Fall From Grace
By Julie Mignard
Dear Father Andrew,
It has been a very long time since we’ve spoken. Not just that, it’s been a lived-life since I was the little girl squealing in delight when you tossed me over your head. I still cherish those feelings about you. They are disassociated now from the child-tossing; they’re just strong feelings on their own. You were always the first choice in our family: The first choice for advice; the first choice for comfort; the first choice for explanation and truth-seeking.
Somehow you are still the first choice, though things have changed. The years have been full. I did finally get to play many roles in life: wife, mother, scholar. All of the usual boxes were ticked—marriages (two), children (three) dogs (two), education, travel, charitable works, civil disobedience, and some real adventures. Turns out I am an adventurous soul, who knew? You might have noticed I didn’t check religion in my list of boxes. It used to be there. It was there when you threw me to the heavens. It was there when you were the first choice. Not now. It decayed and blew away.
The first hint of the illness that would kill it came in North Carolina where I was one of the values workshop teachers for a human sexuality class. We were going to focus on rape that week and the four of us grad school students met to discuss how we were going to grapple with the topic. One of the students, Tom, was 34, older than the rest of us, with a wife and kids, he’d entered grad school mid-career. His age is important to this story.
In the middle of our planning he suddenly began sobbing. No amount of comfort reached him and we all emotionally withdrew to respect his privacy–or maybe not. Maybe we were just uncomfortable with the grown man crying among us. Finally the sobs subsided. He recounted the now-familiar tale of being raped repeatedly at ten years of age by his much-worshipped parish priest. Covered in the mist of sanctity, dressed for the sacraments with his earthly spiritual father, he was still not safe. Instead of the nameless legions of boys marching through the abused ranks of the last years—this was Tom. He had been married happily for sixteen years. He had three beautiful children.
He’d worked two jobs to put himself through undergrad and now grad school—all with an anvil weighing on his heart. Our discussion had unlocked the chains of his private hell. The demons of guilt and shame and betrayal imprisoned there for the last 24 years came pouring out at that minute. Unable to fathom what had happened to him at the hands of God’s representative on Earth, he’d shut down. No one ever knew. Until now.
But as I said, Father Andrew, Tom was just the first whom I actually knew. I had a friend who walked this path from another angle. She was involved from the legal side in Ireland, to unearth what happened when horrified parents, unable to get sustenance from their spiritual leaders, turned to their legal system for help. Not even justice, Father, just help to stop the plague from ravishing the trust and innocence of their young boys.
This work went on for five years, peeling back layer after layer of artifice, justifications and obfuscation, as the Church tried desperately to bury the truth under an avalanche of conspiracy, while all the time nurturing a sheltered path for these priests to move on and vampire the virgin peace of new victims. The tales would put Poe to shame.
That’s not even the end of it, Father. Are you getting uncomfortable with this letter? Do you want to put it down, to throw it away? That is exactly what the Church did to the young people who sought refuge within its professed beliefs.
There is more, of course. The Magdalenes in Ireland, the poor girls whose parents, instructed by Mother Church, didn’t discuss the sex act with their daughters, until the fruits of those fumblings in the dark sentenced them to incarceration in convents across Ireland. How long did they get to be washer-women while the church sold their children, or worse, let the bastards die?
Stop. Stop. I have to stop now. So sorry there is no stronger word than “incredulity,” no more powerful emotional response than “outrage” and “anger.” These are mere whispers in the deafening blast of disbelief in the extent to which an unfeeling church protected the worst and trampled the least.
I don’t really know why I am writing now. Perhaps I miss the halcyon days of purity, joy, safety and innocence: being tossed in the air in a starburst of giggles. Instead, I feel that I, all of us, have been dashed to the ground just when we expected to be lifted up.