The revelation of my own sinfulness hit me like a lungful of icy, spruce-scented air on a frigid Vermont morning. I gasped, realizing that I was hearing and feeling the message through every bone and sinew of my body. It had been a long, long time since something hit me that powerfully.
The lector read the letter from our pastor in a flat, monotone voice.
“It is with regret that we announce that Deacon Stan has been removed from his duties at our church. He has also been temporarily suspended from his job as a religion teacher at the parochial school in the city pending an investigation into allegations of abuse…”
Stan, with whom I’d recently race-walked my first 5k for charity – for a right to life charity no less?
Stan, who with his wife and boys, sat in the fourth pew every Sunday – except when his boys were altar servers or when he or his wife distributed Holy Communion?
It was impossible. It was unthinkable.
Except that it wasn’t unthinkable. It had become dreadfully commonplace. I had just assumed our tiny rural parish was immune to the scandals rocking the church.
Over the past several months, faithful Catholics have been treated to a continuous series of revelations about our cardinals, bishops, priests and others who have murdered the innocence of children, teens, and young adults worldwide. Pedophilia rings exposed. Police raids in Rome. Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Report. High ranking prelates exposing rot, deep in the heart of the church. My church, my beloved church in which I was raised, left and chose to return to, was in the throes of a scandal. And the scandal hurt. It hurt as if someone in my own family was in the middle of a crisis.
Sitting in the choir area where I have sat, feeling safe and secure in the love of my parish family for the past decade, the blood draining from my cheeks as I heard the unthinkable read aloud, for all to hear in the congregation, came the words I refused to believe.
“…he has been removed from his duties..”
No. It was impossible.
“…he has been accused of abuse…”
*. *. *.
In June, I’d kept a promise to my friend’s family to attend their church service as a guest.
Eleven people rose from their comfortable seats. They ambled to the large, theater-like stage where the pastor and his wife beamed and welcomed each with kisses and hugs. They turned to face the gathered congregation.
“Now we will make our promises to the church,” he said. He held out a card and reeled off a list of promises that seemed familiar. Promise to love God the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit; promise to live the life of Christian virtue, to reject sin. Finally, the pastor reached the end of the pledges he asked the new members to make.
“Do you promise not to gossip about this church or its members?”
“I do!” the eleven breathed in unison, along with everyone around me.
Why was gossip singled out like this?
As I drove home, I mulled over why the congregation would include “no gossip” in its list of vows to make before joining the church.
Many years ago, I had heard rumors that the pastor of a friend’s church had been removed abruptly from his position. I ran into Holly, the former pastor’s wife who I knew socially through friends and neighbors, and said hello. She blushed, nodded, and moved away. I didn’t understand why she reacted as she did. I liked Holly. I didn’t know her well, but I wanted to get to know her better. I had just said hello in the snack aisle at Wal-Mart. What was wrong?
Later on that week, I ran into the original friend who had introduced me to the pastor’s wife. “I ran into Holly at Wal-Mart.”
“Oh, that’s nice.” She looked away.
“I said hello, and she acted weird. I heard Holly and Jim are no longer pastors at your church. Is this true?”
“Goodness, what happened? I thought everyone loved Holly and Jim.”
She squirmed. “I don’t want to talk about it,” she blurted.
I just said, “Okay,” and changed the subject. I could see the relief in her eyes, and we spoke happily about our gardens, her chickens, how her son’s new home was coming along.
Now I understand her reason for changing the subject so abruptly. To ask if a thing is true – “I heard Holly and Jim are no longer your pastoral team. Is this true?” is an acceptable question. It is confirmation of a fact. But my second question led to gossip, and to avoid gossip, my wise friend asked to change the subject.
She kept herself from sin, kept me from sin, and refused to add fuel to the fire of rumors swirling in town about Holly and Jim’s abrupt resignation from a church.
*. *. *
There is a subtle difference between gossip and information, slander and conversation. It took me a long time to understand the distinction since it is natural to share information about others. When a friend is in the hospital, is it gossip to tell other friends? No, to share the fact that Elizabeth is in the hospital is a fact; to speculate on the reason, without Elizabeth’s permission to share it and without her explaining the reason, is gossip. Fact, versus fiction. Conversation, versus gossip.
