There was a girl thirteen years old whom I knew at School, who resided in the neighborhood of my mother, and with whom I had been familiar. She told me one day at school of the conduct of a priest with her at confession, at which I was astonished. It was of so criminal and shameful a nature, I could hardly believe it, and yet I had so much confidence that she spoke the truth, that I could not discredit it.
This is not an interview with one of the victims from the ongoing sex scandal in the Catholic Church. It's from Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, As Exhibited in a Narrative of Her Sufferings During a Residence of Five Years As a Novice and Two Years As a Black Nun, in the Hotel Dieu Nunnery in Montreal—an 1836 expose of the horrors of Roman Catholic convent life that rocked the United States and Canada when it was published. Explicitly sexual (for its time) and glorying in its sadism, Monk's book detailed accounts of secret tunnels that ran between rectory and convent, the rape and torture of novices and nuns by evil priests, and the conception by nuns of priests' infants who were then baptized, murdered, and buried in convent walls. Within two years of its publication, 300,000 copies of Awful Disclosures had been sold; until the appearance of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin nearly a quarter of a century later, it remained the best-selling book in the United States. (Awful Disclosures is still in print today and, not coincidentally, features a near-naked nun on its cover; in used-book-store catalogues, it is most frequently listed under "erotica.")
Monk's book wasn't unique. Consider these titles: Six Months in a Convent, or, the Narrative of Rebecca Theresa Reed, Who Was Under the Influence of the Roman Catholics About Two Years, and an Inmate of the Ursuline Convent on Mount Benedict, Charlestown, Mass., Nearly Six Months, in the Years 1831-2; Rosemund: A Narrative of Captivity and Sufferings of an American Female under the Popish Priests in the Island of Cuba; and Open Convents: Or Nunneries and Popish Seminaries Dangerous to the Morals, and Degrading to the Character of a Republican Community. Considered luridly campy today, such titles, featuring near-pornographic anti-Catholic propaganda, were published in the dozens by Protestants in the early to mid 1800s.
The books were, of course, blatantly untrue. Maria Monk, for instance, was mentally unstable, and her book was probably ghostwritten by a Protestant minister (perhaps Theodore Dwight). But they were incredibly effective as propaganda in favor of a white, "Christian" (i.e., Protestant) America and fanned the flames of a vicious nativist movement (that 20 years later took shape in the American Party, also called the Know-Nothings, who wanted to "purify" immigrants from US politics). In 1834, for instance, during two nights of rioting, the Ursuline Convent in Charlestown was ransacked and burned to the ground. About 4000 people watched, and the fire brigade protected the rioters. Although a highly publicized trial took place in the following months, only one person—a young teenage boy—was convicted, though there was ample evidence to convict many more. (While Rebecca Theresa Reed's sensational Six Months in a Convent, about the Ursuline Convent, was published months after the riot, her story had circulated in the Boston newspapers beforehand and probably sparked the incident.)
Explicitly sexual (for its time) and glorying in its sadism, Monk's book rocked the U.S. and Canada when it was published in 1836.
It is no longer acceptable—for good reason—to attack the Catholic Church in the same vicious terms used by Maria Monk and Rebecca Theresa Reed. Indeed, in the ongoing coverage of the priest sex-abuse story, the media have bent over backwards to avoid any hint of traditional American anti-Catholicism. Still, when we hear men describe sexual assaults by priests in the confessional, as well as repeated stories of seminaries being hotbeds of flagrant homosexual activity and even indoctrination—minus, of course, Monk's dead babies and the Inquisitional instruments of torture—we can't help but look for links to these earlier works.
The near-pornographic propaganda of the anti-Catholic tracts of a century and a half ago came directly from the great British gothic novels such as Matthew Lewis's The Monk and Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho, in which virginal English gentlewomen found themselves trapped in haunted castles and decaying chapels, pursued by ghosts and lustful lords. It wasn't much of a reach for Monk and Reed to recast the Roman Catholic Church—with its occluded rituals, Latin prayers, medieval trappings, steadfast loyalty to the Papacy, and congregations of immigrants who seemed repellently "foreign" to most Protestant Americans— into the stuff of WASP nightmares. It was but a short step from the ruined castles and eerie chapels of the gothic imagination to the allegedly real sinister convents, torture chambers, and hidden passages described by Reed and Monk. But it was an all-important shift that rendered Roman Catholicism palpably insidious, a genuine threat to freedom-loving, democratic America.
