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Don’t Tell: The Sexual Abuse of Boys

by Michel Dorais, translated by Isabel Denholm Meyer
McGill-Queen’s University Press, 210 pp., $65.00; $19.95 (paper)

History has a way of proving over and over the truth of the grim line in Lucretius (1.101):

Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum. (“How suasive is religion to our bane.”)

We are regularly told, with regard to the scandal of child abuse by priests, that pedophilia affects a minority of men in all walks of life, that the occurrence among priests is extraordinary neither in kind nor in frequency. But the intrusion of religion into the picture does affect its character and probably its rate. For one thing, pedophilia outside the priesthood leads to abuse of little girls as much as or more than of little boys. There have been few reported cases of girls as the object of priestly molestation, even though—as Michel Dorais points out in Don’t Tell—boys find it harder to report their abuse, since it involves cultural biases against homosexuality, beyond just the experience of coercion. Where (as in Australia) the Catholic religious orders ran separate orphanages for boys and girls, frequent molestation was reported only in the former institutions.

Priestly pedophilia is also set apart from other varieties by the fact that the seduction technique employs religion. Almost always some form of prayer has been used as foreplay. The very places where the molestation occurs are redolent of religion—the sacristy, the confessional, the rectory, Catholic schools and clubs with sacred pictures on the walls. One of the victims of Father Paul Shanley, of the Boston archdiocese, says that his ordeal began in the confessional, when he confessed the “sin” of masturbation. The priest told him that masturbation could be a “lesser evil” and that he would help him work out his problem. He did this by taking him to a cabin he kept in the woods, where the priest taught the boy how they could masturbate each other.1 This pattern occurs over and over—a conjunction of the overstrict sexual instruction of the Church (e.g., on the mortal sinfulness of masturbation, even one occurrence of which can, if not confessed, send one to hell) and a guide who can free one of inexplicably dark teaching by inexplicably sacred exceptions. The victim is disarmed by sophistication and the predator has a special arsenal of stun devices. He uses religion to sanction what he is up to, even calling sex part of his priestly ministry. One victim of Father Shanley says that he represented his sexual predation as an act of “healing.” According to a gay weekly, Shanley had made the same claim in a public speech.

In the archdiocese of Milwaukee, a thirteen-year-old was putting on his cassock in the sacristy before serving as an altar boy at a funeral Mass. The priest who was about to say the Mass, Richard Nichols, came over to him before going out to the altar and fussed with the cassock, saying he was making him look better. After the Mass, the priest came up behind him, plunged his hands (which had just consecrated the eucharistic host) down the front of his pants, and grabbed his penis, saying, “I can see funerals really excite you.” The boy broke away, but afterward the priest made it a point to come over and compliment him on his looks whenever he saw him.

For a long time the boy was ashamed to tell his parents of the incident, but when he did, his parents went to the chancery and complained about the priest. Archbishop Rembert Weakland wrote the boy asking him to forgive Father Nichols, and offered counseling with a therapist. The archdiocesan communications director urged the parents not to report the matter to the police. Father Nichols had by then become a practicing child psychologist, in addition to performing the priestly duties still being authorized by Archbishop Weakland. Nichols later admitted to having performed oral sex with one of his boy patients in 1978 (three years after his molestation of the altar boy in the sacristy). The priest retired to a condominium he owned with his mother.[2 ]

Another pattern is manifested here—the belief of the predators that they can counsel both victims and other predators. Father Shanley repeatedly suggested that he become a counselor to priests accused of molestation or that he run a “safe house” for them. Indeed, the instinct of the predators leads them by a kind of radar to children already disturbed in some way, to whom they could offer their sexual “ministrations” as a solution to their problems. Alberto Moravia’s novel The Conformist, about a man molested as a child, is remarkably insightful on the way the child is presented as “needing” because of his previous disturbance—but to whom the “healing” becomes a curse. Apologists for the priests have used this neediness in the child to exonerate the priest, saying that the child provoked him. A report of one of Father Shanley’s talks in the 1970s says: “He stated that the adult is not the seducer, the ‘kid’ is the seducer, and further the kid is not traumatized by the act per se, the kid is traumatized when the police and authorities ‘drag’ the kid in for questioning.”

It might be thought that churchly surroundings and sacred rites would discourage the priest’s sexual aggression. They seem rather to have stimulated them, providing a frisson of the forbidden. It was while celebrating an Easter meal with a family in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, that a priest, William Effinger, suggested that the son in the family serve his Mass the next day, and stay overnight at the rectory so he could rise early for that assignment. At the rectory, Father Effinger said that there was only one bed, so they would both have to sleep in it. No doubt there was a crucifix on the wall, as in most priests’ bedrooms. In Moravia’s The Conformist, the defrocked priest is kept from raping a young boy by the sight of a crucifix. (On a later occasion he does assault the boy, but only after removing the crucifix from the wall.)

