Simon by Michael John Carley

December 19, 2019

He laughed. "Michael, I can't marry you. You don't even believe in God..."

I was stunned. Since bonding during the awful days of the Iraq sanctions, Simon and I had spoken on panels together, collaborated as official reps, exchanged ideas as unofficial comrades, shared meals confessing our private frustrations...Heck, Kathryn and I had met in Iraq, so Simon officiating our nuptials wasn't just perfect, it was destiny! He was my friend, for crying out loud—not my priest...


I first met the multiple-time, Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Father G. Simon Harak on one of those panels. It was probably at Riverside Church, probably around 1998 or so. The details are hazy, but what I remember clearly was how he seemed the mirror of an impatience I knew well. I think I had led off the panel, and so could thereafter survey the performance of colleagues in comfort. Simon stood out, and in a very cool way...he was dying to speak. Under the table he fidgeted. "Heroically" he waited his turn, as the speakers ahead of him prefaced their remarks in the reassuring tone of "I'm concerned..." as clearly, judging by his head movements, Simon disagreed with that sentiment. And when the relieved, yet anxious-looking priest finally got his turn, he made painfully sure that he would separate himself from the prior tones. He was articulate, don't get me wrong—but he was not "concerned," he was pissed. For me it might have been love at first sight.

No one will ever know a more privately foul-mouthed priest than Simon Harak. This brilliant streetpunk, born of a bandleader father and opera singer mother, somehow turned Man of God and scion of nonviolence, seemed to paradoxically test the patience of pacifism itself. Yet when a situation called for solace, he became a different person, one with no equal; reminding me of a more eloquent version of the non-fictional priest in Louis Malle's, Au Revoir Les Enfants.

For my part, I was the brand new United Nations NGO Representative of Veterans for Peace (VFP), called "the kid" by far elder colleagues who had served in WW II, Korea, Vietnam ...we even had some folks from the Abraham Lincoln Brigade of the Spanish Civil War (and it was they who, to my surprise, had the best stories). I was in VFP not because I had served, but instead because of a loophole surrounding my father, a Marine Corp helicopter pilot who had passed in Vietnam. My Ivy League educational opportunities lent themselves to at least the appearance of diplomacy, and so I was named to the post in 1997 after serving as an alternate.

Simon in turn had helped the well-known Kathy Kelly (another Nobel Peace Prize nominee) in creating "Voices in the Wilderness" (now "Voices for Creative Nonviolence"), the 501c3 that set the tone for all us copycats who followed them in defying the economic sanctions levied against the people of Iraq.



According to a 1998 UNICEF report, the sanctions against Saddam Hussein's dictatorship were killing 500 children under the age of 5 per month, mostly from waterborne diseases. The chemicals and coagulants needed to purify water were now labeled as "weapons-producing" materials and were thus prevented from importation. From a PR standpoint, governments supporting the UN-imposed hardships could claim victory by saying that no bombs were dropped, no scores of soldiers killed, and no all-out war initiated in their optics battle with Saddam Hussein. Overarchingly, they cited Hussein's clear absence of concern as to whether his people lived or died.

But back then, few people read documents like the UNICEF report. Few knew how sanctions spared soldiers but killed civilians. And as UNICEF was a wing of the (sanctions-implementing) United Nations, the 1998 document was akin to a signed murder confession. No, Saddam Hussein didn't care about his people. But did that give us the right to kill them?

The very statistic of 500,000 total deaths was inevitably thrust on then-Secretary of State, Madeline Albright on an episode of "60 Minutes." Albright, in a comment that some blame for 9/11, replied to interviewer, Leslie Stahl, "...we think the price was worth it." Former US Attorney General, Ramsey Clark called it genocide. Former UN Secretary Generals condemned it. But no Americans disagreed with Albright more than Father Simon and Kathy Kelly.

Under VFP Co-Chairs, Fredy Champagne and Edilith Eckart, I was the Project Director for VFP's "Iraq Water Project." We constantly received advice from Simon and Kathy, and Danny, and all the other "Voices" people about how to get through the visa hassles, what roads were safe, what officials to trust, or beware of...Before my resignation in 2001, VFP's Iraq Water Project repaired four water-treatment facilities in the highest need area (Basrah suburbs) serving 81,000 people.

Whereas Voices risked, and suffered jail time for defying the sanctions, we'd been the slick ones who'd maneuvered through a Muslim relief agency and a Michigan congressman to make our actions legal. As a young father, I had no intention of doing things any other way. But one knew that given the proportionately higher dangers and sacrifices of Voices that they held the moral high ground, and were our spiritual guides to all things associated with the sanctions.