When we hear men describe sexual assaults by priests we can't help but look for links to these earlier works.
It was not for nothing that the early-gothic works were called "sensational literature"—that is, they forced readers to stop thinking and simply experience the "sensations" they felt. Just as the power of Reed's and Monk's books enticed the reader to feel and not think, much of the media coverage of today's sex scandals is having the same effect. There has been a stubborn insistence on calling this a pedophile-priest scandal when, in fact, most of the priests accused of abuse have not been targeting young children, which is what pedophiles do; instead, they have been targeting teenage boys. There has been a disturbing refusal to look at other abuses in the Church, such as the rape of nuns by priests. And there has been a weird blurring of the lines among various scandals. The real outrage committed by Milwaukee archbishop Rembert Weakland, for instance, was his apparent payoff—with church funds—to a spurned former lover. To compare him with an alleged serial sexual predator like defrocked priest John Geoghan (who's been convicted, so far, of one charge of child molestation) is ludicrous. But these distinctions are seldom recognized.
Then there's the language of the accusers, which often resonates with the florid rhetoric of the anti-Catholic harangues of a century and a half ago. Take this emotional statement delivered during a press conference by Arthur Austin, who has accused Father Paul Shanley of abusing him during a six-year relationship between the two that took place when Austin was in his 20s: "Bernard Law and Wilson Rogers have behaved throughout this catastrophe with a deviousness, cunning, and lack of good intent that crossed long ago into the realm of criminality, however much the ever-elastic niceties of the law may protect them. But in stooping, now, to defend, by delay and specious appeals to the court, a walking plague like Paul Shanley, they have lost forever any right to regard themselves as decent men. They are not decent men. They are merely a pride-filled prelate [Law] who lusted so shamelessly after the papal tiara that he came to see any form of unbridled and ruthless appetite as acceptable among the 'ordained'; and his equally Machiavellian and surreptitious adviser [Rogers], deftly guiding him through the spring-traps of potential legal disgrace. Bernard Law and Wilson Rogers knew of, and countenanced, indeed abetted, the ongoing rape and sexual defilement of children and young men and women by known sexual predators. There is not a spark of decency or goodness between the two of them. The stains they have on their hands now will never come off; neither will the stains on their souls."
Oddly enough, such concerns [celibacy] were raised by anti-Catholic writers in the mid 1800s, too.
Austin's language is eerily similar to the charges against 19th-century Roman Catholic prelates. Take this passage from "The Oath of Secrecy Devised by the Romish Clergy," which appears in an appendix in the second edition of Reed's Six Months in a Convent: "I do renounce and disown any allegiance as to any heretical king, prince, or state-named Protestant, or obedience to any of their magistrates or officers. I do further promise and declare, that notwithstanding I am dispensed with to assume any religion heretical for the propagation of the mother church's interest, to keep secret and private all her agent's counsels from time to time, as they intrust me, and not to divulge, directly or indirectly, by work, writing, or circumstances ..."
Even the more provocative sexual details of today find their rhetorical roots in the past. Here is Austin again:
"Shall I start with the cabin in the Blue Hills? - where he [Shanley] kept me on my knees all night, servicing him in ways that would make you vomit, if I told you? And how, when he was finished with me, he told me that I could now call him Paul, I didn't have to say 'Father Shanley' anymore? Or should I move right along to the ruined house in Vermont, where, in a rage, he left me, without heat or food for an entire day, in the dead of winter, in the middle of nowhere, to teach me that I must never, ever say 'No' to him when he wanted to use me sexually? Or shall I just start first with the dreams that still wake me in sobbing terror and sick to my stomach?"
