My body safety class for grade 2 faith formation

This year, I took the plunge and volunteered to teach faith formation at my parish. I got grade 2, which is preparation for first confession. I took a short online course about child safety and had a background check done, and I assume I was approved by the pastor, who knows me. I was given materials for the class (Alive in Christ from OSV and Rooted from  Ruah Woods), but what I cover is more or less up to me; but I am required to do one class about safety. 

A few people asked me to share my lesson outline, so here it is. I thought it went pretty well, but who the heck knows? I hope to continue teaching this class next year, so I’d be grateful to know what you think and what improvements you would suggest. I try to have a lot of variety, to get them to answer and offer ideas, to read a memorable, engaging book, to get the kids to engage their bodies when possible, to do visual things whenever possible. Kids this age are very eager to absorb rules and facts, but I also want to make sure I’m conveying how beautiful and welcoming Jesus is. I’m just trying to remember that I’m showing up for the Holy Spirit to use. 

This is the only class completely dedicated to bodily safety. I’ll be returning to the topic later in the context of other lessons (for instance, the idea that the seal of confession is for the priest to keep, and a child has no obligation to keep things that happen in confession secret). The class is one hour long and includes kids who are well-catechized and kids who know very little about their faith. I’m well aware that this one class isn’t adequate to keep kids safe, but at least they will have heard an adult talk about it, and they will know it’s okay to talk or think about. 

PRAYER. We began with a prayer, remembering to make the sign of the cross carefully and respectfully. Prayer: “Jesus, we are here to learn about you. Please help us to hear good things so we can come closer to you. Amen.”

REVIEW. Sign of the cross. The cross is everywhere, not just in church but all over the world, in buildings, in nature, etc., even in our own bodies. (Recall places we have seen crosses, which they were supposed to hunt for during the week.) If we stand up and stretch out our arms, our own bodies make a cross. God puts the cross everywhere to remind us that Jesus is always with us.

REVIEW: The Miracle Man: The Story of Jesus by John Hendrix. (We read this last week, and the kids were enthralled.) Remember how the paralyzed man’s friends opened up the roof and lowered their friend down, because they knew that, if they brought him to Jesus, Jesus would help him. We can’t open up the roof, but we can always bring our friends to Jesus and ask Jesus to help them. [Name friends and relatives we want to bring to Jesus and ask Jesus to help. Kids agreed that they would like this to be a recurring feature of the class. Ended up naming mostly pets.]

READ ALOUD. Officer Buckle and Gloria by Peggy Rathmann.  [This is a book about physical safety and having a partner who helps you. It was provided by the parish, so I went with it. It’s not a perfect match, but it’s a cute and funny book that the kids like, and it was a good intro to talking about keeping your body safe with the help of other people.]

DISCUSS: Who made our bodies? God made our bodies for us. God even came down from Heaven and got a body, too, so we know that bodies are very important. They are a good gift for us, and it’s our job to try to take care of them. God wants our bodies to stay safe. Here are four things you need to know about keeping your body safe:

HUGGING AND KISSING. Sometimes someone asks us for a hug or a kiss, and we don’t want to do it.  This is okay! We don’t have to hug or kiss if we don’t want to. What are some things we can do instead of hug or kiss? Get suggestions from kids, then fill in: Shake hands, blow a kiss, fist bump, high five. I picked kids to stand up and we practiced acting it out: “How about a kiss?” – “No thanks! How about a high five?” 

SECRETS. Sometimes people tell us something that makes us feel bad or uncomfortable or creepy or weird, or they ask us to do something that makes us feel bad or uncomfortable or creepy or weird, and they tell us we have to keep it a secret. Do you think you should keep it a secret? No! What if it’s an adult who tells us to keep it a secret? Still no!  You’re just kids, and it’s not your job to keep secrets that make you feel bad or weird or creepy or uncomfortable. Kids don’t have to keep bad secrets. If someone wants me to keep a secret that makes me feel bad, I should tell an adult in my safety network right away. 

[Here I meant to make a distinction between keeping something a secret, and not giving away a surprise, but I forgot.]

SAFETY NETWORK. What is a safety network? It’s an adult who will listen to you and who will help you. Everyone gets a piece of paper and traces their hand, then writes the names of five adults in their safety network. They can bring it home and hang it up so they will remember who their safety network is. They can finish it at home if they can’t think of five names right now. 

PRIVATE PARTS. At this point the kids got pretty antsy, so I had them all stand up and stretch. We stretched our arms way up high, way in front of us, way down, and way in back of us. Then I talked about how all the places we stretched to is places we should feel safe. 

Imagine going swimming, and think about how we’re covered by our swim suits. The parts of our bodies that are covered by swim suits are private parts. Sometimes we need adults like our parents or doctors to help us with our bodies, like if we are sick or hurt, but we need to know that most of the time, no one gets to touch our private parts. If a doctor is doing it, we should have someone from their safety network, like a parent, with us. If anyone does anything with our private parts that makes us feel weird, we should tell an adult in our safety network right away. 

