Soul Searching over Church Sins
Ray Conlogue Looks at the Flood of Books Released on the Heels of the Catholic Church's Sex Scandals

By Ray Conlogue
Globe and Mail [Canada]
May 26, 2004

Sexual scandals in the Catholic Church, which last fall led the Archdiocese of Boston to pay out $85-million (U.S.) to settle more than 500 lawsuits involving priestly abuse of boys, has also unleashed a flood of books.

Some are investigative, like David France's Our Fathers: The Secret Life of the Catholic Church in an Age of Scandal, which follows the careers of five U.S. pedophile priests who were ordained in the 1960s but not caught and convicted for nearly 40 years. One of the most notorious, Rev. John Geoghan, was murdered in prison last year. Our Fathers will soon be made into a no-doubt grisly feature film.

Others are novels and personal memoirs that invariably begin in the 1960s, the decade when the medieval culture of the church, a kind of fortified time capsule that had successfully resisted the modern world, finally collapsed. Many priests and nuns came to feel that the servility, friendlessness and isolation from the modern world required by their vocation had become intolerable. A trickle of clerics began to abandon the church (in the United States, about 500 in 1969), soon growing to a flood (20,000 by 1980). In the same period, 300,000 nuns worldwide abandoned their vows.

Two new Canadian books are part of this phenomenon. Newfoundland writer Leo Furey's first novel, The Long Run, features a gaggle of orphaned or abandoned boys in a 1960s St. John's home run by the notorious Christian Brothers and clearly inspired by the Mount Cashel scandal. Montreal novelist Terry Rigelhof has written Nothing Sacred, a memoir about his years of priestly training before walking out one day in 1965, turning his back on the priesthood and the Catholic religion itself. "How contaminated I was after five years in the seminary," he writes. "Too many eggs, too much red meat, too much Spam, oceans of milk and coffee, all of it served up by nuns who took the revenge of the table. . . . I bit down hard, burned out my guts with guilt, mortification, and male competitiveness."

Nuns are also making themselves heard. Karol Jackowski, 40 years a nun and the self-proclaimed "happy" author of books like Sister Karol's Book of Spells and Blessings and Ten Fun Things to Do Before You Die, as well as cookbooks with titles like Home on the Range, recently found herself noticing that "everyone I meet asks what I know about the sex scandals in the priesthood."

Her short and truthful answer was, Nothing. But after reflection she realized that women have "for centuries . . . be[en] duped into believing we are not worthy of priesthood." She researched the origins of celibacy, for priests and nuns alike, and developed a theory of why celibacy has had such ghastly and misbegotten results for male clerics -- not just now, but going back to the fourth century, when many priests found that castration was the only way to keep their vows. The book is called The Silence We Keep.

A more personal and moving memoir is Karen Armstrong's The Spiral Staircase. Armstrong left the sisterhood in 1969, and has since made herself an authority on world religions, especially Islam and Buddhism. But here she writes about what happened to herself, a 17-year-old English schoolgirl who entered the convent in 1962 and left it seven years later, after the Beatles and the sexual revolution had erased the world of her childhood. Her psyche had been so "damaged" by the mental discipline of sisterhood that, completing an Oxford literature doctorate years later, she realized she was unable to formulate a single idea of her own.

Nowhere was the church more dictatorial than in Ireland, so it's no surprise that journalist Malachi O'Doherty's I Was a Teenage Catholic is compounded of equal parts pain and hilarity. As a child he asked to know how angels could eat but not defecate. "It just disappears inside them," his mother said. "It turns into holy air that seeps out through their skin." "They don't even fart?" "No, and you shouldn't either."

It can't be denied that the absurdities of Catholic life led to humour and creativity as well as blackness and despair. But readers seem to have little time for jocularity and affection in the current witch-hunting atmosphere. "A friend of mine read two-thirds of The Long Run and complained to me that none of the Brothers had molested a boy," laughs Furey, who was in Toronto to promote his book. "I promised him there was sexual abuse at the end, and he scuttled right off to finish it."

