-- Groucho Marx
I KNOW YOU'RE OUT THERE, I CAN HEAR YOU MOLESTING ME
One of the healthiest and most powerful ways to address the seemingly endless folly of organized religion is to use the tools of social and political satire to reveal it. When the Catholic church, for example, attempts to make the problem of clergy sexual abuse invisible in its own history, it not only confounds everyone’s ability to see the problem in the present, but it holds itself up to be mocked. For years religious leaders and their attorneys have played hardball with victims in an attempt to spin the truth and rewrite the moral narrative. On this issue alone the sovereign farce that has become church practice and policy toward survivors has trumpeted the arrival of its own court jesters.
Today, as the number of victims worldwide continues to grow at an alarming, but unsurprising rate, some would feign offense by arguing that such humor ridicules and trivializes the pain and suffering of victims of clergy sexual abuse. It’s a specious argument at best. But more to the point, it’s an argument that serves to enforce the church’s unwritten body politic that states: if we don’t acknowledge a problem it doesn’t exist.
Keeping itself concealed and mysterious while dressing itself in bright and colorful vestments is one of religion’s greatest illusions. Anyone who has ever been hurt by the church understands this.
The real issue is not about making fun of clergy sexual abuse. It’s about making sense of it. This is no easy task. If I were a stand-up comedian I'd be the guy dressed in Franciscan robes wearing a shoulder holster ("He's in the bell tower! And he's got an altar boy!").* The problem is that the clergy in charge who claim to be sensible are often men who make little or no sense at all. Pope Francis doesn’t escape this criticism. His canonization of Pope John Paul II in 2014, conveyed one of the most disturbing messages that any religious leader could send to victims of clergy abuse. By making a saint of a pope who deliberately turned his back on and helped perpetuate the worst modern crisis in Catholic history, Francis appeared to join the ranks of those who talk and act like they get it, but really don’t.
There are those who argue that it would have been unforgivable meddling by Francis had he tried to stop the canonization, or even delay it, seeing as how he had inherited the sainthood cause from his predecessor, Benedict XVI. According to this logic, it would have been unforgivable meddling by John Paul II had he tried to stop priests from molesting children, seeing as how he had inherited the sexual abuse scandal from his predecessor, Paul VI.
Considering the way the church has operated for thousands of years, that's probably a lot closer to the truth than anyone would ever dream of making up.
[ * For those who might be in the area, I'll be appearing on stage all next month at the Vatican's MGM Grand Cathedral and Casino in Las Vegas. ]
GOD HELP US
In the summer of 2004, a year before the Franciscans sold Saint Anthony’s Seminary to settle its abuse cases, and the year I helped create the Saint Anthony’s Seminary Archive, I coordinated a meeting with a small group of clergy abuse survivors at a restaurant near the town of San Luis Obispo, California. SafeNet, which had formed the year before, was behind the gathering. Like myself, the five other men who showed up that day (six more had declined) were all former students of St. Anthony’s who had attended the school during one of four decades: the fifties, sixties, seventies and eighties.
We were a pretty tough bunch of men to be sitting down with on a warm summer day. Hard times had become as much a fact of life as the business of staying sober and rational. Only two of us had ever negotiated directly with the Franciscans for assistance and compensation. Of the two, one experienced a breakdown after being traumatized by the process. The painful question of expressing our feelings was something most of us had few words for. A wall of anger and cynicism had been built up over the years and many were convinced that change was just something that jingled in their pockets.
From the moment we introduced ourselves I knew it would take everything I had, including my twisted sense of humor, to chip away at that wall. In my own mind I needed to poke holes in the seriousness of the situation. I pictured myself at the end of the day either standing at the bar singing German drinking songs, or lying somewhere in an alley with an empty wallet and a serious head wound.
The purpose for coming together--an effort that took months of careful planning--was to talk about how we were getting along, discuss what was needed to heal, and try to figure out what we might do to help one another. One idea I proposed was the exploration of our relationship with our school’s history and how to take steps to reclaim a good chunk of our past that had gone missing. The dearth of spiritual guidance in our lives was surpassed only by the emotional poverty of this feeling of great loss.
