The dramatic case of the monk who filed a defamation suit against St. Vincent College for removing him from ministry after pornography was discovered on his computer has an even more dramatic subplot.
A former student of the Rev. Mark Gruber has told both state police and canonical investigators that he downloaded pornography on the priest's computer. He says that Father Gruber knew that, but couldn't say so because he had sacramentally confessed that sin to the priest before the pornography was discovered. Priests are forbidden to reveal the contents of a confession under any circumstance.
But the former student has spoken with Father Gruber's canon lawyers, state police and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Father Gruber's suit says that on Dec. 15, the young man gave a sworn statement to the priest's canon lawyers, for the case that his Benedictine superior filed against him in Rome. He said he had downloaded pornography, and then confessed doing so.
The young man testified that "Father Mark has protected the seal of confession admirably even to the point of losing his job, his priestly faculties and allowing his reputation to be maligned."
The college's response includes a state police report on an April 20 interview with the same young man. Troopers, who sought him out after someone from the archabbey showed them his canonical statement, said he provided information that only someone who had downloaded certain images on Father Gruber's computer should know.
But the college's attorney says that if the young man's account is true, it's not the whole story.
"An admission by another person that they were responsible for some of the pornography on the computer does not negate Father Gruber's responsibility for misuse of the computer," said W. Thomas McGough Jr. of the Reed Smith law firm.
The Post-Gazette interviewed the former student Dec. 8. He insisted on anonymity, in part because fears about his sexuality have led him to ponder suicide, and he didn't believe he could withstand public scrutiny. He did want it known that he wasn't one of Father Gruber's student aides.
The Post-Gazette confirmed his identity but chose not to publish the anonymous claim without corroboration. The lawsuit and police report provide that.
Father Gruber, 54, an anthropology professor at the Benedictine college in Latrobe, was removed from teaching and ministry in August 2009 after campus technicians found that his computer had visited pornographic sites.
Police also said that others had used Father Gruber's computer, which they found unattended and open to his account. Police reports from August 2009 and June 2010 say that Westmoreland County District Attorney John Peck concluded that prosecution wasn't possible.
Father Gruber sued his monastery, college officials and the Diocese of Greensburg. He maintains that the police reports and the young man's sworn statement should have led to his reinstatement last year.
The Post-Gazette questioned college officials about the young man's claim in December. They said it didn't exonerate the priest.
"The college fully investigated the possibility that others had used Father Gruber's computer to view pornography. The college's analysis of the manner and sequence in which Father Gruber's computer was used indicates that Father Gruber was operating it when pornography was being viewed," said a statement issued at that time by college spokesman Don Orlando.
The crux of the college's defense is a claim that Father Gruber never directly denied using pornography.
The first police report said he gave indirect answers when investigators questioned him in the presence of his archabbot, whom he had asked to stay with him. Asked if he was the one who used the computer to look for young boys, he replied, "I don't think that is a relevant question," according to the report.
The former student said he believes the odd answers were the priest's attempt to signal his superior that he was protecting the seal of confession.
The former student said he last downloaded pornography on that computer in July 2009, "not too long before Father Gruber fell off the face of the earth. I didn't know where he went."
The priest's office also was locked, the former student said. Father Gruber was scheduled for a sabbatical, the former student said, so it was November before he heard rumors that the priest had been banned from ministry because pornography was found on his computer. The former student said he was sure it was his fault.
He relayed a message to Father Gruber through an intermediary, he said, asking what he should do. Father Gruber sent word not to reveal what he had done, he said.
The reasons the priest gave were that he didn't want anyone to think that he had pressured a penitent to reveal what had been said in confession. He also feared the former student was too emotionally fragile to withstand revelation of his secrets.
"I trust him. He knows what's best for me. I couldn't handle it, and he knows it," the former student said.
He said that he nevertheless contacted the Post-Gazette because he wanted to try to undo the harm he had done to Father Gruber.
If the former student's account is true, Father Gruber is acting exactly as a priest should, said the Rev. Lawrence DiNardo, vicar of canonical services for the Diocese of Pittsburgh and a former president of the Canon Law Society of America. He isn't involved in the case.
"If you receive information through the sacrament of reconciliation, whatever that information may be, you can never reveal that information to anyone, under any condition, at any time, for any reason," he said.
That was the plot of the 1953 Alfred Hitchcock thriller "I Confess." In the film, a penitent confessed to a murder and the priest was later charged with committing it. The priest couldn't defend himself because he was bound by the sacrament.
The Rev. Louis Vallone, who teaches about confession in a Duquesne University law school course on canon law, once prepared to go to jail rather than testify about a man who had asked him first to hear his confession and then to drive him to a police station. A last-minute guilty plea in a murder case spared him.
If there had been a trial, "I was prepared to sit in jail for as long as it took," he said. Prosecutors couldn't legally ask him what the man confessed. But Father Vallone refused even to describe the man's appearance, because it might provide a hint about the confession.
In church law, he said, violating that seal is a far more serious sin than viewing pornography. A priest would be excommunicated, and he could be forgiven only by the pope.
Many priests believe that the penitent can't grant release from the seal, Father Vallone said.
"Even if everything were to come out and he told Father Gruber, 'I release you,' he hasn't been released. The seal isn't dependent on the participants, it's dependent on the sacrament," he said.
Concern about the penitent's well-being takes precedence over the priest's predicament, he said.
"The priest is the healer. With his lips he pronounces God's words, 'You are forgiven.' That is meant to heal," Father Vallone said. "What use would it be to pronounce healing words and allow a destructive action?"