Original article no longer available

The  Memphis Commercial Appeal  (TN)

November 17, 1996

Author: Kriste Goad The Commercial Appeal

The measure of a man’s life is the spending of it and not the length. – text beside Fred Sauer’s senior yearbook picture

Even in high school people turned to Fred Sauer with their troubles. He was kind, sensitive and together, an impeccably dressed member of the ”in” crowd.   He was a quiet leader and a bright student with a clear devotion to his religion, according to former classmate Roger Carroum, who befriended Sauer shortly after Sauer and his family moved to the Millington Navy base in 1966.

”We had like this clique, and if a problem arose, if something happened or someone had a problem, they always went to Freddy,” Carroum says.  After Sauer was ordained a Catholic priest in 1977, people kept going to him with their problems, and he kept trying to help others, even when he couldn’t help himself.

One of the times he couldn’t help himself was in the early morning hours of June 29, when he set fire to the Church of the Nativity in Bartlett, causing an estimated $30,000 in damages. Sauer’s attorney said the 46-year-old priest had drunk about a quart of Scotch on top of the prescription drugs Prozac and Xanax he was taking for depression and anxiety.

The death of his mother six months earlier and the slow loss of his father to Alzheimer disease had contributed to his state.   And while local and federal law enforcement officials questioned numerous innocent individuals in connection with the arson, Sauer continued to hear confessions and to hold mass and a weekly service at an Episcopal retreat about a mile down the road from the soot-covered sanctuary at Nativity.

By the time things were cleaned up at the church, Sauer was on a two-week ”vacation” in Florida. When he returned to Memphis he confessed Aug. 5 to setting the fire and has since been unavailable for comment while he undergoes treatment for alcoholism and drug abuse, problems that have plagued him in the past.

He is scheduled to be sentenced Dec. 13 in federal court, where he pleaded guilty to one count of arson. The maximum sentence he faces is 20 years in prison and $250,000 in fines.

Two and a half months after Sauer’s troubles became so flagrantly public, alcohol and depression claimed another priest in the Diocese of Memphis. In September, Father Gregory Fuller hanged himself in a motel room in Jackson, Tenn.

Sauer is being treated at St. John Vianney Hospital in Pennsylvania, the same hospital where Fuller had sought help in the past.   Aside from general statements issued immediately following both incidents, the Diocese of Memphis has refused to comment about either man’s problems and how the events affect the diocese.

After Sauer pleaded guilty, Rev. J. Peter Sartain, vicar general for the Catholic Diocese of Memphis, wrote a commentary in The Commercial Appeal chastising the media for what he viewed as sensational accounts of Sauer’s ”fall.”    Sartain, who walked with Sauer through the ”mobile gauntlet of photographers and videographers” outside the Federal Building after his guilty plea, called for compassion and understanding.

”Faith in God bids us remember that the alluring sound bite we heard on the six o’clock report was about our sister. The gripping headline we read in this morning’s newspaper was about our brother,” Sartain concluded.  Friends, parishioners and fellow priests of Sauer and Fuller never lost sight of the compassion about which Sartain wrote. They say a number of people tried to help Fuller kick his alcohol addiction. Most thought Sauer already had kicked his.

After Sauer’s ”recovery” in the late 1980s, he was open about his problem with alcohol and drugs, discussing it with parishioners and fellow clerics, according to Father David Graham, 39, associate pastor at St. Ann Catholic Church in Bartlett.

The plights of Fuller and Sauer are not as unusual as their dramatic responses to their troubles make them seem.    Dr. Jay R. Feierman, a New Mexico psychiatrist who has evaluated the mental health of about 1,000 Catholic priests and treated about 500 in the past 20 years, says alcoholism is the No. 1 mental health problem among priests. Feierman was the psychiatric consultant at a New Mexico treatment center run by the Servants of the Paraclete, a religious order whose ministry is the mental health of priests. The facility, which opened in 1941, closed earlier this year.

”It’s endemic in the priesthood,” Feierman says. ”I don’t think anybody really knows the exact reason why. One thing, I don’t think man is meant to live alone, and most priests (such as Sauer) live alone in a house by themselves. That’s a part of it but certainly not all of it.”   He said alcoholism is about three times as likely to be a problem for priests as it is in the general population. Suicide, drug abuse and arson, however, are very rare.

”I’ve dealt with mental health problems among priests for 20 years, and I only remember one committing suicide. It’s just not an accepted part of their religion,” Feierman says.   ”And the other thing, as far as the priest setting fire to his church: It’s a normal thing to have your mother die, so something as bizarre as setting fire to your church has to have causes a lot deeper than having your mother die.”

