Dear Pope Emeritus Benedict/Your Holiness,
I’d like to wish you an uneventful retirement, even though you and I both know, let’s face it, that you’re swiftly approaching your own Best Before date. Soon, you’ll be shuffling off to go meet Jesus in person, likely a comforting prospect for a frail almost-86-year old cleric.
Meanwhile, you may wonder why you haven’t heard from me sooner, way back when you first donned your white zuchetto skullcap.
After all, as a devout little Catholic girl of the 1950s, I must have represented Catholicism’s golden Baby Boomer future for the coming millennium, the inevitable product of big Catholic families raised by generations of devout immigrants.
I’m not talking about those wimpy Easter duty Catholics here. No, sir. Our family of seven Catholics lived, breathed, and dreamed our daily lives within the One True Faith. My parents paid for a large stained glass window they could barely afford for our new parish church. We had a framed photo of Pope Pius XII displayed proudly on our kitchen wall. My sibs and I attended our local Catholic schools, and were taught by my mother all about the Protestant kids (aka the “bad” kids) in our working class St. Catharines neighbourhood – arguably as inflammatory a sociology lesson as ever was taught in the kitchens of Belfast.
Catholic school was where I first mastered catechism classes, saying the rosary, and the earliest technical strategies of How To Go To Confession, especially after I learned that confessing one’s sins wasn’t merely basic prep for my First Communion celebrations at age 7, but apparently must be done repeatedly for the rest of a Catholic’s natural life!
Trouble was, I was quickly running out of sins. Little seven-year old girls just didn’t do that much sinning, Your Holiness. Not in a crazy-strict Catholic family like mine where fear, guilt and the ever-present threat of painful physical punishment kept me – and most good little Catholic children – strictly in line back in the 1950s.
I was afraid of my parents (who kept a leather strap hanging ominously at the ready by the basement door, just in case). I was afraid of my teachers (see note about leather strap). I was also afraid of our housekeeper, who regularly washed out our mouths with soap and made us kneel for long periods of time on sharp metal floor grates for even thinking about misbehaving – at least until my parents got home from work when they could give us the strap.
And I was especially afraid of things like the afterlife, which, as any good Catholic kid back then could tell you, would most likely be spent burning forever in the eternal fires of hell, or spending torturous years doing time in purgatory unless you’d already said enough “Jesus, Mary & Joseph”s to earn some time-off indulgences before you died.
Between desperately trying to avoid the strap, the bar of soap, the kitchen floor grates, and praying ferociously to work off my purgatory sentence, I barely had time to even think about doing anything sinful.
But still, I had to say something when I walked into that confessional.
I had to come up with what sounded like a few believable sins for an average little Catholic girl to confess to our parish priest each week. None too big, none too insignificant. It required developing an early ability to assess the relative goodness and badness of sin.
That’s when I hit upon my brilliant strategy. I came up with three basic kid sins and my best guess about what I thought was a fairly acceptable number of times that the average kid might commit these sins. For example:
“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been one week since my last confession. These are my sins:
- I told a lie twice.
- I quarreled with the other children three times.
- I disobeyed my parents once.”
Now right there, you have to know that I was lying through my teeth.
If I had actually disobeyed my parents in any way, shape or form, for example, I’d be lying in hospital wearing a full body cast, not kneeling in that confessional. Kids like me didn’t “disobey”.
Whatever eternal punishment God might have had in mind for me unless I accurately confessed my sins was nothing compared to what lay in store for me on this earth if my Mom caught even a whiff of any “disobedience”.
But here’s the best part about confession, Your Holiness: the priests didn’t even care what I said!
I learned that you can say anything to that vague, shadowy face on the other side of the confessional screen. Not even upping my numbers (which I did once just to check if the priest was paying attention) seemed to break the drowsy stupour of the old man assigned the mind-numbing task of hearing confession from hundreds of school children every week.
One time – I don’t know what got into me! – I threw in a new sin:
“I missed Mass on Sunday once!”
“What?!” the priest snapped at me through the screen, suddenly awake. As you recall, missing Mass on Sunday in those days represented a mortal sin, not just the petty venial sins of lies or quarrels or eating meat on Fridays. A mortal sin – right up there with murder! – and we all knew that if, God forbid, you died with an unconfessed mortal sin on your soul, it meant a trip straight to hell, no questions asked, eternal damnation guaranteed.
“Did you miss Mass on Sunday through your own fault?”
“Ah, no. It was because . . . because I had the mumps.” (Another lie).
Didn’t matter – because the priest didn’t really care what I said. I kept up this confessional ruse for years, continuing right into high school at Mt. Mary Immaculate Academy, the convent boarding school I later attended with my younger sister, Catherine.
