Archive for May, 2009

Catholic Nuns, Child Abuse and Vows

May 28, 2009

It’s time to acknowledge that there is something sick to the core of the Catholic Church in its relationship to children. It’s time to close it down. It’s time to sue it to death. Let’s leave a better world to our children by eliminating a destructive spirit.

Something in the essence of either the Church’s philosophy or its execution is terribly flawed. Its most influential positions attract disturbed individuals who then act out forms of rage against children, often expressing it sexually.

It has been so strong a part of the Church for so long — and not even approached by any other mainstream  religion in its prevalence — that at some point you just have to scream, “STOP!”

These problems are only being dealt with symptomatically by incident, and limited to financial compensation and an occasional apology.  Because of this, the Church and its clergy can no longer be entrusted to have anything to do with the physical or moral development of children.

Without honest and transparent examination of the root causes, and a fundamental change in the structure of the Church, any claims that “All of that was in the past.” are meaningless.

Lately, the Press has been focusing on a wide range of abuses against young boys or girls by Clergy over in Ireland. By all means, these are horrendous, but they are merely the tip of the iceberg.

Child abuse is defined as the physical or emotional or sexual mistreatment of children. Priests only represent a fraction of the Catholic clergy that deal directly with children. “Brothers” of various orders have also been catching a lot of flack lately. Yet, when it comes to sheer numbers, the “Sisters” or “Nuns” of the various orders of Catholicism have had the greatest exposure to, therefore impact on, children.

This impact has largely been ignored.

In this blog, I’m going to explore my personal experience and through it, try to illustrate the scope of the problem.

The starting place for this will be Brooklyn, NY, in the 1950’s, where and when I grew up. It’s a surprisingly good place to begin because in the early 1980’s it was estimated that a full 20% of the population of the United States originated from the immigrants that first settled in that Borough.

My experience is not much different from thousands of young Catholic men and women who ventured away from Brooklyn. With them they brought their experiences and trauma, seeding the new communities they populated.

Over the eight years of my attending St. Vincent Ferrer in Flatbush, Brooklyn, under the care of Dominican nuns, naturally I had contact with other Catholic children attending other Catholic schools throughout the Diocese (and the other four boroughs for that matter).

I claim the  “culture” I describe as widespread because invariably, once realizing that our companions attended Catholic Schools as well, the topic of conversation would turn to abuse at the hands of the nuns. Only the names of the nuns and their orders would be different. The patterns, proportions and ways of violent expression remained consistent.

Although somewhat removed from the Public School system, I was still aware through friends that there was the occasional oddball, usually male teacher, who’d really lay on to his students. It was a source of puzzlement to me why representatives of Christ consistently acted with such violence against their charges while the non-religious seemed so much less violence prone.

My own experience with abuse at the hands of Dominican nuns began in 1956, when I was five years old, on my first day of school.

In the school yard, the children would line up according to class. There were Grades One to Eight, an “A” and “B” line for each grade, consisting of about 30 students each. Regimented lines, uniforms and an obvious hierarchy were my first views of the way things worked.

Each child knew which line — which Grade and Class — he or she was supposed to be in. A few of the children had been “left back”. Failing the year before, they were assigned to repeat that Grade, therefore they were to stand in line with children who had been their underclassmen the year before. Naturally, as kids do, some tried to sneak in to the lines holding their former peers to avoid the humiliation.

Swooping down on these individuals came the nuns. My first memory of Grammar School was of children screaming and crying in pain, literally being dragged by the EARS from one line to another. If they resisted, they were slapped on the face with open hands, and pulled or literally dragged across the concrete walk to the proper line.

Keep in mind half of the kids involved were my height — less than 4 ft. tall — new to life, and the nuns were full- and fuller-sized adults dressed in billowing black and white uniforms that communicated more like bats-from-hell than angels of mercy.

Thankfully, my First Grade teacher, Sr. Cor Marie, did not lean toward violence. I did, however, witness numerous incidents where children were brought out in to the hall, and as other grades filed by, swatted on their behinds with yardsticks or (far more painfully!) pointers. Often, in the case of the males, trousers were dropped.

An important aspect of abuse is that witnesses to abuse often experience psychological trauma comparable to that of  the abused. Abuse during class time, and as practiced by the clergy I was exposed to, was a very public spectacle whose audience was youth of both sexes, at their most impressionable ages.

In second Grade, however, assigned to the class of Sr. Ann Robert, I got a more personal taste of the sickness. I was part of a school-wide IQ test where I placed with the third highest score. From that moment on, Sr. Ann Robert utilized regular, public, corporal punishment and humiliation to encourage me to work up to my potential.

I was not the only one at the wrong end of the pointer in that class. There was at least five of us, all boys, who were regularly called up to the front of the class and swatted in one form or another in front of the rest of the class. We often were led out to the hall as a group, since we were all poor performers or cut-ups, and there the pants would come down and the swatting become more extreme.

During that school year, a conservative estimate of the number of times I was brought to the front of the class and physically punished was twenty times; at least once every couple of weeks.

Nobody in the class was immune, neither male nor female, but if I were to estimate the ratio of physical violence against boys vs. that of girls, I’d say six to one. Abuse of the girls was mostly confined to swats on the hands with rulers and an occasional slap on the face.

This is one of many patterns that it’s important to acknowledge. The sociological impact of psychological emasculation of young boys at the hands of adult women and witnessed by their female peers  in Catholic schools is almost ignored. It most certainly contributes heavily to subsequent incidents of self, spousal and child abuse.

Some studies indicate that before the age of ten children are not quite able to assimilate their experiences mentally and emotionally. As an adult, when confronted with stimuli that resemble past trauma, uncontrollable, automatic responses occur that can be harmful to themselves or others.

