MARK SUTTON KNEW the act was "wrong" in the eyes of the Roman Catholic Church. But after serving as a Franciscan monk and a clergyman for 24 years, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Sutton knew, too, that he could ease the pain and anguish of a grieving family, whose one wish was to witness their daughter’s baptism before she died.
"Here was a young girl who had suffered a violent accident," Sutton recalls. It was 1996, and Sutton had left the Catholic priesthood to marry his wife, Rachel, five years earlier. That meant that he was forbidden to function as a priest in any public manner whatsoever. But the "vocation," as clergymen describe their call to the ministry, never left Sutton. And so, since his departure from the institutional Church in 1991, he had gone underground, so to speak, quietly performing pastoral and sacramental ministry without Church approval. On this day, he was working as a patient escort at a Catholic-affiliated hospital in Albuquerque. He had just delivered the school-aged girl, bloodied and barely breathing, from the scene of a brutal motorbike accident. The girl’s family, recognizing that her death was imminent, asked Sutton if anyone at the hospital could baptize her. He relayed the request to the hospital chaplain, who requested his help. Surely, he reasoned, the circumstances at hand — an anguished family crying out for spiritual aid — qualified as an emergency. And according to canon law (No. 976), even a priest without faculties can minister to the Catholic faithful in such dire times as "the danger of death."
So Sutton performed the sacrament, receiving the family’s heartfelt gratitude. Within minutes, however, word spread to the Catholic hospital’s director, who blasted Sutton for praying for the girl and demanded his boss terminate him. Says Sutton, "Here the family was overwhelmed with joy in the midst of all their sorrow, but the director wanted me fired."
It was not the only time Sutton had bumped up against the Church. When he announced his plans to marry, in 1991, his bishop was unexpectedly gracious — offering Sutton $1000, an old car, and a year’s worth of life insurance to ease the transition. But others of his archdiocesan superiors were not so understanding, and since then, Sutton has faced one affront after another. He has been denied jobs as a chaplain in secular settings, such as hospitals; terminated for doing "priestly things," which his accusers left vaguely defined; and ordered to leave parishes in which he is a congregant after parishioners discovered his identity. Church superiors have gone out of their way to make Sutton’s life miserable, using their political and social influence to prevent him from landing secular jobs by interfering in the interview process or threatening people who were willing to hire him — thus depriving him of a decent livelihood. Throughout the 1990s, Sutton says, he lived in utter fear of the Santa Fe, New Mexico, archdiocesan bishops. All this because he left the priesthood to marry.
"My wife could not believe that the Church could be so hard on one of its faithful followers," says Sutton, now secretly operating as chaplain at an Albuquerque nursing home. "She was just aghast that the Church could be so harsh on the married priests."
Sutton’s experience may be extreme, but it’s not isolated. More than 100,000 men around the world have left the Catholic priesthood since the 1960s. In the United States alone, the number of Catholic priests has today dropped to 44,874, a 23.5 percent decline since 1965, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. Most of these former clergymen— as many as 90 percent, according to one 1985 study — bade farewell to the priesthood to get married.
Church officials, for the most part, have shunned these men. Married priests have been kicked out of Catholic dioceses, virtually penniless, with nothing but the clothes on their backs. They’ve been denied aid to ease the transition into the everyday world — no low-interest loans, no counseling, no job contacts. Some bishops, such as several of Sutton’s, do everything in their power to prevent married priests from gaining employment. Others force former priests who opt for laicization to move 500 miles away to ensure that no one is aware of their previous status. Still others cancel retirement benefits.
Until recently, most married priests simply accepted the Church’s vindictiveness. But now, with the clergy sexual-abuse scandal dominating the headlines, exposing a staggering number of molestations and an appalling pattern of cover-ups by the Church hierarchy, married priests are beginning to see their mistreatment for what it is: a bitter irony. Notes one former Boston clergyman who taught some of the Archdiocese of Boston’s accused predatory priests at St. John’s Seminary, in Brighton, and who left the priesthood to marry in 1968, "It is ironic that, over the years, the men who fell in love with women were looked upon as abject failures, while the men who abused children were protected."