I also meant to say, but I forgot: No one can make a kid touch their private parts. No one should show a kid pictures of private parts. If any of these things happen, I should tell an adult from my safety network right away.

A few times, the kids started to veer into territory that I thought wasn’t appropriate for me to discuss in a class, so I gently told them that would be something they should talk to their parents about. 

SING. I wanted to change the mood a bit, so we learned “Jesus loves me.” 

Lyrics:

Jesus loves me! This I know, 
For the Bible tells me so. 
Little ones to Him belong; 
We are weak, but He is strong. 
Yes, Jesus loves me!
Yes, Jesus loves me!
Yes, Jesus loves me!
The Bible tells me so. 

A few of the kids already knew it, and I accidentally stumbled on the brilliant pedagogical method of repeatedly mixing up the words, so they had to correct me, which they enjoyed. We sang it a few times and then I handed out coloring pages and crayons. All I had was a Celtic cross, so I asked them what else they would like me to bring in next time. (Here are some links to free coloring pages you can print, many courtesy of my friend Cindy Coleman, a very experienced catechist):

Orthodox Icons

Ukranian Icons

Drawn2BeCreative-saints
http://www.drawn2bcreative.com/free-printables/

Paper Dali http://paperdali.blogspot.com/p/freebies.html
Catholic Saints, Liturgical Year and Catholic Going-Ons

Waltzing Matilda
http://www.waltzingm.com/p/coloring-pages-month.html

Saint John the Baptist Church Religious Education http://www.sjtb.org/releducolor.html
Mysteries of the Rosary, Stations of the Cross, the Creed, Saints

Catholic Playground
http://www.catholicplayground.com/
Saints, Marian, Biblical, Stations of the Cross

Sermons4Kids
http://sermons4kids.com/colorpg.htm

St Anne’s Helper
http://www.saintanneshelper.com/coloring-pages-to-print.html

The Catholic Kid
http://www.thecatholickid.com/

Life, Love & Sacred Art
https://life-love-sacred-art.blogspot.com/…/coloring…

We did some more singing while they colored and waited for their parents to show up. We were supposed to end with a prayer, but I forgot. 

I sent out a email to the parents, outlining what we would discuss in class. They had the option to opt out if they didn’t want their kids in this class, and I let them know I’d be telling the kids to ask them if they had questions I didn’t think were appropriate for class. 

***

Image: detail from an illustration from The Miracle Man

Why are women so angry?

The other day I heard about a man who beat the hell out of his pregnant girlfriend. When she escaped out into the street, he chased her with his car, slammed into a light pole, found a piece of bent metal, and started beating her with that. She somehow survived, but the child in her belly died from the trauma.

They did arrest the man. Later, in court, she gave her testimony. She hadn’t yet birthed her dead baby. Then it was time for her boyfriend’s lawyer to make his case. He asked for leniency, for his client to be released on personal recognizance rather than held in jail. “Your honor,” he argued, “My client is a young man with a bright future ahead of him. He has a fiancee, and the young lady is expecting their first child. . . ”

Happily, the judge wasn’t buying it. But imagine that lawyer’s thought process as he prepared his argument: Hey, maybe that bitch can come in handy one last time. 

My husband calls our society “Titanic in reverse.” Women and children are sacrificed first, tossed into the waves as men scramble to warmth and safety. He has been a reporter for decade and a half, and he’s been at crime scenes, seen evidence, interviewed victims and victims’ families, heard court testimony, and seen the sentencing process, and this is what he knows: Women and children are expendable. Their suffering, their torture, their rape, their murder is acceptable to society. 

I asked him if he thought it had ever been any other way, and he said no. 

We’ll convulse with horror when a man throws a dog out of a window. Precious little pupper! People who hurt animals should be executed in public! But if in that same night he also throws his wife down a flight of stairs, guess which victim makes the headlines?

Well, domestic disturbances are private things. Two sides to every story. 

Sometimes it’s not a matter of turning our heads when women are abused. Sometimes we’re right behind her, shoving her toward danger. Remember last time the country was so very tired of hearing about priests molesting kids? The thinking public came up with an easy solution to the problem: Just throw women at it. Just let priests marry, and never again will we deal with widespread clerical abuse.

It sounded so simple and obvious: Single men are doing pervy things, so let’s make them not be single anymore. Of course the mechanism of it was a little uglier. It meant that we know there are countless men willing to subjugate, humiliate, and abuse people who are weaker then they are. We hate it when they do this to children. So instead, let’s let them do it to women. Because that’s what women are for. 

Don’t let yourself believe that this is a Catholic problem, that only Catholics see women as the universal solution to male complaint. Last time an incel shot up a crowd, the progressive edgelords of social media instantly put up a cry for publicly-funded prostitutes. That’s all these dudes need! When they don’t get enough sexytime, they get mad and they kill people! So let’s make sure they can do it to women; and then real people won’t get hurt. 