What we mostly see and react to are those adults who lash out violently. They are the ones who get the press coverage.  But far more insidious, dangerous and invisible are those who retreat into a place either deep inside themselves or flee to a place outside of their bodies — just like they did as children during the times of their assault. This encompasses both victims and witnesses.

In that state they cease to participate in the present moment. Because of that they become unable to make choices appropriate to their well-being. The societal implications of this are enormous.

On one level, for those who rarely got physically abused, but got to see the rest of us going through it, it was a bit more crazy-making. They never knew if or when.

With me, I knew that it was inevitable I’d soon do something to attract the ire of Ann Robert or one of the other abusive nuns in the school. Once you get pegged as troublesome by any one of the violent ones you become a target of the others as well, whether you’re in their class or not!

Sr. Ann Robert was not the only nun in the school with a reputation for physical violence. Corporal punishment was embedded in the culture, and for most of the nuns, an occasional hand slap, pulled ear, or swat on the behind was used to get the attention of the offending student.

But what distinguishes the Catholic school system from others is that a relatively high proportion of pathological abusers were tolerated within their systems.

In my school there were sixteen primary teachers and one Principal, all Dominican nuns. Of the teachers, I could name five who, over the course of my eight years at the school had a reputation for frequent and regular acts of intentional violence against the children in their classes. Then you can add to that the Principal herself.

I filtered through each and every one the violent nuns during my years in the school. My “peak” year was sixth grade when I drew Sr. Ann Robert again. One day, after sticking my tongue out at a nun, I was beaten by her, three others, brought to the Principal, beaten by her, and then sent home with bleeding welts on my behind, half of which were old wounds, re-opened.

But it goes one level deeper than just violent acts. There’s a difference between someone who utilizes corporal punishment because it’s an acceptable tool for discipline in that particular culture and that of someone who gets satisfaction from violence and seeks opportunities to express it.

Although not every one of them exuded that kind of energy each time, there were times when the most painful part of the beating was the perpetrator nun’s moment of glee.

And how could a young boy not interpret that as a form of hatred of his very manhood? At that age you still see yourself through the eyes of your adult significant others.

Another aspect largely neglected is the silence of the nuns who were NOT violent. The majority of nuns knew what was going on at the hands of the more violent of their peers. Not once did I witness a non-abusive nun come to the defense of one of her charges.

As an example to developing young women, this perpetuates passivity and helplessness. And how does a young man assimilate these experiences with powerful women into adulthood and his relationships? Women are potential threats who must be controlled.

I am happy to see so many people, from so many parts of the globe, finally speaking out against this glaring, institutionalized abuse.

And what is that doing? It’s actually uncovering the Catholic Church’s relationship with money. People are demanding and deserve reparations and the Catholic Church and all its divisions are doing everything they can to minimize the hit on their coffers, almost happily standing by while secular society foots the bill.

A 5/26/09 article on the most recent travails of the Christian Brothers in Ireland stated:

“The Brothers on Tuesday begged forgiveness for the children’s suffering and said they would review how much they could pay in reparation without compromising current services and investment.”

I don’t beleive the Brothers should be in the driver’s seat.

I beleive the assets of the Catholic Church — of ALL of the Catholic Church — should be identified, frozen and held in trust until such time as the worldwide impact of their patterns of child abuse are assessed.

And then that money should be put into programs that promote the health and well-being of children throughout the world, without the extra tax of human suffering that the Church has been exacting.

Now that Poverty and Chastity are gone,  Obedience must go back to a Higher Authority.


a firetender’s saga

May 16, 2009

Not terribly long ago, I came to the conclusion that my life’s work is all about the healing arts wherever they are found. The overwhelming thing about the concept was that I found them everywhere!

All of the individual paths that I had thought I had been on in my life were just one big Superhighway designed to exercise, channel and direct my powers as one who explores and articulates the world of the healing arts. Bouncing from guardrail to guardrail, across and under lanes and back again, moving forward, and by the grace of the Gods, not hitting anything substantial, I finally made it to you!

While most around me looked at me as the typically unfocused Gemini “Jack of all trades: Master of none,” I just kept on doing the work, stepping through the doors that opened to me and not bitching about the ones that slammed shut in my face.

My obligation was to communicate what I experienced along the way. The metaphor I kept coming back to was my times on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation (SD) as firetender for sacred ceremonies. That’s the person who works with the elements to prepare, maintain, and energize a sacred space for others to experience the deepest part of themselves in connection with all their relations. My focus was to work with the spirit that lies in me and all things. It all made sense in the context of a ceremony.

Life had presented me with an enormous number of gifts that could be employed to help others experience themselves in new ways. Most of them were from the most potent lesson of all; changing my personal pain into power. If there was a thread that connects all my personal themes like cable, it would have to be I have been gifted with many stories to tell about this!

It took me a long time to figure out that for me it is all one story, the story of a firetender, and this whole thing called life is nothing but a ceremony. This firetender was asked to work with many different kinds of materials, under all sorts of different conditions.

Whenever I did take the time to pause and reflect, however, I realized my bag of tricks was getting bigger. The drive had to be all about the exploration then, didn’t it?

All that was important was that I was building a body of useful experience. It was not up to me to decide its best application. Along whatever path I was on in the moment, the Great Whatever would lead me right to the people where “Bingo!” some obscure momentary experience of mine would be the perfect key to release the frozen lock.

This character called firetender is more of an aspiration than a realization. It’s a guiding spirit, if you will. The sacred scars he carries from getting burned are now — when he’s at his best! — teaching tools to help others deal more safely with their own flames.

Welcome to this sacred space where these reflections of my explorations are for you to utilize as you see fit.

Mahalo (Thank You!) for this opportunity to serve.