Would a female priesthood disrupt sex abuse?

Let’s just let women be priests.

Right? These damn men can’t keep their hands to themselves, whether they’re straight or gay or pedophiles or ephebophiles or married or allegedly celibate, so the hell with them. Let’s just let women have some power for once, and put a screeching halt to all the abuse, all the lies, all the cover-ups.

I keep hearing this argument, and now I’m going to respond.

First, one more time, with feeling: female Catholic priests are an ontological impossibility, and the Church could not ordain women even if it wanted to, any more than it could ordain butterfly as dragonflies. We like butterflies. But they are not dragonflies, and dragonflies are not butterflies. So it’s not going to happen. The Church is not going to start ordaining women priests.

But if somehow it were possible to do — or if, say, the pope decided to appoint women cardinals, which is theoretically possible — would the presence and influence and oversight of women be the clean sweep we’re looking for? Just clean out all that nasty male sexual aggression, perversion, and abuse and replace it with clean, honest, feminine integrity?

I’ve asked myself this sincerely, and I keep coming back to two words: Dottie Sandusky.

Dottie Sandusky has been married to her husband Jerry for over 50 years, and she still stands by her man. She had no idea what was going on in the basement of her own home, in the shower, in the bedroom, in the locker room, in that marriage, in that man’s heart, for decade after decade after decade, as she shared a life with him. She could have blown the whistle any time, but she didn’t. She says she didn’t know.

But if she didn’t know, it’s because she dedicated her life to not knowing. And so have countless other women who’ve come into contact with countless Jerry Sanduskys, in sports, in education, in medicine, and in the Church. He couldn’t have done what he did if she wasn’t willing to do what she did, which was nothing.

We need to stop indulging in the kind of magical thinking that says, “Women just being women will fix everything.” Let’s look at a few non-magical facts:

Women do abuse. When women do have authority over people with less power, they do abuse them. Sexual abuse by women, whether against men, against other women, or against children, is far more widespread than most people realize. Men and boys are less likely than women and girls to report being sexually abused; and pop culture still halfway thinks it’s funny or kinky when, for instance, a female teacher has a sexual “relationship” with a male student. But it’s still statutory rape even when the adult is female, and it’s still predatory; and it does happen in the Church, when women do have power over vulnerable people.

Women are just as capable of cruelty and abuse as men. They are perhaps less inclined to use sex, specifically, as a weapon, but they do wield what weapons they have. If women were priests and bishops and cardinals and seminary rectors and had the respect, authority, and invulnerability that goes along with those roles, the kind of abuse might look different, but there’s no evidence to suggest there would be less abuse. If women had the power that bishops have, women would abuse that power, because women are human.

As Leticia Adams says:

Rape and sexual abuse of children have nothing to do with sexual orientation or sexual gratification. The goal is not sex, the goal is power, control and to destroy another human being.

Hunger for power and control, and the desire to destroy. Those are not male desires; those are human desires.

But the second part of the answer is: Whoever the perpetrator is, abuse doesn’t flourish in a vacuum. The decades or centuries of abuse that we’re continuing to uncover today could never have happened without the silence and complicity of women.

There were women everywhere — everywhere –who knew what Larry Nasser was doing to all those girls. He could not have gotten away with his abuse for all those years without the complicity and silence of dozens or maybe hundreds of women who chose not to say anything, who put pressure on girls to doubt themselves and blame themselves for what happened to them.

You might say that women do report abuse, and are less likely to be believed, because they are women. Maybe? But there were also a good number of men blowing the whistle on abusive priests, and they went just as unheard. Meanwhile, the savagery with which women turn on other female whistleblowers is breathtaking. I have seen it myself.