Women are the corks for every leak, the excess ballast to be chucked off every sinking ship, the red meat to distract every wild dog, the kindling to brighten up every smoldering fire, the universal salve to spread on any festering wound. You have a problem, any problem at all? Try using women. You can always use women. That’s what women are for

We see this sense of entitlement everywhere, and not only in obvious examples like abduction and rape, murder and abuse. It’s more pervasive and more accepted than you may realize. Most men would never say, “Women only exist for my consumption.” They would never even think it in so many words. And yet when they walk down the street and see an unattractive women, their response is not simply a lack of interest, but irritation, even anger. Anger, as if the woman who doesn’t appeal to him has personally wounded him, or refused to give him something he deserves. 

Why should this be? Why should they feel, in any part of themselves, that they can expect to be pleased by women?

I don’t know why. I do know the one recorded statement we have from Adam is Adam using Eve as an excuse to get out of trouble with God. And ever since then, many, many men have assumed that, since a woman is there, she’s there for him to use.

Most men don’t act out when they feel this way. Only a noisy minority of men would allow themselves to shout something nasty at a passing fat jogger, or take the trouble tell some random lesbian he doesn’t approve of her haircut. Only a noisy minority sends hate mail to an actress who goes out in public with a dreaded “fupa” after giving birth. 

But when you’re a lone women being jeered at by a handful of strange men, or even by one man, it doesn’t feel like minority. It feels heavy and scary and big. It feels dangerous, and it is dangerous. It’s easier, in many ways, to simply agree: Yes, I am here for men to use. I must try as hard as I can to be pleasing to as many of them as possible, so I will be valued and safe. This is what many women do, without even realizing it. Mousy trad women do it by submitting and obeying and never making their own needs known, and raunchy progressive feminists do it by thrusting themselves headlong into porn culture.

And women in the middle of these two extremes do it by constantly accusing themselves, gently or harshly, of being unworthy. We tell ourselves we are unworthy to take up space, to put on weight, to get old, to slow down, to be tired, to be ugly, to be unavailable, to be loud, to be unproductive, to be charmless, to be sick, to be alone. To be angry. We feel that we are endlessly on trial, that our lives are one long audition, and we’re constantly in danger of being rejected and replaced by someone who knows how to do her job better. So many women have spent their whole lives floundering in a bottomless pool of fear that, if we aren’t pleasing men, we’re nothing.

I used to think that all that feminist talk about “the male gaze” was liberal garbage, and women simply didn’t understand how pleasant it could be to be desired by men. But now I am older and I can see that all my life, I have lived with this terrible fear of not being pleasing enough. Even women who know better know this fear. And that’s why there’s so much anger out there: Because it’s not right that we should live that way. 

I said as much on Facebook yesterday.

Yes, I was angry. I have eight daughters, and I see them growing up in this world that still hasn’t changed. And so I cursed at men who feel entitled to an aesthetically pleasing experience from every woman they meet. I felt the weight of that entitlement, and I was angry. 

And what do you think happened? My post was reported and removed. Men told me I was being strident and offensive, and that maybe they would listen if I watched my language and spoke more gently. Maybe if I changed myself just a little bit, so I was more to their liking, then they would listen to what I had to say. 

And there it is. Maybe I just need to be more pleasing to men, and then I’ll be allowed to talk. 

I don’t want to be angry all the time. I certainly don’t want to respond in kind, and become permanently enraged at a whole populace just because of the sins of some. But every once in a while, I feel the whole weight of that crushing, grinding, everlasting entitlement to be pleased, and I feel it even more heavily when I realize how I’ve been complicit in it.

I am asking men to be better. I am asking women not to be complicit. And I am asking men to hold each other accountable when they behave as if they are entitled to be pleased by women. I am tired of feeling inadequate, so instead I am angry. I have a right to be angry. 

 

***
Image: Bathsheba with King David’s Letter, by Rembrandt. Public Domain (Wikimedia Commons)

 

Fr. Luke Reese loses court appeal after savage beating; still calls himself priest in good standing

Fr. Luke Reese’s wife-beating conviction stands. Reese, Indiana’s first married Catholic priest, has lost his court appeal to overturn his conviction for confining and beating his wife in a jealous rage. Reese’s priestly faculties are suspended, but as of January this year, he is still referring to himself as “a priest in good standing,” according to court records we obtained.

A.G. Stockstill, Business Manager for the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, which ordained Reese, stated in an email on Tuesday that Reese’s faculties were suspended in 2017, soon after his arrest. 

“Father Luke Reese was removed from ministry in the Ordinariate by Bishop Lopes on September 27, 2017, at which time his faculties were suspended.  Any further or permanent determination of Father Reese’s status as a priest is the competency of the Holy See,” Stockstill wrote.

But in recent court documents we obtained, Reese still describes himself as “a priest in good standing, although he is not active at this time.”