The steady decline of young men choosing a life of celibacy has brought changes within the church, new pressures in the priesthood and an overall movement to make priests feel more a part of a community by including more laity in churchly rituals.

According to the 1996 Catholic Almanac, there are 49,009 Catholic priests in the United States – 8,308 fewer than in 1985 – compared to a growing U.S. Catholic population of 60.28 million, an increase of 7.99 million since 1985.    Christian Brothers, the largest order of brothers in the world, has diminished from 18,000 members to 9,000 in the last 20 years.   Father David Knight, pastor of Sacred Heart parish, says he thinks that the declining numbers of priests can be accounted for by an unwillingness to take the mandatory vow of celibacy.

Sauer proposed to his high school sweetheart, Jane Houston, before pursuing the priesthood. Houston’s sister, Sharon Willis, says Houston turned him down because she felt Sauer had confused their close friendship with love. According to Willis, Sauer later said Houston’s refusal of marriage showed him the way to his true calling.

But Knight says that even those with the strongest desire to enter the priesthood are generally unprepared for what it takes to ”survive alone with Jesus Christ.”   ”Priests are not trained for their jobs,” he says. ”They’re trained to be theologians, liturgists. No priest is given any management training at all. . . . Also, no priest has any supervision. The word ‘bishop’ means ‘supervisor,’ theoretically. In reality, the bishop doesn’t have time to supervise all priests. Imagine a chain store with 19,000 outlets, with 19,000 managers and not one supervisor of those managers, and you’ve got the parishes of the Catholic church.”

The church, for its own sake, is now recognizing such pitfalls and encouraging troubled priests to talk about and seek help with their problems.   It wasn’t always so. Brother Armand Alcazar doesn’t suffer from depression or alcoholism, but his first trip to see a psychiatrist more than 20 years ago was one of the hardest steps he has ever taken, he says.

Alcazar – now the 47-year-old Religion and Philosophy Chair at Christian Brothers University – says that when he was in his 20s he believed he was close to perfect.   ”I was convinced the Bible said you are called to be perfect, and I thought I just got there quicker than others,” says Alcazar, one of only three remaining brothers in his class of 63. Most dropped out, he says, because they wanted a wife and family.

”I had my list, my religious checklist, and I met each requirement on that list.”   But then something unexpected happened to Alcazar: He fell in love.   ”My life was no longer in complete order. My world was upside down. I went to therapy, and I laugh about it now, but it was tough the first time. I went with my superiors, and we organized it so no one would know,” Alcazar remembers.

Now one of his most passionate beliefs is ”that religion at its best is the recognition that we need each other, regardless of our title, regardless of our church.”   That belief was the focus of a recent retreat Alcazar conducted. He used as an example Father Sauer’s act of arson at the Catholic Church of the Nativity.

”(The fire) was a striking out at himself, at the tremendous guilt that comes over someone when they relapse, along with the severe depression he was already undergoing,” says William D. Massey, Sauer’s attorney and a parishioner at Nativity. ”The liquor brought about an abhorrent act.”

Graham, other local priests and Massey say they believe that the death of Sauer’s mother in January may have been a key factor in his relapse, although his reliance on prescription drugs has been ongoing. Sauer took Prozac for depression and Xanax for anxiety, an oft-prescribed combination that works well for some and not so well for others, says psychologist and former minister Brooks Ramsey.

Pharmacists and psychologists warn against drinking alcohol while taking either Prozac or Xanax. The combination of Xanax and alcohol can put a person to sleep, or, in the worst case, can sedate him to the point he stops breathing.

”The three together would produce a mixture that you really couldn’t tell what would happen. A person might not remember what they had done while on that combo,” according to Bartlett pharmacist and Alderman Reggie Dilliard.

In hindsight, another incident at the church 10 days prior to the fire may have been a warning sign that Sauer’s personal troubles were mounting. He had opened the rectory doors to Clint Presgrove, a 27-year-old with aliases and a criminal record dating back to his teenage years. Sauer told police he was trying to help Presgrove overcome an addiction to crack cocaine.

Presgrove was just off probation for the 1993 theft of $7,000 in cigarettes and $5,000 in cash at the Countrywood Market in Cordova and was awaiting sentencing on an unrelated aggravated burglary to which he pleaded guilty in June. Massey, his attorney at the time, entered the plea for him. He now faces theft charges filed by the priest. Presgrove, who had been mowing the grass at the church since late spring, allegedly stole the priest’s $26,000 Chrysler Cirrus, along with his father’s military sword and a VCR.

