When a religious leader falls

Bishop Zavala’s Fall: On Accountability Before and After Hitting the Bottom
By Kelly Clark
Portland writer
The Gospel of Bill W. Blog

Interested readers might want to ponder this link before reading this post for this week. It has to do with Catholic Bishop Gabino Zavala, who recently resigned after admitting that he had been living a double life, has long been unfaithful to his vows as a priest, and is indeed the father of two teenage children. The article does a good job of trying to make some sense of an otherwise senseless situation. I aim to do the same thing about the senseless life of active addiction and the purposeful life of recovery.

Now, “living a double life” is something about which every addict is too familiar. The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous says this about an alcoholic in his or her disease:

“More than most people, the alcoholic lives a double life. He is very much the actor. To the outer world he presents his stage character. This is the one he likes his fellows to see. He wants to enjoy a certain reputation but knows in his heart he doesn’t deserve it.” (Alcoholics Anonymous, page 73).

If you talk to an addict in recovery about his or her life in addiction, you will undoubtedly hear a Tale of Two Men (or Women): one was personable, talented, often highly intelligent, well-liked. That’s the person before the disease, or when sober. The other person was tormented, impulsive, selfish to the point of maddening narcissism, self-destructive. Outsiders have a hard time reconciling the two pictures, and indeed the only way to reconcile them is to understand them as an active addict. In my own case, twenty years ago when my addictions were at their peak, I was at once a highly regarded lawyer and legislator, committed to certain principles and to my family and community and faith; and at the same time I was breaking all my commitments, living in dishonesty and infidelity to everyone and everything I said I cared about. I was a kind man who often acted unkindly, an honest man living a lie, a gentle man hurting others. I was, in fact, Jekyll and Hyde. As we sometimes say in recovery circles, “My behavior was falling faster than my ability to lower my standards.” It was only once my loved ones did an intervention and I went to alcohol treatment that I began to be able to admit how far I had strayed from the man I wanted to be.

Now the article on Bishop Zavala asks the question about his long slide into his double life, “where was the bishop’s accountability?” Well, I don’t know the answer for the bishop, but for me and for countless other addicts, the answer is that “accountability”—along with honesty—was the first casualty of the disease of addiction. The last thing in the world I was interested in while I was actively in addiction was any accountability, and I venture to say that this would likely be true for any addict in the disease. Probably that is no great surprise for most people to hear.

But what the article on Zavala does not talk about—in his case it may be too soon to talk about it—is what kind of accountability he will have as he rebuilds his spiritual and emotional life, his “life after the scandal.” Now, this is something that I, as most people in recovery, do know something about. And what we know is this: that our accountability is to be found in the Twelve Steps, and in the Twelve Step fellowship of our choosing. Starting with the First Step’s admission of powerlessness and continuing through the Fourth Step personal inventory we did and the Ninth Step amends we tried to make, and continuing even further with the Tenth and Eleventh Steps’ gradually growing spirituality and commitment to a life of service to others, our accountability is in fealty to the principles of the Twelve Steps, as lived out in a community of fellow recovering addicts. Even now, twenty years later, I have a vital relationship with a sponsor, as well as with dozens of men in recovery—men to whom I have given express permission to hold me accountable in ways large and small, in every part of my life. The fact is, I could not have recovered from my addiction, and I could not maintain my recovery, without these men.

Now, turning to the life of Christian faith, as followers of Christ, too, we know that it is sin—like addiction for the addict—that separates us, not just from the love of God in Christ Jesus, as Paul says, but from accountability to our brothers and sisters in Christ, and to the Church. And it is in and through the Church, in and through our brothers and sisters, that we grow in accountability to the life of faith: loving God and our neighbors, serving the poor, tending the sick, working for peace and justice. No one can do this job alone: it is too hard, too demanding, too unrelenting, and we are too soft, too timid, too inconstant, to be solitary disciples. There is no such thing as an individual Christian. As Jesus made clear as He created a community of disciples and as Paul made clear in tending and growing that community, we are in this together. We are the various parts of one Body; we are the diverse branches joined to one Vine; we are prodigal siblings all rushing home to our waiting Father.

I don’t know, of course, what will be Bishop Zavala’s accountability as he recovers from his double life; we can hope and pray that he finds forgiveness and fellowship in the arms of God and of his brothers and sisters in faith. But I do believe that, on this question of “accountability” as in so many other ways, we Christians, including fallen bishops, notorious and scandalous public figures, and private everyday sinners, can learn much about meaningful accountability, from our friends in recovery from addiction. May God have mercy on each of us and all of us.

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