Reese was an Anglican priest who converted to Catholicism with his family and was ordained as a Catholic priest in the Ordinariate in 2016. He served as Parochial Vicar of Holy Rosary Church in Indianapolis until September of 2017, when he was placed on leave after assaulting his wife.

Reese was employed by the church as a priest for another six months after the arrest, until his conviction in March of 2018, according to court documents. In August of 2018, the Ordinariate said in a statement that “steps are being taken to change Reese’s status as a priest.” Parishioners of Holy Rosary said on social media that they believed Reese had been “defrocked.”

There has been no public announcement regarding Reese’s canonical status. The Ordinariate, which functions like an archdiocese, does not have a legal or canonical obligation to report or publicize the status of a priest. There may be an exception if a laicized priest is not complying with the requirements set out in the decree of laicization — for instance, if he is dressing as a priest or publicly celebrating sacraments after he has been barred from doing so. In that case, the bishop would probably inform the parish that the priest has been barred from functioning. 

The Ordinariate did not confirm or deny that there is an ongoing canonical penal process against Reese.

Reese is currently working as the manager of a seafood restaurant, according to court documents.

Reese was found guilty of one felony and two misdemeanors: One count of criminal confinement with bodily injury, one count of domestic battery, and one count of battery resulting in bodily injury. He appealed his conviction, and the appeal was rejected on May 22 of 2019.    

“The whole thing is my wife’s fault.”

In his appeal, Reese argued he was only trying to protect his wife because he thought she was suicidal. According to court documents, “Reese asserts that he was justified in committing the offense because he was simply protecting [his wife.]”

In other court documents we obtained, Reese stated, “I have never been
violent or abusive in any of my relationships or to my wife.”

Reese argued in his appeal that the court denied him due process by not preserving “photographs and text messages as evidence” that “could have been used to impeach [his wife’s] testimony as to the causes of her injuries and credibility in general.”

According to various court records, the photographs and text messages were on his wife’s phone, which he confiscated during the protracted assault. He gave the phone to his superior, Fr. Ryan McCarthy, pastor of Holy Rosary, when McCarthy visited the couple in their home after the assault, according to the appeal. McCarthy reportedly returned the phone to Reese’s wife a few days later. 

In his appeal, Reese argued that that the court “failed to establish that he had committed the offense knowingly.”

During the course of the assault, which lasted over twenty-four hours, according to court documents we obtained, Reese hit his wife in the stomach and head and punched her in time to heavy metal music while he drove her to her grandmother’s house to make her confess to wrongdoing. He hit her in the eye, confiscated her keys and phone, drove her to a cemetery, pushed her onto her knees on the marble floor of the sanctuary of the church, violently pulled her hair, applied pressure to her neck and threatened to choke her while they were in front of the altar, and shoved her against the church wall, according to the documents. He reportedly continued to punch, degrade, threaten and otherwise assault her when they finally reached their home.  According to court documents we obtained, Reese’s wife sustained permanent eye damage from the assault. 

Reese asserted in various documents we obtained that he was merely defending himself from aggression by his wife, and attempting to protect her from herself. Shortly after the assault, he stated, “This whole thing is my wife’s fault,” according to the documents.

Reese also argued in his appeal that “the State failed to present sufficient evidence to support his conviction for criminal confinement” and”failed to prove that his actions were done without [his wife’s] consent” and “failed to prove that he had caused any bodily injury to [his wife].”

The court rejected his appeal and affirmed his conviction on May 22, 2019. Reese was sentenced in August of 2018 to three years of home confinement with electronic monitoring. Two years of his sentence were suspended, and he will be on probation for one year.

Reese filed for divorce from his wife on December 19 0f 2017. The Reeses have been married for 26 years and have seven children, four of whom are minors.

Reese’s lawyer, Oliver Younge, did not respond to my call or email. 

How did the church respond to Reese’s behavior before and after the assault?

According to documents we obtained, Mrs. Reese said that, some time before the assault, Reese shared a website containing pornographic and white supremacist material with his then-teenaged son, and directed him to share it with his friends. The church responded by sending Reese to counseling. It’s not clear whether the Ordinariate, which is based in Houston, was informed of Reese’s behavior, or whether Holy Rosary of Indianapolis made decisions about how to manage Reese before the assault.  

According to the court documents, his wife says he psychologically abused her and their children and sexually abused her throughout their 26-year marriage. Mrs. Reese said her husband has been ousted from three churches due to his behavior. She said that he holds white supremacist, racist, and misogynist views which he has attempted to pass on to his older children, and she submitted to the court “letters from other individuals who supported these concerns about Mr. Reese’s character, beliefs and temper,” according to court documents.

According to the same documents, Reese had a long history of hitting his wife, making his children sit alone in a dark basement as punishment, threatening them with hell for not praying the rosary correctly, and subjecting the family to constant harsh criticism and ridicule.

