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The Seal and the State: An Interview with Rev. Timothy J. Mockaitis, author of The Seal: A Priest's Story | Carl E. Olson | Ignatius Insight | September 17, 2009

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On April 22, 1996, Fr. Timothy J. Mockaitis, a priest of the Archdiocese of Portland, Oregon, heard the confession of inmate (and eventually convicted murderer) Conan Wayne Hale in the Lane County Jail in Eugene, Oregon. What he didn't know until a few days later was that the confession had been taped. That marked the start of an intense and protracted legal battle, the story of which is detailed in Fr. Mockaitis's book, The Seal: A Priest's Story (Xlibris, 2008), which includes a foreword by Francis Cardinal George.

The story is of particular interest to me. My wife and I first met Fr. Mockaitis a few months before the confession was taped. We were newly married Evangelical Protestants who were interested in the Catholic Church and just happened to be living across the street from St. Paul Catholic Church in Eugene, where Fr. Mockaitis was pastor at the time. We got to know Fr. Mockaitis a bit more the following year as we went through the RCIA program at the parish; he attended nearly every meeting, despite having to spend much time dealing with the taped confession debacle. And in April 1997, he received us into the Catholic Church, confirming us and giving us Holy Communion.

Fr. Mockaitis's book provides a unique and well-written perspective on the entire matter, along with plenty of food for thought about Church-State relations and the fragility of religious freedom. I recently interviewed Fr. Mockaitis, who is now pastor at Queen of Peace Catholic Church in Salem, Oregon, about the book and his experiences.

Ignatius Insight: When you heard the confession of Conan Hale on April 22, 1996, did you sense that anything was different from your previous visits to the jail? When did you first learn that something was amiss?

Fr. Mockaitis: I think it helpful to see this particular visit not as an isolated incident but as part of my ministry to the local county jail at that time. A lay minister at the jail called to ask if I would be available for the sacramental and pastoral needs of inmates should they request a visit with a priest. Part of his request was that I make myself available for the sacrament of reconciliation should an inmate express that spiritual need. I agreed to do so and began a ministry which lasted about nine months before the time that I visited with Conan Wayne Hale. Therefore, I was not a stranger to the jail authorities and had been there often enough that they knew who I was and what the purpose of my visits would be. Conan Hale was an inmate who requested to see a Catholic priest for the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

As I arrived at the jail and prepared to enter the visitor's area, which is where jail authorities required I remain, nothing seemed amiss. All was as usual and a large sign near the waiting area stated the expectations of visitors to the jail. One clear statement read: "No recording equipment allowed." There was no indication, either by a sign or verbally, that conversations might be monitored. I was alone with this inmate, and once my sacramental visit was ended, I left.

It was not until about ten days later that I received a phone call from a local newspaper reporter who had discovered among public court records a copy of a search warrant, signed by a local judge, giving permission to jail authorities to listen to the tape recording of my conversation with the inmate.

I was shocked the reporter assumed I knew of this recording. Once I convinced him I didn't know about it he found the root of this controversy and stated he was preparing a news story for the next morning's paper. He understood the local district attorney, a man I had never met, considered this clandestinely obtained tape to be part of evidence in the homicide investigation of this inmate who was a suspect in a triple homicide. I was stunned and outraged, confused and frightened. And the next morning the reporter's story indeed brought this chilling action to the public.

Ignatius Insight: Upon what basis did the district attorney of Lane County argue that the taped confession should be admissible as evidence? Was there any precedent for such an argument?

Fr. Mockaitis: It was several days after the news broke that the district attorney made two claims to the public on an evening new broadcast. The first was simply that Oregon law allows such tapings, that the law only protects attorney and client; secondly, that it was done for security reasons in the jail. His chilling statement touched me deeply: "Who knows what sort of things might get planned by individuals coming into a jail with suspects, even priests or ministers. There have been priests or ministers who have committed criminal acts." Upon hearing this justification, I sat stunned because I was no stranger to the jail. They knew who I was and why I had been coming.

