This is a story about a priest I knew, and what he did to me. I was not molested, exactly. But something happened.
The setting is a Catholic grade school I’ll call Saint Crispin’s, in the early 1970s. I was not a Catholic, but my parents, displeased with the public schools, sent me anyway. In the seventh grade at Saint C’s I was an outsider, and not only by religion. I lived in the doctors/lawyers/accountants part of town. My classmates lived in the welders/policemen/coaches part of town. Their houses were smaller, their attitudes tougher. Saint C’s was their place—a dark and antediluvian building that squatted behind the church like a big brick toad. The school grounds, a half-acre of fenced-in blacktop, resembled a prison yard. There was a hole in the fence where, if the teacher on patrol wasn’t watching, you could escape at lunch, then hustle up the block to the pizza place, cram down an Italian sub, and make it back by the bell. This routine wasn’t about the sandwich. It was about the transgression. It was about the escape.
The schoolyard pastime at Saint C’s was a rough game that combined tag and tackle. A lone boy would stand in the center of the yard, facing a line of thirty or fifty on one side. At a shout of "Go!" the line raced to the other side, and the one in the middle tackled someone; the next time the wave crossed, those two tackled two more, and so on, until at last a few fleet, desperate crossers faced a mob of gang-tacklers. The game was knees-on-pavement brutal; vendettas and grudges of every kind were enacted in the scrum. Girls, those merciless arbiters of manliness, stood watching on the sideline. You had to be tough, or at least act tough.
But I couldn’t; I wasn’t. I was secretly sensitive. My memories from this time in my life are full of smothered, shamed bursts of crying. My grades were too good. I had a baby face. The girl I had a crush on was also a good student, and when I walked her home from school, tough boys followed us, murmuring obscenities. There was a boy’s frank cruelty at Saint C’s that I would recognize a few years later in the stories of James Joyce. It was merciless, in a casual, normal kind of way.
The school was staffed mostly by lay teachers, plus a handful of nuns—like the decrepit Sister Catherine Mary, who sat statue-still in the world’s tiniest library, a converted janitor’s closet, and was said to be long dead and mummified. Academically, Saint C’s was not exactly achievement-minded. A blunt anti-intellectualism joined teachers and students alike; I did a term paper on the Attica State Prison uprising, and Mr. Pagano accused me, falsely, of plagiarizing. More hot secret tears. In the classrooms the wall clocks were the antiquated kind whose seconds ticked off the minutes discretely. I remember watching the big hand tremble, as if it might move backward, and feeling a surge of terror until it finally clicked ahead.
Our principal was a priest, Father M (note: I have changed the names and disguised identities). He was young-thirty at most, dark haired, bearded and handsome; he had flair, that rarest of priestly attributes, and was something of a star. In the schoolyard, however, lurid rumors swirled. The idea was that Father M liked boys. He had a summer cottage on the shore, where boys were invited for spaghetti dinners said to end in naked group chases through the woods. Ask Scarlatti about M, someone would say. He and Murray went out to his cottage. Father M chased them through the freaking woods. He was waving his pecker like a wand.
There was a Bacchanalian free-for-all to these narratives—a feast, then a mad romp. You half wanted to be invited. Like the schoolyard game of crossers and catchers, the spaghetti dinner was a rite of passage at Saint C’s; the ultimate manly escape, with Father M playing a kind of mad tackler. The thought that there might be boys among us Father M had actually victimized—such eventualities lay beyond rumor, beyond the thinkable. And who knew what to believe, anyway? People like Ronnie Scarlatti could say anything in the schoolyard. Stories were not acts of truth, but assertions of status.
As for me, Father M had been attentive, taking pains to make me feel welcome in my new school. In the hall he might stop to offer a word and a pat on the shoulder. I welcomed these attentions; they brought celebrity.
One day a messenger came to class with a note and handed it to Sister Helen. "Father M would like to see you in his office," she said, looking my way.
His office sat in a labyrinthine passage beyond the auditorium. There was some renovation going on, and scaffolding draped with sheets of plastic created a tunnel effect that made it feel more isolated.
"Don’t worry, you’re not in trouble," he said as I came in. He gestured to a chair. "I like to invite students in now and then to see how they’re getting along."
Actually, he said when I’d sat down, he wanted to compliment me. My teachers reported I was an outstanding student. "Now, tell me about Mr. Pagano. About your paper."
"He said I copied it," I said. "But I didn’t." Father M nodded. Teachers at Saint C’s, he explained, weren’t used to high-quality student work. Mr. Pagano had made a bad assumption, a mistake. And what was my opinion about my classes generally? "You can speak frankly," he said. "I want your opinion."
Saint C’s was not the kind of school, the kind of education, in which your opinion mattered. But I told him, and we talked for a while. "I appreciate your candor," he said when I left. "And keep up the good work."