The Quaker Magazine, "YES," once did an article on the Iraq Water Project. And amidst my interview, the reporter asked me a question that, despite its simplicity, kind of threw me. What higher power did I believe in?

In that moment/response I thought I had come up with the greatest impromptu answer on planet Earth: "Whatever's out there really likes me." I was so proud.

In a bratty, "See? I can be spiritual too!"-kind of way, I thrust my prized answer at Simon. He looked at the page.

"Oh, God. Michael, that's too vague."


Simon was a true Jesuit, one of "God's commies;" as scholarly as he was pissed off. Simon wrote books, he wrote articles, he lectured, he had a TED talk, and he taught at several universities. In our diner-held mutual therapy sessions, or at his spartan Jesuit residence on the upper west side, his superior experiences, in both quality and quantity, determined that I was by far more the beneficiary.

But where we shared a high-voltage energy, our relationships and attitudes towards our passions differed. I was more self-forgiving, and trusting that the fervent impulses would never lead to disaster. But Simon's energy surpassed even mine to the point where it made him afraid. Simon was terrified of substances like caffeine the way others rightfully fear peanut allergies. (Decaf still contained caffeine, he'd bitterly proclaim with intellectual indignity.) Any stimulant, to Simon, carried the potential of getting him thrown him in jail. His relationship to passion was "complicated." Simon laughed and smiled always, but he rarely "chilled," save perhaps through prayer.

And I never felt a conflict, or disrespected, when he'd ask me to pray with him.


I don't know if he thought of himself as that figurative "streetfighter:" probably not. But he believed vocally that pacifists could not enact change if they had always been afraid of a fight. And that very belief angered many fellow-pacifists (who perhaps embrace pacifism as a sanctuary from trauma). We shared our fondness therein in VFP, in the potential of people who had fought in wars, and—how perfectly—were now against war. He taught me that the measuring stick of our progress lay in how we confront, not in whether or not we confront. To not confront, in his eyes, was by no means a stance of neutrality.

I do remember the one time I felt sure I'd helped him...

He was so frustrated by his inability to reduce his level of anger, and I pointed out to him that the level of anger may not have changed, but that as we both grew in our stature and subsequent ability to enact change, that we were both fortunate to be able to throw ourselves into increasingly hotter fires. Our levels of frustration remaining the same despite increased pressure?...From the optics of pure math, this standpoint of relativity pointed (irrefutably) to steady improvement.

And then we realized, and shared, that the moments in which we were the most terrified that we would lose control, and just blow it; when we were so scared that our challenges towards emotional regulation would cause negative consequences to important projects or relationships...that it was in these moments in which we somehow ended up performing at our very best. Something marvelous would intercede on our behalfs. Herein Simon had it easier than I, as his explanation was a no-brainer: for him this was simply the M.O. of God.


He was disappointed when I left VFP, and with it, the peace and justice/international relief world. But after my and my 4-year old son's diagnoses of Asperger's Syndrome, he also saw that I had been thrust onto an inescapable, new path; and soon after, a greater opportunity to change the world and to better support my family. When I first made my first by founding GRASP, the world's largest membership organization for adults diagnosed anywhere along the autism spectrum, I did so utilizing a concept that Simon alone had repeatedly drilled into my head: that the first step in life was to find a community. Consequently, many GRASP members heard Simon's name as the true author of GRASP's foundational core, and this was essential because the autism world fights—often fiercely—when it comes to language, vaccines, or antiquated behavioral strategies resembling torture. GRASP, for a long while, was a true community within the autism world, thanks in part to Simon's indirect influence.

We didn't meet often, but we covered ground when we did. He saw me through my career transition, and I saw him through some of the heavier years of the church's child abuse revelations. Fellow progressives should note that while we heavily-argued reproductive and LGBTQ-rights, Simon's purity therein contained uncharacteristic, humanist wiggle room, most likely stemming from his knowledge that the Bible was an arguable document almost designed to be open to mass misinterpretation; whereas his concept of a loving Jesus was not flexible.

My 2005 wedding to Kathryn Herzog, the reporter who'd covered one of my delegations to Iraq (and who was by now the evening news host at New York Public Radio) went fine. I knew Simon had passed on hitching us because he was so true to his beliefs. My cousin, Brian (oddly enough, a Catholic Funeral Home Director) officiated in place of Simon, and the latter's mark on our wedding made for an increased focus on family.

Then Simon and I lost touch.


I spoke of him often, but I had never written about him. I wrote about all those incredible people at VFP in one of my Huffington Post columns, and less so in an Exceptional Parent Magazine piece about the benefits of travel (for spectrum folks like me), but never about Simon.