Mt. Mary was a school on Catholic steroids. A convent boarding school was like the Olympics of Catholic education, and we were in constant training. By now, I’d modified the confessional strategy, replacing my made-up childhood sins like disobedience with the useful all-purpose sin of “impure thoughts” confessed by all devout Catholic teenagers.
The common thread throughout years of confessing: my sins reported while in the confessional bore absolutely no resemblance to the reality of what I was actually doing or failing to do during my regular day-to-day life as a Catholic schoolgirl. Instead, they were all about what would sound believable to the priest on duty that day.
It was all about optics, as we say in public relations. Maybe, in fact, that youthful confessional training was the beginning of what would one day become my decades-long P.R. career.
Mt. Mary represented the peak of my own devout Catholicism. How I loved the nuns who taught us! Members of the religious order called Sister Servants of Mary Immaculate, these women seemed to float, legless and silent, down our shiny waxed corridors with voluminous black habits flowing behind. They were both serene and wise – two qualities I didn’t possess at all in my early teens. Although I was later to distance myself from All Things Catholic, I never lost my lifelong affection for those Sisters who were our teachers, basketball coaches, substitute-mothers and mentors.
And Mt. Mary was also the first time I really got to know a priest.
Not the saintly parish priest way up at the main altar celebrating High Mass at our church back home in St. Catharines on Sunday mornings. But the old guy who lived permanently at our convent and said 6 a.m. Mass to 200 Mt. Mary students and nuns seven mornings a week, month after month, year after year.
His meals were served and cleaned away by students assigned that daily role while he sat smoking his foul cigars, drinking his Canadian Club whiskey and reading the paper in his private dining room at the convent.
His religious classes were pure torture to sit through, stumbling exercises in unintelligible ramblings.
His sermons at Mass were woodenly delivered with the same air of bored exhaustion.
It was the first time in my life that I observed a priest as a target of public ridicule. He stinks. He spits when he talks. He eats like a pig. He’s rude to everybody. He’s a terrible public speaker. He’s disgusting. He’s creepy. These kinds of out-loud comments – the kind you might think little of if overheard about your next door neighbour or a local shopkeeper – would have been virtually unheard of when referring to a priest in those days.
One can only wonder what failings in his priestly career until then had finally landed him in this lowly gig at a girls’ boarding school?
Spending years observing this kind of priest was, in a way, the beginning of the end, Your Holiness. Why would we accept moral or spiritual guidance from a person whom we not only didn’t respect, but found so utterly revolting – and worse – irrelevant?
Yes, he was a flawed human being just like the rest of us – but did he have to be quite so flawed?
Our whole golden Baby Boomer generation must be quite the disappointment for you by now, Your Holiness. Neighbourhood churches that were once promisingly filled to capacity with young families when I was a little girl are sadly empty today as so many of us grew up and decided not to raise our own children in a faith enmeshed in the guilt, fear and punishment that ruled our own childhoods.
Even in Quebec, one of your traditional Catholic strongholds here in Canada, church attendance among Quebecois has been among the lowest in the country. Priests are preaching to empty pews, and many churches have been sold as your congregations have dwindled.
None of this has been helped at all, of course, by how you chose to handle the church’s sex abuse scandal and the pervasive organizational cover-up of criminal activity that will forever mar the reputation of your church.
You know, Your Holiness, you were the only person on earth with the power to force bishops out of office for their known roles in protecting predator priests who molested generations of victims, but you chose not to.
Oh, you did remove a bishop or two during your watch – one suspected of financial improprieties, and another one who suggested that the church should debate the issue of allowing women and married priests.
But even after Kansas City Bishop Robert Finn‘s historic conviction in criminal court last year for failing to report child abuse cases to police, you sat there and did nothing to get rid of this man – a move that could have been a powerful public statement about the intolerable nature of his collusion.
Yet how could you kick him out, really? To do so would have clearly implicated your own self.
Since 1981, while Archbishop of Munich, you headed up the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, tasked with reviewing some 3,000 outstanding abuse cases. Your powers as the Vatican enforcer were second only to Pope John Paul‘s. Your responsibilities over more than two decades specifically included deciding the fate of those priests accused of horrific sex crimes. That meant that the Church’s deliberate blind eye towards children’s pain over several decades – hushing up evidence, covering for rapist priests, moving them from diocese to diocese, and refusing to inform either victims’ parents or the police – started in your office.
The child abuse scandal in your church has spread to some 65 countries by now, with victims estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands; one local survivors’ group alone has over 12,000 members. Countless victims – some estimates peg this at over 80% – have been too ashamed to come forward their whole lives; many priests continue to face accusations as others finally share their own nightmares.
