Problems Like Maria

A Saint for (Another) Sexual-Abuse Crisis
A member of the Missionaries of Charity venerates the relics of St. Maria Goretti in Chicago (CNS photo/Karen Callaway, Catholic New World)

 

1.

Maria Goretti was an eleven-year-old girl who was stalked, assaulted, and murdered by the twenty-year-old son of the family her own family lived with. For resisting his assault, crying out, “No! It is a sin,” and for forgiving her attacker on her deathbed, she was canonized in 1950—forty-eight years after her death. Five hundred thousand people attended the canonization mass of this child from a little Italian village. The mass had to be held outdoors in St. Peter’s Square to accommodate the crowd; a first, at that time.

I’m not sure she could summon such numbers now—largely, I’d imagine, because there’s something about this story people find a little too horrifying, and the religious imagination that drew strength from that kind of horror is waning. But even picking up a book casually, such as Annie Ernaux’s The Years, a memoir from 2008 and not a religious text in any sense, I find myself confronted with Maria Goretti: “[The girls] laughed up their sleeves at the story of Maria Goretti, who had preferred to die rather than do with a boy what they all dreamed of doing.” Of course for these girls the story is about sex—not rape.

In viewing it as a story primarily about sex, though, they aren’t alone. Undeniably, Maria Goretti was canonized for her devotion to chastity; more specifically, virginity. “With splendid courage she surrendered herself to God and His grace and so gave her life to protect her virginity”—this from Pius XII’s homily on the occasion of her canonization. I mention this from the outset because any attempt to understand Maria Goretti needs to understand why we know who she is.

There’s no requirement, however, to stop there. For instance—a 2004 copy of the feminist journal off our backs records a story about “a crowd of angry girls” who attack a flasher outside of St. Maria Goretti School. “The girls came and started kicking him and punching him, so I wasn’t going to stop them,” one witness says. Perhaps this story also tells us something about Maria Goretti, or at least the girls under her patronage.

 

2.

Would abused seminarians and boys even pray to Maria? She is one face of a particular kind of suffering; theirs, actually, whatever the differences between them. Do they even know she is for them?

Maria Goretti was an eleven-year-old girl who was stalked, assaulted, and murdered by the twenty-year-old son of the family her own family lived with. I think of Maria Goretti when reading the news about (ex-)Cardinal McCarrick, and the abused seminarians he left behind him. The price for serving Christ as a priest, in McCarrick’s world, was either being betrayed or betraying others, being preyed upon or turning a blind eye.

Perhaps it is significant that Maria is not only a child, but a girl; one level removed from a boy, two levels removed from an adult male victim. Men are victims of sexual assault, too, but in terms of saints, it’s the Marias who do the lifting for both genders. There’s only one male child martyred for his virginity that I know of—Pelagius of Córdoba, a boy hostage of remarkable beauty who refused a caliph’s advances and was thus killed.*

Would abused seminarians and boys even pray to Maria? She is one face of a particular kind of suffering; theirs, actually, whatever the differences between them. Do they even know she is for them? Or would they think: But I wasn’t a girl; but I didn’t die.

 

3.

Maria Goretti was an eleven-year-old girl who was stalked, assaulted, and murdered by the twenty-year-old son of the family her own family lived with. This makes her, as Brian McNeil astutely points out in his essay for New Blackfriars, “Maria Goretti—A Saint For Today?,” less a woman resisting than a child abused. She is, he goes on, somebody whose life was overwhelmed by pain, whose pain is remembered by us, whose pain stands in for the pain of many; somebody from whom a victim of rape would feel solidarity, not reproach; one of the

names that emerge for a brief historical moment from the illimitable sea of human misery and remind us of all those others whose names are now forgotten.... 

 

Perhaps [her veneration] can also remind us of the profound theological truth that no one is forgotten before God, and that all suffering—even the meaningless pain and involuntary death of the victims—is given a place in a hidden manner in the unfathomable divine mystery of cross and resurrection.