According to court documents describing the assault, Fr. Ryan McCarthy, the pastor of Holy Rosary where Reese was Parochial Vicar, went to the Reese house the day after the assault and saw Mrs. Reese’s black eye and swollen mouth. In response, McCarthy “recommended that [Reese’s wife] stay somewhere else.” He also accepted the phone that Reese had confiscated from his wife. Days later, he returned the phone to Mrs. Reese.

After Reese was arrested, Fr. McCarthy announced in the church bulletin that Reese would go on “leave” that would last “at least a few months.” He admonished the parishioners, “mind your own business.” Although he had  seen clear evidence of a violent crime against Mrs. Reese, he announced “I am very grateful for Father Reese’s service to our parish. He will be greatly missed during this leave.” The day Reese was convicted, his parish offered Mass to commemorate the anniversary of his ordination. Reese’s name was not removed from the parish directory until after we broke the story of his arrest.

Although he defended Reese during and after his criminal conviction, there is no evidence that Fr. McCarthy faces sanctions by the diocese of Indianapolis or by the Ordinariate for his response. Parishioners on social media referred to McCarthy as a good and holy priest and called him a hero.

What has the Ordinariate learned?

The Ordinariate can ordain its own laymen as priests, but it primarily receives former Anglican priests and then forms and ordains them as Catholic priests. This was the case with Fr. Reese.

If an Anglican priest wants to join the Ordinariate, it’s not clear whether the Catholic Church does its own vetting process, or if it relies on the vetting the Anglican Church has already done. Because there is a dire need for priests, and perhaps as a courtesy to the Anglican Church, the Church may be tempted to hurry through the process. 

According to court documents we obtained, Reese’s wife asserts that, before he was ordained in the Ordinariate, “he has been ousted from three different churches due to his behavior.”

According to those document, “Ms. Reese reported [to the court that] Mr. Reese holds white supremacist and misogynous attitudes and that he is racist … Ms. Reese submitted letters from other individuals who supported these concerns about Mr. Reese’s character, beliefs and temper.”

I asked the spokesman for the Ordinariate whether the Ordinariate vets or screens candidates for the Catholic priesthood who have already been through the Anglican seminary, or whether it relies on the Anglican Church’s vetting process. 

I asked whether, in order to avoid future debacles like the Reese one, the Ordinariate will change its standards or process.

No one from Ordinariate responded. 

 

***

Our previous coverage of this story:

 Why the Fr. Luke Reese scandal is everybody’s business.

Will Holy Rosary be reconsecrated after desecration by Fr. Luke Reese?

Bishop Lopes’ statement on abuse fails to mention Luke Reese

No jail for Luke Reese after wife beating conviction

Luke Reese, married priest, convicted of beating his wife

Indianapolis priest charged with beating wife inside church

****
Image: Mug shot of Luke Reese courtesy of Fox 59 News; Coat of Arms of the Personal Ordinariate of the Seal of St. Peter via Wikipedia Alekjds [CC BY 1.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/1.0)]

Your boyfriend is not your husband

I’m not saying we should hold out for the perfect spouse; and I’m not saying you should flee from a relationship the first time conflict crops up. It’s very good to test how well the two of you can work through problems together. And every human being brings a certain amount of imperfection into a relationship: Bad habits, personality flaws, unsavory pasts, immaturity, selfishness, and so on. Everyone’s got something — probably several things — wrong with them; and every good relationship will have conflict at some point.

But there are some flaws that should make us pause, think hard, and possibly back away before we make any vows. 

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Image: Skedonk [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)]

 

Mary who stays

My daughter is drawing at church. She handily sketches in a crucifix: Top, bottom, one arm, then the other. She’s drawn it many times, over and over. Lately, she’s adding more detail, and at first I didn’t know what it was– some kind of ghost, a formless lump.

Then I saw it was Mary, swathed with robes and veils. Jesus on the cross is sharp and angular, and he turns his face up to the heavens in his agony; but Mary’s head is down, almost crushed into the ground as she bows under the great grief of his innocent suffering. She is utterly helpless. She can’t rescue the child she brought into the world.

In her grief, she is almost unrecognizable, and why not? Why should she be her same self, since the crucifixion is so outrageous? It never should have happened. How could it possibly have happened? This is God we’re talking about; actual God, that than which nothing greater can be thought, and here he hangs, bleeding dry.  Ripped into shreds. Extinguished. Thwarted by some thugs wielding a hammer.

Never mind the veil in the temple, it should have been the entire planet, the whole fabric of the universe that was ripped in two when he died. I don’t know how the world was held together through the crucifixion. How did everything not come apart?

I do know. It was held together through Mary, who stayed.

Under the intolerable weight of the suffering of her son, she was helpless, almost crushed. But she didn’t leave. There was nothing she could do, but she stood by and let it happen to her with him. Sometimes this is the only action of love: To stand by and not leave.

