Dispensing Forgiveness and Justice in Equal Measure, Father Mike Callahan Is a Man of the Cloth and the Law

updated 12/07/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/07/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

Barely controlling his grief, Father Michael Callahan gazes out over the sea of somber Mexican-American faces gathered for Tayo Guzman's funeral at the Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Saginaw, Mich. The 18-year-old boy was shot in the heart this fall while trying to break up an argument between his friends and some black youths. "Tayo and I were very close," says Father Callahan, a weekend volunteer priest at nearby St. Vincent Home for troubled youth. "I hired him to work around the church, painting and cutting grass. He told me I was the only white man he ever liked." Callahan is still fighting back tears. "I always found Tayo to be a forgiving person," he tells the congregation. "The kid who did this shouldn't be on the streets, the crime should be paid for. But I ask you, forgive the kid who killed Tayo."

It is a paradoxical request, as Callahan is a man of paradoxical roles. The next morning finds him back at work in Detroit at the Wayne County Prosecuting Attorney's office. There, as an assistant prosecutor, it is his job to demand retribution for killers like the kid for whom he has just asked forgiveness. Dressed in khakis and a blue blazer, Callahan strides toward a stark courtroom in the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice, where he will prosecute a man charged with assaulting a 15-year-old girl with a knife. "I want to get this guy real bad," the priest admits. "This could have been another teenage murder in Detroit, and it didn't happen only because the girl screamed and got away. I personally think this defendant doesn't deserve any breaks." Despite Callahan's feelings, the man is acquitted.

Prosecutor and priest. Combining the two in one man might seem like trying to mix fire and water—and in fact Callahan's church appears to see it just that way. According to church spokesmen in Detroit and Saginaw, priests are not normally allowed to serve in an area where they also exercise civil authority. Callahan has therefore been barred from acting as a parish priest anywhere in the six-county archdiocese of Detroit—but he may still fulfill all priestly duties in the neighboring diocese of Saginaw. So Father and Assistant Prosecutor Callahan continues along the separate paths he has chosen. Most Friday nights find him downing a few beers with fellow lawyers; Saturdays he offers grape juice to troubled teenagers during Communion at St. Vincent's. Others may see a contradiction in this; he sees none.

"I don't think I'm in conflict with myself," Callahan insists after a long day in court. "I was just as much prosecutor as priest at the funeral—I told the congregation my sentiments about law and order. And I was just as much priest as prosecutor at this trial. I'm careful to deal with people respectfully. I've been questioned by people in authority in the church who think my job is political, but it's public, not political. I didn't run for any office." Callahan knows that his law degree gives him more mobility than most priests enjoy. "Bishops think, 'Keep priests poor and stupid and they'll be with you always,' " he says. "And they wonder why they have a priest shortage." Callahan himself earns $25,000 a year in his law job and lives in a small brick ranch house in a Detroit suburb.

The Wayne County judicial establishment seems delighted to have the priest in its courtrooms. Says Circuit Court Judge David Kerwin: "Callahan is no cream puff. He doesn't walk down the hall with a halo. He can joke and cuss with the best of them. Mike knows his job is to present evidence as strongly as he can, but he doesn't diminish the dignity of the accused. Victims really appreciate his walking that extra mile in doing his homework. Someone like him should be showcased as an example of how to integrate a secular and a religious life."

Born in Detroit to devoutly Catholic parents—his father was a bank vice-president, his mother a secretary—Callahan entered Sacred Heart Seminary after high school. "It wasn't sudden, like Paul's conversion," he recalls. "I just admired a lot of priests. I thought that of all the institutions I could work for, the church was more admirable than most." As a seminarian, he joined the civil rights movement and collected money for voter registration drives in the South. Graduating second in his class, he was sent by the archdiocese to study theology in Belgium for four years. When he returned home, he joined in protesting the Vietnam War while acting as assistant pastor of a parish in Detroit.

Callahan enrolled in law school in 1972 in part because he found protest movements frustratingly slow to bring about change. "Even though I'm conservative in terms of law and order, in a romantic way I thought I'd become a champion of poor people," he says. After he became a lawyer, the church found a somewhat less romantic job for him: handling marital annulments in the Detroit archdiocese. He served for "15 very long months," then quit in disillusionment. "Local pastors were encouraging their parishioners to distort the truth in order to get annulments," he says with disgust. "I was convinced that given enough time, I could annul my parents' marriage." When he landed a job in the St. Clair County prosecutor's office in 1979, he became a weekend assistant priest in a church in a different diocese. He began his current prosecuting job last March.

Occasionally Callahan's worlds collide, and then he must reconcile the demands that they make on him. It is a task to which he has proved himself equal. On one occasion, the priest found himself facing one of his former altar boys in court. "He was charged with armed robbery for taking a cab driver's money at knife point," says Callahan. "He showed no emotion at his sentencing. I told him that I was really disappointed this happened, but I didn't have any qualms about it. I'm sure God can forgive him," he concludes, "but it was society's responsibility to see that he went to prison."

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