Once a priest…

This Chico man was a Benedictine monk. Then love came along.

George McClendon

George McClendon

Photo by Tom Angel

Enter the nurse. Exit the priest.

That in a nutshell is the story of George McClendon’s life. Oh, there’s much, much more to it, of course, but if every life has its defining moment, the arrival of the nurse—a young, attractive, female nurse—probably was it for him.

It was the late 1960s, and he was a Benedictine priest living at St. Gregory’s Abbey, a monastery in Shawnee, Okla. It was a place he knew well and loved deeply. He’d gone to boarding school there beginning when he was 13 and later had become a monk there.

But those were turbulent times, and change was in the air within the Catholic Church. Just a few years earlier the historic Second Vatican Council had opened the ecclesiastical curtains to let in fresh air and new light, and Father George was blossoming in its glow.

Among other things, he started a drop-in center for Shawnee teenagers who were having problems with drug use. Before long the nurse came to work there, too, and the rest, as they say, is history. “All of a sudden we were told to go out and get relevant, and I did!” He laughs heartily at the thought.

George McClendon laughs a lot. He’s obviously a man who relishes life and is grateful for what it’s brought him. When he talks about his life as a monk and priest, it’s with fondness for the community he belonged to and the simple life of prayer and earthy work it cultivated. And when he talks about his later life as a married man and father, it’s with a deep sense of gratitude for the human warmth and love it has provided.

McClendon is a burly man of medium height with a trim gray goatee. An outdoorsman who loves to camp and kayak, he’s tanned and fit and looks 15 years younger than his 68 years. He lives with his wife of 24 years, Carole, in a comfortable home near the Hooker Oak Recreation Area. They have twin daughters, Jennifer and Sarah, who are 23. Jennifer is a Peace Corps volunteer in the Dominican Republic, and Sarah is an intern with the Sacramento Kings.

McClendon remains very much a Catholic believer and practitioner. But he’s also spent a quarter-century working as a marriage and family counselor, the profession he took up after leaving the priesthood. And from that perspective, and also from the perspective of someone who truly loves the Catholic Church but could not remain a priest, he’s able to offer a critique of the church that is highly relevant and deeply compassionate.

George McClendon grew up in the small farming town of Okmulgee, Okla., about 40 miles south of Tulsa. His father owned a dairy processing plant. The family was staunchly Catholic and active in the church, and George attended Catholic school and served as an altar boy.

He began attending boarding school at St. Gregory’s following the eighth grade. He liked it there. The brothers were excellent teachers, and besides it had a good football program, and he loved playing football.

After a year of college at Oklahoma A&M, where he studied dairying but “majored mainly in fraternities and football,” as he puts it, he returned to St. Gregory’s to study to become a monk. He says he wasn’t drawn by a spiritual or mystical calling so much as by a love of St. Gregory’s.

He attended various Benedictine colleges while remaining based in Shawnee, obtaining a bachelor’s degree in 1956 and becoming ordained on Dec. 19, 1959. He was 26.

For several years he lived a priest’s and monk’s life. But an unpopular war was going on outside the monastery, and American society was going through dramatic changes. For young, idealistic clerics in this new, heady post-Vatican II era, it was almost impossible not to be affected—and not to question the church and its rules.

When Father George began working with the attractive young nurse at the teen drop-in center and realized she liked him a lot, he struggled mightily, he says. “I resisted the hell out of it. ‘Can’t you see I’m wearing this collar?’ I had to build up a tolerance for being loved like that. It’s OK [for priests] to give, but to receive? Whew!”

Somehow word got out about their relationship and the abbot found out: “I was nailed.” Disappointment creeps into his voice. What the abbot told him, he says, was that, “in order to avoid scandal,” they were going to send him to a parish in East Los Angeles. It’s the same thing the church has done for years with problem priests, even those who sexually abuse their parishioners: Rather than acknowledging the wounds that lead to such behavior, the church covers up the problem.

“If the abbot had just said to me, ‘George, we know you’re experiencing something very important to you. What can we do to help you?,’ everything might have been different,” McClendon says. But that’s not what happened.

McClendon moved to Los Angeles, and his affair with the nurse ended. But something had shifted irrevocably in his relationship with the church, and with himself, and before long he decided to leave the priesthood. It was a painful decision, mostly because it meant he was leaving a community of brothers whom he loved.

He became a counselor and moved to the Santa Cruz area in 1971. For six years he lived with a fellow counselor, a woman named Ruth, but they eventually split up. Not long afterward he began dating Carole, and they married in June 1978. Their daughters were born the following May.

After that he worked with families, trying to help them heal their wounds. So it’s natural that, when he regards the church, it’s from the standpoint of a retired counselor as well as a former priest.

The church, he says, is like a dysfunctional family, one that’s focused on “dealing with what it doesn’t want, rather than what it does want.” What the church doesn’t want, he says, is problems, scandal, openness and transparency. The church has known for years that some priests are sexual abusers, but its response has been to protect the institution rather than heal the wounds. In that sense, he says, it has forgotten its roots in the teachings of Jesus.

He calls it “clericalism,” by which he means the aggrandizement of power on the part of church leaders. The current sex-abuse scandal—the cover-ups, the denials, the ethical obfuscations—is above all an abuse of power. “I don’t think it’s about sexuality,” he says. “It’s about power.”

He’s very disappointed in the outcome of the recent bishops’ conference to address the scandal. “They’re in the punishing mode now,” he says, “but they’re doing it for the wrong reasons.” They were just trying to solve a problem, not deal with the fundamental pain felt by either the priests or their victims.

The church’s stance on married priests is hypocritical, he says. If the church can accept married priests who come over from Episcopalianism, as it does, why not allow its own priests to marry? Celibacy may be appropriate for students and monastics and upper-level clerics, but marriage would be good for parish priests, bringing them closer to their congregations. As it is, they are terribly isolated.

“I can remember being in the parish one Christmas, and somebody came by with a fifth of scotch for the priest. ‘Here you are, Father. Merry Christmas!’ So instead of celebrating Christmas with his family, the priest wrapped himself around a bottle of whisky. There’s a lot of pain there.”

Besides, it’s a myth that all priests are celibate. Many are involved in sexual relationships, gay and straight, McClendon says. Why not legitimize them? Why the hypocrisy? When it comes to sex, the church is a mess, he suggests.

There are many reasons why the church resists allowing priests to marry—and women to become priests—but an important one is simply fear of women. The men of the church don’t understand women, he says, but, even more important, they’re afraid to let themselves be understood by women. They’re afraid women will see through them, and they’re afraid of being loved, of allowing a woman to know them so well that she will love them despite their flaws.

“We’ve got to somehow, in the church, elevate woman to who she is,” he says. “It makes no sense that the church accepts homosexual men as priests but not women.”

There’s a saying in the church, “Once a priest, always a priest,” and that’s true of George McClendon. Under the terms of his dispensation, he is able to perform “emergency” priestly offices, and he interprets that allowance liberally, occasionally performing marriages and similar services.

He also attends Mass frequently, occasionally visits the Trappist monastery in Vina to commune with the brothers there, and once a year goes back to Oklahoma to visit family members and stay at St. Gregory’s.

He speaks movingly about one of the first times he revisited the monastery, about a decade after leaving the priesthood. “When I arrived, the monks were in the chapel,” he says. “I could hear them chanting. I went in and knelt in the back pew. The abbot saw me there, left the altar and came back.” His voice cracks ever so slightly. “Without saying anything, he took my hand and led me into the sanctuary to join the brothers.”

That connection will always be with him, he says. He feels so deeply about it, in fact, that he says, “I plan to be buried back there.”