Fr. Timothy Mockaitis wrote a book that details the fallout after a confession he heard in a Eugene jail was secretly recorded by prosecutors in 1996.
Fr. Timothy Mockaitis wrote a book that details the fallout after a confession he heard in a Eugene jail was secretly recorded by prosecutors in 1996.
More than two decades ago, the Archdiocese of Portland was embroiled in a debate to preserve the sanctity of the sacrament of reconciliation.

Watched worldwide, the legal and religious argument had been sparked on April 22, 1996. That was the morning when jailers in Lane County secretly tape recorded the sacramental confession of triple murder suspect Conan Wayne Hale to Father Timothy Mockaitis.

After expressions of outrage from the Vatican and other religious groups, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the taping unconstitutional and a violation of religious freedom.

The tape was never used in Hale’s trial, even after attempts by his lawyers to produce it. Hale is now on death row — and has become Catholic.

But the tape still exists, despite attempts by the archdiocese to have it destroyed.

The priest at the center of the controversy remained in the background of the case for years, but wrote “The Seal,” a memoir about the experience published in 2008.

As a pastor and as a plaintiff in the successful federal lawsuit, Father Mockaitis was officially satisfied. As the man Tim Mockaitis, he could not shake the feeling that he’d been violated, both professionally and personally.

Now 67, he feels largely healed, but the taping and legal battle left Father Mockaitis isolated in his experience and fighting to regain a trust of strangers.

“The most difficult thing about this whole experience has been the sense of loneliness,” he says. “What priest can I go to and say, ‘How did you handle this when it happened to you?’ ”

He has been pastor of Queen of Peace Parish in Salem since 2006.

* * *

At 9:30 a.m. on Monday, April 22, 1996, the 44-year-old pastor of St. Paul Parish in Eugene made his way through the clanging doors into the visitors’ area of the Lane County Jail. For nine months he had done the same thing, feeling called to offer the sacraments to prisoners, even though he had plenty to do, tending a 900-family congregation and a parochial school with 270 students.

With the assistance of a lay volunteer, he had instructed inmates in the faith, had baptized one man, and had heard many confessions.

He knew nothing of the inmate who was scheduled for confession that day, a man identified to him as Wayne Hale. The priest noticed nothing to indicate that this would be different from any other visit. The two sat alone with a thick pane of glass between them.

For 30 minutes they spoke by telephone, the priest wearing a purple stole, the inmate wearing jail blues. A sign in the room warned: “No recording equipment allowed.”

On May 3, the parish secretary fielded a call from a reporter of Eugene’s Register-Guard. In scanning court documents, the reporter had run across an order giving prosecutors the go-ahead to listen to a recording of the priest’s meeting with inmate Hale, suspected in the December 1995 deaths of three teenagers in an isolated area near Springfield.

The reporter wanted to ask Father Mockaitis what he thought about this singular development.

Convinced that the reporter was mistaken, Father Mockaitis told him that no one would record a sacramental confession. But after a while, it became clear that the sacrament was on tape and prosecutors planned to listen. In fact, some had already listened to the recording.

“Speechless,” Father Mockaitis says simply. “I didn’t know what to say. What could you say? There was no reference point. There was nothing to compare this to.”

After hanging up, the priest started shaking. He knew the problem was big, big for the Catholic Church and big for him. He did not sleep that night.

The next morning, the Register-Guard published a Page 1 story about the incident with the headline: “Suspect’s exchange with priest recorded.”

This was no mere exchange, Father Mockaitis thought to himself. That was the sacrament of reconciliation. That, he told himself, is a large part of who we are as priests.

* * *

As a kid in suburban Chicago, Tim Mockaitis went to Saturday afternoon confession once each month with his parents and four siblings, a devout family of Lithuanian descent. He recalls the lines at the confessional, the closed doors, the quiet. He recalls the freedom of knowing that what you said was between you, the priest, and God.

Somewhere in those memories of youth, he says, came a call from God to be a priest.

Ordained in 1978, he was not only a parish priest, but helped young men discern their own calls to priesthood.

The secret recording prompted him to write in a journal, making a record of his service, his struggles, his prayer.

“This is a difficult era for us to discern evil,” he says, reflecting on his ministry as a confessor. “Look at the increasing secularization of society. The mystery of God is becoming less and less a mystery. Therefore, sin is not called sin anymore. We call it dysfunction or a growing edge or weakness. Sin is still a very real thing.”

