I’ve heard the saying ‘Give me a child before age 5, I’ll give you a Catholic forever’ and it’s true Catholicism has a certain stickiness, something I’ve personally attributed to the hymns. Music attached to memories makes for a strong lifetime pull, no matter what your beliefs end up being. I’m a social scientist but you don’t need a PhD. to know this, all I have to do is access the part of my brain that has stored all the beer jingles of my youth. Here comes the King here come the big number one, Budweiser beer is only second to none…
I was baptized Catholic and went to a Catholic grade school where attending Mass first thing was the way each day started. During Lent we went twice a day on account of the stations of the cross, and I don’t know the capital of Zambia off the top of my head but I know four verses to Amazing Grace, and can sing any of 50 hymns, all set to classical music, on command. My favorite is “How Great Thou Art”; if John Muir ever wrote a hymn it’s the kind of hymn he’d write. I have even sung it among the giant redwoods, alone one cool misty morning, as a kind of tribute.
Those hymns of my childhood have staying power, unlike the priests of my childhood in a St. Clair County Catholic parish – they didn’t stay long at all, but on a regular basis were suddenly and mysteriously ‘reassigned’ to other parishes. After a few weeks of old Father Kuhl delivering morning weekday mass and Sunday services, a new young priest would show up and take over the daily mass and religion class duties while Father Kuhl would return to being a distant Sunday figure who smelled comfortingly of incense and cigars.
We students were never told about the impending departure, there was just a quiet switcheroo and instead of “Good morning Father Friedman” you were saying “Good morning Father Petersen” and no mention of the disappeared priest was ever made again. I never heard the word pedophile spoken; I assume everyone, like me, only found out what was happening years later which was pretty naive of me considering the parents of the abused children must have been telling someone something or else why the sudden reassignments with the deep parental silence around the topic that proved impenetrable as a moat…? Just as sure as someone knew something, no one was telling us kids – the ones in actual danger – anything.
There were signs of course but you never expect that an adult with a religious job is someone you have to look out for — priests were the guys you went to for help, they had the power to tell my mom she couldn’t go on the pill not even to save her life (but lucky for her they said ok). They were an integral part of the community, showing up at backyard barbecues and playing in the slow pitch softball league and attending parishioners’ Halloween parties and even joining on camping trips and water skiing with the kids. Until one day they weren’t, poof.
There was that time I envied, aloud, how the altar boys got donuts at the rectory when they served weekend mass, a privilege that girls were excluded from. Mark S. was a small wiry blonde boy with mischievous eyes and a neurotic twitchiness. “Father L is always coming to the door in a towel and asking us if we need to shower,” he told me, his nose wrinkling comically. We laughed, skeeved out but not sure why. We were still at an age where bathing felt like a waste of time – no kid our age would EVER take a bath or shower if they weren’t being made to.
Not so long after Father L’s unexplained disappearance from our lives, my mom picked up the paper and then said “Oh” and shot me a funny look. What? I asked, and I guess she figured I might read it for myself so she said “Oh well Father L was arrested for indecent exposure,” in a voice that tried for dismissiveness but didn’t quite make it. Nothing more was said; I had no idea what decent exposure was (I thought it had something to do with cameras), so indecent exposure didn’t ring any alarm bells though her tone told me it might be something ‘dirty’ which was our synonym for sexual where/when I grew up. What I figured, though, was pretty close to the truth I learned once Google was born: that Father L. had got caught doing something unbecoming a priest, and that there was someone else involved, someone my mom wasn’t mentioning. Someone young, maybe; someone who liked donuts.
Then there was Father V, the handsome resident priest at Catholic girls sleepaway camp. The rumors about him with this girl and that were always swirling; once, I heard some rumors about Father V about the two week boys sleepaway camp, but I was too inexperienced to understand what I was hearing, and I soon forgot about it. Father V. was maybe a little overly familiar with the campers, and often had an aggressive joviality that I associated with dad and his friends drinking too much beer. But I wasn’t afraid of him or anything. I liked him, he often let us campers have a second dessert.
Grown, I learn that the Catholic landscape is littered with priests like the ones that rotated through my classes, delivering sermons, admonishing against disobedience, favoriting some of the boys in ways that seemed to us girls (who were not allowed to be servers at Mass) both intensely desirable and unaccountably scary…like, why was the older brother of one of my classmates always at the rectory, even on the weekends? (and why oh why was he mowing the lawn without his shirt on?) Hasty arrivals were invariably followed by hasty departures, carrying a whiff of accusation that you sensed rather than smelled.
When the first stories surfaced in the mid 80s I remember a lot of scoffing by my peers at all the accusers supposedly coming forward for the attention and any money they could squeeze out of the Church. “Oh brother, they’ve set up an *abuse hotline”, sneered one of my colleagues and we laughed at the absurdity that such a thing was necessary. For some reason I can’t fathom now, we were all instantly on the side of the priests. If something bad had happened, we reasoned, we know we’d report it to the police right away, we wouldn’t wait for decades, ergo these people wanted to shake the Church down for money. I didn’t question this narrative – none of us did. Priests were good, and if some of them were really systematically bad like the lawsuits were belatedly telling us, someone would have said something, right?
