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Wednesday, January 27, 2010


On January 15, 2010, the altar, sanctuary and sacred space of St. James Church in Chinatown was desecrated by several rock bands that had been, for whatever reason, invited to perform there by the pastor.

When video of the event hit the web, the Catholic blogosphere exploded in outrage. The priest, Father Walter Toneletto, almost immediately apologized, saying he had been misled by the organizers. He avers that he is actually the pastor of another parish, which merged with this one within the last two years, that he "lived downtown" and was unaware of the problem because he went home before the event, that he was deeply sorry, and that others were saying evil things about him.

So, in Christian charity, many people argue that we must accept the priest's word and turn our anger towards the evil men who deceived him.

This may well be true.
However, during the uproar, several questions were left unanswered.

1) The parish has an activity hall. How did the band promoters manage to deceive the pastor into giving the bands access to the sanctuary instead of putting them in the activity hall?

2) "Ah!" one might argue, "The space is such that by giving access to the activity hall, they automatically have access to the sanctuary!" Really?

First, there's no evidence that this is true. Indeed, I would be absolutely shocked to discover that an extensive renovation in 2002 would not include security measures that provide for exactly this kind of lock-off between sanctuary space and activity hall.

Second, the videos of the event (most of them since pulled by the fans who posted them), show the rock bands performing on a stage that appeared to be specially built and adapted to the sacred space, with the wooden supports specifically cut so that the platform projected out over the steps of the sanctuary.

How did such an extension get measured, cut and built unless the priest knew the bands would set up in the sanctuary and around the altar ahead of time? It could be true, but if it is, I must say, these deceivers are really, really expert, because they apparently snuck in, measured the space, pre-fabbed the stage, assembled it and started their shows without the pastor having a clue.

3) Speaking of which, what parish staff, if any, had control of the keys and supervision of the event space all evening long? How did they deceive the parish representatives at the event into going along with it? Who opened up the church, helped out with the organization that night, cleaned up and locked up? Especially if there is no parish staff besides the priests, as the parish bulletins seem to indicate? Or are the pastors at this Manhattan church in the habit of letting keys to the sanctuary float freely among the parishioners? What a curious custom for otherwise suspicious New Yorkers to have!

4) Father Toneletto claims he went downtown to his rectory, and was thus unaware that the event had raged out of control. As it happens, the church is also downtown, less than a block away from his rectory, in fact. Now, it is true that city noise can be impressive, but his rectory is not all that far away, is it?

If he had been called away to a sick parishioner or a dinner or something, that would be understandable. But he shows an amazing disinterest in what happens inside of his own sacred space, doesn't he? How did the band organizers deceive him into displaying this uncharacteristic level of disinterest?

5) Indie events are known for being borderline illegal, as they frequently overflow the permitted occupancy space for fire code and engage in other illegal activity. However, this event had an open bar for an hour and a half before the bands started playing, and was also BYOB. This was advertised on the internet. I've never met a priest who wasn't aware of dram shot law and the legal impact it could have on his church and himself. So, what was on the church fliers advertising the event? The church bulletin? Does the church have a liquor license?

How did the band organizers deceive the priest into allowing, or at least not knowing, about ninety minutes of free alcohol in the back of the church prior to the bands even going on stage?

In the spirit of the ubiquitous CRAP training (Children Really Are Protected) that every parish in the nation now foists on its parishioners, we should learn how such deception is done so it cannot be repeated on other priests, or on the laity, fools that we are. Indeed, training in how to avoid deception by roving bands of juvenile teenagers should probably be required of every volunteer in every parish in the country.

So, if Father Toneletto could describe in exact detail how he was so cleverly deceived, he would go a long way towards helping other priests, and scads of parishioners, avoid this problem.

But there are a couple of further questions:

6) When the news first started gaining steam on the net, nearly a week after the event, someone responded by sending out an e-mail in support of the parish, insisting the event never took place, that it had been canceled before anything actually happened. Who would do such a thing?

Certainly the indie fans aren't that stupid - they were posting video, photo, and blog entries about the event all over the internet afterwards and happy as clams about it. Only someone who never thought about the internet, never accessed the internet, never looked on the internet, would try to send out an e-mail denying the event took place.

7) If you do a search on Walter Toneletto, you'll find that a priest with the same name had been stationed up in Montreal, some years back, and he had a very big reputation for working with the youth. "If we give them space, they will come in and start working," says Tonelotto. "But if we do everything our way, the old way, then they stay out."

Is it the same Father Toneletto?
I don't know.

But I've worked in enough parishes to know that "youth-oriented" pastors are notorious for violating rubrics left and right in the name of "being pastoral." They tend to view the sanctuary as a stage and themselves as performers. Indeed, I once heard a priest with that attitude tell another priest who was vesting to say Mass, "Go break a leg."

Youth-oriented pastors are very big on having everyone gather in the sanctuary and hold hands around the altar while an execrable band plays even more execrable music. I once worked in a diocese run by an archbishop with a very strong orthodox reputation. Yet one of the largest parishes in his diocese held a regular "rock band Mass" once a month, in which the rock band played in the sanctuary during the liturgy, substituting their own self-composed music for the Psalm response.

