Baha'i News -- The one that got away

The one that got away

For six years, novelist Thomas Keneally trained to be a priest. Just weeks before ordination he left the seminary, plagued by doubts about the 'cold corporate institution' of the Catholic church

Saturday September 14, 2002 The Guardian

was a young candidate for the priesthood at St Patrick's College in Sydney, our family doctor said to my mother, "Tom has idealised the church. It's going to be a great shock to him when he finds out that priests are human." I was as romantic a seminarian as any. My desire to become a priest was influenced by the fact that a pretty girl in my neighbourhood, whom I had incoherently desired, had chosen to become a Dominican nun. I had some grandiose idea, perhaps, of being St Francis to her St Clare. Like most of my fellow seminarians, I also had a na´ve piety and considerable generosity of spirit. There were certainly elements of vanity at work, too. Australia, in the early 1950s, was a banal, suburban place, and to be at the centre of the solemn liturgies of the Roman Catholic Church was to be connected to the universal church of all times and all places. I had learned to sing "Faith of Our Fathers" from an Irish nun in the midst of a withering Australian drought; others had learned to sing it in the snows of Minnesota and the gales of Ireland. Moreover, it was exhilarating for an Australian kid from a plain suburb to look forward to being entrusted by Christ with the power to "bind and loose" sins.

My parents were observant Catholics, but they accepted my decision with resignation and perhaps with some uneasiness about my immaturity and flights of imagination. Unlike raunchier young Australians, I was full of what could be called sexual wonderings rather than any direct sexual experience, and the sacrifice involved in undertaking priestly celibacy seemed a minor issue, particularly since I would be surrounded by other men to whom sexual abstinence was the heroic norm. Had there been an independent secular counsellor to assess my case, he would have advised me to enrol at the University of Sydney and meet as many genial Protestant girls as I could.

The crisis of doubt, which came to me six years later, when I was about to be ordained, had little to do with discovering that certain priests were odd or capable of cruelty. A week in the seminary taught me that much. The crisis came from my realisation that, behind the compelling mystery of Catholicism, with its foundation in the message of "Caritas Christi" (words engraved on a stone wall at St Patrick's), lay a cold and largely self-interested corporate institution.

St Patrick's was situated on a beautiful headland above the Pacific in several faux-Gothic buildings whose Jansenist gloom belonged more to the great Irish seminary of Maynooth than to the antipodean subtropics. The main building was drafty and unheated, and tuberculosis, which had almost been vanquished among the general population, still broke out occasionally. The government required all citizens to have annual chest X-rays, but, because of the unhealthy nature of the building, had sought the rector's approval to check the seminarians biannually. The rector, a monsignor, refused. His concern was not that we might be overexposed to roentgens but that every time the X-ray trailer, with its crew of young nurses, visited, there would be an increase in the number of seminarians departing for "the world".

When two of my friends contracted TB and needed lung surgery, the rWhen I was a young candidate for the priesthood at St Patrick's College in Sydney, our family doctor said to my mother, "Tom has idealised the church. It's going to be a great shock to him when he finds out that priests are human." I was as romantic a seminarian as any. My desire to become a priest was influenced by the fact that a pretty girl in my neighbourhood, whom I had incoherently desired, had chosen to become a Dominican nun. I had some grandiose idea, perhaps, of being St Francis to her St Clare. Like most of my fellow seminarians, I also had a na´ve piety and considerable generosity of spirit.

There were certainly elements of vanity at work, too. Australia, in the early 1950s, was a banal, suburban place, and to be at the centre of the solemn liturgies of the Roman Catholic Church was to be connected to the universal church of all times and all places. I had learned to sing "Faith of Our Fathers" from an Irish nun in the midst of a withering Australian drought; others had learned to sing it in the snows of Minnesota and the gales of Ireland. Moreover, it was exhilarating for an Australian kid from a plain suburb to look forward to being entrusted by Christ with the power to "bind and loose" sins.

My parents were observant Catholics, but they accepted my decision with resignation and perhaps with some uneasiness about my immaturity and flights of imagination. Unlike raunchier young Australians, I was full of what could be called sexual wonderings rather than any direct sexual experience, and the sacrifice involved in undertaking priestly celibacy seemed a minor issue, particularly since I would be surrounded by other men to whom sexual abstinence was the heroic norm. Had there been an independent secular counsellor to assess my case, he would have advised me to enrol at the University of Sydney and meet as many genial Protestant girls as I could.