Why do women allow abuse to happen? Same reasons as men do:

They can’t think beyond the false dichotomy of “likable person who does a lot of good” and “ravening monster.” Sometimes an abuser is both. Sometimes a man runs charities, helps people, is kind, and is a true friend and support to many . . .  and also rapes people. This phenomenon is magnified a hundredfold if the abuser is a priest, and his accomplishments have some spiritual weight. The congregation can point to how he’s invigorated the parish, how well he understands scripture, how reverent his liturgy is, how stirring his sermons, how well the school is doing, how many babies he baptizes every year, and tell themselves, “If he were truly a bad man, would he be doing all these good and holy things?” We aren’t comfortable with acknowledging that the same person can do some very good things and also some very bad things. It disrupts our understanding of how well we know people and how well we can know ourselves, so we reject the possibility of contradictions, and instead opt for blind loyalty.

They know about it, but they blame the victim. For a variety of reasons, they don’t want to acknowledge that the abuser is an abuser, so they shift the blame to the victim. We saw this with Fr. Groschel; we saw this with . . . lord, you know where we saw it. Everywhere. My friend who was raped at gunpoint heard two women wondering what she had been wearing at the time. It makes us feel less vulnerable if we can figure out some way the victims brought it on themselves.

They know about it, but they keep quiet because they love the Church. They think it would hurt the Church if it went public even more than it hurts the victim to be abused. You know what I think about that.

And sometimes, they just don’t want to rock the boat. They don’t want to put their own jobs at stake. They don’t want to disrupt the familiar. They don’t want to interrupt the flow of goodies that come their way, so they learn to live with the status quo. They don’t want to threaten their own security, and so they tell themselves whatever they need to tell themselves. They slowly and steadily put more and more of their conscience to death, until they simply don’t care about other people.

When I first started to realize the depth of corruption in the Church, I told myself that I needed to be willing to follow the story wherever it goes. As a faithful Catholic female advocate for victims of sexual aggression, I cannot be content to give the easy answers. I want to say,  “It’s the traddies’ fault!” or “It’s the fault of the sexual revolution!” or, most enticingly, “It’s men’s fault!” Those frigging men. Right?

But that doesn’t answer it. It’s just another red herring. It’s not the evil of maleness that is the problem. It’s the evilness of humanity. It’s the weakness and corruptibility of human nature. We don’t need more women on the inside. We need more clear-thinking, courageous women and men on the outside, willing and able to see clearly and speak loudly, and, most importantly, capable of bringing the guilty to justice.

Thrusting more women into existing power structures won’t disrupt anything. It’ll just give more women the opportunity to become complicit.

 

 

 

Dear priests: I am begging you to speak about this scandal

Tonight I’m mustering the courage to start reading through the comprehensive grand jury report on sexual abuse and its coverup by the Church in Pennsylvania. And I’m looking up my local bulletin online, trying to find out when Mass is tomorrow. It’s a holy day of obligation, and my family will be in the pew.

Since the first news stories came out, I’ve had my head in my hands. There is nothing else to do. I read about a boy who was so violently raped by a priest, his spine was injured. The victim’s pain was treated with opioids, he became addicted and then overdosed, and now he is dead. I don’t know if the priest is also dead. I don’t even know what to pray for. Mercy on us all.

Mercy on our priests, who must be feeling this atrocity so keenly.

To you parish priests: please, you must speak to your flock about what is happening. Don’t let another Mass go by without saying something. I am begging you. Some of the parishioners somehow don’t know what is going on, and they must know. And many of us have been following the news with dread, and we must know that you understand how nearly unbearable this is. We can’t stand the silence anymore.

We need to know that you are as struck with horror as we are. We need to know that you would be on our side if we were the ones calling the police. We need to know that you care for us more than you care about falling afoul of some toothless pastoral directive from above. We need someone to be with us in this free fall of horror.

