Privileged Childhood

In the summer of 1983 my favorite day was Tuesday, when Fr. Stu would pick me up at my aunt’s house and take me golfing and then to lunch. Fr. Stu was from Las Vegas, which may explain why he was the source for my knowledge of how a point spread works. Almost all of our bets that summer were restricted to the golf course. I was his caddy and also his putter. When I sank his ball in one or two putts, I won our bet, whereas a three-putt meant a loss. I usually ended the round with a couple dollars.

I was eleven that summer, and was living with my aunt and uncle for seven weeks while my mom was on an extended vacation. (My father had passed away when I was two.) My summer arrangement was far from ideal. My mother was on a trip to the Holy Land; my brother got to stay home with the house sitters; my sister went to Ireland with our grandmother; and I felt marooned in San Jose. My aunt, probably overwhelmed with financial and parental stresses, seemed unkind to me at the time (although, as an adult, I grew close to her). I saw little of my uncle, who worked long hours as a carpenter. Introverted, isolated, and fatherless, I craved attention and companionship, and golf with Fr. Stu filled that void.

A friend once told me that what students most remember about their elementary-school teachers is not the arithmetic lessons or penmanship instructions, but whether they were loved. The same is true of how children—especially fatherless children—remember the priests from their childhood. Fr. Stu knew my mother, and he was stationed in San Jose the summer she was away. I remember him as a model of charity and decency. Moreover, he seemed to like me and to enjoy the time we spent together. I don’t recall his ever making an excuse to miss Tuesday golf.

One justification for the Catholic Church’s discipline of priestly celibacy is that it allows priests the liberty to serve anyone who may be in need. For me, that meant a trusted father figure was there when I needed him most. Yet, in the wake of the sex-abuse crisis, the gift of a celibate clergy has become an embarrassment for Catholics. I think of Fr. Stu today when I hear news of clergy sex-abuse, and especially when I hear the heartbroken testimony of victims. So many stories that began like mine have tragic endings. Experience has made us cautious, even suspicious. What responsible parent would let a boy be alone with a priest for the better part of a day? How many adults would harbor doubts about the motives behind this arrangement?

I had a privileged childhood in many ways, and I don’t want to exaggerate Fr. Stu’s influence. As I grew older, we fell out of touch. But I am grateful for that summer and my happy memories of Fr. Stu: the overall mediocrity of his golf game; our joking together at the diner where we ate after each round; the week when my brother joined us to celebrate his birthday; the dramatic failure of Fr. Stu’s cold-turkey attempt to quit smoking.

I hope to have my own sons someday, and I hope to be present to them as a father. But I know I will feel the need to be vigilant about their safety. Despite my fond memories of Fr. Stu, my own children probably won’t get to spend lazy summer days alone with a priest.

Protecting children from abuse is a duty we must take seriously. But it will be an inestimable loss to the body of Christ if a generation of children—especially boys—grow up without memories of priests who were kind to them.

Published in the 2010-10-08 issue: 

Grant Kaplan is an associate professor of theological studies at Saint Louis University. He conducted this interview with the support of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.

Please email comments to letters@commonwealmagazine.org and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Politics
Culture
Books
Collections