The crisis of doubt, which came to me six years later, when I was about to be ordained, had little to do with discovering that certain priests were odd or capable of cruelty. A week in the seminary taught me that much. The crisis came from my realisation that, behind the compelling mystery of Catholicism, with its foundation in the message of "Caritas Christi" (words engraved on a stone wall at St Patrick's), lay a cold and largely self-interested corporate institution.

St Patrick's was situated on a beautiful headland above the Pacific in several faux-Gothic buildings whose Jansenist gloom belonged more to the great Irish seminary of Maynooth than to the antipodean subtropics. The main building was drafty and unheated, and tuberculosis, which had almost been vanquished among the general population, still broke out occasionally. The government required all citizens to have annual chest X-rays, but, because of the unhealthy nature of the building, had sought the rector's approval to check the seminarians biannually. The rector, a monsignor, refused. His concern was not that we might be overexposed to roentgens but that every time the X-ray trailer, with its crew of young nurses, visited, there would be an increase in the number of seminarians departing for "the world".

When two of my friends contracted TB and needed lung surgery, the rector and the archdiocesan authorities took no responsibility. My friends' parents bore all the medical expenses, including those for long recuperations in a sanatorium. The young men were welcome to return if they recovered, but they received no gesture of sympathy, no gift, no visits from the staff of the seminary. Young men who left for reasons of mental ill-health, a not uncommon occurrence, also received no help.

In time, I began to question whether my increasingly irrepressible desire for women was a sin. And what was I to make of the fact that the novels of Greene and the poetry of Auden awakened both a sense of the wider world and an increasing scepticism about the world I was in? Weeks before my ordination, after my parents had hired caterers for the celebratory feast, I had what in those days was called a nervous breakdown. Sexuality was not the overt issue - at least not in the sense that I had fallen in love with someone. After all, seminaries exist to avert such calamities. But sexuality is always there - the more assiduously repressed, the more likely to cause psychic mayhem. Obviously, this pressure had something to do with what I thought of - and still half think of - as a failure to measure up. In any event, there was no possibility of going ahead with the ordination. During my final meeting with the rector, I asked him if he could give me a reference in the outside world.

"Oh," he told me grandly, "we don't give references."mP

Although I had willingly tried to satisfy the demands of the church for six years, he was telling me the institution owed me nothing. It was up to me to remake myself with the few unuseful resources I had acquired (among them medieval Latin). The rector's indifference to my future was not the "social justice" of which bishops spoke, and I left the meeting furious. A few weeks later, a Catholic layman of our parish gave me A$50 to make a start in the outside world. Not for the first time, I was struck by the openhandedness of lay Catholics - a generosity that contrasted sharply with the stinginess of their spiritual masters within the undemocratic structure of the church.

Six years ago, St Patrick's closed down for lack of applicants, and it is now an international school for hotel management. Yet I am astonished that all the gothic aspects of the place that I knew so many years ago seem to have been reproduced in the way that the church has chosen to treat the most vulnerable members of its flock - the children who have been sexually assaulted by priests and the parents who entrusted their children to the care of the predators. The proliferating reports of paedophilia among the clergy have been devastating enough; perhaps even more disturbing have been the evasive responses by some church leaders. For them, it has been business as usual: a pity about the few bad eggs and, of course, the victims must take take their share of the blame, too. Garry Wills, in Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit (Darton, Longman & Todd, 2000), draws attention to this mind-set in a remark made by Monsignor Robert Rehkemper, of Dallas, after the trial, in 1997, of Father Rudolph Kos, a local pastor who created an altar boys' club at which he sexually violated his disciples after plying them with alcohol and pot. Although the victims were subsequently awarded $120m in a civil suit, and Father Kos was sent to prison, Monsignor Rehkemper thought the blame misplaced. "No one ever says anything about what the role of the parents was in all this," he told a reporter. "They more properly should have known because they're close to the kids." For good measure, he added, "I'm sure some kids were damaged, but I think the damage might have happened even without Father Kos, you see."