I know there are children in the pews, and you don’t want to frighten them; and you don’t want to test the faith of anyone who’s on the brink. But in the pews are also Catholics who have been abused before, and once again, no one is speaking up for them. There are converts who gave up family and happiness to join the Church because they believed the promise of something new and beautiful. They haven’t left yet, but they’re not hearing any Catholic talk about how badly we’ve failed. There are lifelong faithful who feel sick, bewildered, duped, and lost, and we don’t know what to do with this anger and misery, and too many of our bishops are still, still minimizing, complaining, obfusticating, justifying. Or saying nothing at all, hoping that will make it all go away one more time, like it’s gone away so many times before.

I am begging you to say something. Find a way to let us know that you, at least, haven’t turned your back on the victims of the Church. Tell us you’re bringing all that suffering to the altar. We need to hear it.

Dear, faithful priests, we love you and we are praying for you. You’re the one who moves between us and Christ; and you’re also the one who must put himself between us and every one of those wretched thousands of your brother priests who treated the bodies of the faithful like so much kindling, to be tossed into the furnace, consumed, turned to ash, forgotten.

I am begging you to say something. It is a holy day of obligation, and we will be there, listening. You don’t have to have answers for us. Just say something, because the silence of the Church is too hard to bear.

 

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)

Five pieces of advice for pastors (and a thank-you)

Last week, a priest responded to the article “Five Rules for a Royal Bride” with a humble request: “I wish Catholics in the pews would write us new pastors and new ordained priests advices like these! Y’all help us to be men of God, men for others, and men that have joy in their lives! Send me your five advices before I become pastor . . .”

Can do.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Image by photographer Matthew Lomanno, part of his visual essay North Country Priest. Used with permission.

RIP Fr. Stan Piwowar, a priest forever

After 57 years as a priest, Fr. Stan Piwowar has died. He was 92 years old.

He confirmed me, officiated at our wedding, baptized two of our children, and served his parish and his savior faithfully, day in and day out, as the pastor of St. Joseph’s parish in Claremont, NH from 1965 to 2008.

I never met someone who cared less what people thought of him. In the summer (before he had air conditioning installed installed) he could celebrate Mass wearing his lightest vestments and a white terrycloth sweatband around his head.

You have to imagine a short, stout, Hobbit-like man, with bowed legs, thick glasses, and fantastically bushy eyebrows, with a permanent, benevolent smile on his lips and in his eyes. So every June or so, he would come stumping out of the sacristy with this terrycloth sweatband on his bald head.

“I’m not trying to look mod,” he would carefully explain every year. He just didn’t want the sweat from his head to get in his eyes. Then he would make the sign of the cross, and then we would know summer had officially started.

He had other quirks, acquired over decades and decades of saying the same things over and over again. The “Hail Mary” always came out “Blessed art thou th’amongst women,” for some reason; and the phrase “And now, my dear friends, we’re on page [whatever number]” made its way into the Mass so often, it felt like an established part of the liturgy. He wanted to make sure no one got left behind, so he always told his dear friends what page to go to.

He used to wink and wave and nod and grin at babies and children who made noise during the Mass. He could be reading the most bloody, heart-wrenching passage from Job or Jeremiah, and it was still time for a mid-sentence wink and a little wave from the pulpit.

As fairly new Catholics, my family was a tiny bit scandalized by this jolly informality. Surely he could wait until after Mass was over. Then we heard that, years ago, someone in his congregation had given a young mother a hard time about her fussy baby, and the woman left the church and didn’t come back. Fr. Stan then gave one of his almost unheard-of fire and brimstone sermons and charged his congregation never to let such a thing happen ever again. And to my knowledge, it never did.

If anything ever surprised him, he never showed it. I once turned up at the rectory in the middle of the night, hysterical with some teenage problem or other. I had been out walking in the dark, feeling worse and worse, and I found myself passing by the rose bushes that surrounded his front porch. There was a light on, so I pounded on the door and he let me in right away. Put me in a rocking chair, gave me some tissues, heard my confession, and gave me a “Footprints in the Sand” plaque.

