a 13-year-old girl in the basement of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help on a late September day when hundreds of people were at the church. (Ryan Hermens For The Washington Post)
TOP LEFT: Christensen, pictured greeting young churchgoers, demanded biannual abuse training for children at his church so they could recognize what it would mean to be touched inappropriately. TOP RIGHT: Parishioners greet one another by shaking hands in a sign of peace. ABOVE: A priest allegedly assaulted a 13-year-old girl in the basement of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help on a late September day when hundreds of people were at the church. (Photos by Ryan Hermens for The Washington Post)

He’d made the sign of the cross, picked up a notepad and started writing.

The first time he heard about child sex abuse in the church was when he was at seminary in Winona, Minn. It was 1995, and he met a reporter who was asking seminarians what it was like to enter the church at a time when pedophilia allegations were roiling parishes in Ireland and Austria. The question startled him. What abuse? In his whole life — from ringing bells as a Long Island altar boy, to escaping to chapel during morning marches at the U.S. Air Force Academy, to his growing church involvement while flying B-1 bombers — he’d never seen anything remotely approaching abuse.

Christensen sat back in the chapel pew, wrote the words, “What do we do?” and underlined them twice.

His faith in the clergy, then so strong, began to waver only after he put on the collar. He witnessed one elderly priest get too “chummy” with boys — crude conversations, too much time together at the rectory — and ultimately reported him to church leaders. He watched a South Dakota priest be removed because of abuse allegations. And then in 2005, he got his first solo pastoral assignment. It was a small church in Fort Pierre, S.D., where a priest had abused children in the 1980s and early 1990s. On Sundays, Christensen noticed an absence of 30-something men in the pews. And soon people were telling him that the priest had abused them, too, and that, no, they didn’t want it reported, they just wanted him to know that it was true, that it had happened.

He closed his notebooks, shut his eyes and thought about the conversations he’d been having since Praveen’s arrest.

“I was raised Catholic,” one recently returned parishioner, Leslie Bostick, told him over lunch about her mind-set when she abandoned the church following an earlier abuse scandal. “This [sex abuse] issue came up, and it bothered me, and I stopped. . . . I would never go to confession. I felt like, ‘Why should I confess my sins to someone who has committed a crime?’ ”

Joe Carlin, 78, told him over coffee on another day: “I would not admit to people that I’m a Catholic right now if they’re not Catholic.”

“Do you feel uncomfortable wearing that?” another woman, who declined to give her name, citing the sensitivity of her work with sex abuse survivors, had asked of his clerical clothing while at a church retreat.

“I don’t, but, you know, um, no, I don’t,” he’d replied, fumbling, because it was a question he’d asked of himself before, and sometimes he didn’t know the answer. Some emotions were easier. He felt angry — angry that pedophile priests had been shuffled from parish to parish. He felt frustrated. Why all of the church secrecy? Why the sealed court cases, the priests quietly retired, the accusers silenced with confidentiality agreements? And sometimes, most painful of all, he felt betrayed. He had sacrificed his life to become a priest, a decision that hadn’t been easy. It was only in August 1993 that, after years of thinking about it, he saw a processional for Pope John Paul II while flying over Denver. In that moment, he heard God’s voice — the clearest it had ever been — telling him he belonged down there, with them. He soon gave up his military career, and the possibility of marriage and a family, and now to have this act of service become so twisted in people’s minds? To have someone ask if he was uncomfortable wearing his clerical clothing, when he should feel only pride? It hurt to think about it.

He’d stood and, smoothing out the folds of that clothing, stepped out of the chapel, having decided what he would say during his homily. He looked out into the main church hall.

Ten minutes until the service. Hundreds of people already in the pews. All eyes on him.

Days later now, at the jail again, John Praveen’s face appears on the computer monitor against a backdrop of white walls, closed doors and a stairway leading out of the camera frame. It is a face that looks swollen, unshaven, on the verge of crying. Christensen stares at it, blinking in disbelief, before he speaks.

Every day since his arrest, he has thought about talking with Praveen and all of the questions he wanted to ask him. Everything that had happened that week still didn’t make any sense to Christensen, who couldn’t, no matter how hard he tried, square the man he had thought Praveen was with the man the police say he is.

He first heard of Praveen shortly before he moved to South Dakota last November from Hyderabad, India, to help fill the Rapid City Diocese’s shortage of priests. Praveen arrived at the cathedral in June, carrying himself with a childlike earnestness that almost everyone found disarming. He wanted to put every parishioner’s birthday in the church bulletin. He asked if he could redecorate the church’s understated altar with bright purples and blues. He followed church staff members around, repeatedly asking if they needed help with anything. “Always had a smile on his face,” said Margaret Jackson, a parishioner who took him out to an Indian restaurant days before his arrest.

