Updated: Aug 22
At one point in my overly long life, I seriously contemplated becoming a Roman Catholic priest. That’s right, the guys who are giving dirty old men a bad name these days.
Some luminaries point out that child victims of physical, sexual or psychological abuse tend to perpetuate the deviant behaviour of their persecutors by victimizing others in the same ways later in life. It’s a kind of vicious cycle. They even point to ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ as a factor. Stockholm Syndrome is a phenomenon wherein kidnap victims and other unwilling prisoners come to sympathize with their captors and may even take on a participatory role. The most relied upon argument is that the child is a liar, while the unimpeachable character of the accused precludes any possible guilt. Eventually, the young victim becomes another adult predator.
At the point of deciding to enter the seminary, I’d already spent seven years in a Catholic elementary school under the tutelage of Benedictine nuns and a cabal of money-obsessed ‘fathers’ whom today’s parishioners describe as ‘The Dolan Gang’ (like the legendary Doolan Gang). The three Dolan brothers had been ordained into the clergy then all posted to the same parish. The oldest sibling and head honcho, Francis J., wore embroidered silk shirts and cruised the neighbourhood in a 1953 Cadillac automobile that was replaced with a new model each year. You know: the kind with the massive chromed front grill baring two rows of menacing, shark-like teeth and a couple of cannons aimed straight at anything that got in its way.
In retrospect, I would characterize the elementary school environment as more psychologically than physically damaging, although some nuns were not averse to twisting a child’s ear half off his or her head, ripping out clumps of hair, or slapping a seven-year-old’s face for talking out of turn. A rap on the knuckles with a stiff metal ruler or wooden pointer meant you'd gotten off easy.
I had spent the first grade in a city public school then transferred to the Catholic system. Since kindergarten, I had come to love public school, especially the easel in the corner or our first-grade classroom where each day a meritorious child was selected to spend his afternoon painting. There was physical education class where we played games and climbed ropes and swung like delighted little monkeys on trapezes in the gym. Mrs. Gibbons was a gentle, caring woman who taught us to read and write, following the adventures of Dick & Jane and their dog Spot, line by line with our fingers. It was a mixed class of Black and White students with a few immigrants, a cross-section of the American social fabric of the 1940’s & 50’s.
My initial experience in the second grade, however, was a kind of hazing ritual. The ground rules were laid down quite succinctly on the very first morning of class. I watched “Sister” march down the aisle and strike the frightened child in the desk next to mine. To cap off a perfectly frightful day, I boarded the wrong school bus and arrived home hours after dismissal. My mother was worried sick that her son had been kidnapped. This was Chicago in the early 1950’s, before child abductions and murders were consigned to the back pages of city newspapers or buried in the entertainment section. Still, it wasn’t a safe environment for a young child to be roaming the streets.
Sister Mary Harriet was older than Methuselah and had the curious habit of feeling a child’s head to determine if he or she had an ‘arithmetic bump,’ signaling a natural aptitude for mathematics, then marking report cards accordingly. On the very first teacher-parent interview, which occurred after attending Mass one Sunday morning, she informed my startled parents that, while their son was a bright student, she often needed to discipline him. This was an absolute falsehood and I was forced to endure a tongue lashing from my parents and a mild punishment afterwards. Television screens in those days were the size of a small laptop computer display and featured wooden cabinet doors. Those doors remained firmly shut for an entire week. It was my first experience of victimization and a lesson about injustice.
According to Aristotle, “…a man can give something if he likes, but he cannot suffer injustice if he likes – there must be somebody else to do him the injustice.” Plato, who ascribed a high role to demons, explains that the evil acts of a wrongdoer can impact the entire human community through succeeding generations. When asked what I consider the most formative experience of my life, I often answer "my first day of Catholic school." I became, and have remained, a lifelong champion of the underdog.
Of course, some seventy years later, I perfectly understand the formula. The Catholic Church endeavours quite successfully to instill a guilt complex in the child for the serious mistake of having been born (e.g., Original Sin), then later for having lived. They offer a means of respite from the guilt through suffering and life-long monetary contributions to an institution that historically has had a good deal of blood on its hands, endorsed slavery, sided with the Axis in World War II, and implemented the escape from justice (via Vatican passports) of the authors of the Holocaust. It has literally preached bigotry and intolerance for centuries and continues to do so (https://www.politicususa.com/2019/01/19/covington-catholic-high-school-condemns-maga-hat-wearing-students-who-harassed-native-american.html). Theirs is a bullet-proof strategy that guarantees a client-for-life under what is essentially a fake insurance policy.
It's pure marketing: create a need that wasn’t there before then fill it with a product. Creating the client base – the marketing – was Sister Harriet's job. The product fulfillment came later – after death. Maybe. Or maybe not.