Of the three Brothers featured in the book, Furey says, two are brutish and one is a sweet soul who makes the boys' lives bearable. "Which seems to me about the right proportion," he says, recalling his own education in a Jesuit high school. He also finds it unfair that the church is singled out for criticism. "It happened everywhere. Roald Dahl has written about being caned by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Young women readers come up to me and say, 'Oh, how horrible!' But this was everyday education in the entire Western world for hundreds of years."

Furey is referring to corporal punishment, not sexual abuse. Like most Catholics, he is aware that pedophile priests were a minority (in his book, France estimates a small fraction of 1 per cent). This left thousands of victims, but millions of other boys whose experience was more like Furey's. He dedicates the novel to R. J. MacSween, a priest who taught him at St. Francis Xavier University and encouraged him to become a poet. "I got strapped by Jesuits, but I also did drama and sports and became a writer because I had good teachers as well as bad."

In The Long Run, there is no question that celibacy has bent the Christian Brothers out of shape. They develop tics and manias that are sometimes oppressive and sometimes hilarious. Furey knew a priest who became obsessed with Japanese culture, so "as a fiction writer I took it one step further and came up with Brother McCann." McCann is a sumo wrestling fan who orders his boys to don loincloths, learn arcane Japanese wrestling terms, and engage in the sacred ritual of sumo. He also teaches haiku poetry (In the old stone pool/ a frog jumps:/ splishh), which the boys promptly subvert (Cloud sails by Kavanaugh's crotch/ loincloth slips:/ fuck).

"The Catholic church forces you to think, and it forces you to laugh," Furey says. "Look at Father Mackenzie in [the Beatles'] Eleanor Rigby: 'No one was saved.' You can see these guys were thinking. They had something to think against. Now there's nothing. Listen to rap music. It's garbage because there's no challenge."

Rigelhof has also contemplated the void after organized religion disappears from peoples' lives. But he has no nostalgia for it. "None whatsoever."

On the sexual front, Rigelhof as a young seminarian was fondled (through his clothes) and propositioned by a priest. He complained to a superior who accused him of lying, which made him feel sick for weeks afterward.

On the other hand, as an even younger altar boy he worked with an old priest named Father Walt "who," he writes, "never allowed any priest working in his parish to physically or verbally abuse any altar boy. Or to grow so friendly as to give a hug. If it happened once, it never happened a second time. . . . Sometimes, standing in a church, I do feel the old feelings. I feel safe and protected. I even feel oddly loved."

"As an individual," he says in a telephone interview, "I knew so many good people in the church, priests and nuns. A priest did make a clumsy pass at me. But what weighs on my imagination is not the abuse of children, which is an extreme aberration even if there are clusters of it in parts of the church. What weighs more heavily is the sexism. How women were demonized for getting pregnant out of wedlock. Encouraged to stay in abusive relationships. Patriarchy was the real problem. Pedophilia just draws attention away from that."

Rigelhof feels that Catholics have stopped believing the Church's archaic dogma on premarital sex and priestly celibacy, but still need the communal warmth and security afforded by religion. "Most Canadian Catholics . . . say they're Catholic, but they don't believe the creed. I think they just want their kids to have a sense of who Jesus was, to know there's more to life than what they find at the shopping centre."

Although Rigelhof is emphatically no longer a believer, he still writes movingly about Catholicism being "as natural a force as water, air, earth and fire. It was tactile, sonorous, elemental."

In Our Fathers, France begins by evoking the smell of a church, the "thick, sweet perfume of ancient devotionals -- beeswax, incense and chrism." But France himself is not Catholic ("my parents were Episcopalian, but it never stuck to me," he says from his home near New York) and came to the subject as a Newsweek editor following the unfolding scandal around Cardinal Bernard Law in Boston.

"I focus on sexual abuse, so I didn't come across anybody who was sentimental about the Church," he says.

Instead, he discovered that the hierarchy of the church felt that its value systems were divinely ordained and therefore superior to the beliefs of civil society. In practical terms, that meant that priests simply did not believe police detectives who told them they had committed a crime. In the church's view, these acts "were sinful, not criminal," France says.

"If the priest repented, the sin was washed away. As for the child, they simply did not accept the secular psychology which said the child was damaged."