As far as the tape being admissible as evidence, he used the serious nature of the crime, a triple homicide, as justification for the secret taping. He felt the pursuit of truth in this case, and its grievous nature, waved any respect for the priest/penitent relationship. We knew of no precedent for such an argument because such an incident has never before come to a court of law in this country. No one has ever had the audacity to do such a thing and then attempt to justify his action in a way that revealed, at least to me, the state had backed itself into an untenable legal corner.

Ignatius Insight: What involvement did Archbishop Francis George and the Vatican eventually have in the situation?

Fr. Mockaitis: The Vatican, the Penitentiary specifically, was notified a day or two after the incident had become public news. I informed our Auxiliary Bishop the next morning after I received the phone call from the newspaper reporter and he began to alert the appropriate Archdiocesan officials. The Holy See did not play any direct role in this litigation but they were clearly concerned and fully in agreement with the Archdiocese of Portland that the tape, and written transcripts of the sacramental conversation, be immediately destroyed. However, they remained in communication through monthly updates. It is interesting to note that at first the officials of the Holy See questioned the truth of this event. Once they were convinced such a thing happened, they commented that it carried an even more ominous tone because it happened in the United States, a country which proclaims equal rights and is the bastion of religious liberty.

Archbishop Francis George arrived as the new Archbishop of Portland about three weeks after the news broke. By now, the legal wheels between Church and State were underway and it was clear from the beginning that Archbishop George was well briefed on the event. He quickly spoke out at a Penance service we held at my parish church that June and stated the position of the Church strongly on the immediate destruction of the tape recording and written transcripts, that we would pursue this case "as long as necessary." He confided to me that he considered this case the most important issue in the Archdiocese and said it would remain so until justice was served. The Archbishop attended all of the subsequent court hearings held that August before the Federal Court judge and in December before three judges of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. He was very much involved in the entire process from its beginning.

Ignatius Insight: How and when was the case/situation eventually resolved, at least legally? What happened to the recorded tape?

Fr. Mockaitis: We had been essentially dismissed in county court then, after an appeal to the Federal Court, and a three-day hearing before a judge in Portland who expressed his dismay on the event but basically did nothing more than slap the hand of the district attorney and did not order the tape destroyed. At that point the Church immediately turned to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and requested the case be expedited. In less than two months, the case was accepted by the appeals court and a date for a hearing was set for that December. Judge John Noonan, a respected Catholic judge on the Ninth Circuit, along with two other judges, granted a hearing on the case in Seattle, Washington.

Six weeks later, in January of 1997, an opinion was issued by Judge Noonan on the judges' findings. It was a near total vindication for the Church with one very significant exception: the clandestinely recorded tape was not ordered destroyed. Yet, Judge Noonan made his finding very clear: a violation of both the First and the Fourth Amendments and a violation of my civil rights to privacy. They ordered the State of Oregon to reimburse the Archdiocese for all of its legal costs and ordered the county be issued an injunction forbidding any such action to ever take place in the future. Judge Noonan's wording is clear and strong and a copy of the opinion can easily be found on the internet. Yet, the neuralgic issue of the tape remained. This left the Church to still wonder if it could ever be used in any form in the upcoming trial of the inmate whose confession I had heard. Although it was discussed, neither the Church nor the State saw the need to go the final step—an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court to order the tape destroyed and settle the issue once and for all.

Ignatius Insight: As a priest, how did this affect your perspective of the relationship between Church and State? Of religious liberty? We often think, "It cannot happen in the U.S.", with "it" being the violation of essential liberties and rights. But doesn't your experience suggest otherwise? How firm or fragile do you think religious liberty is in the U.S.?

Fr. Mockaitis: As a priest, I suppose I was like most Americans. We take so much for granted and assume, somewhat naively, that the status quo will be maintained, that our religious liberty is absolute, and that we will forever be allowed to practice our faith freely with no fear of government intrusion. It is nearly inconceivable to imagine a scenario different from that in this country. We have never suffered the restrictions and persecutions Christians of Eastern Europe, the Middle East, China, and so many parts of the world that have limited religious freedom.

So, this event has made me appreciate how blessed and fortunate we are to have a justice system which works, albeit with human imperfection, yet also how real the tensions can become between our religious and secular values. Who could say otherwise in the climate of today's push and pull on the issues of abortion, the ethical implementation of health care, the controversy around capital punishment, and the place of the Church's voice in the public square? We want to be good citizens but it's never easy to take a stand for truth in the face of opposition. I think it calls for us to be vigilant and see the role of the Church as a prophetic one when the environment calls for it.