The suffering of innocents is what tears people away from the Church, away from God: When we have to stand by and watch the innocent suffer, and no one will rescue them. It tears us apart. This is why the abuse crisis has been the breaking point for so many people: The Church was supposed to be where children were safe, but instead it was where there they were ripped into shreds. Extinguished. Thwarted by thugs wielding a crosier.

It is not tolerable.

But it is nothing new.

The split, the rift, the gap, the unravelling: This has been the story of man since we left Eden. God the Father made His children for wholeness and delight, and what did they do but leave, tear themselves away from him; tear each other apart. Even when there is no ill will, this is the duality of the human experience of love since the Fall: We always live through love and loss at the same time. Never love without loss. From the moment we give birth, we prepare our children to leave us. From the moment we marry, we take on the burden of preparing our spouses for death. This is nothing new.

But Mary is something new. She holds in her heart the making and the unmaking of her beloved, and she does not come apart. She is strong enough to make the son of God and strong enough to stand by and watch him unmade, and still she does not leave. She is steadfast like no other.

Our sorrows are the first part of the story. The long story, the whole story, is that the world is all knit back together again in the womb of Mary. If Penelope wove and then unravelled a shroud, over and over again while she waited for the king to return home, then Mary weaves . . . what should we call it? The swaddling clothes that somehow bind up eternal life itself. And every day, death tries to unravel it, and every night she knits life back up again, day after day, over and over again. She does not leave her island. She is waiting for the king to return.

There are times when we all flee from the foot of the cross. It is too crushing. It hurts too much to be so helpless. We are perhaps willing to suffer, ourselves. But how willing are we to stand by and watch the ones we love suffer? That is the thing that feels intolerable.

But leaving the foot of the cross leaves the world unravelled. Running away from injustice, and staying away, leaves injustice as the final word. If we want to meet Jesus, we must meet him in suffering, in injustice, on this island world at the foot of the intolerable. That’s where he is right now. That is where love is. There is nowhere else, no other place but this temporal island called suffering. We will not be here forever, but we need to be here ready to meet him. To try to escape is to leave the world unravelled.

I can hear that I sound like I’m saying, “Don’t leave the Church, or you will betray the world and betray God.” I am not. I know I have said things that sound like that, and I am sorry. I don’t know what I would do if it had been one of my children abused. I don’t know what I would do if I were a reporter or a district attorney who talked to hundreds and hundreds of victims. When I do write about how the Church has betrayed the innocent, there always comes a time when I close my computer and put my head down and cry. But this is not my life’s work. If it were, I don’t know what I would do.

I am only thinking of Mary, and how glad I am that she didn’t leave.

Jesus was crucified for our sins, and Mary stayed at the foot of the cross for our sorrows. She stayed there for us, waiting on that island called suffering and death. She stays with us still. With her son she will make the world whole again; and then there will be love without loss.

 

The Virgin In Sorrow by Simon Marmion. Photograph by Rama, Wikimedia Commons

 

The Church is someone, not something

The internet will teach you how to turn a “no” into a “yes.” The phrase  appears in tutorials designed for salespeople, but also in more sinister contexts.  In militant men’s rights groups, there are forums and even study guides that teach men how to manipulate women and extract the sexual goodies they want from them.

They understand that, in these whacky times, women may pursue legal prosecution for rape or assault if you don’t listen to their “no;” so men who consider sex a right coach each other on how to pressure, manipulate, disorient, confuse, and guilt women into yielding a reluctant but legally watertight “yes.” Rather than being ashamed of this gross display of inhumanity, these men preen themselves on their skills. They know that, if they are challenged for their behavior, they can point to their victim’s coerced consent, and then she will be blamed for what happened to her.

Healthy men would vomit at the very idea of approaching a woman this way. No man enjoys rejection, but they do understand that women are human, and shouldn’t be treated like an object whose body and will can be forced into whatever position you like. No means no. You don’t have to like it, but you do have to accept it.

I’ve heard this approach before, in an entirely different context. I’ve heard this refrain of “I hear your ‘no,’ but I refuse to accept it, and I even feel proud of my persistence. So I’m going to keep chipping away at you with everything I’ve got in hopes that you’ll give in and let me have what I think I’m entitled to.”

Here’s what I hear:

“All the other churches go along with this stuff, so why won’t you? What’s wrong with you? Why are you so uptight?”

“Of course I love you, Catholicism! That’s why I want to see you change.”

“No one can possibly love you, you Catholic Church, if you keep on acting this way. I’m the only one who could put up with you, and you better give in, or I’ll leave, too.”

It’s the language of Catholic dissenters — including myself, at times, to my shame. It’s the language of people who have heard her say “no” very clearly — “no” to contraception, “no” to women priests, “no” to gay sex. But they love her, they say, so they just keep chipping away, threatening, negging, pressuring and wheedling, priding themselves on their persistence in trying to wear her defenses down, to turn her “no” into a “yes.”

