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Earl Doherty

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Deliver Us To Evil
(February 6, 2006)

     In a seemingly never-ending stream, another high profile scandal of ecclesiastical sexual abuse of boys and young men has captured headlines in recent days. A retired priest from the U.S., now resident in Italy and in his later career associated with the Vatican, has been accused of sexual assault going back to a few decades ago when he was a church pastor in the eastern United States. After the inevitable denial was issued, other men have come forward claiming sexual abuse at his hands when they were youths.
     By now, we have come to realize that this squalid and predatory behavior is endemic to clerical circles, and especially those of the Catholic Church. While it is undoubtedly practised only by a minority, that minority seems to be significant, and has no doubt been active for centuries. What has emerged into the public eye in the last couple of decades is the tip of an ugly and pitiless iceberg that for so long has waylaid many a newly-launched human ship and crippled its voyage of life.
     Such betrayal of trust and despoiling of the innocent should awaken the most angry and indignant reaction on the part of lay and clergy alike. Yet what we have consistently seen in the Church hierarchy is cover-up and stonewalling, an unwillingness to institute zero tolerance and a shifting of the guilty from one location to another, opening up fresh opportunities for further depredation. This has been as much a scandal as the sexual abuse itself.  Clearly, the overriding concerns of the Church are to protect its image, not to protect the most vulnerable in its congregations. As for those congregations, while dismay about these practices has certainly been expressed, there has been no censure directed where one might think it also belongs: on God himself for failing to provide the missing protection. One should reasonably expect some outcry against the Deity for not 'curing' those he has called and placed over them, or at least giving them the strength to resist their unnatural proclivities (even when they are sent to counselling sessions for that very purpose); if he is believed amenable to performing miracles and answering prayer, surely working such miracles in his own household ought to assume top priority. On the other hand, knowing that he is a Teflon God, immune to criticism and scandal
if only because those ministers are so efficient at indoctrination, so adept at instilling a fear of doubt and a reluctance to hold him responsible for any evil whatsoeverthese are perhaps concerns which do not trouble him.  He knows from experience that no matter what he does or fails to do, believers will always turn once more to his praise and worship.
     This news of yet another blight on the face of institutionalized religion became juxtaposed in my mind with impressions created by a recent TV documentary series on Auschwitz which marked the anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camp and others like it in 1945. While the two are not to be equated in terms of character or severity (if only because the latter was horrific beyond imagining), I found myself drawing certain metaphorical comparisons.
     We are born into this world as part of a long and ongoing evolutionary chain of human life, marked only by minor local differences in external appearance; inside we are all the same. Yet we have managed to separate ourselves into a myriad of ghettos, mostly defined by characteristics we have chosen to blow up out of all proportion; many are based on views of the world which bear no relation to reality. The most important of these ghetto divisions, and certainly the one which is least connected to rational and verifiable knowledge, is the one determined by religious faith, by fantastic and totally unfounded fancies of supernatural dimensions and otherworldly beings. Those fantasies to a great extent determine our self-image, our social ties, our commitments and choices in life, our politics, our prejudices, and very often our evils. We have committed ourselves to our own concentration camps.
     Part of the life of these camps is to send our children to schools where, while teaching them 20th and 21st century developments in literacy and literature, in mathematics, science and history, we also insist on filling their minds with the religious 'knowledge' of 20 and 30 centuries ago.  While teaching them to exercise logic and critical thinking in the former areas, we suppress those techniques in the latter, indeed we teach them to avoid and fear the application of such things. In the schools, and in the churches which form the focal points of our self-imposed ghettos, we indoctrinate them to place their primary focus in life on an unpredictable, omnipotent being whom no one can verify, on the imaginary prospect of a heaven above and a hell below, on a set of beliefs which run counter to rationality and science, on an unseen world of angels and devils and vast scenarios of salvation and damnation. We fill them with fear and guilt and an obsessive sense of sin. Then we expect them to make their way in a world which those beliefs only serve to dismiss and distort and denigrate as unimportant and even dangerous to our eternal fate. We rob them of healthy sexuality, of human pride, of a proper knowledge of the ancestry of both ourselves and our universe; we stunt their wisdom and their growth. And we create a sense of separateness from other human beings, other faiths and societies, other ghettos. Too often, these ghettos teach intolerance, hatred, cruelty
if not deliberately (though sometimes so), then as inevitable side effects. Ironically, we do this to our children because our parents did it to us, stretching back in a long line of indoctrination and superstition which few have been able to break.
     Now, to these soul-destroying elements a new dimension has been added
or at least newly revealed, perhaps the most destructive of all: sexual abuse on the part of those who have created and drawn us into their ghettos and concentration camps.  By rights, it ought to discredit and bring down the whole corrupt business, for a God who would permit such a thing within his own purview is not worth a shred of devotion, or faith. Several years ago, after a spate of revelations about the preying of clergy and other church-based figures on children, after a number of television documentaries and films like "The Boys of Saint Vincent" focusing on the devastating effects on young lives of this form of abuse, I happened upon a literary contest in a popular magazine inviting short story submissions (of less than a thousand words) on the theme of "A Secret Place." To express my outrage and distress at these revelations, I decided to fashion a story reflecting them, in which the "secret place" was a dual one: the place at the center of this concentration camp where a young life was assaulted and despoiled, and the place within the victim himself where the evil had been insinuated and buried. I also placed the story within the context of my boyhood church and its remembered images, for while there was no scandal that I recall or was aware of at the time I grew up within its ghettoed walls, there could well have been one which only a perpetrator and his victims were aware of, as in those days such activities were well and truly hidden. No victim who might have had the courage to speak out would ever have been believed, but it would be the ultimate naivete and foolishness to think that the sexual abuse of children by the ministers of God, revealed as so widespread in the last quarter century, is a new phenomenon which has arisen only during that time. (Please note that this does not represent the memory of any personal experience.) My submission, not unexpectedly, failed to be chosen for a prize, as the winners were to be published in the magazine, and that kind of courage on the part of the publisher would have been too much to expect. Now in response to this latest scandal, I am sharing it for the first time. I have changed the title from the designated "A Secret Place" to one which to me better reflects the depth of what it represents, one in keeping with the thoughts expressed in this Comment. Lest the irony be missed by any readers, the title is a twist on a line from a much-recited Christian creed.