The Rev. John Praveen is charged with two counts of sexual contact with a 13-year-old. (Diocese of Rapid City)

On a Sunday afternoon three months after Praveen arrived, a local family reported to police allegations against him — details of which are under court seal — and the next day, investigators were at the cathedral. They said they wanted to talk to Praveen, not at the cathedral, but back at the station. Christensen followed them, then waited outside the interrogation room for more than an hour, counting tiles, praying, until the door opened. Praveen came out. His eyes were red. His hair, normally combed, was a ruffled mess. Disbelief was on his face. A detective took Christensen aside and told him. Praveen had been accused of sexually abusing a child. Christensen felt numb, then drove back to the cathedral in near silence with Praveen, who immediately went to his room, where he sat awake with the lights on all night.

The next day, after the police had again come to the cathedral, after Christensen had asked Praveen to change so he wouldn’t be seen cuffed in his clerical clothes, after police had photographed a classroom in the cathedral’s basement, Christensen got online. He wanted to inform the cathedral’s few Facebook followers of all the information he had, but many already had found out from the police on social media everything they needed to know.

“Is it just me, or is the vast majority of these cases that we continue to hear about, involve Catholic priests?!” one person wrote in response to the police department’s Facebook post.

“NEVER go to a Catholic Church,” another person said.

That type of reaction, the absolutism of it, was perhaps most upsetting of all to Christensen. He knew there were abusive priests, but the messy reality was that most weren’t. In fact, he’d come to see clergy members as no more likely to be sexual predators than people in other professions with access to children. Some studies, including a report in 2004 by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, put the number of sexual abusers among priests at about 4 percent, roughly consistent with clergymen of other faiths. Other organizations, including BishopAccountability.org, placed it at just under 6 percent. Anne Barrett Doyle, the organization’s co-director, says it may be shown to be higher still — especially if authorities compel transparency.

And what to do about the priests who abuse? How to balance the secular need for punishment with the Catholic command to forgive? Could anger and compassion coexist?

Now staring at Praveen, who is wiping his eyes and sniffling, speaking so mutedly that he’s barely intelligible, Christensen can’t help but feel sympathy, perhaps not as much as he has for the victim and her family, but sympathy nonetheless.

He leans forward, presses the phone tightly to his ear.

“Father John, how are you?” he says softly.

He decides not to ask the questions most on his mind.

“Did you know that you can get e-mails?”

He decides not to ask about either of the dates listed on Praveen’s charging document, Sept. 3 and Sept. 28, both of which were days the two priests had spent together. The first had been Labor Day, when they’d gone to a barbecue at the home of a local Catholic. Christensen didn’t see the girl there, but he did see Praveen play cornhole for hours and hours. And the second date had been the day of a ceremony at the cathedral, attended by hundreds, to honor an Italian saint, and Christensen had urged Praveen, during lunch, to try some American food for once.

“What do you need?”

He will not ask how, if the allegations are true, Praveen could have possibly toggled, on both of those days, in two separate locations, between his festivities with congregants and his abuse of the same child, and without anyone noticing. (The girl’s parents have not returned multiple requests for comment.)

“You have the Bible there? You have the rosary?”

And he will not ask what he most wanted to, a question that he repeated with parishioners during a moment of exasperation and frustration days earlier: How could Praveen have done this to them, to the Church?

Instead, he will say this:

“Many, many people are praying for you.”

“We’re trying to help. We’re trying to help.”

“Let’s say a prayer.”

Christensen lowers his head and closes his eyes. Praveen does the same.

“We ask for a particular blessing upon Father John,” Christensen says. “God bless you, with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”

Christensen hangs up the phone, the light turns off, and Praveen’s face disappears.

Christensen walks to the back of the church as worshipers sing at the conclusion of Mass. (Ryan Hermens for The Washington Post)

Enveloped in robes of green and gold, holding the Book of the Gospels high above his head, Christensen had stared straight at the cathedral’s altar and slowly walked toward it. The opening hymn had started. The congregants had stood. He knew he had to be strong for this. He was the face of the parish. He was the representation of the priesthood. He couldn’t waver, not with so many looking to him for answers.

Christensen came to the lectern. He looked out at the hundreds of people below, barely an empty pew in sight, and glanced down at his notes. For days, he had asked where God had been in all of this, and he thought he finally had his answer. One of this week’s readings described how Jesus’s suffering had made him perfect, empathetic to the struggles of mortal life because those struggles had once been his, too. So maybe the embarrassment and shame they felt now — their own suffering — wasn’t without value. Maybe it could make them stronger. Like Jesus.

