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“Picture it: Sicily, Nineteen-Dickety-Two”

November 27, 2009

Today, November 27th is the Story Corps National Day of Listening. Story Corps is one of the best things on earth, and if I had my way, I’d run my own Story Corps van in Ireland, and I’d (get someone more fearless than I to) drive around the country and be the rag and bone van for narrative. But I’m not, and there’s no Thanksgiving here, except for those Yanks among us who fight all-comers for the precious supply of Libby’s canned pumpkin, but that’s no reason not to take a bit of time to listen, and to record someone you know and/or love.

So what if it’s not today? Make up your mind to do it between now and Christmas. You’ll be surprised, not just by what you learn, but by what your listening might inspire the speaker to remember. Everyone has a story to tell, and some of the best stories I’ve ever heard came after persistent invitations (by myself or others) to tell them.

While the US marks the National Day of Listening, Ireland is going through its own nationwide conversation, about the culture of open secrets that has destroyed so many lives and left a pernicious, dangerous legacy that continues to destroy many more. I hope that the listening that has begun this year with the two reports on clerical sex abuse lead to something much better. The victims deserve it. We all deserve a world that’s a lot less shitty.

The main event yesterday was the release of the Murphy Report into clerical sex abuse in the Dublin diocese. We’ve learned about how the church “lied without lying” using a really rather juvenile and/or fascistic justification they called “mental reservation”. There’s been plenty of commentary written about the report already, including this post by Twenty Major, which is worth a read.

We need to tackle abuses of power in all their forms, and that this is not just about priests. We can’t just corral them and think we’ve solved the problem because we haven’t. That’s what inspired me to put up this post, but isn’t what it’s about.

Over the past year, I’ve collected a series of recordings of my dad. Some of them are interviews, others are just me following him around Orvieto, where he is currently working to set up an American Episcopal parish. In the 1950s and 1960s, he was a Catholic priest. He made up his mind early to go the seminarian route, and being a high achiever, by his mid-20s, he had his PhD in the Philosophy of Science, and was in the North American Pontifical College in Rome. He spent seven years there, and then moved back to the US in 1961, eventually ending up with a post at Catholic University in Washington, DC. He left in the late 60s (I think it was 1968, but it might have been ’69) because he felt he wasn’t being honest with himself, that the church was too closed-minded, and would only hinder the good he wanted to do in the world.

Skipping over the kind-of-sordid history of my family, and (thanks to some serious ‘mental reservation’) the messy, very broken present that makes it difficult for me to finish my intended documentary, he became an Episcopal priest about 20 years ago, after a long career working for the US Federal Government. He retired from his parish in Rhode Island last year, and has been sent to run a small mission church about an hour outside of Rome, in the hill town of Orvieto.

I’ve always been fascinated by his time as a Catholic priest, partly because it led him to Rome (and when I was little, living abroad for any length of time automatically made you fascinating), and also because of the utterly ridiculous rules, especially pre-Vatican II. Not to mention the otherworldly (and oddly, to me, twistedly glamorous, if you can call it that) existence he seemed to lead. It had more rules than even the most delightfully complicated child’s game, and everyone and everything was wildly accessorised.

The Catholics still have the best kitsch and the most mind-blowing rule book. And it turns out there’s a rule in that book that allows for clergy to be exempt from pretty much every single rule in it, that allows them to rape and abuse and destroy lives by pretending it never happened, or by blaming the media. Just use ‘mental reservation’. Cross your fingers behind your back. Play the “I’m not touching you-hoo” game. Say what you want to be heard saying, and then silently finish the sentence to yourself. It’s not a lie, so long as you find a loophole. I remembered some stuff that my dad said when we were talking, things I thought were a great little insight into what’s behind what went on.

So today I clipped out a few unedited pieces of the interviews (so they are messy!). One is him talking about what he thinks about the level of abuse by Catholic clergy. It starts with him talking about a television show they weren’t allowed to watch in the Seminary. In the Seminary! You see, because these adult men were being treated like babies. No TV, and then someone went and censored their records, scratching out any references to being near women. They couldn’t even listen to the soundtrack to South Pacific properly. When he got to Rome, of course, they were allowed a bit more freedom, and my dad even made his theatrical debut as Angelina in the Pontifical College’s production of Trial By Jury. And yes, I have pictures, and yes I will scan them.

The other is basically us playing my favourite game, “stump a theologian”, where I come up with the most ridiculous questions I can, in order to find something for which Catholic morality has not got a concrete answer. I’ve come close to stumping the theologian, but I’m still some way off; Catholic theology wins every time. If you have any sympathies with the Catholic establishment, or if you find the phrase “can you take the eucharist anally?” upsetting or distasteful, then probably you’re best off with your copy of Alive! and your paralytic panic that same-sex marriage means that it’s only a matter of time before men start marrying common housecats.

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