Once upon a time, I was a Catholic. The churches were beautiful then. They were cool and dark, filled with flickering candles, the aromas of incense and burning wax, and life-sized statues of saints. I loved those statues, and, in the spring, placed small bouquets of pink roses at their plaster feet.
My catechism was stuffed with holy cards. Images of the martyrs with golden halos, the stigmata, and The Sacred Heart, all attracted and repulsed at the same time.
The mass was recited in Latin. Of course, I did not really speak Latin. It was something repeated in rote, a recitation that meant nothing to me, except that it was magical and mysterious, with a hypnotic rhythm.
Our teachers were nuns, in those days still wearing voluminous habits that rustled. Rosaries dangled from their waist to their hems, the beads clattering when they walked. They were cool tyrants, and could probably teach the guards at Guantanamo a few things about discipline. They terrified me.
We learned our lessons, trying very hard to be good. Certainly, no one wanted to go to hell, or even to purgatory. If the punishment of a sinful life was anything like that dispensed by the sisters, then it was to be avoided at all cost. So we obeyed, blindly, innocently. And that, I suppose, was the problem.
Lately, a lot of horrifying stories have emerged about the abuse of children at the hands of Catholic priests. I remember when Jason Berry broke the story over 20 years ago. His first book, “Lead Us Not Into Temptation,” exposed a sexual scandal by priests in southwest Louisiana. Then, we thought it was an aberration, something small and regional.
I know Jason Berry. His mother was a friend of mine. I was a bridesmaid for one of his cousins. But, I did not read his book. The idea of pedophilia was too vile for me. I couldn”t face the details.
Now, we learn that child molesters in black robes and clerical collars were endemic, worldwide. The latest accusations come from Ireland. Even the current Pope may have covered for his brother, Georg Ratzinger, a German priest.
Cardinals from Boston to Great Britain simply moved the offenders from parish to parish. Like the Latin mass, all moves were shrouded in secrecy. A priest”s history did not follow him to the next community.
How did they get away with this conspiracy for so many years? Because we believed in The Church. Decisions descended, ex cathedra, from Rome. Priests and nuns were considered living saints, never to be questioned.
I am so sad for the children who suffered at the hands of such criminals. How terrifying it must have been. I imagine they thought this was part of the ritual, part of the faith.
Just as I carry painful psychic memories of my Catholic school days, these victims, too, are damaged in ways too profound to imagine. I wonder if that apology from the pope is helping any?
A few perpetrators have been sentenced to prison. Most are now very old men, who have done much damage for decades. How fortunate they were that the “good ”ol boy” network of Catholic clerics protected them for so very long.
I”m not sure that I believe all the nuns” stories about the fires of hell. But, I hope the child abusers do. And, I hope they are very afraid.
Adele Elliott, a New Orleans native, moved to Columbus after Hurricane Katrina.
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