At the time of our meeting, the Franciscans had put the seminary up for sale to pay for what eventually would become (in 2006) one of the largest survivor cash settlements of its kind ($28.45 million). With the pending sale, much of the seminary’s student history--from books, photographs, documents and chronologies, to musical recordings, artwork, furniture and other physical artifacts (including a complete set of the seminary’s student-run magazine dating back to its first issue in 1920)--were in danger of being sold or literally tossed into dumpsters. It’s fair to say that the Franciscans had no interest in preserving this particular aspect of their history. All of it was a dreadful reminder of a crime they didn’t want to recall. Ironically, much of that history would have been lost forever had it not been for friar Alberic Smith, both the guardian of Mission Santa Barbara (next door to the seminary), and the director of the Saint Anthony’s Seminary Alumni Association.
Alberic was one of the few Franciscans to fully understand and appreciate the immense healing potential of a seminary archive. He would eventually give me complete access to all the school buildings, including the chapel and the tower. This meant going through dozens of locked rooms, from basement to attic, some of which hadn’t been opened for years. With the help of former seminarians Richard Dangaran and John McCord, and survivor outreach ombudsperson Angelica Jochim, I began the task of hauling away and saving as much material from the seminary as I could.
The Saint Anthony’s Seminary Archive became a SafeNet undertaking that was co-sponsored by the alumni association. In his dual role, Alberic provided the means to reach out to all former students and a temporary space for the archive inside the Old Mission tailor shop. In time, and because of the archive’s existence, other Santa Barbara friars like Virgil Cordano, Howard Hall, Leo Sprietsma and Richard Juzix (all graduates of St. Anthony’s), soon began to engage in lively and hopeful conversations about seminary life, their own boyhood experiences there, and the clergy abuse scandal that had wounded us all.
Explaining this to my fellow schoolmates as we sat around a table in a restaurant with framed prints of fish and horses hanging on walls painted orange and green, was about as easy as conversing underwater in English with my Sicilian grandmother. Whenever I told a personal anecdote about one of my discoveries, like finding a baseball glove buried in a box in the seminary basement, or a Latin textbook with someone’s name scrawled in it, most of the guys would look at me as if I were Jerry Mathers on “Leave It To Beaver.” Within the first thirty minutes of our meeting, someone vehemently disagreed with someone else, someone raised his voice and pounded the table, someone started to cry, and someone jumped up--his neck muscles so tight I thought he was going to have a stroke or give someone else one.
Then, just as quickly, someone would apologize profusely and blame it on his medication and everyone would nod their heads knowingly and order more coffee. At one point, right as our food was being served, somebody mentioned that a cigarette break was in order. So we all stood up, excused ourselves to our server, walked outside and stood on the sidewalk smoking cigarettes in silence as if we were all hitmen waiting for instructions. Someone finally said, “Fuck ‘em,” and we all nodded our heads knowingly before shuffling back inside to eat lunch and drink more coffee.
It was only after someone complained that his egg salad sandwich tasted like it was made from powdered chalk, that one guy, Charlie (not his real name), the oldest survivor in the group who was a seminarian during the fifties, asked me a direct question.
“How do you do it?” he wanted to know.
“Do what?” I asked.
“How do you go back to that place? How do you go back to the seminary or walk into a church without shaking like you’re a fucking epileptic?” And everyone looked at me as if I had missed the memo.
I soon learned that none of these men had set foot in a church, or on church property, in years. Some couldn’t even walk by a church without feeling physically ill. One guy said he saw a famous actor on TV playing a priest and it made him so angry he wanted to break into his house and steal his Oscar.
Another guy, Lewis (not his real name), who was at the seminary during the seventies, agreed. “I was watching Judgment at Nuremberg on Turner Classic Movies a few months ago,” he said, “and Montgomery Clift, remember him? He was on the witness stand and all of a sudden I start to get pissed off because now I start remembering he played a priest in another movie once and now I can’t stand looking at the sonofabitch no matter what movie he’s in except for that one where he dies in the electric chair.”
“How do you do it?” Charlie pressed me again. And everyone leaned in.
So I told them how I have this ritual, a brief, simple act that I perform in order to protect myself: whenever I walk through the doors of a Catholic church, I explained, I dip my fingers in the holy water font and make the sign of the cross with my right hand while I cover my crotch with my left.
It got so quiet at our table that you could almost hear the dishwasher in the kitchen scraping the egg salad off the plates. All five guys stared at me as though I had just confessed to sleeping with Mother Theresa the night before she died.
I finally threw my hands up and announced--sounding a little like Foghorn Leghorn:
“That’s a joke, guys.”