When we hear pressure and threats from a would-be rapist who clearly despises women as much as he craves their companionship, it’s easy to see these tactics for what they are: Abuse. An abuser allows himself to speak this way because he doesn’t really recognize the humanity of his victim. He sees her primarily as something that could potentially deliver what he wants, if only she would know her place and cooperate with his demands. He sees her primarily as a thing, and not as a person.

I am here to tell you that the Catholic Church is a person. It is the Body of Christ. And the Body of Christ has a right to her bodily autonomy. She is not here to assume whatever position will satisfy our current appetites, whether they’re intellectual or spiritual or psychological or social. The Church is Someone, not something, and she has the right to say “no.”

Now let me make some disclaimers, because I know I’ve said something tough to hear.

When I talk about people pressuring the Church to change, I’m not talking about people who are sincerely struggling, even angrily struggling, bitterly struggling, fearfully struggling with some of the hard teachings of the faith. Healthy relationships have struggles. I struggle, sometimes angrily or bitterly or fearfully, with some fundamental teachings of the Church, just as my own beloved husband almost certainly struggles with some of the things that make me fundamentally me. It’s not always easy being in love. So I’m not saying that struggling with doctrine is abuse. Struggle is normal, and struggling with the Church does not make us abusers.

And more importantly, I’m not saying that the Church is not in need of change. God knows it is badly in need. Sometimes there are things about your beloved that ought to change, and insisting on that change sometimes truly is an act of love. Many loving spouses will eventually find occasion to hold their beloved to account for intolerable behaviors which must be changed if the marriage can survive; and so it it is with faithful Catholics and the Church. Wanting to reform what is wrong in the Church does not make us abusers.

Does the Church need reform? Oh literally sweet Jesus, yes. The hierarchy and much of its pastoral authority is deformed almost beyond recognition. They don’t even seem to realize that they have lost our trust and need to work to regain it. There are abusers in power. There are structures in place that make it impossible to hold abusers and their enablers to account. There are too many ways to keep horrible secrets; too many places for abusers to hide. God’s word is used to shout down victims and their defenders and to amplify hypocrites, opportunists, and predators. This is the state of the Church today. These are the things that must, please God, change.

But these grotesqueries, these deformations, are not who the Church herself is. They are like parasites living off the Body of Christ. They fight like mad to preserve their host, not because they love her, but because they need their daily feeds. They must be scoured away so that the body of Christ can be pure again. I don’t know how, but I see it must be done.

But there is change, and there is change. If we want to preserve our loving relationship with the Body of Christ and not unwittingly fall into patterns of abuse against her, we must learn to make the distinction between who the Church is, and what her members and her representatives do — what they have done, in fact, to her. The latter must often be changed; the former is inviolable.

We can learn who the Church is by what she teaches, what she says. And sometimes, what she says is “no.” This is inviolable. She is inviolable.

Lately, we have perhaps become used to thinking of the Church as the abuser. So many people have been maligned, mistreated, guilted, shamed, or literally raped by those who call themselves the Church. But we must see clearly. Those who abuse and enable abuse in the name of Christ are not the Church; they are to the Church as a pimp is to a sex slave. They will defend her, not because they love her, but because she brings them power and money. They are the ones who must repent and reform, not her. She is the victim. She is not the one who needs to change. The Church is a person, and she has the right to say “no,” both to those who abuse her outright, and to those who want to blame her for being abused.

We will not purify the Body of Christ by attacking what and who she is, and that includes what she says. No means no. Like anyone whose demands have been rejected, we don’t have to like it, but we do have to accept it, especially if we say you love the Church. She is someone, not something. When she says “no,” she means “no.”

 

Image: detail of photo by Stefano Merli via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Does Francis know he sounds like an abuser?

Shall I tell you the most charitable, least rash explanation I can muster for Pope Francis’ recent words and behavior? It’s that he’s surrounded himself with yes men who are shielding him from understanding the depth and breadth of institutional sex abuse and its cover-up in the Church.

He’s appointed, or left in office, no one but men who tell him that the world is chock full of false accusations, that the whole scandal thing is overblown, that it’s all in our past — oh, and that right now would be a good time to talk about litter in the ocean. The few who will tell him the truth, like Cardinal O’Malley, are so outnumbered that even their dire warnings can be dismissed as local problems.

That’s the charitable answer, and it’s not great. If he’s in a bubble that protects him from seeing the true state of the Church, it’s a comfortable bubble of his own making. The servant of the servants of God is not supposed to be in a bubble.

But the other explanation is worse. Here it is:

I have a number of friends who have escaped abusive marriages. They tell me that Pope Francis is sounding more and more like the men who abused them. He’s sounding like the men who hid that abuse from the world, who taught their victims to blame themselves, who used spiritual pressure to persuade them and their families that it would actually be wrong, sinful, to defend themselves.