* * *

Shortly after learning of the taping, Father Mockaitis phoned Auxiliary Bishop Kenneth Steiner, then administrator of the Archdiocese of Portland. In consultation with attorneys, the archdiocese decided it should speak with one voice about the incident. Officials would do the talking and Father Mockaitis would be silent.

It was a good plan, says the priest. Ultimately, it built a consistent foundation for the successful federal case.

But it was not easy for him. In less than a week, news of the taping had circulated around the world. The Vatican denounced it. The United Nations considered its seriousness. His name appeared in newspapers and television broadcasts from Portland to Islamabad.

St. Paul Parish received calls from each major U.S. network and from 60 Minutes, 20-20, the BBC, and international media requesting an interview with Father Mockaitis. The priest stayed mum.

Despite carrying on his parish ministry with vitality, Father Mockaitis noticed residual anger. He refused to use the cordless phone in his apartment because he knew people with radio scanners might pick up the conversations. If strangers came to the parish or asked him favors, he felt dread and mistrust. Though other inmates wrote letters asking him to hear their confessions, he could not bring himself to go back to the jail, and never has.

“I knew these fears were irrational, but I couldn’t deny what I felt,” he says.

* * *

The appellate court opinion in the case said that Lane County prosecutors made the tape with knowing intent, not out of ignorance about Catholicism. The warrant issued to listen to the tape said plainly, if roughly, that Father Mockaitis’ visit to Hale involved the celebration of a sacrament of the church. Nor could the taping have been a spur-of-the-moment decision. Setting up the recording gear took time.

“They knew exactly what they were doing,” says Father Mockaitis. “They tape recorded because this was a sacrament. This was eavesdropping. This particular relationship in my ministry at the jail was targeted. This action was deliberate.”

The lay minister who helped inmates get in touch with Father Mockaitis resigned over the incident.

Early in July 1996, not quite three months after the taping, Hale scrawled a short note and mailed it to the priest.

“I’m sorry for what happened,” wrote the 20-year-old inmate. “I didn’t know they were going to tape us. I wouldn’t have done it if I knew. I hope you will forgive me if I have done anything to make your job for God any harder.”

Hale’s lawyers, however, intended to use the tape in the murder trial. But a higher court eventually sealed the recording.

* * *

Father Mockaitis weighed his personal legal options. “The federal case did not address some important issues for me and for all priests,” he says.

A half-dozen people have listened to the tape. There is a written transcript.

“This is not a past event, over and done with” says the priest. “This is a continuing transgression. The very existence of the tape is morally offensive.”

The priest sees in the case implications for all sorts of bonds once thought of as confidential: attorney-client, husband-wife, doctor-patient, clergy-parishioner.

“We need these kinds of confidential relationships because we must trust one another,” he says. “We need to have that kind of confidentiality to maintain order in society.”

* * *

Father Mockaitis is convinced that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, struck down in 1997 by the U.S. Supreme Court, would still be intact if the taped confession had been the case before the high court. Instead, the justices, with two dissenting opinions, ruled against a Texas Catholic parish that hoped to expand despite a city law about historic preservation of buildings. The majority opinion held that discrimination against religion involves only “incidental burdens.”

The priest knows better when it comes to his case. “This is not incidental,” he says.

Eugene and Oregon have been the setting for moments of anti-Catholic bigotry. Eugene is a town with a good university, but with an intellectual elite whose members often haphazardly blame religion — Catholicism in particular — for many of society’s ills.

In fall 1995, the city gave a top prize to a parade entry that satirized Pope John Paul II, monks and nuns. Not long before, leaders of a women’s fair ejected a Catholic group sitting at a table with pro-life literature, even though the group was peaceful and the theme of the fair was tolerance of diversity.

“It is a kind of rebellious secularism,” says Father Mockaitis. “There’s an air of adolescent defiance opposing authority. The Catholic Church is an enormous target.”

Father Mockaitis finds most Hollywood portrayals of priests and religious “deeply insulting.” The abuse scandal has not helped.

“We are not like what you see in most films,” he says.

Like all priests, Father Mockaitis hears many confessions each month. Now and then, he can’t help but remember the violation of April 1996. It hangs there.

But he is glad that the taping brought the sacrament of penance into focus. Perhaps the public and governing officials have a better grasp of the sanctity of confession. Even better, maybe some Catholics are returning to the sacrament of forgiveness.