Gossip may be defined as speech about someone who is not present with the underlying understanding that what you share may be harmful, malicious, or speculation. In other words, it is not factual, not shared for a reason, but shared to make conversation – with the objective of the conversation to stimulate emotional responses.
For me to run to my friends in the choir or in the Sunday school at my own church and ask if the rumors regarding Stan were true would be construed as gossip. To share the facts, to read the pastor’s letter at Mass, while I found it incredibly hurtful to Stan’s reputation, was truth.
Truth: He had been suspended by the bishop from his duties as deacon
Truth: He had also been suspended from his teaching job until the allegations could be investigated.
Anything else: Pure speculation.
Which equals gossip.
We had to rely on our pastor, who has proven to be a reliable and trustworthy, person, to ensure that truthful follow up information would be shared.
In the meantime, I squirmed with the need to talk about it with someone. Not for Stan’s benefit, but for my own.
*. *. *.
I couldn’t let it go. I texted a friend, who I knew had also dealt with allegations against a beloved priest in her parish. Wisely, she said, “Pray for everyone and let it go. Many of these allegations turn out to be nothing.”
I texted Stan himself. I knew that if he was under investigation, he probably couldn’t tell me the details. It also felt wrong to ask him directly. But I had to let him know he had a friend, at least one friend, left in the congregation. (I suspect he had many friends who reacted as I did).
I simply said in my text, “Thinking of you.”
All that day, I resisted the urge to call or text friends who might know something. It was like an unbearable itch, this itch to gossip, to churn and chew over the facts read at church until I spit out a version of the truth that I could live with.
*. *. *.
A brief search online about the psychology of gossip turned up conflicting reasons why human beings love to gossip. It’s a social skill, not a flaw, one website trumpeted. No one except the church seemed to think it was a sin, something vile and evil. The Catholic church lists it as a sin against the 8th commandment.
The Bible tells us quite clearly that we are not to gossip. It’s in the 10 commandments – Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness Against Thy Neighbor. I had always understood false witness to mean lying about a neighbor, as in lying about their character, whereabouts, or actions. I don’t lie about that, I thought to myself as I flipped through a few more web pages.
I do lie about others when I gossip, though. I lied to myself and to other people in the conversation by stating speculation as fact. Speculating about why or why not the priest was late to Mass may spread rumors about him that are untrue and unfair; it could be as simple an explanation as he hit traffic coming in from one of the other parishes he manages. I don’t need to add my own layer of speculation to the situation.
Gossip is a way we make ourselves feel better. It’s a false method of controlling the environment around us by explaining it. We speculate and gossip because often the facts surrounding a situation are unclear. When the facts are unclear, the truth can’t be known. We then insert our own speculation and discuss it with others for validation.
My question about Holly and Jim began as confirmation of fact but ended in gossip because the true reason why they left as pastors of my friend’s church could not be fully known. My friend probably knew; her husband is an elder in the church and sits on the board of directors. But since she was, by nature of that relationship, bound not to share what might have been said in confidence, she could only request that we change the subject. To speculate on why Holly and Jim left was gossip; to say what she might know as truth would jeopardize the confidences she had been asked to hold. I had accidentally entered into a no-win conversation, and the only thing was to graciously exit that topic, which we did.
*. *. *.
The week passed, and my heart was heavy thinking about Stan. I could ask Stan what had happened, but fearing to dredge up his pain to satisfy my own curiosity when he might not be able to share the facts, I dodged that conversation. My instinct to grill others at church about the situation was my own method of 1) speculation and 2) validation. Neither of which at this stage of the situation would be helpful to Stan, but would make ME feel more in control of the situation.
Because really, what was upsetting me? Stan doesn’t teach children at our church – he runs the adult Bible study. Being removed from his position as a religion teacher at a school 50 miles away shouldn’t upset me.
It definitely upset me that someone I believe to be innocent has been accused of wrongdoing. Was that the whole reason?
What really upset me was that my psychological equilibrium was thrown off by the charges against Stan. To hear that Stan, someone I admired, had been accused of a heinous crime, one that damaged souls, shattered my construct of the world. If the accusations were true, then my own internal sin-detector was also broken. I was not a good judge of character.
