FR. JOE PUNDERSON
By Kathleen Hoy Foley
In less than 60 seconds I could conjure up a list of men, including priests, whose predilection for sexually assaulting children and other vulnerable members of society would not surprise me. They would be the testosterone-fueled meatheads; men who feed on their power and authority and rule through fear; and men conditioned into cruelty and arrogance by prejudice and propaganda. Fr. Joe would have never made the list. Not ever.
I only knew him briefly back in the 1980s. I was drawn to him by his kindness; his openness. Phil and I were participating in a charity bike ride, Anchor House, to be exact, and we were headed to our destination on a tour bus. It was a long day’s journey to our starting point. Fr. Joe sat in the seat behind us. He was somewhere in his thirties, as we were, and was soft spoken and friendly. He chatted about his dreams of one day being called up to go to the Vatican. I remember the three of us laughing a lot. Especially about the enormous, dirty, big-flush toilet I encountered at a seedy rest stop.
The first day of the bike ride my bottom was suffering and Fr. Joe offered me his sheepskin seat cover. What a gentleman! Though I didn’t use it for too long. We hadn’t gone twenty miles along that country road before I hit a ditch and fell off my bike and was injured. He helped me up. How considerate.
When Phil first informed me that Fr. Joe Punderson was among the Catholic priests in the Trenton, New Jersey diocese confirmed as pedophiles, I felt as if I was floating in the middle of a calm lake. Blissfully detached from reality. Unwilling to allow the echoing terror of cornered children into my consciousness, so powerful was my attachment to the sweet Fr. Joe I’d met and spent time with all those years ago.
I didn’t want to let go of my fantasy and replace it with horror. I didn’t want Fr. Joe to be a pedophile. I didn’t want Fr. Joe to have succumbed to his perverted sexual compulsions; to have abused his absolute, church-given authority; and to have created perfect opportunities for himself to rape children.
I didn’t want to inconvenience myself with the truth. I didn’t want to disturb my nice memories of him. I wanted to continue floating detached and undisturbed on my make-believe lake remembering Fr. Joe as a soft-spoken, kindhearted soul, a rescuer of injured women. But I am not a coward. And if I ignored the vile facts in favor of fostering my feel-good fantasy, then I am complicit in his brutality. If I deliberately close my eyes to what is too painful to look at, if I turn away from his victims, then I reject profound love.
Fear breeds complicity with abuse. Fear of losing. Fear of knowing. Fear of being forever lost. Fear of being disloyal. Fear of speaking. On and on. It is only, only through confronting difficult truths and making inconvenient, tough decisions based on those truths that the profound reparative and restorative powers of deep love and connection to divine love becomes available to us.
The path of profound love is intense and inward. It is oftentimes difficult and oftentimes painful. It requires us to grow far beyond our vision. It calls for us to evolve further than our imagination or desire can currently take us. It challenges us to become fully empowered. Profound love insists that we stay attached to truth. When we tap into the universal power of love we begin to see, we begin to understand and we develop the courage to take the difficult actions that support our highest good and the universal highest good.
Profound love does not pretend or masquerade, or offer petty, superficial assurances of wholesale forgiveness. Profound love radiates light into the darkest corners, and offers deep knowledge and wisdom, and requires courageous action. It is the path to our inner light; it connects us to our soul; and connects our soul to the universal light, to universal love.
This is true for Fr. Joe Punderson’s victims. This is true for Fr. Joe. This is true for all of us.