And then in 2014 our family moved from New York City to Wisconsin to take care of in-laws. Culturally, the move was a disaster. Family-first, so no regrets; but New Yorkers with autism spectrum diagnoses—and who don't drink—should never move to the Midwest (Midwesterners are not "Behavioral pluralists").

One day I heard that, coincidence of coincidences, Simon himself had also moved to Wisconsin. I simultaneously heard that to no surprise, he too was having cultural integration issues. I couldn't wait to reconnect and vent with him.

But the news from his post at Marquette University was not good. He was actually now back east, and that I should consult his twin sister, Adele, as to why. Once reached, Adele informed me that Simon was now in hospice with a genetic disorder. Both his brain and body were already consumed by advanced Frontal Lobe Dementia. I was upset, and struggling. Right before the 2017 Christmas holiday, I wrote a rambling HuffPost column called, "Autism Without Fear: The War on Christmas'" Dedicated to Simon, it was infused with his Jesus Christ, and not the Jesus of the greedy, the cowardly, the Jesus that "hates fags," or the Trump crowd that I was now immersed in. It wasn't my best work at all, yet because of Simon I'm really proud of it. And during the holiday that year, when I visited him at his Massachusetts facility, I felt grateful and reassured that everyone assumed, however accurately or inaccurately, that he was still aware, and still with us.

Simon held my hand.


Within this piece, and oddly, not in an outside disclaimer, I want to stop the emotional flow and thank VFP for publishing this tribute/remembrance. It's a great way for me to reconnect with you after 18 years, as it renders Simon's power immortal.

I also want to thank Simon's brother, Philip, for the loving obituary he wrote, one that more fully describes Simon's incredible career, and that I would recommend as essential to anyone interested in learning about this fabulous man. I thank Philip also for letting me grab a photo or two, and speak freely, greenlit by Philip's supportive words.


On October 27, my hometown Providence Journal published a 5,000 word, front-page tome called The Brat in Your Classroom (and the Power of Narrative). In it, I revealed for the first time that I had a streetpunk past myself. Prior, such a background was just one of those things that I thought best left only to conversations and laughs with my family. But an incident at a former school of mine demanded that I now share this aspect of my childhood.

I thought of Simon the whole time writing it—not only because of the assumption that Simon had a streetpunk side to him, and that maybe this was a part of myself that he saw through, that explained why he was drawn to me, and wanted to help me. The article was also about a school that thought itself to be a Quaker school, one that was now amidst a sexual assault scandal, and where the "Quaker values" that Simon knew well, had at least back then been severely lacking.

But within the article I also defended the act of physically hitting back, writing about how my attempts at pacifism were doomed because it just wasn't me. As a child, slugging your attacker is just too empowering. Simon would have more than understood but he also would have been disappointed. He would have gotten in touch to argue. He would have reiterated his belief that explanation is not the same as justification. It would have been great.

Less than two weeks later, in a moment in which our family was laughing about something in our living room, Kathryn rushed to me after seeing something on her phone. "I'm so sorry, Michael. I just saw some really bad news..." Simon had passed at the age of 71.

Yes, even though the event was expected, I exploded. But within less than 60 seconds—truly—I was smiling again, however wet and messy, regaling my 13-year old, whose head lay embedded in my ribs, with stories of Simon. I laughed that heaven was on fire.

Whatever's out there, guard him forever.


  • Michael John Carley

    In 2003, Michael John Carley founded the world’s largest membership organization for adults anywhere on the autism spectrum (GRASP), and after serving ten years as its Executive Director, he left in 2013. He simultaneously was the first Executive Director for ASTEP (now, “Integrate”) from 2011-2014, which integrated spectrum college grads into Fortune 500 internships in New York City. As a school consultant he advised the NYC Department of Education for 10 years on the side, and he now consults all over the world. His books have all been received with rave reviews, and 30+ of his 50+ articles were for the “Autism Without Fear” column he had with the Huffington Post. He’s been in documentaries, and been covered by every major media outlet. As a speaker, his presenter schedule in 2018 alone included keynoting autism conferences in Malaysia, Argentina, Canada, and Australia. He has addressed the UN, and was one of two people on the spectrum to testify at congress’ first-ever hearings on autism in 2012. Among his many awards, he was the first ever “FAR Fund Fellow,” as well as the 2011 Columbia University Center for Bioethics’ Herbert Cohen Lecturer. Lastly, he sits on the Board of NEXT for Autism (best known as the producers and beneficiaries of HBO’s “Night of Too Many Stars”).

    Along with his older son, he was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome in 2000, and re-evaluated under the (then-new) DSM-5 in 2014, he was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. For more information you can go to