Father Effinger was not inhibited by any sacredness of site or symbols from raping his victim—whose shamefaced agony was so obvious to his mother the next morning, when she went to see him serve Mass, that she quickly got the story from him and took it to Archbishop Weakland, who promised her that Father Effinger would be reassigned where he would not have access to children. He recommended for the boy a psychologist the archdiocese used, who reported back to the chancery, as part of his services to it, that the boy’s father “had the rare and God-given sense not to scream both to the police for justice and to heaven for vengeance”—so Father Effinger was reassigned to a parish by Weakland, where he was convicted of molesting another boy and sentenced to ten years in prison, where he died. When the boy finally brought suit for damages, a judge threw out the case because the statute of limitations had expired—and the archdiocese successfully countersued for the $4,000 it had spent on the court procedure.3

Some who are defensive about the Church’s terrible record try to throw doubt on the credibility of the victims’ stories (though many priests have admitted to the charges or have been convicted in trials). These defenders also point out that the accusations go back for decades—since admitting to what happened to them was especially painful for victims whose parents were unwilling to accept that priests could be so vile. Going back to the early careers of priests who have successfully hidden their crimes for years is an important aspect of these cases, since it involves the ethos of Catholicism from the mid-twentieth century, when the priest was an especially holy figure. This was borne in upon altar boys, who were forbidden (like all lay people) to touch the eucharist. When the altar boy poured water from a cruet into the chalice, it was over the joined fingers and thumbs of the priest—the so-called consecrating fingers which hold the eucharistic host when pronouncing the words that transform it into Christ’s body. To impress us with the importance of these fingers a nun told us of a Jesuit missionary in Canada who had his fingers chewed off by a “squaw” as part of his torture—so he could not say Mass until the pope gave him a dispensation to use other fingers. In the ordination rite, those fingers are tied in linen strips, setting them apart from profane use. It was the custom in the United States to give these strips to the mother of the ordained man, and she often was buried with them in her coffin.

The special tie of the priest to his mother was part of that infantilizing of the priesthood that has much to answer for in the current scandals—an infantilizing process that was encouraged by the old custom of beginning training for the priesthood as soon as boys could be induced to desire it, with the permission of the parents, which often meant with the encouragement of the mothers. Early applicants were set apart in “minor seminaries” (high school equivalents), where dating girls was blocked. It was a common saying that a woman never lost a son who became a priest. Pope John Paul II even used a mother’s special connection with the priesthood through her son to argue that there is no need to ordain women as priests, since their sons are their surrogates as priests.4

An eighty-year-old priest recently wrote to a friend of mine that he regrets having become a priest to satisfy his mother, a devout alcoholic, who thought she was redeeming her own life by offering him to God. When he tried to turn back before ordination, her tears deterred him. He realized too late that this was a strategy “the Church has for replenishing itself in its priesthood.” Donald Cozzens, former rector of a seminary and diocesan director of vocations, notes in The Changing Face of the Priesthood that “it is not uncommon for some mothers of priests to build their primary identity on their status as a ‘mother of a priest,’” which can reduce the son to a puer aeternus. I observed the special relationship of priest and mother in 1981. After writing some columns about our local cardinal’s financial dishonesty, I was surprised to find a package arrive at my office containing a priest’s chalice studded with precious gems. I called the chancery to see if a chalice had been stolen, and found it had. Apparently the thief or a fence wanted to return it, but not to the cardinal. The priest who came to pick it up told me that his widowed mother had put her engagement diamond, and all her other jewels, on the cup as her present when he was ordained.

Eugene Kennedy, an emeritus professor of psychology who has been a counselor to priests for years, reminds me that the sentimental climax of the movie Going My Way had the priest played by Bing Crosby fulfill the dearest hope of his dying pastor (Barry Fitzgerald) by bringing his mother to America from Ireland. Lest that be seen as just a fiction, we should remember that Cardinal Bernard Law wheeled his mother out in Rome when he was consecrated a cardinal and led his Boston delegation in singing the Irish song “A Mother’s Love Is a Blessing.”5

  1. 1

    From the Shanley documents released by the law firm of Greenberg, Traurig, Boston.

  2. 3

    Tom Kertscher and Marie Rohde, “Archdiocese Fought Hard in Court,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, April 15, 2002.

  3. 4

    Che cosa ha detto il Papa sulle donne (Rome: Paoline Editoriale, 1996), p. 60.

  4. 5

    Jack Thomas, “Scandal Darkens a Bright Career,” The Boston Globe, April 14, 2002.

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