July 26, 2010

The Catholic Church raised me. The Immaculate Heart nuns who supervised my education from the age of six through thirteen were, for the most part, conscientious educators. They loved us, possibly as surrogates for the children they did not bear. Theirs cannot have been easy lives, cloistered after hours in a small house among other women and forbidden the company of men. They wore their vows of poverty, chastity and obedience with dignity. If they were occasionally cruel or deranged, it was within the accepted limits of the time: whacking us on the backside with ping-pong paddles when we became insufferable (which we certainly did) and purveying the anti-communist phobias of the time. (“€œWhat would you do,”€ our principal, Sister Mary Immaculata, would ask, “€œif the communists burst into the school right now, put a gun to your head and ordered you to deny Christ?”€) I realize now that these women, whom we regarded as holy sanctuaries of chaste love for Christ, lived in fear: fear of eternal damnation, fear of the priests who oversaw the parish school and fear of censure by the community. No one ever told me of a single case of one of them harming a child, touching a child inappropriately or neglecting a child who needed help.

The parish priests, under Monsignor James Dolan, were stern men and fair. If Dolan had a fault, it was the good man’s fault of drink. He, Father Machler and Father Mayer drilled us as altar boys in the Latin responses of the Tridentine Mass. Most of us who served at the altar also spent time singing in the choir loft, our contralto voices somehow regarded as approaching the divine in our worship. We served and sang at weddings, funerals, High Mass and Low Mass, on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation, as well as novenas and saints”€™ days. (The Khmer Rouge had nothing on Catholic indoctrination of the 1950s.) In all that time, no priest, as far as I knew, attempted to touch any of us. That is not to say it never happened or that, if it did happen, the boys involved would not have been so traumatized that they would be unable to denounce their tormentors. It was a possibility of which we were unaware.

When I went off to a boarding school run by the Society of Jesus in San Jose, California, in the autumn of 1964, I again found clergy devoted to my wellbeing and education. At the airport in what was then a farm town, a Jesuit scholastic named Jack Flynn picked me up and drove me through elm-dappled avenues to a run-down dormitory. Jack was the brother of Harry Flynn, my father’s old schoolmate and colleague at the bar (both types, I fear), whom I had known all my life. Jack, who found his vocation in his mid-thirties, had been a senior radiologist at UCLA Medical Center. Becoming a Jesuit late, he had to teach for a few years as a scholastic, among other duties, before taking holy orders. While avoiding any favoritism to me, he took an avuncular interest in my progress at the school. The other scholastics and the priests were good teachers, especially of Latin and mathematics, although they failed to give us anything approaching an education in art and music.

Like the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart, the Jesuits were creatures of their time “€“ but of a more modern time than the nuns”€™. They tended to the liberal end of the spectrum, and I argued with them freely and frequently on behalf of a dying, pre-Vatican II Catholicism and an idea of America that should have vanished long before then. Although the visiting retreat master, Father Newport, had us all believing there was no destiny for any of us outside hell, the young Jesuits supported Cesar Chavez and the farm laborers who were denounced elsewhere as communists. The school had no Negroes, as ten per cent of the American population were called then. The younger (and a few older) Jesuits mobilized to establish scholarships for black young men to integrate our all-white environs. This was opposed by many of the students, including (I am ashamed to say) me, on the spurious grounds that scholarships should be awarded on merit rather than race. (None of us had any idea how much our black contemporaries were deprived of basic education and thus of any opportunity to prove their merit. In Los Banos, where I used to go duck shooting on schoolmates”€™ farms, the black part of town was universally called “€œNiggertown.”€ That was our world before the Civil Rights Act of 1964.) The clergy at our prep school were well in advance of the reactionary young men they were attempting to educate. If any of them behaved immorally towards a boy, no one ever mentioned it.

I later transferred to another Jesuit high school in Los Angeles, where I did not have to board. There was a collection of characters among the faculty, only one of whom was ever accused of impropriety with a boy. He was not a priest, but one of the lay teachers “€“ actually, one of the best teachers in the school. The accusation against him, made years after I left, was that he had made a suggestion to a student that they might pursue an extramural relationship. No one charged him with actually touching the lad, but he was dismissed anyway.

I remember two of my teachers with much affection, Sister Mary Veronica, who taught me in the seventh and eighth grades, and Fr. Eugene Colosimo, S.J., who taught algebra and was my confessor. I occasionally visited them and maintained a correspondence with them both until they died. It is with them in mind that I write now to condemn the Catholic Church, its hierarchy up to the pope, as well as many school and parish authorities, for deliberately ignoring and denying the harm done to children whom the clergy betrayed. It is no good to say that laypeople also raped and otherwise abused children. The laity did not have the protection of an institution that a large part of the community trusted to care for, rather than harm, their children. Child abusers from outside the Church were not hidden away by a global organization that routinely sent corrupt priests away from schools to parishes where they were not known. Child molesters who were not part of the Church could not rely on priestly omertà to conceal their crimes. (The Church needs a new Reformation, but that is another story.)

I detest those clergymen who abused the trust of children, because of the harm they did to the children and because of the ill repute they brought on the vocations of decent clergy like Sister Veronica and Fr. Colosimo. Priests like Fr. Greg Boyle, S.J., who has devoted his life to the suffering Latinos of East Los Angeles, and the Jesuits who were murdered for their commitment to the poor of El Salvador do not deserve to be classed alongside the perverts and tormentors of children within the Church’s ranks. The Church did not deal with the criminals in its midst harshly, and it did not treat the victims fairly. It took the courts in America, Ireland and elsewhere to redress in financial terms injustices that cry out for more severe punishment.

The least any confessor could and should have done was to demand, as penance for any priest demanding absolution for that particular sin, that the offender turn himself into the police and take his punishment. If he rejected that penance, he should have been drummed out of the priesthood. Mark’s Gospel attributes to Jesus the words, “€œFor whosoever shall offend one of these little ones that believe in me, it is better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck and he were cast into the sea.”€ As Cool Hand Luke did not say, what we have here is a failure to excommunicate.


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