What would it take you to abandon an institution you belong to, are raised in, and have been indoctrinated to believe is the “One, True, Holy” and only way to God?
I saw the movie Spotlight last night. It’s an “All The President’s Men” style re-telling of the Boston Globe’s exposure of the Catholic priest sexual abuse coverup. The Globe’s investigative “Spotlight” team finally put all the pieces together to expose the Catholic Church’s systematic cover-up of child rape, molestation and abuse by priests. The Globe, in 2002, wrote over 600 stories detailing how 87 priests had knowingly been shuffled from parish to parish by Bernard “Cardinal” Law, who was later promoted to a powerful position at the Vatican by then-pope Benedict (nee Josef Cardinal Ratzinger**).
The Globe pushed the first domino in Boston, and the rest of the world followed…
Spotlight closes with a textual coda, something to the effect of: “In the wake of the Globe’s Spotlight stories, major priest child abuse cover-ups were exposed in the following cities: …” Then, page after page of alphabetized cities fill the screen, first U.S., then international. With each screen refresh another 20-30 cities appear. Milwaukee was one of the cities on the list. Here the Archbishop, Rembert Weakland, participated in the cover-up which included the horrendous reality of a single priest molesting up to 200 deaf children at St. Johns School for the Deaf.
In the theater, before the lights went down, multiple deaf people helped each other set up assisted listening/personal sub-title devices. It’s conjecture, but with 200 deaf kids molested and raped, and with “six-degrees-of-separation” being in effect, I have to assume these aging adults were connected much more closely to the events in the movie than I was. What must it be like to relive that horror?
…the grooming by authorities your parents had taught you to revere; told you must never be denied or ignored?
…the shame of participating in sexual activity, which the priests tell you constantly is sinful?
…the fear of knowing, once you’re in, no one will believe your claims if you report Father?
…the betrayal, first of your faith by the priest, and then by your own parents telling you to not speak ill of the Father!
How close had I come to being a victim? A perpetrator? I was raised Catholic, and was devout: Altar boy; member (eventually State President) of the “Columbian Squires,” the youth arm of the Knights of Columbus; daily mass attendee, as I sought my path in life. One of the local priests took a keen interest in recruiting me to enter the seminary, going as far as sending me on an all-expenses paid, two-week pilgrimage to Fatima Portugal. There, in mandatory face to face confession, Fr. Robert Fox coaxed me to lay my head in his lap to give my confession. He placed his hands on my head and asked, in a Hannibal Lechter-esque combination of professional duty and personal interest, “Robert, do you masturbate?”
My senior year in high school, my parish priest continued the enticements, loaning me one of the Priest’s cars for the year while I tried to discern “God’s will” for me. I entered the Pallottine Fathers Seminary in Dundrum, Dublin, Ireland in 1984. The general sex abuse scandal was well under way for decades as we would learn later, and the Christian Brothers/Magdalene Laundries scandals of more local Irish fame (portrayed in the movies “Philomena” and “The Magdalene Sisters”) continued in Ireland until 1992.
I left the Seminary a year later 1985, after the Rector had said, “Robert, you’ll get along a LOT better here if you’ll just stop THINKING and do as we tell you.” Still unaware of the scandals, I left the Catholic Church by the time I was 22, having figured out for myself that the institution piled misogyny atop its anti-intellectualism; it was not going to reform from within, and I could no longer support or participate in enabling it.
By 1988 I was free. I came through my Catholic youth physically unscathed, unmolested. Later, as the horrors in Boston and elsewhere unfolded, it became a joke: “What’s wrong with me? All these people were being molested and I never even ONCE was propositioned?”
I stopped making that joke, after reading the detailed stories, watching movies like “Spotlight” or “Call Me Lucky.” Children and families were wrecked forever, or lost to suicide, and that is just not funny.
The scope of abuse and its cover-up by the church is stunning. I would say “unbelievable” but if I could believe a man turns wine and wafers into the actual body and blood of Jesus Christ at every mass… if I believed I could be magically transformed into one of those men who could magically invoke Jesus’ presence… I really shouldn’t be incredulous about the Church’s efforts to protect its reputation and cash-flow at the expense of its members’ lives and sanity.
I can hear the voices of still-devout Catholics, “Ah, for God’s sake… won’t you just let it go. It’s in the past. They were human failures, not failures of the Church.” No. I can’t and won’t, because the lesson of holding institutions accountable and not enabling them remains long after the events, and is applicable across every aspect of our social life. I cannot let the lesson go unlearned or die of neglect and willfull ignorance. If not for the continuous pressure of those good people willing to fight for the abused, the stories revealed in the Boston Globe may never have come to light. The system that casually silenced raped children with meager payouts and legally binding gag orders might still be operating with impunity today.
If you’re still a loyal member of the Church, whether you think you know the story or have just “had enough” of it, I ask you to see “Spotlight” and reconsider. If I wasn’t already out of the Church at the time these events came to light, I can guarantee you this would have been the straw that pushed me to stop enabling its institutional abuse, either through my funding or my silent assent. What will YOUR straw be?
**(Here’s a peppy, and powerfully scathing tribute to Pope Ratzinger’s involvement in the scandal. Unless you are actively engaged in self-protective denial, or “tone policing” you will probably be able to get past the language to understand the very clearly articulated, powerfully honest point. Enjoy… check the “show more” button to see the full lyrics to sing along!)