I left feeling a grateful thrill. Father M had recognized something in me, something praiseworthy, and rewarded it by letting me skip class. Sure, running a school like Saint C’s might require certain strict policies, but there was another, hidden school behind it, one that would be more humane, more enlightened, smarter—if only it were filled with boys like me.
A few days later, a messenger again showed up in English class, and again Sister Helen looked my way. Children don’t understand things in the conscious way adults do. But they do understand things, sometimes less as ideas than as feelings, even physical sensations; and I knew—from a certain tingly anticipation as I made my way back through the labyrinth—that Father M’s calling me down again so soon was risky.
"Nice to see you again," he said. "How did your test go?" We’d had a quiz in Mr. Pagano’s class.
"Easy," I said. "I got an A."
"I don’t doubt it at all." He gestured to the seat. "I wanted to thank you for coming in the other day, Rand. I value your input. You’re smart, and as a non-Catholic you probably can see things around here that I can’t."
Running a Catholic school wasn’t easy, he went on. Parents in particular didn’t always react the way you’d like them to. He gave a rueful toss of his hand. "When it comes to the curriculum, they oppose anything innovative. It’s a real pain in my neck, to tell you the truth."
"Input," "curriculum," "innovative"—to have an adult use these words, assuming (correctly) that I knew them, a sensitive twelve-year-old with a secret life as a reader: it was immensely flattering.
"I know what you mean," I said, and nodded. Father M leaned forward, tiny crucifix dangling from a silver chain around his neck. "For instance," he said. "This year I planned a course in Family Life and Human Sexuality. But the parents are fighting me tooth and nail. I’d be interested in how you would handle this in my position. What would you do?"
"I don’t know," I said.
"Well, let’s imagine you’re the teacher, and today’s topic is-nocturnal emissions. How would you teach that?"
My ears burned. But there it was again, that intellectual flattery.
"That’s easy," I said. "A nocturnal emission, it’s when you have a dream in the night. You dream about sex, and in your sleep you ejaculate."
Father M gave a shrug of utter simplicity. "You see?" he said. "If I had a few adults around here like you, my job would be a lot easier."
From there we went on to other "teachable" topics—masturbation, intercourse. I don’t remember how long the session lasted. What I do remember is how it ended, with Father M sitting back in his chair and smiling. "You’ll have to come out to the shore sometime this summer," he said. "We have terrific spaghetti dinners. It’s a lot of fun."
I nodded. A silence followed. And then I asked him: "Do you think you would ever get married someday?"
"Married?" He stroked his beard and looked intently at me. "As priests we can’t do that. We have to be celibate."
"I know. But do you think you ever would? You know—fall in love with a woman and stop being a priest?"
Father M gave me a look that in retrospect strikes me as utterly knowing. He smiled, and nodded ever so slightly, as if to say, Touché. He had made a move and I had countered, blocked it. Check and checkmate.
"No," he said, still smiling. "Somehow I don’t think that’s very likely."
After two years at Saint C’s, my parents decided not to send me on to the Catholic high school. I went to private school, later college and grad school; I left that part of the country, and of my life, behind. I never went back to Saint C’s, and today my time there seems like some Dickensian fantasy: the antique clocks and hissing steam radiators; the rough give-and-take of the schoolyard; my abiding unhappiness. As for Father M, not too many years later he was transferred, out of the area and out of education; years later I heard he was doing hospice work in another part of the state. His career bears all the hallmarks of one derailed by accusations of misfeasance. Until recently, this wasn’t a thing people talked about.
Some months before the current scandals besetting the Catholic Church, I heard from Father M—a letter, out of the blue. "It must be close to thirty years," he wrote, "since I interviewed the perky young man with the longish blond locks who was seeking admission to Saint C’s." He had followed my career, he wrote. He himself was working as a fill-in parish priest while waiting to retire. His letter rambled reminiscently, describing his occasional return trips to town—driving by my parents’ old house ("I never pass the place without thoughts of you"), visiting with Sister Helen to chat about favorite students. "I just wanted to let you know that I do think of you," he finished, "and that I am understandably happy that our school played some small part in your formation."
The letter startled me, so reckless in betraying an impulse one can only call pedophilic—unable to refrain from stroking the memory of a little boy’s looks. If Father M was this blatant now, I wondered, how must his behavior have looked back then? Why hadn’t someone done something?
Of course, someone obviously did do something, something that resulted in his being shifted out of education and out of the diocese. But why hadn’t anyone gone public? For the church right now, this is the billion-dollar (and climbing) question, a habit of covering up that is being paid for-literally, in legal settlements, and figuratively, too, in lost faith and allegiance. Garry Wills has written recently about the church’s obsession with "preserving the priestly aura." He blames "an elaborate framework of interconnected pretenses...involved in maintaining teachings from Rome that have lost all credibility." A mutual hypocrisy, he claims, served both sides. "The laity ignore the ban on contraception. The priests ignore the forbidding of homosexual acts." Everyone gets his free pass.