As we speak out more strongly and as the Church continues to articulate its opposition to various permissive laws in this country and push against the grain if you will, are we headed for policies that more and more isolate and stifle the voice of the Church? Yet, cooler and wiser heads have so far prevailed. Church and state need to work in solidarity for the common good with one another and not be adversarial.

Ignatius Insight: When was the last time you had any contact with Conan Hale?

Fr. Mockaitis:
The last time I visited with Conan Wayne Hale was about a year and a half ago where he has been incarcerated on death row at the Oregon State maximum security Prison since 1998. However, we do occasionally correspond through letter and I know that I am not the only person who has been with him and other convicts on death row. He is a young man in his early 30's who has found his Catholic faith to be a lifeline for him. He has developed a friendship with another Catholic man on death row. They regularly pray the rosary, read the Catholic paper, and listen to our local Catholic radio station. While never diminishing the suffering of the victims, and their families, we tend to dismiss the humanity of the imprisoned and particularly those on death row. We would rather they simply disappear or forever live in isolation as punishment for their crimes. Worse yet, many have convinced themselves that killing them is some form of justice—a cruel and unjust punishment no longer necessary in our more civilized modern society. It simply is not compatible with what we profess as American citizens and certainly is not well suited with our Christian lives.

Ignatius Insight: How has your perspective on the Sacrament of Confession deepened and grown from the time, say, you were first ordained until now? Do Catholics take seriously enough or appreciate enough the Sacrament?

Fr. Mockaitis: This is quite a broad question that I've taken some time in answering. I've served as a priest for 31 years and over that length of time I believe I have grown in a broader viewpoint of how this Sacrament is significant in our spiritual lives, how it confronts the truth of our broken human nature, and why the gift of God's forgiveness is beyond our human understanding in this life and why the Church, through the Holy Spirit's inspiration, has ritualized the promise of forgiveness given to us through Jesus.

I clearly remember both nervousness and awe in my first year of priesthood as I heard confessions; of my attention to detail and my effort to be present to the person who either knelt or sat before me. I think any priest would readily say that we know this is beyond ourselves. Who am I to say, "I absolve you from your sins? Christ in his priesthood uses those of us who have clay feet to carry out his will. Understanding what that means on a personal level has definitely changed through time and experience. I am constantly humbled and challenged to see and hear myself in any penitent.

I think a more fundamental perspective on the sacrament has given me a more realistic understanding of human nature. That is, to place on anyone a level of expectation which they are not ready to climb but at least are making the effort to live a life of holiness is to reverence the person before you. Grace is indeed at work in their lives. In this beautiful sacrament, we must accept people as they come, judge their sincerity, and offer them a true experience of reconciliation. Jesus' own challenge to "love your enemies" is a measure by which we can gauge our lives. So, for myself as confessor, who readily sees sin in his own life, I trust that over the last 31 years I have grown in a more compassionate and respectful approach within the sacramental conversation.

Lastly, whether Catholics take seriously enough or appreciate the Sacrament at all must first begin with their own awareness of the reality of sin in each of our lives. Too much talk about sin, in today's "tolerant" culture, simply doesn't ring true in people's lives. However, to never speak of sin is a grave disservice to our good people. Once we accept the reality of sin on both a social and personal level, only then will Catholics, or anyone for that matter, see the value of the sacrament. Once we see sin as a sickness and not simply as a "mistake" or an "everyone does it so just say I'm sorry and move on" viewpoint, then we will understand how this great Sacrament of Reconciliation heals that sickness and strengthens us to reject sin and embrace virtue as a way of life.

While many Catholics indeed still make regular use of this Sacrament, I believe the majority make use of it only occasionally—or in some cases, sadly, not at all. We need to wake up to how the culture of today is deceiving us while at the same time be able to discern between the weeds and the wheat. As the holy St. John Vianney said, "How fortunate we are to have a Sacrament which heals the wounds of our soul."

Visit the site for The Seal: A Priest's Story.

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