“You can’t throw out the baby with the bathwater,” my friend S said. She’s a staunch Catholic, and her view was, you can’t blame the whole institution for the sins of a very few outliers. The bad apple argument. Except the thing with bad apples is, they spoil the whole bunch. The John Jay Report estimates there are 11,000 total abuse allegations made against 4,392 abuser priests in the US, but this is widely considered a vast underrepresentation, given in just six dioceses in Pennsylvania alone, there were 300 priests identified as abusers, with more than 1,000 victims. Without making any comment on the existence (or not) of God, the good deeds of the church or the comfort praying affords, it’s hard not to feel cynical about the Vatican providing the funds to move more than 50 of the abuser priests abroad, after accusations surfaced against them in the US.
But as a kid it was just one of those things that kept happening, no more or less understandable than the holy trinity, the immaculate conception, or the resurrection – all explanations we took as articles of faith. By the time we got through Lent, Good Friday and Easter Sunday mass with its stiff new dresses and white patent leather Mary Janes, we were ready to celebrate the true reason for Easter which was the hunt for Easter eggs and a basket of pastel Easter candy featuring OUR OWN chocolate rabbit. In the calculus of kids, holidays were often rated in terms of desirability by how much candy was involved, coupled with how much church was required. On that scale, Easter rated somewhere lower than Halloween, but higher than Christmas, as I way preferred the black jelly beans of Easter to the peppermint candy canes of Christmas. As we kids got older, Easter emerged as the hands down favorite when my parents replaced the egg hunt with a treasure hunt. Every year I got the same thing – three new books – and every year I was thrilled enough to not even compare my gift to my brother and sister, which of course is the true goal of any parental gift giving or dessert allocating.
Lately I’ve been thinking about a short story, Death to the Easter Bunny! by author Alan Ryan, in which a group of adults finds and slays the Easter Bunny, and vow to take Santa and the Tooth Fairy out next. In the story the adults have to work themselves up for the slaughter; they justify their actions as righteous, ridding the world of a strange and unnatural creature – and that’s the crux, of course, that the supernatural Easter Bunny actually does exist. The reader is barely over the shock at the Easter Bunny’s reality – is it wondrous? horrifying? something to fear? – before we are left to contemplate the parents who would rather see magic dead and dismembered before admitting its existence or having to explain it to the kids.
The parents thought they could replace the magic in the world with themselves with their kids none the wiser – that they could somehow hide the true nature of the world forever, if need be, but why? All I have been able to come up with is that they liked for things to feel ‘right’, enough to kill a living creature to get that feeling, which restored a sense of control. That the creature did not conform to anything they thought of as normal was reason enough to disappear it from the world, swiftly and violently. It is a similar message in Shirley Jackson’s story The Lottery – all the villagers liked for things to stay the way things have always been right up until it was their turn at the annual stoning, then it wasn’t fair and they wanted to discuss it all but of course it is too late to ask questions after years of promoting the fiction of having all the answers. People like to arrive at their conclusions in their own good time, and the murder of innocents doesn’t hurry them along in the way you might think.
After the accusations towards the child abusing priests became common knowledge I thought about the easter bunny story in a different light, how before the victims publicized their experiences, priests were in a way like the Easter Bunny, something mythical but based on something ordinary, something that we were told was harmless and good and really special, but turned out to be in reality to – at least sometimes, enough of the time, too much of the time – be something awful and strange, something a parent wouldn’t trust around their kid in a hundred million years.
I’ve read the Catholic Church has paid nearly $4 billion over sexual abuse claims. I wonder if any of my former classmates are among those recipients. Given what the revolving door of priests suggested about the parish where I grew up in St. Clair County, one that has enjoyed an unhappy notoriety for its high proportion of defrocked and laicized pedarests, the chances are good that someone I grew up with is entitled.
Pope Francis has said “”It is my hope that the gravity of the abuse scandals, which have cast light on the failings of so many, will serve to emphasize the importance of the protection of minors and vulnerable adults on the part of society as a whole.” That’s my hope too, but in the meantime I don’t see why an institution that harbored repeat offenders against the most vulnerable members of our society should get any special respect in that society, not to mention tax status or free parking on the street on Sundays.
A lot of churches now sit empty, taking up large amounts of space in communities all across the country. Maybe a better use of vacant church properties would be to convert them to institutions that actually serve the community, and not some distant hierarchy of guys in religious robes who violated the most sacred trust in their keeping, to protect the flock. Real community centers that provide social and meeting spaces with services for all community members. As we rethink a post-pandemic America, we have the chance to reimagine our work and our spaces to fit an economic model less vulnerable than the one whose wreckage we will be emerging from. We can reset our systems to redistribute the ownership of our work from the 1%. We can redefine our communities to better withstand and even redirect global impacts from the local level.