How small the priesthood has been made by such ossifying of charity! When Alexis de Tocqueville visited Ireland in 1835, he extolled the priests of that country for their dedication and their willingness to live on the scale of the peasants, and he noted the affection they received in return. "The Catholic priest has a small house, a much smaller dinner, five or six thousand parishioners who are dying of hunger and share their last penny with him," he wrote. The anti-clerical Frenchman reported admiringly that one priest had told him, "The people share liberally with me the fruit of their labours, and I give them my time, my care, my whole soul. I am nothing without them, and without me they would succumb under the weight of their sorrows." This romantic stereotype of the kindly priest, so intimately bound to the people, was sustained in my boyhood by such films as The Bells of St Mary's and Boys Town. Surviving unchallenged, as it did until the 1960s, it drew a remarkable number of well-intentioned young men into the seminaries. Nowadays, this image of the priest as the generous knight of the people has been replaced by that of a man who preys on children - "the rock spider", as convicts in Australian prisons call a paedophile. And in the church's response to the scandal it has exposed its most dismaying side: a propensity for arrogance and cover-up.

Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, responding to news reports about priestly child abuse in his archdiocese in 1992, said: "By all means, we call down God's power on the media, particularly the [Boston] Globe," he told a reporter. The Cardinal's blinkered wrath has its roots in the history of the church's expansion in North America. There had been Spanish Catholics in the New World as early as the 15th century, and French Jesuits were martyred for the faith in their missions among Native American tribes in the Great Lakes border areas. But the building of the American Catholic church into a national institution was largely the work of the Irish immigrants who came to America, beginning in the 1840s, to escape the potato famine.

And yet many American Catholics never fully lost a fear that they could still be targets for the sort of cartoon drawn by Thomas Nast in the 1850s, which showed an apelike Irishman, whiskey bottle protruding from his back pocket, revolver at his side, shillelagh under an arm, slicing up the golden goose of the Democratic party for the edification of a stark-eyed priest. "Catholics need not apply" signs, or the spirit behind them, remained common well into the 20th century. Even today, virtually every Irish Catholic family I know, not to mention many Catholic families of Italian, Spanish or eastern European ancestry, retains a memory of bigotry suffered personally, or a heroic tale of a grandfather who, after being turned down for a job because of his religion, looked the foreman in the eye, declared himself a Catholic, and said, "To hell with your job!"

Among Irish Catholics, the spirit of tribalism runs deep. I once saw a Mass rock on the coast of County Donegal. In Ireland, there are many such rocks, which date from penal times in the 17th and 18th centuries, when the Catholic majority were persecuted by the occupying British. Engraved on this boulder's flanks were the initials I.H.S., a classical monogram denoting service in the name of Jesus Christ. During Mass said by a priest on the run, sentries were posted on surrounding hills to keep an eye out for the British forces. In the little vale knelt the shoeless and ragged faithful, despised on earth but about to be exalted by receiving the Body of the Lord.

No one raised in the Irish Catholic tradition could encounter such a totemic site without feeling a sense of brotherhood with those tenacious worshippers. Even today, the attitude in the face of villainy on the part of the church is: "Don't do anything to make bullets for the enemy. Leave it to us to look after the problem."

An ingrained unworldliness has also informed the church's handling of the abuse crisis. Catholics have long believed that the seven sacraments - baptism, confirmation, Eucharist, reconciliation (or confession), anointing of the sick, matrimony, and holy orders - make up a comprehensive prescription for whatever ails the human spirit. By this reasoning, faith in the sacraments can overcome all that is unredeemed in us. A commonly heard aphorism during my youth was that God never sent a temptation for which he did not also send the grace to combat it. A friend of mine in the American priesthood attributes this attitude to ignorantia affectata - the cultivated ignorance which disables the church from seeing child molestation as an habitual and recurrent crime. How else, from a charitable point of view, is one to account for the repeated reassignments of the Boston Archdiocese's two most notoriously abusive priests, Father Paul Shanley and Father John Geoghan, in a way that allowed them to take their unholy appetites from parish to parish? Or to understand how Cardinal Law, despite years of complaints about Father Shanley's criminal behaviour, could write a letter, in 1996, commending the priest for his "impressive record" in bringing "God's Word and His Love to His people... despite some difficult limitations"?

