Winging it

Dec 5, 2007 at 12:00 am

When Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan went looking for some "angels," they found one in the Rev. James L. Meyer. Or at least they thought they did.

As chaplain at Children's Hospital of Michigan, the Catholic priest spent 40 years ministering to sick and dying children — mainly those with cystic fibrosis or in intensive care. He also operates Chalfonte House in Elk Rapids, where children attend retreats to receive spiritual, psychological, recreational and educational support.

Blue Cross officials named Meyer the recipient of one of its six "Caring for Children Angels Awards," with the honorees each receiving $1,000 toward their organizations. Meyer says he was first notified of the award in July. Blue Cross sent out a news release about the program in October. As an added bonus, one of the six awardees would be named Grand Angel and receive $5,000 toward their agency.

But when Blue Cross officials reviewed a book Meyer published last summer, the company decided to "withdraw our plans to give an award" to the priest, spokesman Jon Ogar tells News Hits.

The book, titled I Loved a Boy: Confessions of a Roman Catholic Priest, includes Meyer's account of his close relationships with several boys.

(We'll pause here to let that shiver of creepiness work its way down your spine, because you need to wait a sec before casting that first stone of disgusted rebuke.)

Meyer, you see, has an explanation. He says he considered for a year what title to use, ultimately settling on I Loved a Boy in part because it would make people take notice.

"I contend that the book is the story about real saints and real heroes," Meyer says. "These kids that I speak of in the book are the real saints and the real heroes."

So, News Hits asked, why not call the book Saints and Heroes?

"People probably wouldn't pick it up and read it," Meyer answered.

The 73-year-old Meyer finds it "curious" that some people infer from the title that the book may relate to scandal.

"The title isn't I Abused a Boy. The title is I Loved a Boy. That's the teaching of Jesus. I feel I'm in pretty good company," says Meyer, who told News Hits he has never been accused of wrongdoing involving children.

"One can always take things out of context," he says about the title. "I mean, that's the liability of anything."

Blue Cross officials didn't see it as quite that simple.

"The book is provocative in title and content. We are not sure what Father Meyer intended with his book, but we have chosen for the awards program not to be associated with the book or author," Ogar told News Hits in an e-mail.

The book is largely an account of the life of Ryan Giannini, who died in 2002 at the age of 20. He had Gorham's syndrome, a rare condition that causes bones to disappear.

Meyer writes of his time with Giannini at Chalfonte House, taking a train trip and when the boy was hospitalized for treatment. He openly expresses his deep grief at the boy's eventual death and lauds Giannini and other children who suffer serious and fatal illnesses as "heroes, saints and angels" on Earth.

"The lives of these children and their relationships provide inspiration needed to muddle through the maze of our own confused lives, to seek a true alignment of values and authentic peace within our nation, our world and ourselves," he writes.

But in a few passages of the 240-page book, Meyer also writes about adult counselors and adolescent campers showering together: "We as staff insured that no attention was directed toward developmental difference even amidst the playful antics that prevailed. The unspoken affirmation of the kids was deafening. All of us and all of our parts come in a variety of sizes and contours, but we are no different, one from the other."

He also writes that Ryan was "sexually gratifying" to him:

"You bet he was — if one believes as I do that sexuality is integral to being fully human and a complete man. Procreative? Indeed as intercourse is understood as life giving. When penetration is to the heart, anything less seems inadequate and lackluster. What is the transitory thrust of a six and one-half inch probe when compared to the penetration of heart and soul?"

Meyer told News Hits — still trying to figure what to make of the priest's word choices — that these sections haven't affected how people view the work in its entirety.

"I have received dozens, perhaps hundreds of affirmations of people who know me and my ministry who expressed criticism of BCBS's decision and applause for the book, title and all," Meyer says.

News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette. Contact the column at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]