The patriarchy is crumbling and it’s about time! Last week a grand jury in Pennsylvania reported that 300 priests abused at least 1000 children over a period of 70 years and it was known and covered up by the bishops of the Catholic hierarchy. The 900-page document released by the attorney general listed more than 300 abusive priests by name and gave details that were horrifying. It described the fact that some young victims were given gold cross necklaces to signal to other predators that they were “optimal targets”.
I didn’t look up the name of the priest that was the chaplain of the college I attended in Philadelphia but it gave me pause that he was probably on the list. Father X was a middle-aged visiting priest from Ireland and his bachelor quarters were in the basement of the chapel at the college. That’s where he “heard” confession. Yes, confession is usually held in a mysterious cubicle in the church where the priest is separated from the kneeling “penitent” by a pair of dark sliding screens to protect her identity. But this was the 1960s when there were changes occurring in the Church. Some of these “progressive” changes made it easier for pedophile priests to snare their victims.
During my first and only confession with Father X in his quarters, he first offered me something alcoholic to drink. I don’t remember what it was but I wasn’t completely surprised by the offer. He then asked me to come and sit on his lap and tell him what was “bothering” me. He used that term, “bother,” rather than what sin I had committed. I was a college senior at the time so you’d think I would have known better but I still held priests in high regard.
In the 1960s Catholic priests were a special class of bachelors, revered as the embodiment of Christ on earth. We were taught that it was our duty to follow the wishes of authority figures like priests to “show God how much we loved him.” I grew up with an uncle who was a priest so there were many Sundays when my mother made dinner for Uncle Joe and his priest friends, serving them on her best crystal and china. Since they all drank copious amounts of alcohol, it didn’t occur to me that there was anything wrong when Father X offered me a drink before confession. That’s part of the cognitive dissonance I experienced around alcohol abuse. But sitting on his lap was a different matter.
I can’t remember how he convinced me that there was nothing wrong with it but when I sat on his lap I felt his warm breath on my neck and his hard erection. I was completely repulsed and at the same time, terrified. Had I somehow presented myself as an “optimal target”? I got off his lap and stated to leave his bachelor quarters with him still sitting there, asking what was wrong. I told him I just had to go and quickly left. I never spoke about what had happened with any of the other women in my dorm. I was embarrassed that I had fallen for his warmth and his brogue and that I had felt special by his invitation to his quarters.
When I saw Father X the next day in the hallway of the college in between classes, he stopped me to ask why I had left so suddenly. He pretended that nothing had happened. So, I pretended that was true as well. I basically went numb but part of me stayed alert enough because I never spent any time alone with Father X again. It wasn’t until reading about the Pennsylvania grand jury report that I remembered what had happened 50 years ago.
I wonder now how many other college girls made their “confession” to Father X or whether I was the only one. At one level, I don’t want to be the only one and yet, I don’t want other women to have experienced what I did. But I do want to know whether his behavior was part of a pattern of abuse. I doubt I was the only girl that Father X preyed upon.
In the late 90s, accounts of the pattern of clerical abuse in Boston and Los Angeles exploded in the press. I was devastated at the time and expected some action by the then Pope. Some bishops lost their positions and a Cardinal or two were moved out of the United States to cushy jobs in Rome, basically to avoid litigation. When Pope Francis became pope there was a collective sigh of relief by the Catholic faithful, hopeful that finally something would be done to address this pervasive corruption in the Church. But he did nothing. He not only did nothing; he made things worse by discrediting accounts by survivors of the abuse by priests and bishops in Chile until Chilean Catholics demanded a hearing.
It’s clear that the patriarchy has bent over backward to protect its predators for centuries. It is so riddled with abuse, denial and corruption that it can’t monitor itself. Priests, bishops, squabbling cardinals and the pope have fallen off their collective pedestal. They all need to resign.
It’s time for laywomen to take over the running of the Catholic Church.