Deliver Us To Evil

    The air had the smell of freshly delivered oil, and some of it was burning in the new furnace. Only a few months earlier there had been the reek of coal here, black food for an antique barrel of a thing which had filled half the chamber, but while it stood he had not yet entered this place. The hand which led him down the heavy wooden stairs was big and firm, though the voice speaking hollow pleasantries that did not register on him held a faint tremor.
    As they descended, the tremble in his own, much smaller hand impinged on his awareness. It had not been there moments earlier when they walked down the long aisle between empty rows of ornately backed benches, under the vaulted ceiling. Up there, the air had been full of familiar smells. Of wood and plaster, fine cloths and slabs of marble which his childish hands had occasionally rested upon. And there were other odors, sacred ones; and a Presence.
    When they reached the bottom of the staircase and entered the sprawling furnace room, the voice above him said softly, "He is here again today. Can you feel it?" But the little hand clasped in the firm grip was feeling other things, as the walls of a different room began to dissolve. He knew suddenly that he had been here before, perhaps not long ago. The sensation was strange in his young mind, and the accompanying feelings brought a wave of apprehension.
    When he was led toward a corner, formed by the rough concrete wall and the gleaming belly of the tank where the oil was stored, there were other sensations which rushed into consciousness. He realized that within moments there would be a blanket laid in that corner and that he would find himself upon it, with the cool clammy air of the place dimpling his exposed skin. Soon there would be sounds from his mouth, in dismay and disbelief, even pain, mixed with those from another: sounds held muted, with a strangled passion, holding their own demons.
    "He is here." But was He the same one as lived upstairs? The one displayed at the sacramental heart of each holy service, with rapt faces upturned in innocence, need and devotion? Or had the steps down into the earth brought them to a spot closer to regions where a different one dwelled, one spoken of in tones sometimes thundered, sometimes hushed, in dire warning and dread fear? What sort of universe could contain such diametrically opposed beings? How could humanity serve both? Were they both present at this moment, here in this secret place?
    It was a place very close to home, yet immeasurably far, a hollow carved inside another dimension. Here trust was answered by betrayal, guileless friendship by pitiless exploitation. Here the waters of redemption turned foul, sticky and inundating. From this place there was no escape.
    When the invasion came upon him, the walls could not stand and the last ramparts collapsed in a shiver of desecration. The full quota of energy in the little body was needed for endurance. The form above, no longer sheathed in neutering black, blazoned its gender. It demanded and begged, exulted and whimpered. From the altar of worship, it had descended to a wanton saturnalia, a feast of slaughter on a captive sacrificial lamb.
    When it was over, there followed the familiar threats and cajoles, the talk of Him who had been with them and approved, of lessons taught and learned, a wiping of tears and other emissions. There was an urging of secrets to be shared and hidden. Once more the form that had revealed its all too earthly status was sheathed in dark concealment, with the heavenly garland of gleaming beads haloing the waist, the seal of re-sanctification. When the trembling hand was returned to the firm guiding grip, the latter was once more warm and paternal.
    The little body stumbled as they ascended the heavy stairs, but freed from the fury of the siege it could now attend to rebuilding the fortifications. In the hidden castles of the mind the walls could once again rise from the rubble. Down the long aisle the footsteps echoed, retracing their way toward the statues which attended the altar, their bleeding hearts and sad faces a lament for the world whose only salvation lay within these walls. When they reached the odor of decayed incense clinging to the linens and stone of the holy place itself, the presence of God washed all else away and the battlements stood once more, cleansed and purified of conscious memory. Together they knelt and prayed.
    In the Father's house are many mansions. Not all stand open to the light. But the rooms of a child's mind contain their own secret places where death can be stored and kept at bay. The murmur of spirits confined behind those walls will live to haunt the man. Rusty and stubborn are the doors when the time comes to open them.


Earl Doherty

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