Saturday, April 3, 2010

My Take on the Catholic Church's Pedophile Priest Scandal

The Catholic church once again finds itself embroiled in a major international scandal involving allegations of sexual misconduct with minors. After the wave of accusations and multimillion dollar lawsuits against the church that happened in the 90's nobody is surprised by this latest wave of allegations that have swept across Europe and have once again surfaced here in the US.

What is surprising this time is that the allegations include accusations of a cover up within the church that go all the way to the top. The Pope himself is being accused of failing to take action over a decade ago in several cases involving priests from Arizona to Germany when then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, known as "The Enforcer" was tasked with handling such cases.

As the pontiff prepares to celebrate Easter mass tomorrow at St. Peter's Square, his popularity among Catholics has reached an all-time low, with a favorable rating of just 27%, down from 40% in 2006, according to a CBS News poll.

The pope's personal pastor recently made a statement during a sermon comparing the latest allegations to the Nazi persecution of the Jews during the Holocaust. Having been raised Catholic, I can tell you that this is a classic Catholic response. Any time you get called to account for your misdeeds, turn the tables and play the martyr. It's a routine my mother perfected very early in life. Jewish mothers have nothing on Catholic mothers when it comes to that sort of thing.

Although this story has been unfolding over the last couple of weeks, I haven't written about it before for a couple of reasons. First of all, there are stories to be told that have a more direct impact on the LGBT community and due to the limited amount of time I have during the day to update the blog, I've chosen to focus on those.

Second, but perhaps most importantly, this story hits a little close to home for me. Finding the right words to tell the story of my encounter with my now-deceased pedophile priest uncle when I was 13, has been difficult and has caused some confusion and hard feelings within my own family. What makes this story especially difficult to tell is not because of what happened, but because of what didn't, but could have happened, during the summer of 1973 when I spent two weeks at my grandmother's house in rural Sudbury Massachusetts.

That was the year that my parents had finally decided to file for divorce after 3 or 4 years of half-hearted attempts to work things out. Dad had moved out, tensions were very high at home. I was the fourth of six kids, just starting puberty and was having a really hard time dealing with it all. In other words, I was a perfect target for a pedophile priest.

My parents decided that putting me on a bus by myself to make the six-hour trip from Maryland to Massachusetts to spend some time at my grandmother's house with my uncle, Father Jim, was just the solution to my problem child status. Father Jim told me when I arrived that my parents had asked him explain the birds and the bees to me, despite the fact that I had taken a sex education class at school the year before. (I later confirmed with both my parents that this was true.) Father Jim must have felt like a kid in a candy store. Not only did he have a 13-year old kid to share his bedroom with, he had the blessing of the parents. When he started talking about things like nocturnal emissions, erections, the evils of masturbation and when he would undress in front of me, he could say it was for educational purposes.

My grandmother lived in a old farmhouse that had a tub with no shower, so every morning, I had to take a full bath. The first day, Father Jim came in to "wash my back". That first time, that was all he did or attempted to do. Having been totally creeped out by the experience, the next day I locked the bathroom door. Father Jim informed me that the house rule was that the bathroom door would never be locked, because if my frail grandmother fell in the tub, someone wouldn't be able to get to her. Never mind that my grandmother and I never bathed together, it was a house rule and I was expected to follow it.

After that, I took the quickest bath I could possibly take, so that by the time Father Jim came in to "wash my back", I'd be finished. It was then that things got even creepier. He came in as I was toweling off, so I wrapped the towel around myself. He told me that I shouldn't feel ashamed of my body and to open the towel. He took a good hard look before I covered up and left the room to quickly get dressed.

There's something that non-Catholics don't understand about the relationship that Catholics have with their priests. These guys are in a position of ultimate authority. They have a direct line to the man upstairs, they are entrusted with your deepest, darkest secrets in the confessional and they can grant absolution for any sin you might commit. They are invited into the homes of parishioners for Sunday dinner. They baptize children, and throughout their lives grant them the sacraments of communion, confession, confirmation, marriage and last rites. From cradle to grave, the parish priest is there as a trusted member of the family.

In a traditional Catholic family, the sensitive son who doesn't like girls or sports feels a great deal of pressure to become a priest. Is it any wonder there are so many gays in the priesthood? I felt it that pressure. But the time I spent with my uncle put an end to any thoughts of a career in the church. In fact, that was the year I started pulling away from the church altogether.

There were other instances of Father Jim taking liberties, but I won't go into them. Suffice it to say that the time I spent with him became a game of cat and mouse. While technically, "nothing happened", it wasn't for a lack of trying on his part. Back then there was no conversation about the threat of child sexual abuse. In the decades since, parents and counselors tell kids to pay attention to that inner feeling that tells them something is wrong with the situation they're in, to get away from it and tell an adult. As a 13-year-old, I did just that, except that I didn't tell anyone, I just tried to put it behind me.

It was about ten years before I finally told my mother about what I went through that summer. Her response was one of discomfort and anger at discussing the subject. As a devout Catholic, she had always idolized my uncle. She had stayed in close contact with him even after the divorce. She told me that if I really was so upset about it, I should confront him myself. She showed no sense of outrage toward him or any sense of guilt for having put me in that situation in the first place. It's not that I blame her, but any parent would feel a sense of guilt over their role in handing their kid over to a pedophile. There should have been some sense of a betrayal of trust, but there wasn't. There was only her anger at me for wanting to discuss such a distasteful subject.

As for confronting my uncle, how do you accuse somebody of something that didn't happen? He didn't actually molest me. He wanted to. He tried to, but he didn't, because I didn't let it happen. This is the crux of the matter.

When I told my father several years later about what his brother had tried to do, he was appropriately outraged. The next time he saw Father Jim, he confronted him about it and became violent. My uncle, naturally, denied  everything. When my father told me about the incident, I felt both proud and awful at the same time. My father had not been a part of my life since my parents' divorce, but his reaction was what I had wanted from my mother years before, but had been denied.

On the other hand, there was the fact that no actual sexual contact had taken place. Father Jim could truthfully deny that anything had taken place. I tried to set the record straight with my father a few times over the years, but I found that the more I tried, the more confusing it became. The bottom line for me is that I love my father for standing up for me.

Father Jim died several years ago. I don't know what he may of may not have done to other kids over the years. I only know that he was never publicly accused or prosecuted. And I know that if the god he devoted his life in service to does exist, there is a special place in hell for people like him, where he is suffering eternal torment as we speak.
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1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing this Steve. Painful memories are difficult to share. They often become more painful with time. I too can remember as a young boy, seeing my friends's priest come to his house every week to go swimming with him. I remember the close physical horseplay-attention he gave to my friend...and now I only wonder what else "may" have happened back then. While it is very unfair to accuse without direct evidence, certainly the Pope's actions/or lack there of, along with it seems countless lawsuits...have contributed to the tendency of many people doing just that. He needs to step down,not only for his poor leadership on this front, but on several others as well.


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