Though I don’t often do this, I need to place a trigger warning at the top of this post. It is about the abuse of children by priests.
I am a minister. I have learned a lot about the complexities of relationships with congregants, and I am only at the very beginning of my ministry. I have also studied and thought about those clergy who have abused their power.
I have sworn never to abuse my power, to commit sexual misconduct, or even to accept in any way the advances of a congregant. These promises I have made to myself and others are essential to my understanding of what it means to be clergy. And yet, in our own Unitarian Universalist tradition, there has been sexual misconduct by minister after minister. And in other traditions, as well.
Most publicly, and worst of all, we have learned, all of us, about Roman Catholic clergy who have abused children.
As I have written before, my early relationship with our parish was an intense love affair. I loved being there. I loved rehearsing music on Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. And then singing or playing or both on Sunday and Holy Days of Obligation. I loved liturgy. I loved the liturgical year. I simply loved church.
There are people who are nominally Catholic. I was not nominally Catholic. I was an immersed child and adolescent Catholic.
My brother didn’t care for church. Just as he didn’t like holidays, he didn’t care much about church. The biggest event I remember from his church childhood was throwing up on the kid in front of him.
And now I am glad. I am glad because of the investigation in the diocese where I grew up, including the parish where I was so invested and loved.
One of the priests there, Robert Kelly, is alleged to have molested acolytes (altar boys).
He was well-liked in our parish. Of course he was. He was a classic, friendly, Irish priest. He was stocky, had dark hair, pale skin with pink cheeks. I used to wonder whether those cheeks were from drinking or just the way he was built. I came to believe that they were just part of him.
He had a one-of-the-boys quality that young men and boys found appealing. Girls too, for that matter. And he had access. There were acolytes who went behind the wall getting ready for Mass. And they were in the vestry with the priests, as well, as they—boys and priests—got into their special garb, the garb that marked them as in service to God and the people. And they were, as I will discuss, in the Confessional.
Someone said to me that she hopes for everyone that it’s not true, that the allegations against the priests are not true.
I don’t feel that way. I believe the survivors, whatever happens in the courts. And I know that Kelly had exactly the demeanor that draws children in. I can so easily imagine his grooming kids for abuse.
Maybe that’s my own experience of being groomed for abuse talking, but I really don’t think so. I think, yes, it is experience, but it is also knowledge, learning, researching what it is to identify a child sex offender. As one of the investigators said, this is not “misconduct,” it is violations of trust on deep, even the deepest level.
I cannot imagine what it is like to grow up as a man—particularly as a straight man—who has been assaulted by a priest. Women have more resources, more understanding, more of a horrible-but-supportive sorority around these issues than men do, as far as I know.
I can’t imagine what it is like to have to perform masculinity, with all its protectiveness, power, strength, and need to deny injury, and yet to carry the wound of sexual assault. And for most of these victim-survivors, it was a terrible secret they kept for years and years.
I wonder how many of them had an experience like the one I had—sort of forgetting the import of something that happened well within memory. I mean, I was 14 when I was first assaulted, and for many years, I couldn’t truly access the wound that assault had ripped into me. I knew it had happened, but I didn’t know what it had done. I had some inklings, some anger, but I just didn’t get it. Not until nearly twenty years, twenty years later!
Boys who were acolytes and choristers and students at the parish school…they were groomed for what happened to them. They could not give consent. They were children. To all public appearances, they seemed to be treated well. They were given favors. They were spoken to in conspiratorial tones. They were fondled, abused, assaulted in the confessional.
If you have never been Catholic, you may not understand the level of this violation. They were abused doing their duties to God and parish as acolytes in the vestry and behind the wall where the instruments of their service are kept.
They were assaulted, abused, molested, and raped. But in the confessional…I can barely conceive of it, and it makes me sick to do so.
The confessional is the sacred, private place where the Sacrament of Reconciliation takes place. It is commonly called Confession, but it is more properly called Reconciliation. Reconciliation is between the penitent and God, through the conferring of absolution by the confessor, the priest.
The confessional is the place someone comes and says a prayer called the Act of Contrition. Contrition, for God’s sake. Being penitent, contrite, vulnerable, sharing one’s flaws, one’s sins against others and against God…this is where priests have sometimes abused children. Children who were there because they believed or at least were told they needed the absolution of that priest to be given right relationship with God.
These were especially vulnerable children in private spaces with the men they should have been able to trust most.
Were they told that their priest’s abuse was part of their penance? Were they told it was “our secret”? What were they told? What on Earth did these priests, these leaders tell the children they molested, abused, and violated? What did they tell them?
What did they tell them as they stole their childhoods?