Priest Carried Burdens Unknown to Church — (The Daily Oklahoman)

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The Daily Oklahoman,  (Oklahoma City, OK)

August 3, 1997

Author: Bobby Ross Jr., Pat Gilliland; Staff Writers

At St. James Catholic Church, the Rev. Edward Joseph Moras’ spirituality and simplicity touched parishioners.    In 10 months at the south Oklahoma City church, the visiting associate pastor from India ministered to the sick, the elderly and the young.  “The kids loved him,” said Dorothy Dix, a St. James member. “He was kind of like a shepherd – the kids flocked to him.”

When the Rev. Larry Gatlin underwent emergency heart bypass surgery, Moras assumed spiritual leadership for the 850-family parish.   “He did a wonderful job holding the place together,” said Gatlin, the parish priest.  But – unknown to most parishioners – Moras was unraveling inside.

The realization came when the priest looped a yellow nylon rope around his neck.    On the Fourth of July, Gatlin found the 44-year-old Moras hanging from a church basketball goal.

A month later, parishioners struggle to understand what happened.

After Mass on Wednesday, Dorothy and Francis Dix, and Joe Wirsich talked about depression, mental illness and treatment.   “This parish is hurting,” said Wirsich, a former teacher at the parish school. He lives about a block from St. James.   “I wrote a note … to a couple of nuns out at Piedmont to pray for us, because you haven’t seen the full hurt in this parish until the kids come back to (the St. James parish) school.”

A Priest’s Secret

As a priest, Gatlin had encountered suicide before.   But never had it touched him so closely.    Never had it taken someone who lived with him at the church rectory.   Never had it stolen a friend and a confidant.

“Any death is hard on you,” Gatlin told The Oklahoman.   But with suicide, “I think you feel more guilt about what you could have done.”    The priest rested his elbows on the rectory’s kitchen table. He clasped his hands as he reluctantly discussed Moras’ death with a stranger.

“I think my main feeling is I feel kind of battered,” Gatlin said.   “I feel like I’ve been in an explosion. It was an explosive experience to find him.”

Only those closest to Moras – including Gatlin – knew about his mental illness.   Most parishioners did not realize he was receiving psychiatric care and taking the antidepressant Prozac.

They did not know he suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder, severe anxiety disorder – and battled depression most of his life.

“He was a very dedicated priest and had developed a good pastoral rapport with the people,” Gatlin said. “So it wasn’t evident to them he had problems. He presented a pretty good face.”

Moras hid his condition because – as Gatlin told Oklahoma City police July 4 – he “was very depressed and ashamed of his mental disorder.”    Moras had talked about suicide “some time ago” but told Gatlin he would never do it, police reported.

According to the police report, Gatlin last saw Moras alive between 6:30 and 7 p.m. July 3.    Moras was “upset and jittery and did not want to go out to eat” with Gatlin.

Instead, the two ate at the rectory.

Gatlin then drove to the grocery store. When he returned to the rectory, Moras was gone. Gatlin told police he assumed Moras left to visit friends.  But when Moras was not home the next day, Gatlin began looking for him.   He found him in the church gymnasium.

Deadly Mystery

The turmoil inside Moras’ mind only worsened after he came to the United States.    He couldn’t sleep.   He couldn’t control the voices in his head.   “Will this ever stop?” Moras asked about the tormenting thoughts.    Depression in Moras’ final months “made even the most simple of everyday responsibilities overwhelming,” John Mallon, editor of the Sooner Catholic newspaper, wrote in a recent editorial.

“The death of Father Moras is both a tragedy and a mystery,” the editorial said. “There is no one to blame; he was receiving treatment for his illness. It is one of those tragedies that leaves everyone wondering if they missed something or if they could have done more, but illness and suffering are mysteries and sometimes they simply kill.”

Mallon continued: “God only knows the torments he suffered before he felt driven to stop them himself so tragically. I think we are on safe ground to say that Father Moras in fact died of a severe and life-threatening illness, no less than if he had died of cancer.”

At the time of Moras’ suicide, Bishop P.C. Balaswamy of his home diocese of Nellore, India, was arranging for Moras to return home.    Moras believed he would feel better there.    But the visiting associate pastor could not separate his mind from his soul.

“He felt as if his mental illness was a kind of moral failing on his part,” Gatlin said.   “I don’t think he ever accepted the fact that he was mentally ill.”  Less than a week before he killed himself, Moras sought treatment at a local hospital but failed to gain admission, Gatlin said.

The next day, Moras crashed his car.   “It almost looks like the fact that he couldn’t get in the hospital aggravated things,” Gatlin said.    The priest said he views Moras’ suicide as a brief lapse of  faith.

“I think people need to see that mental illness and dedication can go hand in hand. A man might be spiritually right on and mentally have difficulties.”

Weakness or Illness?

John Mallon has survived two major illnesses: severe malignant cancer and severe depression.    Cancer was easier, the Sooner Catholic editor said.   “With cancer, people know what’s going on,” he said.

But with depression, misunderstanding and ignorance remain – even in the caressing environment of a church.  “It’s a disease,” Mallon said of depression. “It’s not a weakness or a failing.

“But it doesn’t feel like a disease,” he hastened to add. “It feels like a failing.”   Mallon used his editorial in the newspaper published by Oklahoma City’s Archdiocese to pay tribute to Moras and combat the stigma of mental illness.

