(Physical) and Sexual Abuse

April 27, 2010 at 10:28 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments
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This is going to be tricky. I’m going to try to say something about the current church sex abuse crisis without mentioning the Vatican. I’m going to do so by talking instead about myself.

I have noted with interest that reports on the abuse of children by Catholic priests–and now nuns–increasingly include references to physical as well as sexual abuse. Priests and nuns in addition to molesting kids, beat them, shoved their heads into vile substances, humiliated them.

As my husband the American Baptist minister said last night, however, once you start down that road, it’s hard to know where you’ll end up. Certainly the Catholic sisters in my grade school in suburban Philadelphia in the 1950s hit kids. Hard, sometimes. So, however, according to my distinctly not Catholic husband, did the teachers in Davenport, Iowa, public schools when he was a student there. 

And so did I. In 1973-74 I taught the fourth grade in a parent-run community school which continued after the Archdiocese of New York ended its support of St. Thomas the Apostle parochial school in Harlem. I was there with three other members of the Grail, the (then) Catholic laywomen’s movement.

Now the first thing you need to know is that I was a really terrible fourth grade teacher. I became entranced with the idea of teaching because of new ideas like the open classroom and the turn to self-directed learning in the 1960s. But reading books about teaching isn’t the same as teaching. I had also come out of a world where women were either teachers or nurses and nobody in their right mind thought I could be a nurse.

There were about forty kids in the class and I had a pretty hard time keeping them in order. I had been down to see the principal several times, a fine woman who counseled me as best she could. But it was apparent I couldn’t keep going back and complaining about my own lack of competence.  Several other teachers had already resigned because their classes were in chaos. But I had just signed a lease on an apartment in Washington Heights. I was determined not to fail. 

And then Frederick began appearing.

Frederick was a fifth grader who would stop by my classroom every day after lunch, just as my students were settling down to their work. He would stand at the front of the classroom and mock me. Nothing I said would get him to stop. Eventually he would leave, but by then, my own students would be acting up. 

In tears, I consulted two colleagues who had been teaching in Harlem for many years. They told me what to do: the next time he comes, get your ruler, take him by the arm, drag him out into the hall, ask him if he is ever coming to your class again. If he doesn’t say no, hit him. And keep hitting him till he says he’s never coming back.

I did it. And Frederick never came back.

I’d like to say that I have been plagued with guilt about this my entire life, but I haven’t. I do think about it, though. One thing I think about is that I was utterly miserable there the entire year, because I was in over my head. I’d have done better to resign. Hitting Frederick was not only unethical, it was also stupid. 

And I think about what it means that this twenty-four year old white woman whacked a ten-year old African-American boy pretty hard four or five times, having been advised to do so by two African-American colleagues. Race is a complicated matter.

And I think about all of this especially now as the Catholics of Europe are denouncing priests and nuns but not other people for beating them. I think: well, it’s different. I only did it once. Maybe those priests and nuns did it a whole lot.  And maybe they had other choices. I didn’t.

But how different is it, really?


Sex Abuse Bibliography

April 24, 2010 at 12:40 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments
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Those of you follow my blog know that I am occasionally subject to an obsession with the Vatican that I consider a serious personal failing. A falling off the wagon, as it were. Of course, the (as virtually ever journalist in the world describes it) “mounting” Catholic sex abuse scandal certainly helps to explain my current mania. You can  barely turn on the radio without hearing a reference to the Vatican and sex abuse. Still…

In an attempt to “achieve some closure” on this latest episode of Vatican mania, I have decided, in classic professorial style, to construct  a list of articles about Catholic clergy sex abuse that in my opinion add at least some nuance to the “conversation.” Your paper on same is due May 1.

I have already mentioned the Ross Douthout April 11 NYTimes op-ed piece about Benedict XVI being “The Better Pope” with regard to sex abuse. I mention it again because it doesn’t seem to have gotten much play. Hard to fathom how somebody who was in charge of the Catholic Church for almost three decades within the period during which a massive cover-up of sex abuse ostensibly took place could continue to get a pass. But JPII was a brilliant tactician; perhaps he continues to be so even after death.

Another article on sex abuse and the church, “On Scandal and Scandals,” by priest-psychologist Brendan Callaghan, appeared last week on Thinking Faith,  the on-line journal of the British Jesuits. The striking thing about this article is that, although it’s written by a Catholic priest, it exhibits neither the inept defensiveness of the Vatican nor the vituperative tone of too much  journalism on the scandal. Callaghan’s concluding thoughts on sin and reconciliation in the light of the Resurrection of Jesus instilled more hope in me about this great mess than anything I’ve read in a long time. (Thinking Faith, by the bye,  is free, and well worth subscribing to.)

On another front, one well to the south of the countries where the scandal is getting the greatest play, the Catholic Information Service of Africa (CISA) has published a talk on clergy sex abuse by the Archbishop of Johannesburg, Buti Tlhagale. Archbishop Thlagale is unambiguous in his condemnation of sex abuse by Catholic clergy. And he speaks of the clergy in first person plural–“we,” not “you,”–detailing the enormous harm that has been done to the Church by priests. But he doesn’t stop there, ending, instead, with words of hope, those spoken by Jesus to Francis of Assisi at the time of his conversion: “Francis, go rebuild my house, which, as you see, is all being destroyed.” Would that Archbishop Tlhagale’s emphatic condemnation had been quoted alongside those of the Vatican nitwit who, during Holy Week, compared the treatment of the Church to the oppression of the Jews. (CISA’s email coverage of the Church in Africa is also free and worthwhile. Subscription info here.) 

