Why I loved the priest who abused me.
In 1964, when I was a young man serving in the US Navy, my mother wrote to say that our dear old church pastor had died.
The housekeeper had found him in his bed. I could picture his round face and his shock of white hair. I could picture his room, which was connected to his office full of books, and the table where we used to play cards. I could even picture his bed….
Wait – this is not another story of priestly sexual abuse. This is a story of survival and of not being a victim.
When I got the news of his death, I thought of some of the things he had told me. I had gone to him once very worried about masturbating. The nuns had convinced us that we would burn in hell for touching ourselves, even while urinating. But the old priest said, ‘Tom, you’re not hurting anyone else, you’re not hurting yourself, and you’re not hurting God. Relax’.
The strict Notra Dame nuns at the Catholic school I attended in Cleveland, Ohio tried their best to stifle my childhood curiosity. But the neighbourhood had several saving graces. There was the warm and welcoming public library; a big Catholic Church; the old pastor. As a Catholic family, we prayed the rosary every night on our knees, and my brothers and I were all altar boys. The pastor became our friend.
The church was beautiful, built by German immigrants on the west side of the city. A nearby industrial area belched sulphurous smoke and the hard, dirty mills had for years drawn immigrants like my parents to the city. The church was wealthy enough to support its pastor and three assistants.
There were long lines at the confessionals on Saturday afternoons, masses all Sunday morning and early weekday masses. There was a large parish school and homes for the nuns and the priests. Our family lived down the street from the church, which, together with the school, made up our little world.
When the pastor invited my older brother for a ride out of the neighbourhood, I was filled with envy. But my brother quickly tired of his afternoon trips and visits to the pastor, and suggested that I go in his place. I jumped at the chance.
The pastor had a big black Lincoln Continental, thanks to the kindness of a car dealer. For me, the drives out of the neighbourhood were like magic carpet flights. The pastor had friends and seemed to know everyone. I learned how to say hello to adults and how to act in a restaurant. My parents never ate out of the house, except occasionally at a small local diner.
The priest read books and shared them with me. There were no books in my parent’s life and I looked on with awe and envy at the wall of books in the pastor’s home office. It was a den of knowledge and conversation for me – and his bedroom was just the next room over.
He took me to the huge main library downtown and opened up even more avenues of excitement. He talked to me, he listened to me, he cared for me – and yes, he had sex with me.
I can’t remember exactly when it started. It was early on in our friendship, when I was about 11 or 12. I doubt that I was the first boy he had sex with, and I doubt that I was the last. After I hit puberty, we drifted apart. I can remember seeing him walking the streets, or on the church grounds with one or more young boys in tow.
I was happy to have been with him, as he was the only person who listened to me then. He was also the classic homosexual paedophile. The majority of recent abuse scandals involve post-pubertal and adolescent boys, and men who are sexually or emotionally attracted to that age group are best called ephebophiles. William Safire, the American language columnist, mentions a new word: phebophile. But the pastor was a paedophile.
Yes he abused me, to use the politically correct term. He didn’t force anything on me and he let me be passive. I can’t recall even reaching a climax when I was with him. He guided me through my early puberty, easing my guilt and loneliness. He helped me to see that God could accept me even as I was then. Would a priest who wasn’t also having sex with me have done the same? I don’t know.
Most would say that he abused the trust that the church and families had placed in him. But in his own way he loved me when I needed it very much.
I grieved for him as I sat there reading my mum’s letter. He was unique in my young and sheltered life. My life moved on through the military, college and 25 successful years working with young people.
Blame? Guilt? No, it’s too late for that and they are usually wasted emotions. He was a real friend. And his company and counsel may have helped me to be a less troubled person than I might have been otherwise. I love him for what he did for me, not what he did to me.
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