“To suffer from a mental illness does not mean that one is `crazy,’ ” wrote Mallon, whose editorial did not mention his own experience with depression.   “One may suffer with a mental illness and with proper treatment carry out a normal life. Depression, in the mental health field, is sometimes called the `common cold of mental illnesses.’    In an interview, Mallon said the Catholic Church still considers suicide a sin. However, the church recognizes circumstances that can mitigate a person’s responsibility.

“Most people who commit suicide … are not in their right minds,” Mallon said. “They are either in such incredible pain or despair that they cannot see their way clear. It’s an act of desperation, just to make the pain stop.”

According to the National Mental Health Association, mental disorders affect 22 percent of the U.S. population.   Still, mental illness carries a stigma that physical ailments do not.

“There’s a lot of misconceptions. There’s a lot of fear,” said Barbara Schneeberg, mental health ministry director at Tulsa’s 8,000-member First United Methodist Church.  “People don’t understand what mental illness is. We have a picture in mind that a mentally ill person is a dirty old man on the street who is going to do us harm.”

But mental illness affects one in four families, Schneeberg said, and the clergy is no exception.   In the October issue of Christian Social Action, a publication of the United Methodist Church, the Rev. Reginald D. Burgess explained that mental illness covers a range of disorders.   People with those disorders experience severe disturbance with identity, perceptions, moods, thoughts or relationships, significantly impairing their ability to manage their lives, Burgess wrote.

“These are persons with an illness, a condition that does not obviate their need for love, understanding, consideration and human dignity,” wrote Burgess, deputy executive director of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors.   Obsessive-compulsive disorder includes unwanted, intrusive thoughts that generate extreme anxiety, he said.  Such obsessions could include a fear of germs, or a fear that someone forgot to turn off a stove or lock a door.

The victims respond to these fears by developing rituals.  “For example, someone may wash vegetables or fruits or their hands repeatedly to be sure they are free of germs,” Burgess wrote. “They may check the stove or the door repeatedly to make sure they have been secured.”

No Special Protection

Like Moras, people with obsessive-compulsive disorders often hide their behavior, said Dr. Don Chesler, who heads the psychiatry department at Oklahoma City’s St. Anthony Hospital.    A priest in particular might find it difficult to share his illness, Chesler said.    “Priests are so revered, I guess the assumption is that they are unhindered by the stresses that people in the parish would have,” he said.

David Clark, secretary general of the International Association for Suicide Prevention, compares mental illness to measles or heart disease: “A person’s seminary status doesn’t really protect them.”

Clark said anecdotal research has examined prevalence of suicides for certain occupations, such as police officers, doctors and farmers.   However, he calls most of that work shoddy.   As to whether ministers are any more or less likely to kill themselves, he said, “My thought without any data is it happens in the same rate in clergy people as the general population – no more, no less.”

People might assume that religious individuals’ built-in support network would shield them. But that view doesn’t take into account genetic and biological influences.   “If my granddaddy and my father and my two sisters were all suicidal, I might be at special risk regardless of my profession,” Clark said.   Gatlin said he learned after Moras’ suicide that the priest’s family has a history of mental illness.

Moras’ psychiatrist, Dr. Joseph Ruffin, said he could not discuss his client’s confidential case.   But Ruffin, indicated the ministry could be a reason for the suicide.  In his dealings with ministers, Ruffin said he points out that Jesus Christ “worked as a carpenter and did his deal around the household until he was about 30. Then he recruits 12 helpers and works for three years until he gets killed.    “That’s pretty neat and clean if you think about it,” Ruffin said.

In the Open

Parishioner Francis Dix found out after Moras’ death that the priest was taking medication for depression.  Dix wonders if the drugs added to the problem.  “The problem’s down somewhere deeper. And he probably never found it. He hadn’t run across the right person,” Dix said.   “There’s an answer to everything. We just have to find the answers.”   But Sooner Catholic editor Mallon said treatment, including medication, can be an answer.

“It’s important to speak to someone competent who can get you the help you need,” Mallon said. “Because one should be no more ashamed of depression than one would be of a broken leg.”   Mallon said his experience taught him the importance of being surrounded by supportive people, even though it is humbling to tell others.   Besides the risk of another person’s not understanding mental illness, a colleague could use the information against someone, Mallon said.

Some people in the St. James parish resented Mallon’s editorial. “They didn’t want it known so openly,” Wirsich said.  “Yeah, but you can’t hide things like this,” Francis Dix said.  Oklahoma City Archbishop Eusebius J. Beltran and Moras’ bishop mentioned the priest’s mental illness openly at his funeral.  “But some people are touchy about everybody knowing,” Wirsich said.  “If Father Ed would have had cancer, everybody would be saying Masses for him and everything else.”

`He Touched So Many’

Red Lobster – and a lunch date with Father Moras – was on Joe Wirsich’s calendar July 4.  But Moras never showed up.  “I didn’t know he was dead until after lunch, when I got a phone call,” Wirsich said.

He had planned to take the priest to visit a distraught woman who receives food from a mobile meals program.

He thought Moras might be able to reach her.

Only in hindsight do signs of the priest’s distress emerge, the parishioners said.

“To me, he didn’t seem like he was seriously depressed as much as it seemed each day he dropped a little, like he was more and more unhappy,” Dorothy Dix said.

Francis Dix added: “Now that we look back … he always worried that he was not good enough, worthy enough and all that kind of business.”

“He was a wonderful, wonderful individual. He touched so many people. This parish had the biggest funeral it ever had. People came from everywhere,” Francis Dix said.

“If every priest could touch as many people as he did in such a short time as he was here, it would just be unbelievable what would happen.”