In 1993, Cardinal John O'Connor, of New York, acknowledged, in a policy statement of new procedures to be followed in sex-abuse cases, that for years the church had taken the view that a priest who had committed a sexual offence with a minor "had learned his lesson by being caught, reported and embarrassed". Just how dangerous this view was can be seen in the opinion of a pastor who, in the early 1980s, assured a bishop in Boston that his colleague Father John Geoghan, who had been accused of molesting seven children, represented no threat to his parishioners. "Father Geoghan admits the activity but does not feel it serious nor a serious pastoral problem," the priest reported generously. Case closed.

The church's attitude to men who decide to leave the priesthood but remain ardent lay Catholics is an altogether different matter. In The Unhealed Wound: The Church and Human Sexuality (2001), Eugene Kennedy, an ex-priest, who is a professor emeritus of psychology at Loyola University in Chicago, writes that, after years of unblemished service as a priest academic, he decided to "withdraw honourably" from the priesthood in order to marry. To speed along his formal request to the Vatican for laicisation, he was advised to declare either that his original decision to become a priest had been rash and insincere or that he was now suffering from psychological problems that made him unfit for clerical duty. Kennedy declined to portray himself in either fashion, and, without the Vatican's blessing, he married in 1977. After the marriage, Cardinal John Cody of Chicago demanded Kennedy resign his professorship at Loyola and relocate to a place where he was not known. (Loyola disregarded Cody's order and kept Kennedy on the faculty.)

The Catholic priesthood did not begin as a celibate establishment. According to the Gospels, many of the Apostles had wives, and in St Paul's Epistles we find such injunctions as "It behoveth therefore a bishop to be blameless, the husband of one wife" and a priest should be "without crime, the husband of one wife, with faithful children". It was not until the fourth and fifth centuries, when the church came under the influence of Egyptian and Syrian ascetics, that sexual abstinence was considered to be desirable for a priest. Even so, during the early Middle Ages, priests regularly married. But in northern European and English-speaking countries, the idea of priestly celibacy as a total renunciation of sex found favour as a means of inspiring trust in the clergy - and as a way of filling churches. By associating himself with the purity of Christ and His Mother, the celibate priest appeared to have transcended the confused, squalid concerns of his flock. As my hard-bitten father used to say, "At least when you tell your sins to a priest, you know he's not going to blab them to his missus." The celibacy rule has meant that, as with the relationship between Christ and Mary, a priest's safest relationship with an earthly female is with his mother. For many of the seminarians' mothers, the idea that they would never lose their sons to another woman was consoling.

In keeping with the presumption that a priest's mother has no sexual meaning for her son, the church has generated doctrines of the Virgin Mary as a woman from whom all sexuality has been leached. According to the Gospels, Mary conceived Christ as a virgin, without intervention by a man. For centuries, the church glorified the divine conception in art, music, and literature as one of its most alluring aspects. To the celibate priest, women other than his earthly and heavenly mother remained dangerous creatures, a collective Eve. As sin entered the world through the first woman, it continued to do so through her daughters.

At St Patrick's College, the idea of woman as enemy embraced even the beautiful Baroness von Trapp, who came with her singing daughters and sons to Australia in the 1950s and performed at the seminary. In an unprecedented breach of tradition, the von Trapps were admitted to the chapel for High Mass, a testament to the Baroness's standing within the church, and to the fact that she travelled with her own chaplain. As the von Trapps sang some of the church's most famous hymns - "Panis Angelicus," "Veni Creator Spiritus" - a number of seminarians began to lose their vocations in favour of the sunny, sumptuous womanhood they saw joined in harmony. The young men who departed were not regarded as responding to something healthy in themselves; they were pitied by the rest of us - including me - as failures.

