At the end of the 60’s and carrying into the 70’s there still seemed a deep-rooted sentiment: if it’s none of your business, then keep your nose out of it. Which seemed to work fine for most people. Of course every neighborhood had its busybody, just as it had its grouchy-keep-off-my-grass-senior-citizen, and bubble-gum-snapping-younger-than-her-bosom-suggests-daughter-of-a-longshoreman. But by-and-large, if it didn’t directly involve you then you were commanded to stay-out-of-it. And woe be the kids with clumsy feet: too inattentive or naive to jump when they spot trouble; or those nearest the melee when it explodes, or the small-fry-wanna-be whose taunts often ignite newly produced testosterone because they all will be hauled to the principal’s office for punishment followed by the famous litany of idiotic parental rhetoric: “. . .well, if he jumped off. . .;” “If I’ve told you once. . .;” and the classic “I could see those <insert surname here> boys were trouble. . .” But the message was always the same: mind your own business.
Now, that’s not to say there was a lack of dinner-table rumor-mongering, my mother usually updating us on the goings-on of the neighborhood. But, if the rumor was rated PG-13 and above, we were given the briefest synopsis, censored beyond recognition, devoid of any example of debauchery, infidelity, or any despicable acts whether or not the “I’m-not-naming-names-neighbor-three-doors-down” was perpetrator or victim. My mother’s talent for omission was legendary, but her dinner-table-abridging offered very little by way of a storyline, but witnessing her agility at avoiding incriminating details while maintaining a conversational tone was so entertaining that my older brother wanted to call the Watergate crew and offer them her secret of how-to skirt the truth and avoid prison for perjury. He said he tried but was told they don’t take messages for inmates.
But even spreading gossip was considered a breach of social convention and was practiced with the highest degree of discretion. I overheard my mother talking on the phone about Mrs. Bowers and her recent loose-lipped huddle at Kroger’s with Mrs. Hanson about boys, booze, broads and a bathtub: to Mrs. Bowers chagrin the broad and bathtub belonged to Mrs. Hanson. Right there in aisle 5-A Mrs. Hanson’s strong upper lip began to quiver and like a mudslide, her conviction simply gave-way taking her sand-bagged courage with it and Mrs. Hanson dropped to the floor as if someone had cut her marionette strings.
Back then the message was loud and clear: keep your mouth shut!
And I suppose it was that exact 1960’s deflection of responsibility, respect for authority, and absolute ignorance of any activity which happened outside the euphemistic “four walls” of our family (and home) that created a vacuum of moral accountability. This social ignorance was the fertile ground from which victims sprouted already marinated in the tenets of civic propriety: keep your mouth shut and mind your own business. Now add a new genus of Catholic leadership: an indubitable, irrefutable and influential priest whose intentions, if questioned, are defended rigorously by the diocesan hierarchy. These two social renunciations: bewilderment on the part of the parents and blindness on the part of the Catholic Church created the perfect playground for sexual predators that mocked piety and disgraced through indignity and malice, the Christian image of the protector of children.
We had a predatory priest back in Catholic grade school. As a pedophile he’d developed quite a reputation and a skillful set of traps which left little, if any scars, except those which appeared years later. He developed a certain degree of notoriety: A staggering example of the decades-long failure of the Church’s treatment (reflection and counseling) resulting in reassignment or perhaps the estimated number of casualties he produced (across generations in one family). His ecclesiastic devotion was a stark contrast to his budding reputation as “overly affectionate” or “physical with boys beyond acceptable behavior” so the Arch Diocese of Milwaukee continued to pry his paws away from parishioners at one church (akin to “running him out of town”).
He was hurried over to a safe house for an overhaul: counseling, hand-slapping, celibate reminders, penitence, forgiveness, and then off to some R & R (restoration & repair), placed back into the deck, reshuffled, and dealt to an ignorant congregation of affable and duteous parents who’d bred reverent and obedient children. Some devote parishioners believed that the affection of a doting priest was reserved for the innocent of the innocents, were venerated by God and anointed (via the local messenger, i.e. priest) with an extra helping of divinity. I remember hearing that some devoted parents would volunteer their children’s time to vocational pursuits i.e. ironing vestments, vacuuming sacristies, opening the weekly offering envelopes, in order to maintain proximity to the priest should a divine message be received. But back then, back in 1969, that’s how Catholics behaved because they were taught that a priest was called by God to act as emissary here on earth; and the most important (mysterious, and grossly misunderstood) tenet of a priest’s appointment was his unconditional vow of celibacy (the state of being unmarried and, therefore, sexually abstinent).
And that presumption, that priest’s were not sexual, was the perfect degree of insulation these priest’s and their superiors needed to stave off accusations of impropriety brought to the diocese. And here’s the revelation: No matter how impassioned, no matter how unthinkable the alleged violations seemed, no matter that these abominations were reruns from previous parishes, the victim, a child, with nothing to gain (and so much to lose) were often suspect! First by the parents, then the parish leaders, then when facing the priest in his rectory, and then, if pursued, again face-off with highly respected and very suspicious diocesan officials and the priest (whose interest and adorations became manipulative, threatening, painful episodes and were so outrageous and impossible to prove, that the only logical and least damaging conclusion anyone with any sense could draw: the child is exaggerating, misconstruing, or unintentionally and without malice positioned themselves near the priest and misunderstood their physical contact as egregious.
And frankly I don’t know which buckled first: The highly improbable assertion that a child repeatedly seduced a religious official vowed to celibacy or the unquestionable devotion of generations to the Catholic Church (the age-old collapse of a faith in God and a faith in the Godliness of men ordained by Him). But what it took to shift the burden of proof from the victim (child) to the perpetrator (priest) was a departure from isolation and silence to community and conversation. When adults decided that blind allegiance to any organization purely based on what that organization tells you to believe is, in and of itself, questionable, was when the fortified walls of some of the world’s oldest and most revered organizations began to weaken.
It’s not what we’re told by leaders (whether religious, political, corporate) that has the capacity to tear this world apart. It’s what we believe that we’re told. It’s not the children’s fault that the Catholic Church protected and permitted decades of sexual abuse. It’s the adult’s fault (whether or not your the priest or the parent or the pope). It’s an adult’s responsibility to question authority each and every time it violates freedom!