There was a brief pause; a delayed reaction. And then everyone burst out laughing in one thunderous roar as though the wall had finally ruptured and a great flood of relief was washing over us. It was a gratifying and liberating moment. We had finally salvaged a small patch of high ground that had almost been stolen from us again. Yes. We can choose to be serious and angry and depressed with it; to cry and raise our voices in anger over it; we can choose to smoke our cigarettes and drink our coffee with it; and take our medications and see our therapists and pound it with our fists. We can choose all these things and feel them as deeply as never before. And still we can choose to laugh with it.
Our effort to comprehend a small part of the absurd nature of our situation, no matter how horrible or dire, is an opportunity for growth. Maybe even grace. Claiming what’s been given is infinitely more redeeming than agonizing over what’s been taken away. Not only does it lift our torment into a brighter light, but it helps us realize how small and insignificant are the men in foolish hats and housecoats who try to keep it, and us, in the dark.
IT IS WRITTEN
Earlier this month I invited several survivors to share their thoughts about Spotlight, the Academy Award-winning film that chronicles the Boston Globe’s investigation of that city’s clergy abuse scandal and cover-up:
John McCord – California
Spotlight is a collegial lesson for our current Church leaders. Cardinal Law’s malfeasance and institutional dishonesty are a degrading confirmation of the presence of evil and human frailty within the rectory of our faith.
The complicity of the private sector. The lawyers, the defenders, the heavy hitters, the press. The denial, the disbelief and betrayal of a grandmother. The collateral damage, the stray Catholics who hoped to salvage their faith reduced to disillusion and anger. The catastrophe of those who suffered first hand. The congregation’s common fear, not wanting what was whispered in the pew to be true.
Perhaps most disturbing in the film were the acknowledgements. Cardinal Law, in a Holy See act of ineptitude, rehabilitated to a revered place in Rome followed by a dismaying list of global places where priestly spiritual and sexual sin took hold upon children and held for generations. Were they mortal or venial? The audience gasped. I felt sadly connected when, in the list of places that appeared on the screen, there was my town, Santa Barbara, California, along with faraway Wongooloola, Australia.
Go see the movie. You will be entertained, gripped and stunned. Then, let us all explore the grace of forgiveness.
Anonymous – Pennsylvania
I didn’t think watching this movie would be that big of a deal for me. But I was wrong. I’d been pretty much okay for some time and could handle my emotions considering the years of violent behavior which I paid for big time. I’d been through the meat grinder and survived. To put it another way, my support team these past few years has helped me not ricochet off the walls so much.
I was cocky when I sat down in the theater and let it rip. But I wasn’t prepared for what happened inside me. Some blob of a thing sleeping there woke up and made me boil. I was also jolted by the survivor in the restaurant who broke down and cried as he tried to talk about what happened to him. That was me.
Scott Timothy Parkhurst – California
I must say that I avoided watching the movie for a very long time. My views were very much all over the place, to say the least.
I was impressed that they actually used real names and even real photos of some of the offending priests. It actually made me more upset, or I should say, it made me more traumatized. It hit hard. It made it more real, like it really did in fact happen to me, to us. I felt more exposed, but yet, during the film I noticed that there was some actual healing going on. But yes, PTSD was hitting me hard as well. I thought of (other survivors) and wondered if they saw the movie how they handled it. Were they okay? I so wanted to call my therapist (but). not sure of what I wanted nor needed to do.
The film also made me very angry at the Church or those who run it. There was a lot I didn't know. I wasn't sure though if it was true or not either. Watching the film has set me back a little, but at the same time I believe it has helped in regards to the public
I think we're not the "damaged goods" as I always feel that I am. I believe it made the public realize that we didn't ask for, nor wanted, ANY of this to happen to us and that these predators are indeed just that; that the Church screwed up big time; that it was never the fault of any of us.
Brenda J. – Minnesota
“Spotlight” is a great statement about the will and courage of so many who were shamed into thinking we were the only ones, and that we had sinned and had something to hide, and that even when we finally spoke up we weren’t believed. It’s been almost forty years and I still haven’t been able to tell members of my own family about being raped by our pastor when I was eight. Many still remember and speak of him as a kind and saintly man. it makes my stomach ache. I am hoping that “Spotlight” will encourage others to make films about other incidents and help the public understand that there is nothing simple about what happened to us.