Nearly 50 years later, that same mutedly hysterical, all-male grimness is still the norm in such places. A friend of mine, an admirable priest serving in a religious order in the eastern United States, was assigned on a series of four-day "missions" in various parishes during the Lenten season. He was struck by the overpowering sterility of rectory living, the "toxic, tomblike" atmosphere from which the voices of women and children were absent. In such a milieu, he said, a desire for physical intimacy is acute. He reported that when the occupants of these rectories get together there is still - as in the old days - a fearful, locker-room joshing about women, the term "bitch" coming in for frequent usage. "There's an elephant in the church's kitchen and no one's willing to say it's there," my friend said. By 1979, when the present Pope, John Paul II, visited the United States, the Vatican's positions on celibacy and birth control had created a personnel crisis: the number of young men dedicated to becoming priests had declined catastrophically, especially in the English-speaking world. (According to Charles R Morris in his 1997 book American Catholic, by 2005 the ratio of priests to parishioners in the United States will be half of what it was in 1966.) An obvious corrective was to drop another ban - that against the ordination of women. In 1979, when the Pope met the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, in Washington, the assembly's leader, Sister Theresa Kane, the president of the Sisters of Mercy of the Union, asked the Pontiff that "half of humankind" be included "in all ministries of our church". She was rebuffed with the Pope's observation that women were to remain humble, like Mary - and Mary was not a priest. Sister Theresa might have pointed out that Jesus was not a priest, either but, in accordance with the spirit that has prevailed within the Pope-centred church of the past 150 years, she kept quiet. As for me, failed priest and questionable Catholic, I have long since abandoned any expectation that the institutional church will begin to listen to its people. My now intermittent practice of Catholicism is more akin to that of Jews who observe the major holidays for tribal, cultural and historic reasons. I still feel the pull to meditation and prayer inspired by the old symbols - the sanctuary lamp, the tabernacle, the Stations of the Cross. But I have been unable to find my way back to regular observance and obedience, past the strictures, the follies and the hypocrisies of the official church. Meanwhile, my archbishop in Sydney, George Pell, has declared that homosexuality is not an "inescapable" condition, and that only "a few" homosexuals have no choice about their sexuality. With such men in charge - men who wield their authority as an instrument of exclusion - I find it hard to return to the generous mystery of my boyhood faith. Nonetheless, it is still possible to see the ideal church at work. In Australia, the government detains asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and Pakistan in camps that have all the aspects of prisons, including high walls and razor wire. Most of these camps are far from settled areas, and families and individuals within their walls suffer from uncertainty, for the Department of Immigration can take years to process their cases. Recently, in the visitors' compound at a camp near Sydney, I met a middle-aged woman who told me that she was a Sister of Mercy. She had been visiting the refugees - Muslims, Baha'i, Assyrian Christians - for years, helping them manage their immigration cases, doing errands for them when she could. She was not trying to amend a heinous world; she was not proselytising. She was simply doing what she could to alleviate suffering. Within the unyielding structure of the church, this woman had found an honourable task. ector and the archdiocesan authorities took no responsibility. My friends' parents bore all the medical expenses, including those for long recuperations in a sanatorium. The young men were welcome to return if they recovered, but they received no gesture of sympathy, no gift, no visits from the staff of the seminary. Young men who left for reasons of mental ill-health, a not uncommon occurrence, also received no help. In time, I began to question whether my increasingly irrepressible desire for women was a sin. And what was I to make of the fact that the novels of Greene and the poetry of Auden awakened both a sense of the wider world and an increasing scepticism about the world I was in? Weeks before my ordination, after my parents had hired caterers for the celebratory feast, I had what in those days was called a nervous breakdown. Sexuality was not the overt issue - at least not in the sense that I had fallen in love with someone. After all, seminaries exist to avert such calamities. But sexuality is always there - the more assiduously repressed, the more likely to cause psychic mayhem. Obviously, this pressure had something to do with what I thought of - and still half think of - as a failure to measure up. In any event, there was no possibility of going ahead with the ordination. During my final meeting with the rector, I asked him if he could give me a reference in the outside world.

"Oh," he told me grandly, "we don't give references."

Although I had willingly tried to satisfy the demands of the church for six years, he was telling me the institution owed me nothing. It was up to me to remake myself with the few unuseful resources I had acquired (among them medieval Latin). The rector's indifference to my future was not the "social justice" of which bishops spoke, and I left the meeting furious. A few weeks later, a Catholic layman of our parish gave me A$50 to make a start in the outside world. Not for the first time, I was struck by the openhandedness of lay Catholics - a generosity that contrasted sharply with the stinginess of their spiritual masters within the undemocratic structure of the church.

