Read The Silence We Keep: A Nun's View of the Catholic Priest Scandal Online

Authors: Karol Jackowski

Tags: #Religion, #Christianity, #Catholic, #Social Science, #General

The Silence We Keep: A Nun's View of the Catholic Priest Scandal (2 page)

BOOK: The Silence We Keep: A Nun's View of the Catholic Priest Scandal
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In looking at priesthood today, it’s no surprise that some attention would shift to the sisterhood and what we know. Sisters worldwide were always perceived as priests’ helpers (and cheap labor). In every parish, priests were responsible for everything that happened in church, and sisters were responsible for everything that happened in school. Together they took care of what we knew as “parish life.” When we looked at those who built the community life of the church, we saw priests and sisters sharing the workload, though never equally as partners. Nuns were submissive to priests, servants extraordinaire to these privileged “men of God,” and major contributors to the priesthood’s culture of privilege; some still are.

As young sisters, it was customary for us to deliver and serve meals at the Priests’ House. It was also customary for the convent kitchen to prepare special meals for the fathers. While the sisters ate turkey croquettes and Spam, for example, the priests dined frequently on steaks and roast beef. In every convent I
lived in, when Father came to dinner, a special meal was prepared (with no expense spared) and all conversation centered on him. No one questioned Father’s authority or disagreed with what he said. The author Lorenzo Carcaterra told the story of how growing up in Italy his father frequently brought the sisters hams, which they in turn always gave to the priests. All gifts given to the Italian nuns were routinely turned over to the priests. No one worshipped the ground priests walked on more faithfully than nuns. And given that general perception, one can’t help but wonder what part, if any, sisters have played in the scandal and its cover-up. What part of the truth do we know? I wonder the same thing.

Sisters are seen by many as the mysteriously silent and submissive women in the church, and it’s entirely likely that we know something that we’re not telling. If anything sinister was going on in the priesthood, the nuns would have known. And since it looks as if the men in the priesthood have no intention of admitting the truth, maybe the women in the church, the “good sisters,” will. We do know now that one reason many nuns keep silent is that they, too, have been victims of sexual abuse, exploitation, or harassment at the hands of priests or other nuns in the church. On January 4, 2003, Bill Smith of the
Saint Louis Post Dispatch
reported on a national survey completed by Saint Louis University in 1996, in which “‘a minimum’ of 34,000 Catholic nuns, or about 40% of all nuns in the United States, have suffered some form of sexual trauma,” victimized by priests as well as nuns.
1
The survey represents the voices of 1,164 nuns from 123 religious orders in the United States. While the findings were published by religious journals in 1998, the story was never picked up by the mainstream press.

While I am totally shocked that nearly half of the sisters in this country have been sexually abused by priests and nuns, many
aren’t. On January 18, 2003, Mary Nevans Pederson of the
Telegraph Herald
(Dubuque, Iowa) reported in her article “Nun Sex-Abuse Does Not Surprise Sisters” that the sisterhood has been aware of the problem and has been dealing with it for years.
2
“This is not news to us. It’s been part of our community history and we have dealt with it for a long time,” said Sr. Dorothy Heiderscheit, president of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Holy Family in Dubuque. Other community leaders echoed the same message. And while some have interpreted the lack of publicity as a cover-up by the sisterhood, not so says Sr. Mary Ann Zollman, BVM, of Dubuque, and president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. “We weren’t trying to keep it secret—it was published—but we were already aware of the situations in our communities and were responding wholeheartedly.” As a group, the sisters did not see a need to publicize widely the information on the sexual victimization of nuns. Thank God the sisters are well cared for. The unanswered question is what happened to those who abused them.

Even though we continue to be stunned by silences we never knew existed, in 1996 those abused sisters began to speak. And while it took years for us to hear their voices, that’s exactly what’s happening. Maybe the silence that binds women deeply in the church will be broken by those in the sisterhood. Maybe the sisters, like more and more of the faithful laity, have also had enough. In 1986, Elie Wiesel accepted the Nobel peace prize and pleaded with us to speak up at times like this. “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented,” he said. When silence suppresses truth, only evil grows. We all need to look at the silence we keep. We have far more soul to lose in keeping silent than we ever do in speaking the truth.

When I looked back on everything I know about the priesthood, I feel as if I saw far more than I realized, and knew far more than I understood. As scandalous events continue to unfold, it’s becoming clear that the crisis in the Catholic priesthood is far greater than just its pedophile priests. We’re beginning to see a culture of privilege and sexual permissiveness in the priesthood that is as old as the church itself, and a moral theology that seems far more twisted than the most cynical could imagine—a spirituality so hypocritical in its obsession with and condemnation of the sexual sins of others, sins that now appear permissible only in the priesthood. Priests who engage in sexual relationships forbidden to the rest of humankind still stand before us as privileged “men of God,” laws unto themselves, even holier than Thou.