Not a willing martyr for purity; rather, somebody who didn’t want to die; somebody who exercised no choice, only her own ability to refuse to pretend that this was anything but a rape, who insisted to the end that she was a human being, beloved of God, and that the man attacking her was, too.

Perhaps this is what is ultimately unsettling about the Maria Goretti painted by Pius XII, intact except for having been stabbed fourteen times, the one to whom one prayer goes: “Teach me by your example to instill into others a real respect for modesty and purity.” The trouble is that she didn’t choose to die. Someone chose to kill her. No respect was instilled in him, until it was much too late for her. She was not a second Perpetua, coolly guiding the sword to her own neck.

 

4.

Maria Goretti was an eleven-year-old girl who was stalked, assaulted, and murdered by the twenty-year-old son of the family her own family lived with. One of the last poems of Francis Webb, an Australian poet, was dedicated to her. In it, a feverish Maria slowly dies:

…you know you often asked me
Why I was in tears at Mass before the Communion:
I seemed to see Him there, heaving up to Golgotha,
and rising and falling.…
Three times He fell: the last note of the Angelus
Falls with Him—I am falling with Him
—Must I fall with Him into chloroform?
Take up your cross.

But she must fall; so she does. The plaintive force of this question is perhaps what draws me to her peculiarly horrible, yet commonplace story: abuse, rape, death. Must she? It would seem so.

Maria submitted to her abuse—up to a point—in part because her family’s shelter hung in the balance. To the extent that those around her turned a blind eye this, too, was the reason. Better not to know than to know, even if not knowing involves knowing precisely what you don’t know; McNeil quotes one pious biography to this effect:

“Alessandro said to the girl, ‘Marietta, look! There is a shirt on my bed that needs mending!’ When she did not reply, her mother assumed that she had not understood him. She said, ‘Marietta, did you hear what Alessandro said to you? He has a shirt that needs mending.’ Marietta pretended not to have heard Alessandro’s words, because she sensed what it was he really wanted. She replied, ‘But how can I tidy up the kitchen and mend the shirt? And I have to hold little Teresa on one arm too.’ Her Mamma lost her temper and threw one of her slippers at Marietta, hitting her on the head. Then she said, ‘Very well, Mamma, then I will just stay here alone.’ Her mother’s conscience reproached her for this until the day of her death.”

Unlike the young man who killed Maria Goretti, McCarrick held not only material help in his hands (no small thing) but supernatural as well. One of the men to come forward, James, was baptized by McCarrick—McCarrick’s first baptism, in fact. His uncle, a close friend of McCarrick’s, “advised him to take the secret to his grave”:

“He had chosen me to be his special boy,” James said in the phone interview, with his lawyer, Patrick Noaker, listening. “If I go back to my family, they tell me that it’s good for you to be with him. And if you go to try to tell somebody, they say ‘I think you are mistaken.’ So what you do is you clam up, and you stay inside your own little shoe box, and you don’t come out for 40 years.”

“Lord, to whom shall we go?” Peter asks Christ, when Christ asks him if he would like to leave. “You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.” These days, however, your representatives seem to be bent on holding you hostage, Lord. Rather a dangerous thing for such a representative to do, not only to your flock, but to himself. Even if he’s a cardinal.

 

5.

Maria Goretti was an eleven-year-old girl who was stalked, assaulted, and murdered by the twenty-year-old son of the family her own family lived with. The man who stabbed her fourteen times when she resisted him went to prison, had a vision of his victim, and was converted. He lived to be eighty-seven. Another poem: “But after years of regret / Maria has forgiven you; as we do also.”

In 2015, her body came to the United States. A woman named Cathy Costello went to pray to her because her own son had stabbed her husband to death:

Maria, who could not fight back, grant us your strength. Maria, who was failed by so many, help us now.

“Why?” she asks, her voice cracking. “Why did you kill the one person that loved you more than no one else in the world? Why did you hurt our family like this? I know it’s not logical because he has mental illness. But if I’m going to be honest with you, that’s the internal struggle.”