And Tootsie Rolls. He handed them out to babies and grandmothers, mourners and wedding guests, in and out of season, through Lent, on the street, anywhere, any time. I used to think Fr. Stan got his Tootsie Rolls from the post office, where there was always a ready supply for customers. Turns out (or so I heard) that it was the other way around: They got their Tootsie Rolls from Father Stan. If someone told me that all the Tootsie Rolls in the world originally came from Fr. Stan, I’d believe it.

It was impossible to insult him. His parish was alway seemed to be running a financial surplus, because no one knew how to say no to him. He would hold annual appreciation banquets for volunteers. If you didn’t want to go, no problem; he’d present you with a gift certificate for a restaurant, so you could go have dinner on your own. And some more Tootsie Rolls.

It was impossible to correct him. He was so intensely loyal, and so intensely stubborn, as only a Pole can be, it was absolutely no use to tell him anything. Even the bishop left him alone, and he did what he liked. What he liked was serving the Church and serving Christ, but he did what he liked.

His sermons were usually basic catechesis. Sometimes, apparently suddenly realizing he had a captive audience, he would expand more than anyone was bargaining for. I remember one warm Sunday, he had already preached for about ten minutes, and then casually mentioned, “And now, my dear friends, we’ll just go through a brief synopsis of the Ten Commandments . . . ” And so he did, one by one. And we sat there, staring up at the dusty Polish crystal chandelier, squinting our eyes at heavily crowned statues and the faded mural of the death of St. Joseph, who, dying as he was, could see the light at the end of the tunnel, unlike us. But at least there would be Tootsie Rolls.

After Mass, he’d transition seamlessly into Benediction with Eucharistic adoration. He knew people would be less likely to slink away if he didn’t give them a chance, and he really wanted us to have a blessing, and so he’d say, “The Mass is ended. Go in peace AND NOW MY DEAR FRIENDS, we’ll have benediction, it’ll take only about five minutes!” and then he’d start briskly spooning incense into the censer.

He treated everyone exactly the same, with the same sincere geniality, the same implacable good will. It’s impossible to imagine him sucking up to anyone, talking down to anyone, trying to drive anyone away, or giving anyone special treatment.  He was utterly tireless, utterly reliable, always moving, always serving, always turning up where he was needed, nobody’s fool, always smiling and giving out blessings. And Tootsie Rolls.

Once, we accidentally called him “Uncle Stan.” But he was a Father to the core.

There was a banner on the wall in the sanctuary of St. Joseph’s. When I was little, I craned my neck to read it, wondering why it was hung in such an awkward spot. Finally I realized it wasn’t for the congregation: It was for the priest to see, as he made his way to the altar. It said, “You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.”

God rest the soul of Fr. Stan, a good and faithful servant, a happy man, a priest forever.

When is parish shopping fair game?

There’s such a thing as deciding to get over yourself, and remembering that the Mass is not about you. But we can also understand our own limitations, and work with them. You could make the case that it’s all right to leave one parish and find one that suits you better, even if you don’t have impressionable children.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

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Photo by Karl Fredrickson on Unsplash

On fly ashes and flexibility

The Church doesn’t say, “Oh, well, no one should have to swallow a bug, so let’s just say that, if there’s a fly in there, it’s not really Jesus’ body, blood, soul, and divinity. Do what you like.” No. But neither does she say, “If you really, truly believe in the sacrament, then you have no other choice. Down the hatch, or you’re out.” She makes allowances for our humanity without denying Christ’s divinity. She is, in short, incarnational all the way down.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

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Image:  By Aravind Sivaraj (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

We want more priests. Have we tried asking?

The one thing all these priests had in common: Someone had made the idea of being a priest seem reasonable. Someone had said, “Have you ever considered being a priest?” or “Wow, you sure look like you want to be a priest!” or “Face it. You’re gonna be a priest.” Someone had asked the question.

Read the rest of my latest at The Catholic Weekly.