He looked up.

“Jesus knew suffering in so many ways. . . . Today, we as a parish family are suffering,” he said, his words slowing as he spoke, echoing faintly off the marble walls and stained-glass windowpanes. “Suffering because our brother has been arrested. A child and a family are suffering. The church, the body of Christ, our parish community of the cathedral is suffering. A priest. A priest. A brother priest and, in some ways, all priests are suffering.”

He paused for a long moment.

“Father John was arrested on Tuesday morning,” he said.

There was the sound of hundreds of lungs filling with a sharp inhalation of breath. Christensen glanced down, then up again and continued.

“. . . sexual contact with a minor . . . ”

A man slowly turned the gold wedding band on his finger.

“. . . under the cloud of this abuse . . . “

A woman put her hand over her mouth.

“. . . many thoughts, many feelings . . . anger, frustration, confusion, bewilderment . . .”

Churchgoers leave Our Lady of Perpetual Help after Mass. Over the past two decades, social change, strict doctrine and clergy sex abuse scandals have caused more Catholics to turn away from the Catholic Church. (Ryan Hermens for The Washington Post)

On and on he went, solemnly, about how prayer was needed for the accused and the accuser, how this didn’t represent the priesthood. He did not bristle with anger or speak in disgust. There were no echoes of the new calls to end the vow of celibacy or grant women more power. He did not apologize, on behalf of the Catholic Church or on behalf of himself, even if the abuse allegedly had happened on his watch, because he didn’t know what to apologize for. And as he stood outside in the misting cold of that evening, greeting parishioners as they exited Mass, it didn’t seem as though they had expected these things of him.

“Thank you, Father,” a man said, quickly shaking his hand and leaving.

“Thank you, Father,” another man said.

“Good sermon, Father,” someone else offered.

Since the days of the first major scandal in the American church, in 2002, some have predicted that Catholics would abandon the church in revulsion. But while many have left, the primary reason, according to Pew research in 2010, was the conservatism of church teachings, not the sex abuse crises. “None of them were shaken by it” was how Christian Smith, a sociology professor at the University of Notre Dame, characterized 80 or so Catholics he interviewed in 2003. Another researcher, Michele Dillon of the University of New Hampshire, while wondering whether this time will be different, said Catholics have gotten past previous crises through “compartmentalization,” taking what they feel is valuable from the church and ignoring the rest.

This has extended even to survivors of sexual abuse, and their families, whose personal traumas are exacerbated by church scandals but who nonetheless don’t lose faith in Catholicism and the church, a reaction Christensen had encountered before and, to his surprise, was seeing again tonight.

“My daughter was 4,” one woman, Lisa Krogman told him of the day-care abuse. “We have been through hell and back. . . . The thing I finally said to her was we can’t walk with this crutch. . . . We can let God have it and let it go. And so that’s what we did.”

“I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy,” another middle-aged woman, who declined to give her name to protect her daughters’ privacy, said to him next about the repercussions of abuse. “My girls still suffer to this day because of what happened to them. It’s horrible, but I don’t know exactly what happened to this girl.”

What Christensen did know about the girl: that her alleged encounters with Praveen had left her so shaken that she quickly told her parents what had happened, and they believed her. He knew that, within two days of it being reported, Praveen was in jail, and that the system had seemed to work as well as it could, even if it had failed so many other times. And he would soon know, but not yet, that the girl’s family would be back at the church within days of Praveen’s arrest, along with the girl herself, all of them participating in Mass, and that they would return again the week after that. He would shake his head, marveling at it. “A testimony of their own faith,” he would say.

The Rev. Brian Christensen opens the church doors after Mass. After a priest in his parish was charged with sexual contact involving a child, Christensen wasn’t sure how he would address to his congregants what had become the most wrenching and complicated episode of his life as a priest. “Jesus knew suffering in so many ways,” he told them. “Today, we as a parish family are suffering.” (Ryan Hermens for The Washington Post)

For now, in the calm following Mass, in this obscure corner of a global crisis consuming the church, he thought about the faith of those less devout. The coming weeks would be difficult. There would be Praveen’s criminal arraignment. Possibly even a trial. More headlines in the Rapid City Journal. The cathedral could well lose people over this. But that, at least, was for later.

He went to the back of the cathedral. He took off his heavy robes. He breathed in and closed his eyes.

Credits: By Terrence McCoy.