Connecting the Secrets

Up here in Burlington, Vt, members of our community are revealing personal struggles based in tormenting practices visited on them while they inhabited an orphanage run by the Roman Catholic archdiocese in the early and mid twentieth century. These people are adults, still alive, about my age, which is 64. Their stories sound medieval, sound foreign, but they actually occurred in a place I drive be almost daily en route to my local shopping center. The occasion for their memories comes as a private developer transforms this beautiful house of horrors into luxury and “moderately priced” condominiums. When I first saw the stories, I thought this was part of the history series. But it’s not; it’s here and now.

When Richard Snipe died a few months ago, his obituary prominently explained his analysis that the root of Roman Catholic institutional abuse of the vulnerable rests in the culture of secrecy instilled by the requirement of celibacy. Many Roman Catholic priests, he said, were in happy, healthy heterosexual relationships, but unable to let this information leak out for fear of losing their jobs and social status. The closed mouths of the healthy and happy created an attractive environment for people whose desires were less estimable, less savory.

I can’t help relating these stories to the current fracas surrounding Bret Kavanaugh’s nomination to the US Supreme Court. The offenses of which he stands accused took place in exactly the kind of institution I drive past for my shopping errands. Beautiful architecture. Spectacular campus. Faculty of socially prestigious Roman Catholics, cloaked in collars and a certain way of drawing the attention in crowded rooms.

I am a retired minister myself. Clergy confidentiality is a big deal with us. Over the decades, ministers acquire an aura which comes from knowing the many secrets which have been entrusted to them, and faithfully kept. I wasn’t in parish ministry for more than about three years, and envy my colleagues this glow. Yet I know that in a few cases, the secrets kept have been not entrusted by others but caused by the cleric’s own misdeeds. It happens. And there’s no real way of knowing whose glow hides skeletons rather than angels.

Like many people with experience editing yearbooks, I was horrified by the entry attached to Kavanaugh’s picture at Georgetown Prep. It’s not so much about him, as a clear indicator that whoever had charge of those kids had no sense of moral compass for himself or herself. No shame and no sense of where the rest of us feel shame. The wonder is not that Kavanaugh has only one accuser, but that more women aren’t stepping forward to add their names to the list. One already has, saying that girls at her school knew well enough what to expect from parties at Georgetown Prep. (It is worth noting that I am the same age as the first women admitted to Ivy League colleges; very quickly the word went out that Yale, Princeton, and Dartmouth had cultures of gender harassment.)

But I digress. The point is that our society needs a way for people to come forward describing a culture of harassment much larger than any of us can imagine. The most important reason is to clear the names of the many men and women, of all faiths, generations, schools, camps, etc, who never engaged in such depravities. Right now all men are being tarred with the same brush, as if their very testosterone were a crime. At the same time, there are many who took part in such misdeeds, and later felt clarity and shame. These men and women, too, deserve more respect than deniers like “Judge” Kavanaugh. The victims need a way to come forward, too, without the prospect of bullying, violence, danger.

Apparently this is not going to end any time soon. Perhaps what we most need is a National Coming Out Day for Justice. For some victims, there’s a name to be called. For repentant former abusers, there’s one’s own name (not one’s victim’s name) to make clear. But as with National LGBTQIA Coming Out Day, the ritualization teaches our culture how to respond,. Teaches us that the shaming issue (which is also what keeps LGBTQIA self-identifiers silenced) can be managed if we all make space for it together.

For on National Coming Out Day, allies know to stand ready. Families know that although they may be surprised, they are not unique. And folks who aspire to harassment and shaming get a strong, pervasive message that what they want to do is wrong. Not a path to social status, but, if mishandled, a fast track to the police car. Yes, gender and gender-role based violence is rising. But in some ways, what this means is the perpetrators are more and more desperate to make their case while they still have the chance. Their moment is fading. This is a message I would like to send to both victims of sexual harassment and those who repent of having done so.

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Back to Church

September has finally gotten my attention, enough that I plan to leave my disabled wife at home with her caregiver and take myself to church tomorrow.

Not the local UU society to which I belong and pledge, but the first in a series of liberal Protestant Christian congregations where I hope to satisfy my need for deep prayers and regular insight from the book of Psalms.

In venturing out like this, I display an under-appreciated reason why people leave this denomination. Jokers often call us “the open door on the way out of religion”, but for untold many, UUism opens a door back into religion. I know former UUs who have rejoined Jewish synagogues, Roman Catholic cathedrals, and all the mainline Protestant faiths.

So what do we have in common, we who move into traditional faith communities? It goes back to that joke about deceptive farmland, where the topsoil spreads a mile wide and a single inch deep. To delve deeper into something means to limit the scope of one’s field of inquiry. To choose a sacred text, to ponder a particular tradition. Repetition gets a lot of derision, but over time, it also instills a sense of peace. If one is going to hear the same words again, sing the same songs, craft the same decorations year after year, eventually layers of learning will accumulate. Just as my wife’s favorite flower bed has gotten deeper and deeper with three decades of decaying roots and leaves, so one’s religious confidence grows by knowing both what one knows and what one does not need to know.

UUism at its worst neglects that second aspect of religious faith: the right to not know certain things. Over the years, as former UUs have spread out into the mainstream religious environment, we have dropped seeds of openness, tolerance, receptivity into settled faith traditions. But in those places, that openness has limits to what it imposes on us. We are not going to be able to be all things, to meet all divinities, to answer every call to prayer. In UUism, one is never quite sure about the way to respect coreligionists whose primary source is different than our own.

So as the UUA yet again turns its face to finding a way to keep members through better institutional structure, I applaud many of their goals. But I caution that in many cases, what a congregation needs is a way to meet the deeper faith needs of its most committed, at times when they feel especially hungry.