Hi my name is Mark and I am a victim of parochial schools. During my nine years in parochial schools I witnessed abusive behavior by the Catholic Church that seemed both weird and natural at the same time. Because I grew up in a devout Catholic family in upstate New York in the 1960s the sort of behavior I witnessed was not at all unusual. “Spare the rod and spoil the child” was a frequent parental mantra of the time. Getting or witnessing a spanking at home from my mother seemed entirely normal, if somehow weird. I knew of other children who got much worse, including getting whipped with leather belts and the occasional shiner.
So I was not surprised that the sisters at our parochial school practiced this philosophy. The values in school modeled the values at home. I understand that parochial schools today, at least in this country, have now become violence-free institutions of learning. I am relieved to hear this, if it is true. I can tell you that I witnessed behavior from sisters representing the Catholic Church in the 1960s and 1970s that today would be considered physical and emotional abuse of children, and would put people away in jail for years at a time.
Now granted elementary and middle schoolers are little volcanoes that are frequently erupting. Many of the boys in my class were in fact little savages constantly getting into trouble. To keep the tuition low I doubt the good sisters got much in the way of an education in child psychology. I’m not even sure they were ever accredited to teach. But anyhow who needs to read psychology books when you have the Bible and the Baltimore Catechism with the answer to all of life’s persistent questions? Those of us who grew up Catholic know that somewhere in that Catechism were the answers to every conceivable moral or ethical question. There is no moral ambiguity in the Catholic faith.
The sort of behavior I witnessed was primarily a lot of physical abuse. For example, an overactive boy (these were the days before ADHD was recognized) running too much on the playground would get real sweaty during recess. This would infuriate our sister who would have the boy come up to the front of the class, bend over her desk, and wack him very hard, repeatedly, in front of the other children, with two yardsticks doubled up together. The boy would usually howl and sometimes cry. Such punishments were reinforced with the moral lesson that such behavior was sinful and against the rules of the school, thereby humiliating the student and causing emotional abuse.
The reason I bring up this unpleasant topic is because I am reading the book “Adult Children of Abusive Parents: A Healing Program for Those Who Have Been Physically, Sexually or Emotionally Abused” by Steven Farmer. It is an eye opener for me, although it should not be. One of the points of the book is that if you feel you were abused then you were. There is no question in my mind that I was both the victim of physical and emotional abuse meted out by the sisters at our parochial school. I am a somewhat dysfunctional adult because of this toxic environment that I endured for nine long years.
The book talks about certain roles that those of us who suffered this abuse bring forward into adulthood. I see elements of many of these roles in myself. For example I often find myself in the caretaker role of trying to make things better for everyone, almost obsessively so. In addition I often find myself emotionally distant. When conflicts arise in my life (particularly if it involves strong emotions) I run away from them and hide. I prefer a safe room somewhere so I don’t have to deal with the associated feelings. These are very powerful roles that I cannot seem to break, and probably won’t be able to break without spending a lot of personal energy and going through a lot of therapy. But it seems to be something I will have to work on, or I will likely make the rest of my life a lot more miserable than it would otherwise be.
I am actually looking forward to seeing the new movie The Magdelene Sisters. It depicts the lives of some “fallen women” in Ireland sentenced by their families and the Catholic Church to forced labor in Catholic laundries. I am hoping it will provide some sort of catharsis to my own feelings about the abuse I experienced and witnessed.
While I am glad that child abuse appears to have vanished from our nation’s parochial schools (although apparently not from its rectories, as numerous news accounts of abusive priests make clear), I am also still angry. Maybe I am an anti-Catholic bigot. If I come across that way, well tough – deal with it. I have noticed that the pews of Unitarian Universalist Churches are full of traumatized ex-Catholics. I have spoken to many fellow victims and the stories are similar. A significant number of those I went to school with I have learned, anecdotally, are carrying the physical and emotional abuse into adulthood and wreaking havoc on a new generation of children.
We have freedom of religion in this country. It is probably a good thing, since the theocracy experiment hasn’t worked out well elsewhere in the world. But when I think of my experience with Catholicism, that I know is replicated in many other religions in this country, I often think certain religions should be banned. In my opinion Catholicism is one very toxic meme. I won’t debate today the theological arguments but it is obvious that it has caused generations of wholly unnecessary suffering for millions, if not billions of people. I do acknowledge that Catholicism can be a beautiful religion. I can still be touched by the feeling of sacredness I get when I am in the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception here in Washington, DC. The theater and drama of a high Mass can be quite a show. But in my opinion this religion is at its core rotten and evil.
But it is a meme that will keep going on. I am sure 2000 years from now, no matter how technologically advanced, we will still have a Pope. People will still be shuffling off to church to repeat the same words over and over again. It would be nice if, like a surgeon, I could remove the bad parts of the religion and leave its beauty intact. But that can’t happen. It is a hierarchical, top down directed religion that at its core tolerates no dissent and requires orthodoxy to many beliefs that are wholly unreasonable.
It is, in some ways, similar to an abusive parent. If you are a round peg of a person, you must become a square peg or you are not welcome. Junior must be whipped into shape with a belt by his Dad to stop his sassing. Similarly you, if you are gay, must not actually practice your homosexuality or you risk sin, the wrath and scorn of your clergy if it becomes known and possible banishment and excommunication. And if you are a divorced Catholic and your marriage was not annulled by the church, no matter how bad the physical, emotional and sexual abuse you encountered, don’t you dare take communion and don’t even think about getting remarried in the church.
Leaving the church is a very hard thing for most Catholics to do. Most are born into the faith and going to church is as much a part of their lives as is eating and breathing. It’s a fundamental part of who they are. Like the sexually abused child who later in life unconsciously seeks out co-dependent relationships, Catholicism warps the growing mind in dangerous ways. The institution is one large mortal sin, but too puffed up in its own pretentiousness to recognize it. And unfortunately we can expect a continued trail of human carnage from it and similar institutions for millennia to come.