More importantly, if I dug down more deeply, I realized the root of my disquiet: If Stan was guilty of abuse, then none of us were safe from serious sin. Stan, whose father was a deacon in the church. Stan, who lived for Christ, whose faith made him get up at 8 a.m. on a Saturday to lead Bible study and join our church family in a walk to support life from conception to natural death at a walk-a-thon. Stan, whose sons were acolytes, who visited the sick, who had a kind word for all, was really a liar, and if he was a liar, then I could be, too.
I wanted to believe that I was safe from serious sin. Safe.
None of us are safe. Only God’s love and grace keep us safe.
*. *. *.
Our pastor rotates among three parishes on Sundays, so he’s not always the presider at Mass. This Sunday, he said Mass, then before the dismissal, asked everyone to be seated. He strode to the ambo and read the next announcement.
“In the spirit of truth, we are pleased to announce that our brother, Stan, has been cleared – I repeat, cleared – of all charges of abuse by the state Social Services. To clarify, Stan has been accused by a student at his school of mental cruelty, not sexual or physical abuse. The diocese in an abundance of caution, will continue its investigation, but I repeat, Stan has been cleared, and the charges deemed false by the State Department of Social Services. An investigation by the state has been completed and found all charges without any basis.”
Stan had been accused of “mental cruelty” by a student.
No evidence, of any kind of misconduct, had been found by the state investigation.
*. *. *.
Think about it: my bearing false witness – gossiping about the situation – would have hurt Stan and his family even more than they were already hurting.
I would have added rumors to the facts, making a bad situation worse.
In the name of satisfying my inquisitive mind and of controlling the unsafe and uncertain world around me, in the name of reassuring my own ego and assuaging my own sense of self-righteous worth, I would have added fuel to the fire and hurt the very person who I felt was hurting.
Oh, how wicked gossip is when you think about it what it does! It doesn’t just hurt the person you’re talking about. To make yourself feel better, you chip away a bit of your own soul, and you grab at a piece of the other person’s soul, and then you stomp on them all and mash them into the mud of gossip. Gossip doesn’t share useful information, and it doesn’t help anyone. It doesn’t add clarity or peace of mind. It just rips another person apart for the sake of giving you five minutes of relief from your own conscience.
Here’s what my beloved patron, St. Francis de Sales, had to say about gossip in his book, The Devout Life.
When you hear ill of anyone, refute the accusation if you can in justice do so; if not, apologize for the accused on account of his intentions… and thus gently check the conversation, and if you can, mention something else favorable to the accused.
St. John Vianney was a bit more acerbic in his condemnation of gossip:
The tongue of the scandalmonger is like the worm which gnaws at the good fruit- that is, the best actions that people do- and tries to turn them all to bad account. The tongue of the scandalmonger is a grub which taints the most beautiful of the flowers and upon them leaves behind it the disgusting trace of its own slime.
There is yet another form of wrongdoing which is all the more deplorable in that it is more common, and that is licentious talk. There is nothing more abominable, my dear brethren, nothing more horrible than such talk… It outrages God, it scandalizes our neighbour.
I am grateful for the grace of the Holy Spirit that bridled my tongue and raised my awareness that something was amiss by my urge to gossip – and that’s what it must have been because I realize I have been throughout my life a dreadful gossip. About school, about work, about family, I have engaged in all sorts of useless speculation, never with the intention of dredging up sin or pulling people into the mire, but with no useful results.
Lord, I ask that you remind me again not to engage in this vile habit. And I thank you for bringing this to my attention so that I can confess it and invite your grace into my life to heal me of this failing.
Gossip. Who would have thought that an incident in church would make me aware of a grave sin? It’s truly “the devil’s radio” to quote the George Harrison song. Time to turn the dial to another more positive station and tune out the noise.
The names and places in this essay were changed out of respect and consideration for the people involved. Stan’s case is still open in the diocese, who, I have been told, takes their time to investigate things.
This article appears on the website of writer Jeanne Grunert. Jeanne is a full-time freelance writer, marketing coach, and compassionate lifestyle advocate. She writes faith infused, character-driven Gothic fiction. Learn more about Jeanne’s fiction on her website, jeannegrunert.com, or visit her commercial writing and marketing work at sevenoaksconsulting.com