Even though this was a gross violation of the liturgy, the pastor and the bishop were apparently fine with it. After all, it was "for the youth" (cue tears and violins). As far as I know, it's still going on today, a decade later (and this was not the same diocese, or even the same state, where I heard the "break a leg" comment).

I don't personally think there's any question that Father Toneletto knew full well the bands were going to be in the sanctuary, that there would be beer, that their would be dancing in the aisles. He just never imagined that anyone would videotape it or that the video would end up on the internet.

Once that happened, he was a smart enough priest to realize that the best way out of the situation was to roll over and expose his soft underbelly while proclaiming his ignorance. The constant theme to his responses is, "I was mis-led and people have deliberately mis-represented me to others. I'm the victim here."

The archbishop, having publicly accepted Father Toneletto's version of the events and having studiously ignored the difficult questions surrounding his explanation of deception and deceit, clearly figures the public scandal is enough punishment for the pastor, and is betting the pastor has enough on the ball not to set himself up for another fall like this.

Besides which, the archbishop is new and he presides over New York City, where half the priests are insane, and most of the Catholic population are in various states of formal heresy, promoting abortion, contraception, etc. The American northeast , which has the highest concentration of Catholics in the country, also elects the highest percentage of pro-abort legislators. Father Toneletto is probably one of the more self-limiting of the self-destructive priests the archbishop has in his employ.

So, there's no point in pursuing this situation further. The archbishop has other, more pressing problems to deal with. Can you imagine being a bishop in a diocese where the sacrilege of the altar is one of your less pressing problems? Clearly, however, this problem has pretty much solved itself, so he's moving on. I will too.

Now, am I being uncharitable in reaching these conclusions?
Good Catholics can differ about that.

I don't mind giving someone the Christian charity of the doubt, but I refuse to ignore evidence of culpability that has not been explained away. Ignoring evidence, and admitting an inordinate, indeed, an unjustified, level of "Christian doubt" is part of what allowed the sexual abuse crisis to happen.

Sacrilege is worse then sexual abuse.
Sexual abuse merely offends the body, sacrilege is an attempt to directly offend the august dignity of God Himself. Indeed, sexual abuse involving baptized or otherwise consecrated people is itself a sacrilege, and makes the offense worse. That's why sexual abuse by priests is objectively worse than sexual abuse by school teachers.

Priests are consecrated to God's use in a way that school teachers are not.
When a priest commits sexual offenses, indeed, when even any baptized person commits sexual offenses, he commits sacrilege by the act.

Sanctuaries are consecrated to God's use and the use of the whole people of God.
This level of sacrilege is somewhat equivalent, but worse, than the sexual abuse of all the parishioners simultaneously.

I am glad that the priest has expressed remorse, that he has canceled future events of this kind, that he is holding a prayer vigil of reparation. No matter what his motivation - and I don't doubt that he is sincerely repentant - these are all good things to do.

So, why am I writing this?
I'm posting one last time about this event in order to lay the groundwork for my next post, the contemplation of a larger viewpoint within the Church that is beginning to take shape. I'll write about the exact dimensions of this in the near future.


Kate said...

This is a case of trying to be like the Episcopalians. In recent years, several big-name music acts (well, big for indie. You get me.) have performed in churches. Not Catholic Churches, for the most part. But Arcade Fire launched their Neon Bible album tour with a performance in NYC in an Epicopal church. And Arcade Fire got coverage in the New York Times.
Now, I'm not trying to justify this abuse. All I'm trying to do is point out where the idea for this event very likely came from. Churches are becoming popular performance spaces. (I want to say there's a converted church that has become an off-Broadway theater, but I may be misremembering that.) This is not so surprising in a culture that church-shops and encourages people to rent churches to which they have no spiritual connection in order to "stage" the perfect wedding.
Anyway, this event didn't come out of the blue, and given the precedents, any parish staff involved probably thought it was a good idea. If you can believe that.

Steve Kellmeyer said...


Exactly. I think you are exactly right. This priest, like many priests, decided to be "down", "cool", "hip" or whatever other 1960's term adequately expresses his desire to bond with youth and young adults.

It blew up in his face.
I find that comforting, actually.

Now, if someone on his staff had tried to get an Extraordinary Form Mass said, or tried to establish a Gregorian chant choir, that person would have been fired for not being on the same page with the youth.

Father Toneletto was on the same page... much good did it do him.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you on having doubts about this. Certainly, this is either the most foolishly trusting pastor in NYC, or he's not being completely truthful about how this came to pass. You can't set up a concert like that with a bar, lights, stage, etc., in an hour or two. They had to have access to the sanctuary for at least a full day, possibly two. So, his explanations are pretty thin.

I look very much forward to your forthcoming post. I'm interested to see if you've been thinking along the same lines I have.

Bill Hoog said...

The event was so late '60's that makes me want to wretch!

TH2 said...

Excellent commentary Steve. Looking forward to the next, related post.

Joey Joe Joe Shabbadoo said...

Links to the Keck Group and their restorations about the St. James church/activity hall are wrong - that is not the church in question here. That is for another church on the Upper East Side. This concert took place at the downtown St James Church on St James place. Get your facts straight.

Chris Thompson said...

haha, sweeet.