Six years ago, St Patrick's closed down for lack of applicants, and it is now an international school for hotel management. Yet I am astonished that all the gothic aspects of the place that I knew so many years ago seem to have been reproduced in the way that the church has chosen to treat the most vulnerable members of its flock - the children who have been sexually assaulted by priests and the parents who entrusted their children to the care of the predators. The proliferating reports of paedophilia among the clergy have been devastating enough; perhaps even more disturbing have been the evasive responses by some church leaders. For them, it has been business as usual: a pity about the few bad eggs and, of course, the victims must take take their share of the blame, too. Garry Wills, in Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit (Darton, Longman & Todd, 2000), draws attention to this mind-set in a remark made by Monsignor Robert Rehkemper, of Dallas, after the trial, in 1997, of Father Rudolph Kos, a local pastor who created an altar boys' club at which he sexually violated his disciples after plying them with alcohol and pot. Although the victims were subsequently awarded $120m in a civil suit, and Father Kos was sent to prison, Monsignor Rehkemper thought the blame misplaced. "No one ever says anything about what the role of the parents was in all this," he told a reporter. "They more properly should have known because they're close to the kids." For good measure, he added, "I'm sure some kids were damaged, but I think the damage might have happened even without Father Kos, you see."

How small the priesthood has been made by such ossifying of charity! When Alexis de Tocqueville visited Ireland in 1835, he extolled the priests of that country for their dedication and their willingness to live on the scale of the peasants, and he noted the affection they received in return. "The Catholic priest has a small house, a much smaller dinner, five or six thousand parishioners who are dying of hunger and share their last penny with him," he wrote. The anti-clerical Frenchman reported admiringly that one priest had told him, "The people share liberally with me the fruit of their labours, and I give them my time, my care, my whole soul. I am nothing without them, and without me they would succumb under the weight of their sorrows." This romantic stereotype of the kindly priest, so intimately bound to the people, was sustained in my boyhood by such films as The Bells of St Mary's and Boys Town. Surviving unchallenged, as it did until the 1960s, it drew a remarkable number of well-intentioned young men into the seminaries. Nowadays, this image of the priest as the generous knight of the people has been replaced by that of a man who preys on children - "the rock spider", as convicts in Australian prisons call a paedophile. And in the church's response to the scandal it has exposed its most dismaying side: a propensity for arrogance and cover-up.

Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, responding to news reports about priestly child abuse in his archdiocese in 1992, said: "By all means, we call down God's power on the media, particularly the [Boston] Globe," he told a reporter. The Cardinal's blinkered wrath has its roots in the history of the church's expansion in North America. There had been Spanish Catholics in the New World as early as the 15th century, and French Jesuits were martyred for the faith in their missions among Native American tribes in the Great Lakes border areas. But the building of the American Catholic church into a national institution was largely the work of the Irish immigrants who came to America, beginning in the 1840s, to escape the potato famine.

And yet many American Catholics never fully lost a fear that they could still be targets for the sort of cartoon drawn by Thomas Nast in the 1850s, which showed an apelike Irishman, whiskey bottle protruding from his back pocket, revolver at his side, shillelagh under an arm, slicing up the golden goose of the Democratic party for the edification of a stark-eyed priest. "Catholics need not apply" signs, or the spirit behind them, remained common well into the 20th century. Even today, virtually every Irish Catholic family I know, not to mention many Catholic families of Italian, Spanish or eastern European ancestry, retains a memory of bigotry suffered personally, or a heroic tale of a grandfather who, after being turned down for a job because of his religion, looked the foreman in the eye, declared himself a Catholic, and said, "To hell with your job!"

Among Irish Catholics, the spirit of tribalism runs deep. I once saw a Mass rock on the coast of County Donegal. In Ireland, there are many such rocks, which date from penal times in the 17th and 18th centuries, when the Catholic majority were persecuted by the occupying British. Engraved on this boulder's flanks were the initials I.H.S., a classical monogram denoting service in the name of Jesus Christ. During Mass said by a priest on the run, sentries were posted on surrounding hills to keep an eye out for the British forces. In the little vale knelt the shoeless and ragged faithful, despised on earth but about to be exalted by receiving the Body of the Lord.