Maria Monk recounts similar experiences when she refused to obey the whims of the Mother Superior or resisted the sexual advances of the priests: "[A]fter exhausting my strength, by resisting as long as I could against several nuns, I had my hands drawn behind my back, a leathern band passed first round my thumbs and round my hands, and then round my waist, and fastened. This was drawn so tight that it cut through the flesh of my thumbs, making wounds, the scars of which still remain. A gag was then forced into my mouth, not indeed so violently as it sometimes was, but roughly enough: after which I was taken by main force, and carried down into the cellar ..."
Even the slightest infraction brought severe penance: "Sometimes we were obliged to sleep on the floor in the winter, and nothing over us but a single sheet; and sometimes we had to chew a piece of window-glass to a fine powder, in the presence of the Superior. We had sometimes to wear leathern belts stuck full of sharp metallic points around our waits, and the upper parts of our arms, bound so tight that they penetrated the flesh and drew blood."
Much of the fascination with Maria Monk's and Rebecca Theresa Reed's memoirs came not only from the sexually tinged sadism of their writings, but from the general public's fascination with the sheer—and literal—foreignness of Roman Catholicism. To some degree, this is still true. Look at how the idea of priestly celibacy has gripped the media's attention. Of course, the question of enforced celibacy has been actively and seriously debated by the Catholic laity for more than four decades. But many commentators are now fixating on celibacy as the root cause of all instances of alleged sexual abuse. Oddly enough, such concerns were raised by anti-Catholic writers in the mid 1800s, too. Here is a prime example of an attack on priestly celibacy from Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Marble Faun: "Here was a priesthood, pampered, sexual, with red and bloated cheeks, and carnal eyes. With apparently a grosser development of animal life than most men, they were placed in an unnatural relationship with women and thereby lost the healthy, human consciousness that pertains to other human beings, who own the sweet household ties connecting them with wife and daughter ..."
These news stories are our new gothic. They provide a visceral and unholy thrill—a guilty pleasure, if you will.
Substitute "altar boys" for "women" and modify the extremist language and you'll find the same sentiments in recent media accounts of the scandals. Even a temperate commentator such as practicing Catholic Garry Wills raised the same questions, in a more moderate tone, when he wrote in a Boston Globe Magazine article: "Does anyone seek out a bachelor doctor on the ground that lack of a wife to love will make him care more for oneself? Does anyone think women would not be more at home with the counseling of female priests than with men?"
Even recent testimonials of how priests brought up the subject of sex in the confessional to induce their young penitents to engage in sexual activity has roots in this earlier literature. Maria Monk notes in Chapter III that "while they heard me confess my sins [they] put questions to me which were often of the most improper and revolting nature, naming crimes both unthought and inhuman." And again Wills notes that "prayer with the boy was often a part of the seduction technique. Praying with others at any time of day did not look suspicious when done by a priest. The pathos of many cases was the way the priest traded on the trust given him precisely because of his priestly aura. That gave him access, cover, and further opportunity"—which was precisely Monk's point as well.
What are we to make of these similarities? On a basic level these news stories are our new gothic—our new sensational literature. Like Grimm's fairy tales, in which children are constantly put in harm's way (and then generally harmed as well), they provide a visceral and unholy thrill—a guilty pleasure, if you will. It's the same impulse that allows audiences to watch films like Friday the 13th or Halloween and shiver and cheer as one teen after another is dispatched in gruesome fashion after engaging in some form of sexual activity. Most people—whether they admit it or not —like to be shocked and sexually titillated. Make no mistake: most of us are deeply outraged by the sex-abuse scandals. But while this may be a "Church" scandal, no one has ever forgotten that it is primarily a "sex scandal," and for many non-Catholic Americans it is, in particular, "a Catholic Church sex scandal"—wreaking, that is, with otherness. (For Catholics, it's also a church scandal, but since it's internal, they have difficulty viewing it as a spectator sport.) This is clearly an important story, but the amount of space, time, and energy that the print and electronic media have spent on it is truly astonishing—and can only be explained, in part, with reference to rhetorical structures that lie deep in the American psyche.
While the point of view and intent of today's coverage of the priest sex-abuse scandal differs markedly from the anti-Catholic political propaganda that drove the writings of Maria Monk's and Rebecca Theresa Reed, it can be said that history is repeating itself. Karl Marx noted in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte that "all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice.... the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce." But in this case, the second time around, the events are just as tragic as the first.