Shortly after Sauer first reported the incident to police on June 19, he called detectives to report that, in addition, his mother’s mink coat and his father’s Rolex were stolen from the church rectory. Both later turned up at Sauer’s brother’s house in Dallas. Police located the priest’s car and the sword sheath. They never found the sword.

And though it’s part of a separate case, authorities investigating the church arson also have never located the crucifix that hung in front of the curtains at the Church of the Nativity altar. Sauer insists it was burned in the fire, but Bartlett Fire Marshal Gary Graves says there is no evidence to support Sauer’s claim. The search for the small wood and fiberglass icon – a symbol of suffering and a prayer link to God – is still on.

Federal officials searched Presgrove’s home and the church rectory but found no crucifix. They even searched the home of Phil Callahan, Presgrove’s friend and a recovering heroin addict whom Sauer hired to mow the grass at the church while Presgrove was in the Bartlett jail.

”Fred took his mother’s death real well, but in the next day or two you could tell it hit him real hard,” says James Kirkland, a friend and neighbor who lived next door to Sauer’s parents in Bartlett for the past 10 years.   Sauer’s father, Charles, is in a nursing home. His brother, Matthew, lives in Dallas and his sister, Judith, lives in Warner Robins, Ga. Both declined to comment about Sauer or their family history.   Sauer’s parents were devout Catholics, according to family friends and former neighbors at the Navy base. His father, a Navy officer who retired a commander, frequently was away from home. His mother, Agnes, managed the house.

If, as Massey says, the fire expressed Sauer’s disillusionment with his faith, it was not the first time he questioned his choice of occupation.  Sauer was on leave from the priesthood from 1984 to 1989, living for a time in Vero Beach, Fla., where, according to his 20-year class reunion biography, he was a ”director of marketing.” He also lived just outside Pittsburgh, Pa., before going to study in Rome and re-entering the priesthood as an associate pastor at St. Anne on Highland.

Things appeared to be back on track for Sauer once he was assigned to be pastor at Nativity. He was going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, Massey says, bringing more people into the parish and making plans to expand the church building.

”I don’t think any of us would have seen this coming,” says Father Rick Gantert, pastor at Our Lady of Sorrows in Frayser.   However, Rev. Michael Thomas, minister of Bartlett Presbyterian Church, had what he considered an unusual encounter with Sauer. Sauer came to Thomas’s house last spring to visit with his mother-in-law, a member of the Church of the Nativity who had been incapacitated by a stroke.

”I could tell the guy was going through a tough time in life,” Thomas says. ”Ministers have to find their own spot to unload, and one of the places you can do that is in the presence of another minister.”   But what was odd, Thomas says, is that Sauer opened up to him upon first meeting and at a time when Sauer was supposed to be ministering to Thomas’s mother-in-law.

”She cannot always communicate her thoughts, plus she has a lot of good, Catholic guilt left and is still emotional about losing her husband. A visit with her is her breaking down crying. I sort of came in during all that, and what struck me as odd was (Sauer) immediately just sort of ignored her, or focused his attention on me, and Mom was more or less forgotten,” Thomas says.

Despite the severity of his troubles, Sauer has received the support of his parishioners and those who know him, his acquaintances say.

”It warmed my heart to know that people can understand this as people,” says Alcazar at Christian Brothers. ”If I, as a theologian, am always talking about ‘you’ instead of ‘we’ and about ‘out there’ instead of ‘in here,’ then I come across like I’m on a different level.

”Sometimes what we do is we put the priests on a pedestal. I think the best ministers are the ones who preach about us being on this journey together. I don’t make any fewer mistakes than you do because I’m a brother.”



June 16, 1950: Born in Columbus, Ohio

1966: Moved to Millington with family

1968: Graduated from Millington Central High School

1968-69: Attended St. Bernard College in Cullman, Ala.

1969-73: Attended Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan.; graduated with a degree in psychology

1976: Ordained a deacon at the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception in Vatican City, Italy

1977-78: Ordained into the priesthood and assigned to Our Lady of Sorrows in Frayser

1979: Appointed associate pastor at St. Louis Church

1983: Named director of family life ministry at St. Louis

Summer 1983: Attended Regis College in Denver to study for a master’s degree in Adult Christian Community Development

1984-1989: On leave, lived in Vero Beach, Fla.; Monroeville, Pa.; and Bartlett

1989: Associate pastor at St. Anne on Highland

1990-August 1996: Pastor at the Church of the Nativity, Bartlett.

Aug. 7, 1996: Rev. Robert Ponticello, a top administrator in the Diocese of Memphis, named interim administrator at Church of the Nativity.