It could have happened to me

Thinking back on a too-close encounter.

A CATHOLIC PRIEST never molested me, but here's what did happen: When I was 10, a minister (the affable "Pastor Dan") at the after-school day-care center I attended did a quick "inspection" of my private parts. He called me into his office, where he claimed concern about the lines on my side being caused by my snug- fitting briefs. He unbuttoned my pants, ran his fingers around the underwear's waistband, and took a careful look inside to make sure the blood was still circulating properly. I'm sure I had been warned at some time about this sort of thing, but my reaction was total paralysis—he surely could have gotten away with much worse if he had tried. Fortunately, it proved to be an isolated incident with me, but others weren't so lucky—not long after my run-in, he was charged and convicted of more serious charges of sexual abuse that included the fondling and photographing of much younger children.

The episode didn't scar me for life. This isn't a tear-wrenching confessional. To be honest, I've rarely discussed or even thought about it much since, and when I have, it has usually been something of a joke. The recent scandals in the Catholic Church have, however, given me reason to reassess the experience and a heightened sense of appreciation of just how lucky I was.

Although this incident didn't take place in a Catholic setting, I was, in fact, being raised Catholic until shortly before this occurred. I attended Catholic school for three years, received First Communion, and belonged to a family that was (is) very devout (and very Italian) on the paternal side. My father was the most lapsed of the bunch, though, and when we moved to a new town the summer before the incident, he and my mother gave me the choice of attending the Catholic school or the public school. The prospect of not wearing a uniform and being able to walk to school made it a no-brainer. This decision—and the fact that my father preferred lawn mowing, car washing, and football on Sundays over Mass—made the break from the church pretty clean.

The peripheral relationship I've had with the church since hasn't exactly drawn me any closer to the fold. Those grim funeral rites, those overlong and anticlimactic wedding services, and all the sitting, standing, and kneeling are a bit of a drag, but what's really kept me away is Vatican policy on social issues like divorce, birth control, and abortion. Some struggles people close to me have experienced with these issues over the years has only cemented my resistance. Because so many who consider themselves "Catholic" are forced to live outside its rules, it seems that the Catholic Church is something of a breeding ground for shifty morality (perhaps fueled by its culture of confession), if not hypocrisy. It's understandable that the church is resistant to willy-nilly change in doctrine to keep in step with dominant social trends (What's a religion without the dogma?), yet at some point the divergence between official policy and actual practice can become a little too wide (Vatican III, anyone?).

That said, I do think that the Catholic Church has gotten a bum rap of late in some respects. The suggestion that the priesthood is a magnet for those attempting to cleanse themselves (or indulge themselves) of forbidden carnal impulses isn't very compelling. It's hard to believe that there'd be many men willing to subject themselves to the rigors of seminary school and the demands of a lifelong profession for these reasons alone. I'm also not convinced that celibacy, however unnatural, breeds child molesters. Being married, presumably with access to regular and "normal" sex, doesn't seem to prohibit child abuse. "Pastor Dan" was married with children, and it didn't stop him. In discussing this topic with others, it's been astounding to find out just how many were exposed to the wiles of some lecherous adult as a child and the range of their abusers; camp counselors, soccer coaches, teachers, and other figures (many of whom were married) with close proximity to children seem just as likely to take advantage of their authority.

The real issue in this scandal—and the reason the Catholic Church deserves to be taken to task—is how these cases have been swept under the rug. The church's desire to deal with matters internally is certainly understandable, but it often appears that the priority has been to avoid discovery, not to provide succor to the victims or to adequately rehabilitate the guilty. The Catholic Church is by nature a formal and hierarchical entity. For many, that's its appeal. For me and many others, though, that's its tragic flaw. It often seems blind or unresponsive to the needs of its flock, and this scandal may be a very unfortunate manifestation of that. The creep who groped me belonged to a small nondenominational church, and once he was discovered, he was charged, convicted, and jailed in short order. Had he been a priest, I wonder if his list of victims would have grown much longer.

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