As the crisis unfolds, we see far more than we ever care to and know more than we ever want to. The painful truth is just beginning to dawn. One by one we’re beginning to realize how betrayed we’ve been by these “men of God.” We’ve been duped into believing blindly in rules the priests themselves had little intention of following. And so many “insiders” describe the horror of what we see as merely “the tip of the iceberg.” In the matter of knowing the whole truth, we’ve just begun. This is wake-up time in the Catholic Church at every level, inside and out. What the priesthood buried for centuries is being forced out into the light of day, as though the church itself has finally had enough. The sins of the fathers are being paraded before us today like those emperors with no clothes we read about as children. Only this time we see. And we see no longer with the eyes of children, but with the wide-open eyes of adults. We see with greater insight, knowledge, and understanding, and I dare say we are even finding divine strength hidden in what we see. We
are not as shattered as we may feel. We are simply in the painful phase of becoming one, true church again, as we were in the beginning.

At some level, the mystique of Catholic priesthood as a paragon of virtue faded long ago for me, as early as grade school. In this experience, also, I am not alone. For as long as I can remember, there has been a strange, silent acceptance of an unbroken tradition of sexual activity in the priesthood. The most common case in point when I was growing up in the 1950s: the live-in housekeeper who also vacationed and traveled alone with the pastor. Regardless of what we Catholics knew about the not-so-discreet sexual liaisons between some parish priests and some parish women, everyone pretended that nothing was going on. We simply didn’t speak of it. That was true at our parish, Saint Stanislaus in East Chicago, Indiana, and true in the parish of nearly everyone I talk to. Somehow this pastoral partnership seemed unspeakable but okay. Never do I recall anyone, including my own parents, expressing dismay, disgust, or dissent. An occasional off-color joke about the special housekeeping needs of priests is the most I remember. We seemed to have no problem with priests who lived married lives, nor did we ever acknowledge the homosexuality of others. Ours was an acceptance so strange, so silent, and so Catholic that it included holding on to the church teaching that the priesthood was, is, and always will be celibate. That remains the church’s teaching still, even though I suspect few priests practice it. We were given every reason by the priesthood not to believe that they were celibate, as were their housekeepers and lady friends.

In studying the history of priesthood in the Catholic Church, I see how celibacy was hardly practiced no matter what priests
vow or what we’re taught to believe by the church hierarchy. No matter how much the church proclaims the “unbroken tradition” of celibacy in its priesthood, all evidence points to the contrary, and not just in the eyes of a stunned laity. According to historian Garry Wills, over thirty years ago, in 1971, a very well respected American priest, Cardinal Seper, stood up before his brothers at the Synod of Bishops in Rome and reported, “I am not at all optimistic that celibacy is being observed.”
3
The highest ranking members of the Catholic Church knew very well what was going on decades ago, as their recently released internal documents are beginning to confirm. Enforced celibacy never took hold in the Catholic priesthood; it was always mysteriously optional and never spoken about. That’s why no priest is likely to accuse another priest of sexual misconduct and throw the first stone. As several “good priests” confided, “We all have skeletons in our closet.” That’s why we are where we are today, I thought, and that’s how deep the silence is that the priesthood keeps. To reveal the whole truth would change the Catholic Church completely, inside and out. The silence is that powerful.

Contrary to what the Vatican would like the world to believe, sex scandals in the priesthood are not a phenomenon found only in the American Church. Widely publicized abuses have been reported in Africa (including the sexual abuse and rape of nuns), Ireland, Canada, England, Australia, South America, Latin America, and, if truth were really to be told by those who know, even in Italy and the Vatican itself. In response to my asking a sister who studied in Rome about sex scandals in Italy, she wrote:

Just wait until things break in Rome!!! We think the pedophile and abuse culture is bad in the states, just wait until stories surface of folks in Rome!!!! The priests sent there…plus the Italian priests…were not assigned there because they were saints!!!

American priests returning from Rome also shared with her their concern over the “rampant” sexual activity of Italian clerics.

What we see happening to the priesthood in this country is not an evil by-product of democracy, homosexuality, or a sin of the promiscuous sixties. Sexual permissiveness in the priesthood is as old as the church itself. All levels of the priesthood have been involved in the scandals and cover-ups—priests, bishops, archbishops, cardinals, even popes. The blessing of the Vatican rests upon them all, which is a clear sign of just how unfathomably high up the truth has been hidden.

In looking at priesthood from the beginning, I saw that the Catholic Church has consistently cultivated a priestly culture of privilege and permissiveness, with greater and lesser degrees of depravity and notoriety. Even with the beginnings of enforced celibacy found among the desert fathers in the fourth and fifth centuries, we find numerous, well-documented accounts of monks and monasteries with a wide reputation for molesting boys and seminarians, even engaging in bestiality. Sexual deviance entered the priesthood that long ago. Popes, bishops, and priests fathered offspring openly, with wives and children later sold into slavery, the rationale being that the financial upkeep of clerics’ families would be too expensive and the church had no intention of supporting them or sharing its wealth. Therein lay the true origins of celibacy in the priesthood. Marriage for its priests would be far too costly to the Catholic Church. As the historian Elizabeth Abbott notes, “Bachelors leave no heirs, so
would not be tempted to divvy up the property they administered, which would pass intact to the next generation of monks and churchmen.”
4
Abbott writes of monks in France who were all married, and according to the abbey official Peter Abelard, each monk “supported himself and his concubines, as well as his sons and daughters.”
5
These are just a few of the more egregious beginnings of the “celibate” Catholic priesthood. And if these sordid details are what passed the church’s censors and were allowed into history books, I shudder at what didn’t make it.

BOOK: The Silence We Keep: A Nun's View of the Catholic Priest Scandal
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