As one of its former priests, I have strong feelings about all that has been happening recently and for far too long in the Catholic Church as well as a few insights I would like to offer.
A week or so ago I wrote to a few ex-priest friends regarding the pedophile scandal:
“I am tired of, embarrassed by, angry about and finished with dealing with this issue. I am deeply sorry for those abused, endlessly sad for the abusers. But after awhile, I get to feeling like a puppy chewing and shaking a dirty rag. I have had my say to those who listen to me, especially myself, and see it as the Church’s problem to deal with. I will continue to invest my energies in far more positive and productive directions.”
My reaction to recent headlines tells me I am not finished after all. I hope what follows will help to get me there.
I have noticed that most of the priest-pedophiles are of a certain age: 60 and above, “old Church”-trained (pre-Vatican II) like me. I do not know how many of them left home at the age of 13, as I did, to “become a priest” but I am thinking many did. In the post-war years of the late 40s and 50s, so-called minor seminaries flourished, harvesting vocations in idealistic young minds – like mine, right out of grammar school. Our entrance class numbered more than 90!
I did not know it then, but I learned in retrospect, that I was actually running away from home. Too long a story to tell here but the point being I did not know I was. I ran way from a home inflicted with the insanities of alcohol, but I am left wondering, especially these days, how many others ran away from homes harboring sexual abuse. There was no way of knowing any of that. The seminary years were wonderful in so many ways. The training was strict and the education excellent, except for the repressive parts that evoke these thoughts.
It was an all-male world but for the nuns who cooked for us. There was a rule of separation between the older students and the younger ones, “particular friendships” were no-no’s, few secular magazines (US News & World Report was it), no newspapers except the weekly Sporting News, all mail coming and going was opened and read and our weekly movies were so censored that by the time we saw “Anything Goes” we called it “Everything Went!” Even films like “Showboat” were denied our viewing.
That was the system back then. Our dreams and ideals, together with the academic challenges, had a built-in tolerance for these rules and there was a theology to explain such a way of life. Celibacy enveloped us while, paradoxically, sexuality was never directly addressed. Only in the confessional, if there.
Many left during those early years, most by their own choosing, others advised that they did not have the makings. A few disappeared overnight. We called that “shipping.” Only rumors were left to imagine the reasons.
Please do not get me wrong. The life was good and meaningful and I treasure much that it gave me. But I cannot help believing that the roots of the Church’s current crisis reach back d to those years, or further. How the Church chose to deal with the problem is an entirely different matter, though; that has its history as well.
In the major seminary, during the years closer to priesthood, we were taught to “avoid scandal at any cost,” apparently a lesson many learned too well and one not addressed by Vatican II. In protecting itself and its image, the Church has failed to protect the innocent. The cost of that continues to be tragic. Even those priests who remain true to their place in others’ lives, the vast majority, have to be paying a terrible price.
Although I left religious life well over thirty-five years ago, one of my most vivid and cherished experiences as a priest was being “Father” to so many children who ran to me to be hugged, teased and blessed. I was welcomed into many families, even becoming part of a few of them. That would be suspect today. It will forever be beyond my imaging how any priest could or would betray that trust, even in his own woundedness.