No one raised in the Irish Catholic tradition could encounter such a totemic site without feeling a sense of brotherhood with those tenacious worshippers. Even today, the attitude in the face of villainy on the part of the church is: "Don't do anything to make bullets for the enemy. Leave it to us to look after the problem."

An ingrained unworldliness has also informed the church's handling of the abuse crisis. Catholics have long believed that the seven sacraments - baptism, confirmation, Eucharist, reconciliation (or confession), anointing of the sick, matrimony, and holy orders - make up a comprehensive prescription for whatever ails the human spirit. By this reasoning, faith in the sacraments can overcome all that is unredeemed in us. A commonly heard aphorism during my youth was that God never sent a temptation for which he did not also send the grace to combat it. A friend of mine in the American priesthood attributes this attitude to ignorantia affectata - the cultivated ignorance which disables the church from seeing child molestation as an habitual and recurrent crime. How else, from a charitable point of view, is one to account for the repeated reassignments of the Boston Archdiocese's two most notoriously abusive priests, Father Paul Shanley and Father John Geoghan, in a way that allowed them to take their unholy appetites from parish to parish? Or to understand how Cardinal Law, despite years of complaints about Father Shanley's criminal behaviour, could write a letter, in 1996, commending the priest for his "impressive record" in bringing "God's Word and His Love to His people... despite some difficult limitations"?

In 1993, Cardinal John O'Connor, of New York, acknowledged, in a policy statement of new procedures to be followed in sex-abuse cases, that for years the church had taken the view that a priest who had committed a sexual offence with a minor "had learned his lesson by being caught, reported and embarrassed". Just how dangerous this view was can be seen in the opinion of a pastor who, in the early 1980s, assured a bishop in Boston that his colleague Father John Geoghan, who had been accused of molesting seven children, represented no threat to his parishioners. "Father Geoghan admits the activity but does not feel it serious nor a serious pastoral problem," the priest reported generously. Case closed.

The church's attitude to men who decide to leave the priesthood but remain ardent lay Catholics is an altogether different matter. In The Unhealed Wound: The Church and Human Sexuality (2001), Eugene Kennedy, an ex-priest, who is a professor emeritus of psychology at Loyola University in Chicago, writes that, after years of unblemished service as a priest academic, he decided to "withdraw honourably" from the priesthood in order to marry. To speed along his formal request to the Vatican for laicisation, he was advised to declare either that his original decision to become a priest had been rash and insincere or that he was now suffering from psychological problems that made him unfit for clerical duty. Kennedy declined to portray himself in either fashion, and, without the Vatican's blessing, he married in 1977. After the marriage, Cardinal John Cody of Chicago demanded Kennedy resign his professorship at Loyola and relocate to a place where he was not known. (Loyola disregarded Cody's order and kept Kennedy on the faculty.)

The Catholic priesthood did not begin as a celibate establishment. According to the Gospels, many of the Apostles had wives, and in St Paul's Epistles we find such injunctions as "It behoveth therefore a bishop to be blameless, the husband of one wife" and a priest should be "without crime, the husband of one wife, with faithful children". It was not until the fourth and fifth centuries, when the church came under the influence of Egyptian and Syrian ascetics, that sexual abstinence was considered to be desirable for a priest. Even so, during the early Middle Ages, priests regularly married. But in northern European and English-speaking countries, the idea of priestly celibacy as a total renunciation of sex found favour as a means of inspiring trust in the clergy - and as a way of filling churches. By associating himself with the purity of Christ and His Mother, the celibate priest appeared to have transcended the confused, squalid concerns of his flock. As my hard-bitten father used to say, "At least when you tell your sins to a priest, you know he's not going to blab them to his missus." The celibacy rule has meant that, as with the relationship between Christ and Mary, a priest's safest relationship with an earthly female is with his mother. For many of the seminarians' mothers, the idea that they would never lose their sons to another woman was consoling.

