Everybody knew Clifford. He was loud and brash but also had the ability to be charming, even mesmerizing. He had a criminal record longer than your arm, but he could also quote scripture like nobody’s business. The year was 1981 and Clifford was attending the same church in Surrey, British Columbia as “Dave”. (I learned of Dave’s brush with Clifford more than twenty years later when we were workplace colleagues.) Like many others Dave found Clifford both interesting and repelling. In some respects he was a real asset for the church, what with his Bible knowledge and deliverance from a life of crime. But on the other hand, Clifford made Dave nervous. Those eyes. Somehow they seemed blank, like Clifford was just going through the motions.
Dave had a good reason to be suspicious. At the same time that Clifford Olson was attending that church in Surrey he was busy killing children and amassing a litany of crimes that would long distinguish him as Canada’s most notorious serial killer (at least until Willie Pickton). Even as Dave talked with Clifford in the foyer and walked by him in the hall of the church in the summer of 1981 he was busy increasing the murder toll. Three, four, five … Eventually Olson would murder 11 children, crimes for which he would be charged and convicted after his arrest in August 1981.
Father Oliver O’Grady was an Irish priest who worked at various parishes in California from 1971 to 1993. O’Grady, with his calm demeanor, irrepressible charm, and soothing Irish lilt, was always a favorite with parishoners. He was often invited over to their homes for dinner. Sometimes he was even invited to stay the night.
O’Grady was eventually convicted of raping and molesting twenty children for which he received a seven year prison term.
(Comparison: a year after O’Grady’s release Gary Ewing was convicted under California’s three strikes law of stealing three golf clubs worth $130 each. Since it was his third offense he was sentenced to 25 years to life. Let’s do the math. Stealing one golf club is worth approximately 8.3 years imprisonment. By contrast, stealing one child’s innocence is worth approximately four months. Therefore 1 golf club = 24 children. Dang, those must be nice clubs.)
Grady was released in 1999 and deported back to his native Ireland where he was recently arrested for the possession of child pornography.
The award winning 2006 documentary “Deliver us from Evil” tells the story of this psychopath and the church that shuttled him around from parish to parish in an attempt to keep things quiet. The entire documentary is available online for viewing, though I warn you it is as emotionally draining a film as you are likely to see. I have linked to a scene from the documentary where O’Grady is giving his characteristically flat, dispassionate description of the horrific sexual abuse he wrought on his victims. Watch closely the demeanor of a psychopath and note the stunning disconnect between his nonchalant attitude and the crime he is describing. This is a beast who knows nothing of remorse.
You may very well have heard of Clifford Olson and Oliver O’Grady. Even if I had used the real name of “Mark” you probably wouldn’t have heard of him. He is a charismatic pastor who has led churches in Canada and Australia. He has a winsome smile and a great wit. He definitely knows how to charm people. But he doesn’t stay in churches for long and if you look into his background you will see why. Keep your eyes peeled. He may apply to work at your church next. And a snazzy suit, well worn leather Bible and winsome smile can cover a multitude of sins.
Some quick lessons
In each of these cases a psychopathic predator was enabled to exploit a Christian community. While there are many lessons that could be drawn from each case, we will close by drawing one from each.
Grace reconsidered. In the blog this week a couple people have commented that God can save a psychopath. Of course. And God can also make mountains fly. (Hey, if James Cameron can do it I’m sure God can as well.) But even so you should still be very skeptical about any particular claim of a mountain taking to the air. The same is true of the psychopath. The research shows that psychopaths do not change. In fact, the evidence shows that traditional methods of rehabilitation actually make psychopaths worse. In the hands of the psychopath they become effective tools for further manipulation. If God did transform a true psychopath it really would be a miracle. Yet many churches in their noble drive to be grace-ful institutions are liable to overlook long entrenched patterns of an individual like Clifford Olson as well as the ongoing symptoms of psychopathy based on slim evidence that they have been reformed. They do so at their peril.
Institution challenged. The weight of O’Grady’s crimes must be borne on the shoulders of a corrupt ecclesial institution. Even today the Catholic Church has not begun to confront the depth of systemic abuse concealed within. For decades and probably for centuries the church with its authoritarian structure and vast institutional framework has been a haven for psychopathic predators like O’Grady.
Charisma questioned. Countless opportunistic snakes like Mark have worked their way into small and vulnerable congregations. They work their wiles for a time and then move on, leaving a path of destruction in their wake. I have always thought it commonsense that a person engaged to a divorcee should at least have a conversation with the divorced spouse to get their side of the story. The same goes with churches. If you are considering a pastor who recently left another church under less than clear circumstances, call that church up and get their side of the story. Don’t be taken in by clever anecdotes and moving prayers.
A closing word
Jesus said “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” (Matthew 10:16) Sometimes the wolves enter into the midst of the sheep. Thus, it is even more important for all Christians to be as shrewd as snakes. “The devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). But he doesn’t come with horns and cloven hooves. Sometimes he has a three piece suit, a winsome smile, and a moving story of grace and redemption.