In the Catholic elementary school, gym classes were replaced with religion. I’ve always been thankful for the knowledge of Scripture that has enabled me to go nose-to-nose with religious fanatics, bible thumping bigots, and other sanctimonious wing-nuts and come out relatively unscathed. But I still regret the lack of gym classes, extracurricular sports, or any other kind of physical training during my elementary school years. Instead, constant fund-raising was an activity in which children were forced to participate, the good earners being praised and rewarded while those who brought in low receipts were sidelined for criticism and abuse.
I graduated to a Christian Brothers’ (see the links following this article) all-boys high school that has been euphemistically labelled ‘a boot camp for pedophiles.’ There I joined the swim team. The pool was unheated, even in winter when temperatures could dip below freezing and stay there for months, and there was only sufficient heat in the pool area to keep ice from forming on the surface of the water. The boys’ favourite prank was to shove one unfortunate individual, complete with heavy sweat suit, towel and hat, off the pool deck and into the freezing water, after which the coaches would force the victim to sit out the session shivering on the bench for the rest of the hour-long practice.
Our physical education coach’s favourite strategy was to forbid speaking, or even whispering, in the locker room under threat of consequences, a sheer impossibility for twenty fourteen-year-old boys. The punishment was to order everyone to line up, stark naked and bent over double, then the coach and his assistant passed down the line whacking each uplifted pair of buttocks with a long hardwood paddle, what they called “the board of education.” You’d be surprised how painful a whack on your barenass with a wooden plank administered by a muscular, full-grown man can be. It’s impossible to even walk afterwards. One could anticipate two nude thrashings each week, as per the class schedule.
My first-year honours English class was another chamber of horrors. Brother Jordan David’s policy was to inflict one whack of the paddle for every point missed on a test. Arriving late for class earned three whacks. It wasn’t the excruciating pain so much as the disgusting rivulets of saliva that emerged from the corners of the man’s mouth, the beady, leering eyes, and the high colour in his cheeks, that was so disconcerting. The sexual overtones that dominated the learning environment may have been agreeable to some; nonetheless they had lasting and largely negative effects on me. When it comes to sex play, the idea of spankings, or pain of any kind, still turns me off. Can’t imagine how anyone could enjoy the humiliation, but hey, different strokes for different folks, right?
I recently Googled the name of that high school and was surprised to find that it‘s still operating and even has a website. Most shocking of all, there was a page eulogizing my old physical education coach, a layman and incorrigible sadist. The dedication insisted that he'd been a model Catholic, a faithfully married father and a loving grandfather. But then, that's what they always claim, and the way that pedophiles cover for one another. According to my personal observations as a person who was repeatedly beaten by this man and others like him, he was a cruel pervert.
I could go on with the list of anecdotes, some funny, some not, some downright disgusting. But WTF. The sad thing is that our parents refused to believe that these holy people who had chosen a life of dedication and sacrifice in the service of God could ever be guilty of such despicable behaviour. We were kids. And kids make up stuff, right? Case closed. Oh, and no television this week. For lying about your teachers.
Nonetheless, I persisted in my appreciation of Church ritual, assisting at Mass as an altar boy, singing in the boys’ choir, and staunchly defending the Faith against naysayers and booger-eating commies. What finally turned me off to becoming a priest, however, was a programme the Church organized for boys of my age who’d expressed interest in entering the ranks of the clergy. Some of my schoolmates did enroll in the seminary and emerged at age eighteen in a Roman collar, a teenage ‘Father.” They couldn't vote in a state or federal election or legally drink alcohol but they could forgive your sins or, conversely, damn you to Hell.
The programme included expense-paid visits to various seminaries and monasteries within bussing range of our parish. On one of these trips, we were served a hot lunch by a group of Mexican nuns who did all the menial work in the institution (I wonder if they were undocumented?). Nuns do not enjoy clerical status in the Church, but instead are a kind of exalted laity and a great source of free labour. The dish was chili con carne, hot and spicy. Out of the corner of my eye, I spied a cute young Mexican nun studying me from nearby, so close in fact, that I didn’t know from which direction the heat was emanating – from her or the bowl of chili.
With the x-ray vision of an hormonally overwrought adolescent, I peered right through her thick brown linen habit, imagining the two of us in the saddle, riding off into the vermillion glow of a Mexican sunset. I knew then that I could never handle celibacy.
So, what’s all this fuss about violence in schools or adult teachers making sexual advances to minors or even raping them? After all, priests and nuns have needs too, right?
Well, some folks don’t agree with that argument, and in many jurisdictions such acts constitute criminal behaviour. A slew of sex abuse lawsuits has already driven some Catholic dioceses into bankruptcy. As of January 2019, the Catholic Church has paid over $3 billion in settlements to 18,565 victims, not to mention those who do not come forward. Like myself.
The phenomenon of victims coming out of the woodwork to confront their abusers is world-wide, yet some of the more dramatic episodes are occurring here in the USA where the Catholic Church has spent nearly $200 million in legal settlements related to child sexual abuse in 2017-18 alone. A State of Pennsylvania report emerged shortly after the resignation of Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, accused of sexually abusing young priests and seminarians as well as some minors. The report covers six of the state’s eight Catholic dioceses and more than 1,000 identifiable victims. It is the broadest and most in-depth examination yet by a United States government agency of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. The report suggests that there are likely thousands more victims whose records were lost or who were too afraid to come forward. Many have simply put the experience behind them and moved on, swelling the ranks of the so-called Recovering Catholics.
