In her essay on “Place in Fiction” Southern writer Eudora Welty writes about places and regions that confine and define. This seems to me to be a profound psychological statement. Perhaps there is no region of the country where authors have so captured the feel, stench and agony of place as twentieth century Southern writers.
These days in the media, I am seeing names of places in Western Pennsylvania that I knew well as a young man just discharged from the Navy. These include: Portage, Hollidaysburg, Altoona, Roaring Springs, Loretto, Gallitzin, Orchard Lake and others. I went to college in the region, hunted there, and had many close friends. I remain enormously grateful for the love and help I received from people in some of these communities.
But, as Eudora Welty would confirm, places also have a shadow side. I remember a female friend who grew up in the area who revealed to me years later that she had been abused by her brother. According to her, the mother suggested that she say three Hail Marys and remain quiet. She did. The brother was convicted at another time of child abuse involving children. The bundling of the prayer and the crime has troubled me ever since.
I wrote a novel “The Sirens of Vulture Creek” in 2009, which explored the shadow side of rural communities and the reach of the unconscious patriarchal seen through the punishing eyes of a long-suffering woman. The novel is about her coming into consciousness. It takes more than animal traps, a cunning husband, snakes in the attic and the distractions from those who live in trailers to slow this woman down. Still, the weight of sexual abuse hangs over the novel.
Recently, The New York Times and other media have reported on a Pennsylvania grand jury finding that states that the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, representing many of the places mentioned earlier, has engaged in a decades-long cover-up of abuse by more than 50 priests and other church officials. Moreover, the grand jury report offered evidence that suggests that local police, politicians, jurists, district attorneys, as well as bishops, participated in the cover-up. Once the investigation started, the Pennsylvania attorney general had to appoint twenty agents to handle all the calls. The grand jury notes that there are at least 250 abuse survivors, though the exact number will likely never be known
I have read the grand jury report in full and the accounts of abuse are chilling and horrific, offering a narrative that would be a very dark companion read to the movie “Spotlight.” The report gets the pro forma remarks out of the way early. Its intent is not to slander a religion. The authors acknowledge that the areas where the abuse occurred are Catholic and devout. I have seen many of the Catholic shrines that populate the regions. I have attended services in places where abuse has been reported.
The grand jury report actually reads like a crime report. It lists the priests alphabetically with details about birth dates, when ordained, what parishes they served and if deceased. For each priest, there is a paragraph or so about his “grooming” techniques and how the abuse began. The language of the report about specific abuse is very specific and understated: genital fondling, masturbation, oral sex, anal rape and whether alcohol or pornography was included. Almost all the victims included in the report were young boys. There were two girls that I recall.
The documents recovered during the search indicated that the Diocese knew about these crimes and put a price on them. For example, the church would pay $10-25,000 for touching above clothing and genital fondling; $25-40,000 for touching under clothing or masturbation; $25-75,000 for oral sex; and $50-175,000 for sodomy or intercourse.
The report shows with numbing accuracy the bishop’s practice of moving priests around the various parishes when they became an embarrassment. Or they were sent to treatment centers, a practice that has shown to be a ruse. There is no evidence that the Diocese ever reported a pedophile priest to the authorities. Indeed, not one priest interviewed by the grand jury said they were every interviewed by the police.
Moreover, the local bishop kept all the files under lock and key, using euphemisms or Latin phrases to describe the behavior of offending priests or parents’ complaints. Files were routinely destroyed. Diocesan officials who were appointed to helped victims tried to find ways to destroy their credibility. The grand jury pointed out instances of some Catholic clergy actually warning suspected pedophile priests about possible police stakeouts in area where priests would cruise for boys and young men. The report presents overwhelming evidence, based on 115,042 documents removed from Diocesan office plus digital files that church officials influenced police investigations.
The mixing of abuse with doctrine and God’s love represents a particularly appalling part of this grand jury report. One priest said “God approved” an eight-year-old boy engaging in oral sex with him. For another boy, the abuse must have been what the Church calls the “Mystery of the Church and the Priesthood.” Still another boy was groped while he and the priest listened to a Bill Cosby album that mentioned penis. The female victim of a priest who masturbated while hearing her confession thought she was going to hell.
The grand jury notes that the criminal and civil statutes of limitation have expired for these loathsome and criminal acts and therefore no one is likely to be punished. The report encourages Pennsylvania lawmakers to abolish these statutes of limitation. The Catholic Church is opposed, citing foggy memories of victims. I am seeing the same dynamic in my home state of New York. It is a familiar anthem.
Victims of clerical child abuse simply never forget or fully get over it. I was a naïve teenager, a new immigrant from the UK still mourning the death of my father. And along came Father Paul in his slick Italian suits, his nice car and wads of money. He started grooming me. He got to about the $25,000 level in today’s dollars before I ran from him and eventually joined the military. Would you like to know the color of his eyes, the scent he wore and the marks the priestly collar made on his Sicilian neck?
Bishop Mark Bartchak of the Altoona-Johnstown diocese said that after the report was made public, “We will pass through this darkness.”
I just finished writing a novel, “Chanting the Feminine Down,” a historical and psychological look at the feminine and anima principle in the Catholic experience (www.chantingthefeminedown.com). I have come to the conclusion that much of the “darkness” to which the bishop refers comes from a corrupt, male, sexually perverse institution that has shunted libidinal energies into the Virgin archetype and presumably celibate priests.
The Catholic Church not only has a theological problem; it also has a profound psychological problem, one that will only be resolved when women are given their rightful place in company of Christ as full participants in the priesthood.