Finally, I bring to your attention yesterday’s article in the New York Times  (April 23) about an $18.5 million sex abuse judgment  against the Boy Scouts of America. Apparently the Scouts for decades kept a secret file of sex abusers that ostensibly “detailed many instances across the country in which troop leaders or volunteers were allowed to continue working with children even after the Scouts had received complaints that they had committed sexual abuse.” The Scouts’ lawyer argued that “the files proved that the Scouts were ahead of their time in tracking child sexual abuse, even if the system was ‘not foolproof.’” One commentator, at least, suggested that the setting up of the file actually was well intentioned, initially at least.

Ross Douthat: Benedict XVI is Better

April 12, 2010 at 4:38 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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This is more a transmission than a blogpiece, but I was struck, just now, by an op-ed in today’s New York Times  in which Ross Douthat argues that Benedict XVI is a better pope than John Paul II was. I know a lot of people who will disagree with that, and a number more who will say “Who cares?” But I find the article an interesting one in the midst of all the venom and condemnation swirling around lately.

By the way, does anybody know how to pronounce “Douthat”? Is it “Doubt-hat?” “Do that?” Something else altogether?

Sex Abuse Intolerable; Diphtheria Less So

April 11, 2010 at 5:05 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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I may have spoken too soon. As my Catholic cousin Maureen Dowd reports in today’s New York Times, the AP has broken “the latest story pointing the finger of blame directly at Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, quoting from a letter in Latin in which he resisted pleas to defrock a California priest who had sexually molested children.”  So here is the proof I said in a previous blog didn’t exist. The pope, in his previous position, took years to respond to a letter from the bishop of Oakland, John Cummins, asking permission to “defrock” an admitted child abuser. And when he did respond, “God’s Rottweiler” urged “the diocese to give the 38-year-old pedophile ‘as much paternal care as possible’ and to consider his young age” as well as “the good of the universal church.”

Now it’s possible to quibble a bit with Dowd’s  interpretation.  For example, we might take into account a report on NPR Saturday attributing part of the problem here to Pope John Paul II’s decision to staunch the flood of men leaving the  priesthood after Vatican II by making it much more difficult for them to receive laicization.  

But this is precisely the kind of buck-passing for which the Vatican is much criticized of late. Let’s stick to Maureen Dowd’s column. Let’s consider, for example, the column’s sub-head: “Suffer the little children. Don’t make the little children suffer.”

Now it seems perfectly obvious which little children Dowd is referring to here: the thousands of American and European Catholic boys and girls who have been sexually abused by Catholic priests. In recent years, however, I have become interested in another group of little children, those who live in the Global South and die in large numbers from water-borne diseases (diphtheria, typhoid, and cholera, for the most part). Experts tell us that one child dies of such a disease every fifteen seconds.

Now you may well think that there’s no comparison between the millions of children who die of these diseases every year and children abused by priests. After all, the children in the Global South die. Their sufferings are over. Sexually abused children, however, suffer for the rest of their lives.

My late mother would disagree. When she was four, her six-year old brother, my uncle Jimmy, died of diphtheria. Mom told me many times that her parents never recovered. After her brother was buried (he could not have a funeral because of the contagion), her father sat looking out the window for six months. My grandmother took in laundry so they could eat. And that grandmother heaved deep and frequent sighs throughout my own childhood.

Others may argue that unlike sex abuse, these diseases are natural. Nothing can be done about them. You will note, however, that epidemics of diphtheria, typhoid, or cholera are pretty rare in the US these days. After World War II, we became rich enough to put in sewerage systems and make potable water almost universally available. The debt-burdened countries of the Global South, on the other hand, can’t afford to do this, so their kids die in droves. 

There is something you can do about the suffering of some of these little children, however. The nuns who educated me, the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, are constructing a photovoltaic grid in Congo, where their African sisters work, to provide electricity. Such electricity will, among other things, make it possible to purify the water that local children and their families drink.

You can make a donation right now toward the construction of this photovoltaic  grid.  Just send a check made out to the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. Here’s the address: Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur Congregational Mission Office, 30 Jeffreys Neck Road, Ipswich, MA, 01938.

But perhaps you are hesitating. Your life is pretty complicated. You have many commitments, many things to consider. You’d better not hesitate too long, though, because just since you began reading this column, a child or two died. And if you wait much longer, someone may denounce you for temporizing while little children suffer, much as Maureen Dowd denounces the evil Cardinal Ratzinger  in today’s Sunday Times.

“Tracing the Sign of the Cross” on Sale!!

April 5, 2010 at 8:32 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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In case you have been biding your time till Columbia University Press reduces the price of my book, this is the moment!! In Columbia’s spring sale, many books are 50% off, so Tracing  is $20 instead of $40. I am reassuring myself that this is not a comment on the inherent value of my scholarship because Julia Kristeva’s book is on sale, too!

The link, in case you’re interested,  is http://www.cup.columbia.edu/book/978-0-231-14702-6/tracing-the-sign-of-the-cross .

Coming soon: an historic example of what’s involved in a visitation of a US congregation of Catholic sisters by the Vatican, in this case, the Immaculate Heart Sisters of Los Angeles.

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