Didacus Ramos – California
I have mixed feelings and opinions about this drama of reporters uncovering hundreds of pedophile and abusive Catholic priests in the Boston diocese who were intentionally hidden by the Cardinal (and several bishops before him) in an effort to protect the “good” name of the Catholic Church. I watched the film with my Mom. She asked me if that’s what happened to me. I told her, “No. I’ve never been a frustrated reporter.” I am, however, a survivor of Catholic clerical abuse. If the term is obtuse, yes, some priests raped many of us who were young boys and teenagers at the time.
But the film—a good film—is about the reporters. The sexual abuse and hiding of offending priests is a sub plot. It would be good to see a film about the abuse and institutional cover up someday. It has a few emotional moments--one when a reporter challenges the team leader to publish while the iron is hot and before anyone else beats them to it. The reporter says that the abuse has to be exposed so that those responsible can be brought to justice and the abuse and cover up stopped. But watching the film I couldn’t help but feel that the first half of his statement was key—“we have to publish before anyone does it before us.” Being scooped and selling newspapers trumped (horrible term) morality…except as an afterthought.
Would I recommend “Spotlight?” Yes. In a perverse way it was fun to watch. The bad guys get exposed and the Cardinal is removed by the Pope (and given a prestigious position in the Vatican—Which made me wonder: how can I get exposed so that I can get a promotion like that?), who gets canonized after his death. Well, everyone has his weak points, I suppose. Knowingly hiding sexually abusive priests to protect phony holiness doesn’t seem like the stuff saints are made of.
Seeing this on the big screen, exposing the Conservative (read: reactionary) Catholic prelates for the hypocrites that they are, had a satisfying effect. But that reads into a show that used the abuse as a sub plot. This one is worth 3 1/2 stars.
Olan Horne – Massachusetts
After having been front and center in Boston in those early days, behind the scenes working everyday with these very people from the Boston Globe, the Archdiocese and my own endeavors as an advocate and survivor. I had the distinct opportunity to witness countless stories and examples of change on both sides. Having that sort of personal connection, I had fears about even watching the film. How could it possibly portray a world I personally have witnessed?
So in the middle of the week in the quiet of the day I slipped into the theater intentionally alone without notice to anyone or even myself that I was planning to see it. I was amazed at the feeling and reality it left me with. A total disconnect from my own personal story. I felt an empty and enormous truth. It happened. Not one of the reporters themselves or the audience could deny the truth of this issue that was silenced for people like myself for years. We all were given a glimpse into the devastating effects upon the Church, survivors, the people we love and society as a whole. The whole world is still picking up the pieces the Catholic Church left behind in its attempts in getting away from the moral truth of an ongoing scandal they created.
Last week (before Easter), in my capacity as both a board member of Instruments of Peace / SafeNet, and a survivor advocate, I had a personal, ninety-minute talk with Cardinal Sean O’Malley at the Boston chancery where I demanded answers to the promises he made to all of us. I told the cardinal that I understood he had his own issues, and that he may even believe he had done all he could do. But to affect real change, I told him that we as survivors have not done all that we can do with him and the church. Not even close. And the reason we haven’t is because for some unfathomable reason, we’re being ignored—once again.
I concluded our meeting by reminding him that regardless of our differences and beliefs, institutional abuse is a tyranny on society in any form. We need to take direct responsibility to address this issue and heal our gaping wounds, now and together.
Anonymous – Arizona
The most honest I can be about Spotlight is that I saw it with my two grown children and we all got emotional afterwards which was the best thing that’s happened to me in a long time. I’ve been clean for ten years now but separated from my family. The movie gave me a chance to have this relationship with them after many years and gave them a chance to understand what happened at the seminary. It isn’t fixed and I’m not asking them to fix it but it’s a start.
NOTE: As offered here and in future columns, A Room With A Pew will introduce and present a few regular features from time to time to help clarify and enlighten. These will include: It Is Written: brief, topical thoughts and reviews of books, films, TV shows, and Sunday sermons; God Help Us: stories and commentaries on related and unrelated clergy abuse issues; I Confess: admissions, revelations, sins, and other impure thoughts; Idol Rumors: a mixed roundup of pointed news and politics covering the world of culture, church and religion; and, I Know You're Out There, I Can Hear You Molesting Me: personal thoughts about the intricacies and complexities of the healing process.
Paramount to all these efforts will be the use of humor employed to its greatest effect whenever necessary.