The excerpts from Boys of the Cloth reproduced here (below the photograph) include the complete text of the Preface and the opening paragraphs from each of the first two chapters.
Excerpts copyright © 2012 by Hamilton Books
Image © Michael Kenna, reproduced with permission.
This room at Upholland College was a dormitory for 11- and 12-year olds, divided by wooden partitions into sleeping cubicles just big enough for a bed, chair and small chest of drawers.
Why did so many Catholic priests molest children?
This is not a question I expected to address when I began work several years ago on a memoir. My original goal was much simpler: to describe the strange semi-monastic existence I led as a teenage Catholic seminarian during the 1960s. While many of our contemporaries were participating in the biggest generational rebellion in history, my classmates and I were quietly and obediently conforming to tradition, praying and studying in splendid isolation. And doing so just a few miles outside Liverpool, whose most famous sons were driving the revolution in popular culture that was a cornerstone of the great rebellion.
But then I discovered that the repressive way of life I intended to describe had a sinister significance: it had been blamed for the abusive behavior of priests towards children that has caused so much pain and scandal in recent years. Which quickly brought me to a modified version of the question posed above. Why exactly did seminaries predispose so many priests to molest children?
For answers to this question I turned to the scientific literature about child abuse—a natural move given that my eventual career was in science rather than the priesthood. And among the many factors that have been theorized to predispose individuals towards sexual abuse, I was quickly able to identify several that were present in the seminary environment I had experienced. The Church-sponsored report that had blamed seminaries for abusive behavior by priests therefore seemed to have been correct.
On other key issues, however, the report was less convincing. The abuse underlying the recent scandals actually occurred decades ago, in an “epidemic” that began in the 1950s and tailed off in the 1980s. Repressive training was not the only factor invoked by the report to explain the behavior of the priests involved, but some of the others seemed inconsistent with the timing of the epidemic; they were developments in society and the Church that occurred too late to have had the influence ascribed to them. The same was true of several factors that supposedly caused the sharp decline in abuse that began around 1980.
The scope of my research therefore expanded once more. If the prevailing explanations of abusive behavior and its decline did not fit with the timing of the epidemic, new insights were needed. To find them I went delving into the history of the seminary system, from its establishment in the sixteenth century to its evolution in the twentieth, and correlated the latter with the recent history of the Church and American society. This led me to two paradoxical conclusions about the abuse epidemic: that it was caused by an ancient reform intended to eradicate rather than encourage clerical corruption; and that it was reversed by modern Church policies that had no obvious connection to sexual abuse.
Then, in May 2011, the Church released another major report on the abuse crisis. In contrast to its predecessor, which was produced to a tight timetable in the aftermath of the 2002 abuse scandal, the new report was based on a carefully executed five-year study. And its conclusions were distinctly different from mine. On close analysis, however, these conclusions did not seem entirely consistent with the data on which they were based. Indeed, they appeared to overlook crucial data that effectively negate one of the report’s main arguments, that the abuse epidemic was primarily a by-product of the “permissive society” that developed during the 1960s and 1970s.
Boys of the Cloth therefore stands firm in its unusual conclusions about the abuse crisis. True to its original intention, it still presents an account of the strange way of life in a minor seminary during the 1960s—a period that turns out to be crucial for understanding the abuse epidemic. And true to its expanded intentions, it explains how the ancient reform that established the seminary system led to a modern tragedy, and how the Church fortuitously eliminated some of the most important forces that had created this tragedy.
One issue the book does not address in any detail is the Church’s deplorable handling of cases of abuse. All too often, victims received too little sympathy and their abusers too much. All too often, mollycoddled molesters were given new access to young children, with predictable and tragic consequences. And all too often, the Church seemed intent on protecting itself and its priests, but not the young innocents who were being harmed. My decision not to discuss this issue is in no way intended to downplay its importance; like many people, I find the bishops’ response almost as appalling as the original abuse. There is little I can add, however, to the excellent critiques of their behavior that others have already produced.
Boys of the Cloth closes by reflecting on the significance of its conclusions for the prevention of abuse by priests in the future. And if just a single child is spared the agony of that experience as a result of the book’s existence, every effort that went into its creation will have been rewarded beyond measure.
The Call of God—or My Mother? “Vocation,” 1961-62
The conversation that changed my life forever took place when I was about ten years old. I told my mother that I wanted to be a priest. This was by no means the first time I had confided in her about my future career plans. Like most young children, I had one new idea after another on the subject. Some ambitions lasted longer than others; I distinctly remember a lengthy racing-driver phase, inspired by my great boyhood hero, Stirling Moss. All of my previous confidences, however, had shared the same fate: they were acknowledged politely and then promptly ignored—interpreted, correctly of course, as the naïve fantasies of a young boy. Had my newfound interest in the priesthood been treated in the same way, it would probably have lasted no longer than the usual few days. But to a devout Catholic woman of my mother’s generation, there could be no greater blessing from God than to have a son become a priest. And my mother was much more than devout; she was fanatical. So unlike the host of secular ambitions I had expressed, my clerical ambitions were warmly encouraged. One year later, I was headed off to Upholland College, the seminary for the local Archdiocese of Liverpool.
While the idea of becoming a priest might not even occur to most young boys, in my case it seemed perfectly natural. The Church and its priests were a constant presence in our family. Our Sunday routine included not just Mass in the morning but Benediction in the afternoon. My brothers and I served as altar boys, and attended the parish school with our sisters. My mother typed the handouts for Mass each week. Priests visited our house regularly, and one we knew so well we called him “Uncle.” My father’s sister and aunt were both nuns. In short, we were extremely Catholic.
Schools for Scandal: The Role of Seminaries in the Abuse Crisis
Had I been eleven years old in 2002 rather than forty years earlier, I might never have wanted to become a priest. What attracted me, as we have seen, was the prestige of the position; priests really were God-like figures to their parishioners. But by 2002 that prestige was gone, vaporized in a mushroom cloud of sexual scandal. Priests were now more likely to be considered predators than demigods. Nowhere was this more true than in my adopted hometown of Boston, the place where the mushroom cloud erupted.
Boston is like Liverpool in several notable respects: a maritime city with a strong Irish Catholic heritage and an almost religious passion for its professional sports teams, especially the one that plays in red socks. Almost forty percent of the population is Catholic, with large numbers of Italian- as well as Irish-Americans. Bostonians were therefore particularly horrified when one of the most disturbing episodes in the history of the Catholic Church exploded within their own neighborhoods: the clergy sexual abuse scandal.