It seems farfetched to ascribe the decades of silence about priests like Father M—including the silence of children and parents—to something so elaborate. My own sense is that the silence reflects first and foremost a different era’s deep, instinctive relation both to institutional authority and to sexuality: the instinct for deference in one case, and for avoidance in the other. This wasn’t just a Catholic Church thing. A few years ago my own father, raised Episcopalian, took me to visit the lower-middle-class neighborhood in Philadelphia where he grew up. Near his family’s house was the church they’d attended. The building had a recent addition, identified in engraved gilt letters as The Father Penders Wing. My father stood on the sidewalk, looking at it with the ironic grin he saves for certain facts of life he considers darkly amusing. Penders, he told me, had been notorious in the 1930s and 1940s, when my father was a choirboy. "He got his jollies by talking dirty to us. He’d boast about how he was having his way with someone or other’s wife in the congregation. How he’d ’given it to her’ right in the sacristy."
"Did you tell Eunice?" His mother, my grandmother, a person of avid conventional piety and propriety, fond of saying that she lived for the church.
"Actually, I believe at one point I did." My father couldn’t keep the sick grin off his face. "I can still hear her. ’Go on with you!’ she said. ’I don’t want to hear that kind of filth!’"
He took a last look at the church. "Father Penders Wing," he chortled. I felt the continuity of schoolyard mirth joining his boyhood to mine. That game again. Crossers and catchers. The incorrigible priest as bogeyman.
Was Father M an active pedophile at Saint C’s? I don’t know for certain, but it seems likely. Assuming he was, should he and others like him be held to account? Of course. The church’s task is clear. Make amends, hand over the lists of names, set an institutional course for zero tolerance. Learn transparency—not easy for the church, but doable.
What’s harder, perhaps, is to grasp the complexity of a time we now so clearly see as benighted. Retroactive outrage simplifies, necessarily; the demand for redress squeezes the real, lived ambiguity out of events, leaving only the bare bones of the actionable, and in some cases the criminal. In fact, my encounter in Father M’s office was anything but simple. So much was going on, at so many levels. Yes, Father M was taking advantage; but I was gaining advantages, too. For instance, he had invited me to one of the infamous spaghetti dinners, a fact I couldn’t wait to retail to my peers in the schoolyard: a story to bolster my status; a usable asset.
I knew what he was doing was wrong; I understood, in that inchoate way, just how cleverly he had seduced me. But how can I say this? It felt good to be desired, to be admired and delighted in. Father M wanted me—and that meant there was a me there, one he had seen into, with some insight. As for my body, I wasn’t going to let him touch it. That much I was sure of. Possibly this certainty came from my not being Catholic. Mid-century American Catholicism, Wills points out, cast the priest as "an especially holy figure," a person of "numinous supernatural power" whose domain was the altar and the confessional, "special places marked off from the ’profane’ and explicable." Mystery is power, and to the victim, the priest spoke and acted with an authority "sanctioned by all the accumulated culture of Catholicism." But I was not of that culture. My parents hadn’t brought me up revering the figure of the priest, and thus, perhaps, my freedom from the sway of symbolism. In any case, I knew that if I got up and walked out of his office, Father M would be powerless to stop me.
I knew I didn’t have to answer his questions about sex, either. But the truth is, I wanted to answer. To a twelve-year-old, breaking a taboo carries a thrilling anticipation of the hidden, brimming, all-but-unimaginable adulthood to come. You become, for a moment, a player. I understood Father M was taking a risk, talking about things that could get him in trouble in the world outside. I knew this, and the knowing gave me weapons: I could parry and dodge, even hit back. Do you think you’d ever get married some day? To a woman? Uttering those words was my first conscious experience of dealing with adults from a position of strength; of having leverage; of wielding power. It was intensely pleasurable. He was victimizing me, but I felt powerful.
As for what transpired in that tiny office hidden in the labyrinth, it’s important to note that it could have been much more—could have extended from talking into showing, and from there into touching, and onward. Sexual victimization exists on a spectrum; and I wonder—in my case—how much farther up the scale it would have to have gone for its primary meaning to me, these decades later, to be one of damage. Would I feel more damaged, more hurt, if Father M had crossed the line into touching? Presumably, yes. Yet short of physical intimidation or force, I suspect the same troubling and confusing dynamic would have been in play—the same gratification and thrill of intimacy; the same sense of advantage given and taken.
This is not at all to support the pedophile Father Paul Shanley’s notorious and grotesque claim that the child is the seducer of the adult. The narrative of sexual victimization casts the child—appropriately—as helpless, terrorized recipient of the pedophile’s advances. And yet as things actually happened, my impressions were, and remain, somewhat less simple. A priest’s transgression brought me through a door into a room where I saw things and understood. Desire. Deception. Power. Strategy. Sin. The insistence of need, and the deeply mixed nature of all personal transactions.
I am understandably happy that our school played some small part in your formation, he had the audacity to write.
The irony of it—the awful, impossible, sad irony.
Related: "Labyrinth," a short story based on this encounter by Rand Richards Cooper