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.
Thank you Maureen for writing about this. There is cultural conditioning for good little girls to be nice and compliant. Even as young women, we often don’t know how to respond to predatory behavior. I didn’t know what to say or do when I was in my early 20s. You’re not alone in this. I do know there are efforts now to teach girls and young women to speak out if they are uncomfortable or harmed. We all need to do our part to help women step into their authority and to trust their instincts. We also need to do the same for boys and young men. People in power can use power to take advantage of their positions and need to be held accountable for injuring not only the body but also for betraying the deep trust of the innocent young.
Thanks for your comment Debbie. You’re right that we need to help both girls/young women and boys/young men to speak up if they are uncomfortable or harmed. They need to know that they will be heard.
Thank you Maureen. I held such hope and respect for Pope Francis, and truly believed he would restore my faith through an act of cleansing. The church needs to end celibacy and acknowledge corruption, but the faithful are definitely losing respect for this institution. Sorry you had to experience this directly. How confusing that had to be, but perhaps that’s what makes you now a strong voice for all.
These are powerful words and I’m so glad you are sharing your experience all these years later. Some friends of mine belong to the Women’s Ordination Conference, working to ordain women priests and attending masses celebrated by women. Not recognized by the church yet, but I see a future where that is possible.
Thanks, Linda. We have 2 women ordained as priests here in Santa Barbara. I’m so glad to hear about your friends in the Women’s Ordination Conference.
Thanks for Sharing experiences. It’s shamful and produces anger to know that they still cover and protect these cruel and inmoral priests, cardinals and whoever……
I’ m Argentinian and I thought Francisco would be a good pope, with 0 tolerance to these predetors.
Today, I confirm my lost of faith and my total rejection
Much needed commentary. I’m not even Catholic, but was suddenly grabbed and kissed by a Catholic priest who ministered to college students when I a was a co-ed. My Catholic acquaintance, who knew and respected him, didn’t believe me. I laughed it off.
It makes me sad that we all just accepted, or worse, blamed ourselves, for bad behavior by men. And people wonder why others have no respect for the church.
You’re right, Susan, we just accepted and then repressed behavior by men that was invasive and disrespectful.
We’ve met Maureen and at the time, I shared with you that I had attended a private all girls academy in the same location as your college. I am horrified to hear of your experience. We students at the academy were required to attend Mass for various occasions in the chapel. I don’t recall ever going to confession with the chaplain then. I graduated in 1959. Nonetheless it incenses me that we innocently received communion from a predator. And, I wonder just how blind we, our parents and the nuns who taught us may have been. You have brought this horror home for me and I thank you for opening my eyes. I intend to investigate further.
Thanks, Barbara, for your comment. I’m afraid that a lot of us were blind back then. My parents refused to believe anything negative about priests back then!
Bravo, once again, Maureen, for the clarity and strength of your voice and the courage of your spirit.
Your deeply honest article brought tears to my eyes. So many of us, when we were young, experienced sexual groping, molestation, and even rape by patriarchal authority figures (even if not all in the Catholic Church) whom we were taught to trust and respect, and when one of us speaks up she does so for all of us. Your powerful observation that “the patriarchy is crumbling” inspires hope and sounds a clarion call that needs to be heeded. Yes, time for laywomen to take over the church, indeed!
“It’s time for laywomen to take over the running of the Catholic Church”… and the world, too, I might add. As my Jewish grandmother used to say, “From your lips to God’s ears!“ Right on and write on, Maureen!