Just listen to him. After responding to a question about Vigano’s very serious accusations, he said point blank, “I will not say a single word on this.” Several of the faithful speculated that he may have had this or that logistical reason for putting off responding to that specific question; fine. But for the rest of the week and more, he kept up an unmistakable theme of calling for silence, equating silence with holiness, and painting himself as a Christlike victim in his silence. Then he says it’s “ugly” to accuse others of sinning.Then he suggests that healing and reconciliation will only come if we take a hard look at our own flaws.

These statements are all true. They all reflect Christian thought. They would be reasonable at any other time in recent history. But coming right in the middle of our ongoing agony, they land as heavily as a fist on a bruise.

To the victims of the Church, and to those who love them, it sounds like he is saying, “Who do you think you are? I don’t have to explain myself to you. You’re the guilty one. You brought this on yourself. If you want to be loved, then know your place. I’m the victim, here, not you. If you know what’s good for you, keep your mouth shut.”

This is how abusers talk. They’re not content with power; they have to keep their victims doubting and blaming themselves constantly, so they don’t become a threat. Whether Francis knows it or not, this is how he sounds.

I know that we hear what gets reported, which isn’t necessarily everything he says. I know that the pope isn’t required to say everything we want him to say. I know that whatever is going on in our own diocese or our own country isn’t the whole of what goes on in the Church. I know that there are eternal truths that need to be told no matter what is going on in the current moment.

But even keeping all these things in mind, it beggars the imagination why the pope keeps talking the way he does. It’s clear he intends to keep on talking, despite his exhortations to be silent. This is what he chooses to say. The very best possible explanation is that his context is pure bubble, and he simply doesn’t realize that much of the Catholic world is transfixed with horror over the sins of the clergy. He simply isn’t aware that, with his words and with his silence, he’s turning his back on so many suffering priests and bishops, including my own, who tell their flock that they have not been abandoned — only to hear their spiritual father override their efforts with a huge, unmistakable message of “NOBODY CARES.”

Maybe he simply doesn’t realize that his cozy little aphorisms are coming off as a passive aggressive threat, as chilling as an abuser who smiles warmly at the world while secretly showing an open blade to the victim who stands faithfully at his side.

I do remember his gentleness, his compassion, his direct and sincere kindness in the past. I don’t believe that was false. You all know I’m not a reflexive Francis-hater. I don’t have any ideological reason to want to bring him down. I have defended him as long as I could, up until the Chile debacle.

And so I am working as hard as I can not to assume the worst, not to believe that this man who promised so much fresh air is really so intent on slamming doors shut before we find out even worse things hidden inside. But he is not making it easy. I am not saying he is an abuser. But he sounds like one.

Coming up: radio spot, FB live chat, and conference in Burlington, VT

Busy busy! Tomorrow at 1:30 eastern, I’ll be on America This Week (Sirius XM Catholic Channel) talking with Fr. Paddy Gilger, Fr. Eric Sundrup and America Senior Editor J.D. Long-Garcia about my July cover article, How the church can help (or hurt) women in abusive marriages.

What priests say to women in abusive relationships can be life-changing.

Many women in abusive marriages struggle to share their experiences with anyone. Women of faith turn to priests who often do not know how to advise them. What options are left for women in these situations? How can the church be more helpful?

In this week’s Behind the Story, Senior Editor J.D. Long-García speaks with Simcha Fisher, author of “How the church can help (or hurt) women in abusive marriages,” from our July 9th issue. They’ll be happy to address your questions during the conversation. Please comment below, send us a Direct Message or if you’d rather remain anonymous, please email behindthestory@americamedia.org.

No one wants to admit they are in an abusive marriage, but there are options available for those who are ready.

Thursday at 12:30 eastern, I’ll be on Facebook Live to discuss the topic again, and you can participate in this chat by commenting on this Facebook thread or emailing behindthestory@americamedia.org. You can click on the link to get a reminder for the live chat.

 

Finally, I’ll be at the Year of the Family Conference in Burlington, VT, on August 25. I’ll be giving the afternoon keynote address: The Family as Icon, and also an interactive breakout session: Supporting couples who use NFP: How to help, and what to avoid. The breakout session is intended for those directly involved in teaching and supporting the use of NFP. There are ten breakout sessions, and attendees may choose two. Register here ($30).

My kids have been busy, too. Here is what they did yesterday. My only contribution was to say, “No, you may not use caramel sauce and red food coloring for blood.”

How the Church can help (or hurt) women in abusive marriages

When she went looking for help from the church, she was still susceptible to the idea that everything was her fault. One priest said it was a shame she was suffering, but all she could do was offer it up. Another told her she had a demon in her.

But a third priest listened to her story . . .

Read the my latest for America Magazine.

This is one of the most important pieces I’ve ever written, and I’m very grateful to the courageous and honest women who shared their stories with me.

Photo by George Hodan (Creative Commons)

Is it technically abuse? Does it really matter?

A child who is told he is stupid will always believe he is stupid. A child who is told she’s a failure will always believe she’s a failure. When these insults and hostility come from the very heart of the family, they take root.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Image by George Hodan (Creative Commons)