In keeping with the presumption that a priest's mother has no sexual meaning for her son, the church has generated doctrines of the Virgin Mary as a woman from whom all sexuality has been leached. According to the Gospels, Mary conceived Christ as a virgin, without intervention by a man. For centuries, the church glorified the divine conception in art, music, and literature as one of its most alluring aspects. To the celibate priest, women other than his earthly and heavenly mother remained dangerous creatures, a collective Eve. As sin entered the world through the first woman, it continued to do so through her daughters.

At St Patrick's College, the idea of woman as enemy embraced even the beautiful Baroness von Trapp, who came with her singing daughters and sons to Australia in the 1950s and performed at the seminary. In an unprecedented breach of tradition, the von Trapps were admitted to the chapel for High Mass, a testament to the Baroness's standing within the church, and to the fact that she travelled with her own chaplain. As the von Trapps sang some of the church's most famous hymns - "Panis Angelicus," "Veni Creator Spiritus" - a number of seminarians began to lose their vocations in favour of the sunny, sumptuous womanhood they saw joined in harmony. The young men who departed were not regarded as responding to something healthy in themselves; they were pitied by the rest of us - including me - as failures.

Nearly 50 years later, that same mutedly hysterical, all-male grimness is still the norm in such places. A friend of mine, an admirable priest serving in a religious order in the eastern United States, was assigned on a series of four-day "missions" in various parishes during the Lenten season. He was struck by the overpowering sterility of rectory living, the "toxic, tomblike" atmosphere from which the voices of women and children were absent. In such a milieu, he said, a desire for physical intimacy is acute. He reported that when the occupants of these rectories get together there is still - as in the old days - a fearful, locker-room joshing about women, the term "bitch" coming in for frequent usage. "There's an elephant in the church's kitchen and no one's willing to say it's there," my friend said.

By 1979, when the present Pope, John Paul II, visited the United States, the Vatican's positions on celibacy and birth control had created a personnel crisis: the number of young men dedicated to becoming priests had declined catastrophically, especially in the English-speaking world. (According to Charles R Morris in his 1997 book American Catholic, by 2005 the ratio of priests to parishioners in the United States will be half of what it was in 1966.) An obvious corrective was to drop another ban - that against the ordination of women. In 1979, when the Pope met the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, in Washington, the assembly's leader, Sister Theresa Kane, the president of the Sisters of Mercy of the Union, asked the Pontiff that "half of humankind" be included "in all ministries of our church". She was rebuffed with the Pope's observation that women were to remain humble, like Mary - and Mary was not a priest. Sister Theresa might have pointed out that Jesus was not a priest, either but, in accordance with the spirit that has prevailed within the Pope-centred church of the past 150 years, she kept quiet.

As for me, failed priest and questionable Catholic, I have long since abandoned any expectation that the institutional church will begin to listen to its people. My now intermittent practice of Catholicism is more akin to that of Jews who observe the major holidays for tribal, cultural and historic reasons. I still feel the pull to meditation and prayer inspired by the old symbols - the sanctuary lamp, the tabernacle, the Stations of the Cross. But I have been unable to find my way back to regular observance and obedience, past the strictures, the follies and the hypocrisies of the official church. Meanwhile, my archbishop in Sydney, George Pell, has declared that homosexuality is not an "inescapable" condition, and that only "a few" homosexuals have no choice about their sexuality. With such men in charge - men who wield their authority as an instrument of exclusion - I find it hard to return to the generous mystery of my boyhood faith.

Nonetheless, it is still possible to see the ideal church at work. In Australia, the government detains asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and Pakistan in camps that have all the aspects of prisons, including high walls and razor wire. Most of these camps are far from settled areas, and families and individuals within their walls suffer from uncertainty, for the Department of Immigration can take years to process their cases.

Recently, in the visitors' compound at a camp near Sydney, I met a middle-aged woman who told me that she was a Sister of Mercy. She had been visiting the refugees - Muslims, Baha'i, Assyrian Christians - for years, helping them manage their immigration cases, doing errands for them when she could. She was not trying to amend a heinous world; she was not proselytising. She was simply doing what she could to alleviate suffering. Within the unyielding structure of the church, this woman had found an honourable task.


©Copyright 2002, Guardian Newspapers

Page last updated/revised 020915
Return to the Bahá'í Association's Main Web Page