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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