There is a remarkable two page photograph in the NY Times Magazine (2/13/2011); the stone interior of a dim church, seven worshippers bundled in their winter coats dispersed among the pews, a sharp shaft of light descending on a balding, middle aged man, his puff-parka arms clenched tight to his body, his face twisted in deep frown. The subsequent story is about the sex abuse scandal of priests in Ireland, that most Catholic of countries, and the havoc they are wrecking.
My mind flashed back a decade, to the days when the focus of the clergy abuse scandals was here in Boston, when every morning the Globe’s front page announced new revelations, new abuses, deeper cover-ups.
I do not believe I was ever abused. However, one morning, reading a lurid story that I could barely stomach yet not put down, the scent of the sacristy immediately after Mass filled my soul. Forty years evaporated and I was a child of seven in a black cassock with a lace tunic, standing before the priest offering him the glass cruets with whatever water and wine remained. The rituals of the sacristy were just as prescribed as Mass itself. The priest accepted my offering. He drank whatever was left in each vessel, lifted a linen cloth and wiped each clean, dried them, placed them on a shelf, the same spot every time. I stood quiet. I watched every move. Housekeeping done, the priest turned to me. “May I have your blessing, Father?” I kneeled. He placed his hands on my head. “Bless you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.” The pressure on my skull was deep, I buckled at the waist. The room was silent, the congregation departed, the air thick with wafting streams of snuffed candles. The priest’s hands were warm and firm. I was secure, the chosen, the fortunate altar boy offered a glimpse of the sacred. God was touching me. And if the priest had any inclination to touch me further, I would have offered no resistance.
After that flash of memory, I understood the scandal in a deeper way. The crimes of the perpetrators are horrific. But given the power they held over us, the power we yielded to them, the scars from the crimes are etched deeper then even the physical penetration.
So now, finally, it is Ireland’s turn to dredge up the crimes of men against children in sacristies and rectories. I say finally because Ireland is almost the end of the line. There is no place more Catholic than Ireland, except perhaps the Vatican itself. And I feel quite sure that even there, the day of reckoning will come.
I wrote a WBUR commentary about a seminarian I met during the height of the clergy abuse scandal in Boston. I have posted it as a companion piece.