I wonder when all of this finally made retirement start to look really attractive for you?
Your papal apology about this systematically approved criminal rot reminded me of my own dilemma as a 7-year old Catholic girl: I have to go to confession, and I have to say SOMETHING! And it has to sound believable to the priest on duty.
But unlike that bored old guy on the other side of the confessional screen, however, those of us who heard your apology weren’t dozing through it.
What you and other Vatican spokesmen chose to say out loud was some version of the stupefyingly offensive response of the Archbishop of Milwaukee Rembert Weakland, who was the direct supervisor of 58 priests accused of sexual assaults on minors under his watch when he actually said this out loud to the media:
“We all considered sexual abuse of minors as a moral evil, but had no understanding of its criminal nature.”
That statement, as any 7-year old Catholic schoolgirl preparing for her First Communion can tell you flat out, was a lie.
Even 7-year olds know the difference between right and wrong, yet you somehow expected us to believe that powerful Catholic priests do not.
Indeed, in frenzied damage control mode, you publicly accused your bishops and archbishops of not following canon law in an over-zealous and misguided attempt to protect Holy Mother Church throughout the scandals – when in fact, they were following Vatican orders to the letter. The Coyne Report in Ireland, for example, revealed that the Vatican had specifically warned Irish bishops not to turn in predator priests to the police under any circumstances. And correspondence between your own office at the Vatican and American bishops obtained by The New York Times revealed many requests from the bishops for permission to defrock specific predators – only to be reminded by you to have “compassion” for these poor priests.
In fact, before your feeble apology, you yourself tried hard to brush off growing criticisms of the global Catholic abuse scandal as just “petty gossip”.
You blamed the media.
You blamed everybody except the sexual predators you were protecting, and their fellow criminals doing the protecting.
As the Associated Press reported in 2010:
“Victims of clerical abuse have long demanded that Benedict take more personal responsibility for clerical abuse, charging that the Vatican mandated a culture of cover-up and secrecy that allowed priests to rape and molest children for decades unchecked.”
Not only was your apology feeble, but you further failed to put any muscle into it by demanding even minimal consequences for the deviants you yourself had helped to protect. And not one cleric guilty of protecting your child rapists lost even one day’s pay under your watch.
Here’s an ironic comparison: you swiftly approved ex-communication for Sister Margaret McBride, a nun at a Catholic hospital in Arizona, mere months after she approved an emergency abortion to save the life of one of her critically ill patients there.
But how many sexual molesters in the priesthood did you ex-communicate as you did the evil Sister Margaret? My guess: approximately none.
And then, as if that wasn’t bad enough, you did the truly unforgiveable: you went after the rest of your nuns.
No, not those predator priests – but your own nuns, the bravest, toughest and most admirable Catholics on the planet.
Under what’s been described as the Vatican’s pattern of ‘patriarchal apartheid’, you launched an “apostolic visitation” or investigation of every one of America’s 60,000 religious sisters (median age 70+) who had been accused of having what your Vatican spokesman Cardinal Franc Rodé called “a feminist spirit” and “a secular mentality”.
And when you traveled to Africa in 2009, we were hoping you would finally respond to evidence reported years earlier about the widespread rape and abuse of your nuns by priests and bishops there.
The world knew this was a particular problem in Africa, which has no cultural tradition of celibate priests, and where the threat of HIV and AIDS means that priests are more likely to prefer sex with nuns than with prostitutes.
Yet even though the Vatican had made the extraordinary admission in 2001 that it was in fact worse than we thought – that Catholic priests from at least 23 countries have indeed been sexually abusing nuns with impunity – here’s all you could come up with to protect your nuns in Africa: when you spoke to their rapists, you merely politely requested that these priests should:
” … open themselves fully to serving others as Christ did by embracing the gift of celibacy.”
The reality, Your Holiness, is that Popes come and go, priests come and go, apologies come and go, even Catholic dogma comes and goes – yet uppity nuns get ex-communicated, investigated and raped.
Personal legacies, however, tend to stick around for a distressingly long time – like eternity.
Your personal and institutional credibility when making moral pronouncements has evaporated, leaving Catholics to ask, as we did back at Mt. Mary Immaculate Academy, why would we accept moral or spiritual guidance from those we not only don’t respect, but find so utterly revolting – and worse – irrelevant?
So during your retirement, feel free to borrow my confessional tips while reflecting on what every 7-year old Catholic schoolgirl already knows about what real sin looks like.
Illustration from The Spectator, U.K.
- Catholic hierarchy: a safe haven for predator priests
- Why the Pope needs media training
- The endangered species called Catholic nuns
- The Vatican’s abuse response: “a PR failure, carnage, nightmare and train wreck”