The Pennsylvania report makes interesting reading, especially for those with rather eclectic tastes, proving that reality is often stranger than fiction. Perhaps that’s why so many parents refused to believe their children’s accusations. It catalogs horrific instances of abuse: a priest who raped a young girl in the hospital after she had her tonsils out; a victim tied up and whipped with leather straps by a priest; and another priest who was allowed to stay in ministry after impregnating a young girl and arranging for her to have an abortion. The government report consists of nothing less than a litany of crimes and abuses of authority.
Is the Pennsylvania report an anomaly, that is, are its findings limited to a localized phenomenon and not reflective of a larger threat in the world? I think not. But the scope of this blog is too limited to go into the question of how pervasive it is or what the statistics world-wide might look like.
Still, a few cases stand out. Most recently, an Australian court handed down a 6-year jail sentence to former Vatican treasurer and Archbishop of Melbourne, Cardinal George Pell for raping two choir boys during the 1990's. Although former Australian Prime Minister John Howard defended Pell as "a person of high intelligence and exemplary character and great personal friend, the trial judge dismissed the prisoner with the terse words: "Can Cardinal Pell be taken away, please?"
Statistics released in 2017 by Australia's Royal Commission into Responses to Institutional Child Sex Abuse stated that 7% of all Catholic priests in the country had abused children over the past six decades.
What’s being done in terms of damage control? To be honest, nothing much in the way of truth and reconciliation on the part of the Church.
The former Pope Benedict XVI, who handed off the papacy to the current Pope Francis after being indicted in The Hague in connection with the sexual abuse coverup, resigned amid allegations that he protected pedophile priests and did nothing to curb the abuses. Unfortunately, he was replaced by a pope who is hardly more enlightened than his predecessor. According to The Guardian, just days after the Vatican defrocked ex-Cardinal and Archbishop Theodore McCarrick who was found guilty of sexual abuse of minors and adults, the new Pope declared that those who criticize the Catholic Church are “friends, cousins, and relatives of the devil.” He made this statement ahead of a four-day summit with bishops and cardinals on how to deal with sex abuse in the Church, a small step in the right direction to be sure. It coincided with a public letter from Cardinals Raymond Burke and Walter Brandmüller citing a ‘homosexual agenda’ for creating a ‘conspiracy of silence.’ By equating homosexuality with pedophilia, they cleverly removed blame for decades, perhaps even centuries, of violence and systemic sex crimes that continue to occur within the Church.
Gender politics aside, the imbalance in power in any teacher/student relationship makes physical discipline, never mind sexual exploitation, in the lower grades and high schools a cowardly exercise at best and a crime at worst. ‘Spare the rod and spoil the child’ might be written somewhere in Scripture but it isn’t politically correct anymore. It also destroys people. And although the Virgin Mary herself may have been only fourteen (or younger) when she gave birth to the Redeemer, that doesn’t signal a green light for priests to rape young girls. Seems like a no-brainer doesn’t it? So how come this phenomenon has been with us for so long?
The fact is that most children recognize the devil when they see him but are usually powerless in the situation. I saw a lot of devils in my school career and felt their sting. I often ask myself how is it that others who emerged from a similar religious school environment and witnessed the same systemic child abuse can continue to support such a revolting system, dismissing massive sexual abuse lawsuits against clergy while returning their own children to the same high-risk environment. I guess old habits are just too hard to break.
If the allegations of Cardinals Burke and Brandmüller are to be believed, then I certainly would not hand my children over to an institution that offers its agents ‘easy access to young boys’ as the Christian Brothers had once claimed. Two of their members were hanged in Canada for child murder, while millions of dollars have been spent defending a shockingly large number of their pedophile brethren. In 2013 the Edmund Rice Christian Brothers North American Province, known as Irish Christian Brothers, paid US$16.5 million to 400 victims of child sexual abuse across the USA.
I didn’t receive a single cent of that money. Neither am I paid to write this blog.
The final and biggest question of all is: where does all this settlement money come from? Yeah, that's right. It comes from the pockets of bamboozled Catholics who send their children to be brainwashed by an institution that insists on disgracing itself.
As Shane Dunphrey, the Irish writer and a person who was repeatedly beaten by priests, put it:
"It [the Catholic Church] is an organisation that has proven, beyond any shadow of a doubt, to be utterly corrupt, institutionally and irrepressibly criminal. It has caused the kind of misery one could only equate with a political dictatorship or maybe more accurately a highly organized and successful international criminal gang."
Are the psychologists and sociologists correct, after all? Does institutionalized child abuse tend to perpetuate itself? I leave the issue with you, gentle reader.
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