“What Maria Goretti represents is forgiveness,” the article says. Yes. On the other hand, I think about those school girls attacking their local flasher. It is hard for me to believe Maria was not, in that moment, in some way, protecting them. Maria, who could not fight back, grant us your strength. Maria, who was failed by so many, help us now.

“Maria’s body lies in a glass shrine under the main pilgrimage church in Nettuno,” writes McNeil. “The visitor notices at once how small the saint was.” At the time of her death, she was 11 years, 8 months and 21 days old. She was murdered for no reason, the last period of her life an abusive hell. To Costello, just as to her own murderer, she extends a helping hand. It seems unfair to have received so little help and to have to continue helping beyond the grave. Then again, who needs it more than the people who turn to her?

 

6.

Maria Goretti was an eleven-year-old girl who was stalked, assaulted, and murdered by the twenty year old son of the family her own family lived with. I repeat these facts to myself when I think about her because I see no way to find in this story anything like heroism, only a terrorized child failed by those around her. But in this, Maria Goretti is hardly alone; children are not the only ones capable of being failed and abused. And yet what I appreciate in her story, I think, is that it remains her story—never her murderer’s.

Men like McCarrick flourish, in part, because the price for challenging them seems too high (as if the price for tolerating them is not); but also because the story of their abuses remains theirs. For telling the stories of his victims and challenging the church leaders complicit in his crimes, we can be grateful to journalists doing hard work and asking difficult questions. Let this be a season of unmaskings, an apocalypse in the oldest meaning of the term.

But while we can and should expose and punish McCarrick and the network that enabled him (and no doubt others), there’s very little to say about McCarrick himself. He was an evil man who abused his sacred authority. McCarrick’s story is one about lust and power—an old combination. He saw something he wanted and he took it, many times over. He’s not actually interesting.

For a Christian, no one can be wholly monster—indeed, some monsters are victims themselves.

Still, our attention naturally follows somebody like McCarrick—not his crimes, but the person himself, the same way our attention goes to a mass shooter, or a serial killer, turning their victims into pieces of their scenery. Victims, being only victims, can no longer be helped. Monsters, on the other hand, can be wooed. In a certain kind of cynical high-mindedness, the cultivating of monsters is more important; they are the lost sheep, not the shepherd who has lost them.

In Rachel Goossen’s “Defanging the Beast,” a sober and thorough account of the Mennonite response to theologian John Yoder’s sexual abuse of women, she makes it clear that every attempt to reconcile with Yoder was centered wholly around him, never around the women who, after being abused by him, abandoned their intellectual pursuits and sometimes their faith. They were both individually and collectively unimportant to Mennonite leadership, and if they became lost sheep, it was, in this view, by their own choice. Speculation as to why people who do evil do what they do lets them control the story of their actions, position themselves as the one ultimately affected and the one with whom the drama starts and ends. In a perverse way, it erases their crimes.

For a Christian, no one can be wholly monster—indeed, some monsters are victims themselves. But the Mennonite response to Yoder should serve as a cautionary tale: The story of what McCarrick did doesn’t belong to him; it began with him, but will not end when he and his network have been completely exposed or completely punished. It belongs, rather, to his Maria Gorettis; those whose trust in him and whose faith in God were used as excuses for predation. It’s they who have suffered at his hands and at the hands of those who preferred to remain ignorant. It’s they to whom repentance must be made, and they whose healing will be synonymous with the church’s. This must be done, not for future children, not for future seminarians, not for future Catholics who won’t be damaged and in need of help; but for these people who the church has failed.

Maria Goretti—pray for them.

 

*Twenty-three Anglicans and 22 Catholics were also burnt alive in the late 1880s because they refused the advances of the indigenous king. They were canonized in 1964, on the eve of the first session of Vatican II.

Published in the September 7, 2018 issue: 

B. D. McClay is senior editor of the Hedgehog Review, and a contributing writer to Commonweal. She lives in New York. 

Also by this author
Except on Sundays

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

Must Reads

Religion
Culture
Culture
Books
Books
Collections
Collections