This past week, I learned that a priest I knew as a child….one that may have come to my house for dinner….was on the credibly accused list. My mother worked for the diocese for about twelve years and so in addition to having a seminary in back of my house, and growing up with the caretaker’s children, these priests and nuns and seminarians would often be in our living room and in our pool.
So when I told my mom about this particular priest being accused of abusing children, she asked me if he was still alive. I looked him up and found that he had passed away about 5 years ago.
Now, my mom is 92 and is living with the world we are all living in at this time. She cannot stand being told to stay at home or have someone else do her shopping. She doesn’t know if this virus will go away in her lifetime. And due to sometimes violent protests in the city, I told her that her favorite deli shop is off limits. And now she is learning things about people she once knew and admired. Her world is changing and out of control in many ways.
So I take this into account when she learned that the priest she knew, who is now being charged with child sexual abuse, is deceased.
Her response was, “How can he defend himself if he is dead?”
I would like to add here that I used to work for the diocese as well and one of the priests who I worked with stormed out one day and refused to come back (he was already retired) due to the fact that deceased priests were being charged with crimes.
My response to my mother….who I feel most likely unfortunately represents many people…was…so, he can’t defend himself…you mean like the children he abused were not able to defend themselves?
That upset her even more. I don’t tell my mother much about what I do with SNAP. She and I were both raised in families where you did not poke the bear. Where even silence and compliance meant that you were in danger of having your drunk husband punch you if he felt provoked.
She comes from a time when sexual harassment was pretty much expected. And violence was dealt with within the family and not spoken of. Your problems were your problems and your neighbor’s problems were their problems.
I saw those times too….I was on the cusp of change. I remember my father complaining because he had to hire women to do men’s jobs. I remember the conversation at the dinner table about women taking the jobs away from men who had to support their families. I remember too, my father’s nickname for his secretary that was perfectly okay to say at the time and everyone laughed….but would certainly get him fired today.
I also remember going to work when I was 20 years old and dreading calling for a plumber because it meant that Louie would be coming up to the ward with his team and that meant getting kissed and hugged and having to listen to him talk and feeling very uncomfortable. So uncomfortable, I told my boss and asked if there was anything that could be said or done to put a stop to Louie’s actions. My boss…a woman…told me basically to suck it up. That’s just the way he is, she said. Deal with it.
So even though the “Me Too” movement is here, it is going to take time for the world to catch up. Many of us were raised that things were okay and that we should say nothing.
So, my mother being upset that this priest she once knew was being accused, seen in that light, is understandable. Not saying right…saying she is stuck in a place where her opinion most likely will not change. So with that in mind, and with everything else going on in the world, when she told me it was not her problem….I hate to say it, but it still set me off.
Her point of view, and again, it was once my point of view as well….is that these are isolated cases and that they are being taken care of so all is right with the world and it doesn’t affect me so why should I change anything?
And I agree that we can’t carry the weight of the entire world….it is just too much. But, is it true that just because nobody in the church has abused you, that sexual abuse is not your problem and does not affect you?
It’s probably true that we tend to lump people in groups and if you do not feel you are a part of that group, then it is “their problem”. And if we do not identify with “them”, then “they” become less human to us. Less relatable.
My mother went on to say that a lot of these people coming forward are probably lying anyway. Well, we know this is not true. We know that it is very difficult to speak out. It is very brave to speak out. We know that for any survivor of sexual violence, abuse, harassment…whatever…that there is a fear sometimes of not being believed, of facing our abuser, of being told we are lying, and of having our past dragged out for all to see. Victim shaming.
So how can we convince someone like my mom, who has been abused herself in her own life, that this abuse does exist and that it does affect her and is her problem?
We know that children who have been abused by clergy often cannot speak to their own parents or family about what has happened. We know that if they speak out, often they are not believed or are told they are wrong and disrespectful, or lying.
These children struggle throughout their lives. This is not just something that happens in a vacuum. These children end up with psychiatric problems and addiction problems. They go on to interact with society. They marry. They have children. They bring their problems with them. Sometimes, they can’t hold a job. Sometimes they break the law out of anger or desperation. Do we still think this does not affect any of us?
Perhaps instead we should look at the enablers. Should enablers be held accountable for the actions of those they enable? Would that make things more of their problem instead of someone else’s?
Everything we do has a ripple effect. We may not feel that we are being directly affected by what we hear or see happening to other people in the world. We may feel that it is not our problem because we are not in their situation. We may feel overwhelmed by the world’s problems. Perhaps we may feel that there is nothing we can do. Maybe we think that there is no problem and that people are just out for the money. Or that people are just out to destroy the church and are working for the devil.
Well, we know what we know from our own experiences. Perhaps we feel that we are not affected….that it is not our problem. Until it does and it is.
We may not be able to convince everyone that the priest I was talking about who has been accused of abuse is not being unfairly accused by those out to take advantage…and therefore the victim in this case, as some people will never understand or want to understand. It’s unpleasant. People want to avoid unpleasant things. And they may never see the connection between leaving money to the church in their will and a drunk driver killing someone some day because it may never occur to them that they may be misinformed and that ignorance may feel good today but will ultimately feed the monster who is destroying those they claim to defend.
We can’t change some people’s minds. That is one of those walls in life we hit our heads against. That means either get a concussion or change directions.
I’m not going to upset my mom by arguing with her. It’s pointless. She knows my story and feels that the priest I knew was crazy and I should avoid poking that bear. I should not try to change the world. I should take care of myself. And I don’t want my mom to have to worry about anything other than her garden, really. She is not going to change.
But change is coming. Little changes like one leaf blowing in the wind. I look at how far we have come in the last 40 years and what was once acceptable behavior at work is no longer tolerated. I see that and I am encouraged. There are books to read….give them out as Christmas gifts to people in your life who are doubtful. There are meetings to attend. Attend these meetings when you feel that nobody understands. Keep moving forward. Get educated about things yourself. Agree to disagree with people.
And when the world and people seem overwhelming, back away, meditate, get centered….and focus on your truth. You matter. Your story matters. It was not your fault. It does not matter if there are people who will not agree with you. The world is changing. Be a part of that change.