Image by U.S. Air Force photo/ Airman 1st Class Ashley Tank via Mountain Home Air Force Base

Dear priests: This is how to survive mother’s day

Dear Father,

I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve said, “Quit telling priests what to do.” You guys are super busy and already working harder than anyone could reasonably expect.

But today I’ll give one of those imaginary dollars back, because today I’m going to tell you what to do this Sunday. Trust me, it’s for your own good.

This Sunday is, as you no doubt know, Mother’s Day, and a lot of your parishioners are going to expect you to acknowledge it. Also, a lot of your parishioners are going to be mad if you acknowledge it.

A good portion of your congregation feels that the world despises motherhood, and they look to the Church to be the one place where they are appreciated for their sacrifices and their hard work.

Another good portion of your congregation feels that the world only cares about women if they are mothers, and they look to the Church to be the one place where no one despises them for not being mothers.

Some of your parishioners are pregnant, and they’re miserable about it. Some of them desperately wish they were pregnant, and are working hard not to hate their fertile sisters. Some of them look pregnant, but are just fat, and if one more well-meaning priest blesses their unoccupied abdomens, they’re going to sock him in the jaw.

Some of them look pregnant, but they’re the only one who knows that the baby they’re carrying is already dead.

Some of your parishioners are the mothers of children who are already buried, or children whose bodies went straight into the hospital’s incinerator while their mothers wept and bled. Some of your parishioners paid to have their children put there.

Some of your parishioners have been wretched mothers, and they know it. Some of them have been excellent mothers of wretched children, and everyone assumes that wretchedness must be the mother’s fault.

Some of your parishioners hated their mothers. Some of them just lost their beloved mothers yesterday. Some of them never knew their mothers at all.

Some of your parishioners are excellent mothers who pour their heart, soul, mind, and strength into caring for their families, and as soon as they get home from Mass, everyone expects them to get right back to cooking and cleaning and making life easy for everyone else, the same as every other day.

And then, of course, you will have the people who are mad that you mentioned a secular holiday during Mass. And the people who remember how much better it was when Fr. Aloysius was in charge, oh yes, it was much better then. It’s a shame.

So, what’s your plan, Father? Gonna make all the mothers stand up and be acknowledged? You’ll be forcing a lot of women to make a statement they may not want to make. Gonna pass out carnations? Same problem. Gonna make us extend our hands over mothers in blessing? Well, you’re the priest, aren’t you. We would rather keep our hands to ourselves.

The real answer would be for Americans to just calm the hell down about motherhood, and not to expect the Church to cater to their every emotional need. But that’s not where we are right now. It’s a mess, and you’re right in the middle of it. Sorry! But I really do think you can thread the Mother’s Day needle without getting poked if you offer something like the following blessing before the end of Mass:

On this Mother’s Day in May, which is Mary’s month, we remember that our Blessed Mother was honored above every other human being besides Jesus Himself when she was asked by God to bear His Son. We ask God’s blessing on all women, because all women, no matter what their state in life, are specially privileged to bring Christ into the world. Mary is our model in joy and in suffering, in trust and in sorrow. We ask Mary to intercede for our earthly mothers and for all the women who cared for us, and we ask the Holy Spirit to increase our love so that we will always honor the women in our lives. We ask this through Christ Our Lord. 
Amen.

Then scoot out the side door before anyone can yell at you.
Amen.

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Photo of woman who is disappointed in you via Pixabay
This post originally ran at Aleteia in 2016.

6 sermons I could do without

I have endless tolerance for boring sermons, weird sermons, silly sermons, scary sermons, tiresome sermons, corny sermons, uninspired sermons, irrelevant sermons, rambling sermons, goofy sermons, and sermons that make me wonder which will come first, the end of the homily or sweet, sweet death.

But I don’t complain! Most of the time. I do, however, have a short list of things I could do without, which I offer out of sheer, self-giving generosity, as your respectful daughter in the Faith.

Read the rest of my latest at The Catholic Weekly.

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Image: By BPL (originally posted to Flickr as Preaching) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons