Monday, December 13, 2010

Choir camp
The Catholic Church and WikiLeaks not a smokescreen
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The priest shoved me to the ground, lay on top of me and whispered filthy language in my ear. I could smell his tobacco breath and feel his spittle. It only lasted a moment, I think, but stuff like that you remember for a lifetime. At the time I was a twelve-year-old schoolboy at a South African boarding school that shall remain nameless and the priest shall remain nameless and the situation was one of those clich├ęs, in terms of where priests molest schoolboys: it was at a choir camp. It was one of several incidents. What started as an innocent wrestling match became much more. I did not feel molested. I don’t recall my genitals being touched so I didn’t feel “molested” … as such. I was bullied. Is there denial in my assertion — and I speak for untold many and those who will never speak — that I was only bullied? When does bullying become molestation?

When you grow up from the age of seven in a boys’ boarding school environment, two or more naked boys to a shower twice a day, a lot of self-discovery takes place, usually without any adult supervision (given the kind of supervision I got above, one can be thankful). Your boundaries are confused; sexuality and sex is not a clear-cut thing that you healthily understand.

Notice my use of the second person, you, instead of the first person I in the above two paragraphs. As I wrote the paragraphs I unthinkingly switched to you, looked back at what I was unconsciously doing and smiled knowingly. I have facilitated or participated in personal growth workshops and retreats, taught participants to stay with the “I” when they wished to disclose their personal stuff. I would tell them, “please say ‘I feel’, not, ‘you feel this … ‘ ”. When “I” shifts to “you”, it is a displacement, a distancing from the potential pain, confusion and rage. You (should I say I!) do not take full ownership of what happened/is happening to you when you talk about “another” person. And believe you me, it is a lot more confrontational and healing to stay with the “I” when dealing with hot stuff.

Nearly thirty years after incidents such as at the choir camp, I saw that priest on the news on TV. He had been arrested and was standing trial for having sex with a male minor. Needless to say, you I felt the electrical charge of those uninvited memories surge back. Serves him right, I thought. Forgive him Rod, I also thought.

I was diffident about writing this piece after reading in The Guardian the WikiLeaks containing the Vatican’s unwillingness to co-operate with the child sex abuse investigations taking place in Ireland. (The denomination of the boarding school I was at was not Catholic, but Anglican, for the record.) But, also speaking as a person who has taught, with much joy, children most of my adult life I know how important and how “sacred” the mentoring role is. So as I read that article I felt the old rage, the tears starting, the old confused sadness at that unspoken incident and others in my childhood … and you just want to clam up, not get involved in yet another hackneyed “attack” on church bodies. You feel your shame even as you start writing a response about what a leader of a certain religion did to you. Because shamed people, you see, do not know their rights and can end up dealing with confused boundaries for the rest of their lives. Like many abused children, I was not able to go tell another authority figure what had happened. I was at fault, not the priest.

Boundaries: broadly speaking, what people are allowed and not allowed to do in your personal space. Here’s an example of boundaries being confused. Once as a small child I was locked up in a cupboard as a punishment. I cannot remember the misdemeanour but I will never forget that dark, smelly cupboard, screaming to be let out, terrified by the dark and the claustrophobic space, by that silence in which no one answered. As an adult, I told others my being locked in a cupboard for what seemed hours was no big deal. I could not understand people were astonished I found it no “big deal”. “It wasn’t much of a punishment,” I said in denial. They’d reply, “you are a teacher, Rod … would you lock up a child in a cupboard as a punishment?” I immediately stiffened, shocked at the thought, and said, “never!” That’s an example of confused boundaries: what people should not have permission to do to me I thought people did have permission to do to me. It was and is crystal clear to me that no other child should ever be humiliated, terrified and confused in that way. In other words, like many people (especially women in my opinion) I did not have a sense of healthy boundaries. That is to say, a set of thought patterns creating healthy restrictions such as, “you cannot do this to me” and, “even though you do this to me, you cannot change my sense of self-worth”.

I also read the article in The Guardian with another sadness: there are many wonderful people in the Catholic church, and, for that matter, in the Anglican church. I am not a Christian, nor am I an atheist. (I resist labels, because as soon as you label someone, you cease to understand that person. You only see the label, not the person, and I have been labelled an atheist by commentators.) I have been on retreats devoted to quiet meditation led by both Catholic and Anglican monks that were conducted almost entirely in silence for three or four days, even a week. Meditative material was borrowed from other religions on some of those occasions. Buddhists came on the retreats; there was a sense of inter-religious harmony. For those times of deep withdrawal and silence, where I can get away from a world addicted to busyness and noise, I have nothing but the greatest reverence. Those times of deep silence — with “religious” people of a very different kind to child molesters — helped enable me to forgive, regardless.

When it comes to nation-states and their politicking, too much of WikiLeaks (so far) is just sensationalism and smokescreens, as I have already argued. But in the case of the Catholic Church, what has happened to children in countries like Ireland and elsewhere is not a smokescreen. Other than offering the hackneyed request, that the Vatican come clean and start taking responsibility for what its leaders do, I do wish to state I forgive that Anglican priest from my schooldays from the bottom of my heart … yet again. Go well, father.

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