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A Cross He Could, and Would, Not Bear

thelma and louise

Guest Post by MJ Lisbeth

When Thelma & Louise came out, it seemed that people reacted in one of two ways. Some viewers were unhappy that the two title characters fled after Thelma shot and killed the man who tried to rape her. Others — including nearly all of the women I knew — elevated those characters into heroes. One even said she felt a “catharsis” when Harlan is struck by the bullet from Thelma’s gun.

I could have said the same: When Thelma fired that gun, I vicariously struck back — at what? She did to her aggressor what I wish I’d done — to whom?

At the time I saw the film, I had not yet come to terms with the childhood sexual abuse I suffered from a priest. Those experiences were submerged within me, occasionally bubbling up through nightmares and unconscious behavior. Also, I was many years away from starting my gender-affirmation process. I was living as a man, with a deep hatred of the male species (that’s how I thought of them) and resentment of my membership in it.

I saw Thelma and Louise with the woman I was dating. She knew of my attitudes about men and referred to me, only half-jokingly, as a “male lesbian.” To her, my response to Thelma’s action was just an expression of how I felt about men generally. I accepted that explanation simply because, at that time, I couldn’t come up with a better one.

There was another part of my response to the film which I understood full well, but discussed with no one—not even my woman friend. I completely sympathized with Thelma and Louise running from the law. Actually, Thelma wanted to call the police, but Louise understood that no one would believe her claim of attempted rape, especially since Thelma had been drinking and dancing with Harlan before he tried to attack her. Now, I wasn’t drinking or dancing with the priest before he took advantage of me sexually, but I knew that even if I’d had the language to describe, and make sense of, what happened to me, no one (at least, no one I knew then) would have believed me. I grew up in a conservative community where nearly everyone attended the same church I did, and many kids were my classmates in my Catholic school. In such a milieu, nobody — especially a child — has more credibility than a priest.

A recent news story brought to mind my reaction to Thelma and Louise — and to earlier experiences. I first heard the story from a friend of mine in France, and it made its way into English-language media during the past few days.

A 19-year-old boy confronted the priest who, earlier, abused him. That, of course, is something I wish I could have done to my abuser, who died three decades before I spoke of his actions with anyone. Then the young Frenchman did a Thelma, if you will: He killed that priest.

I will admit that in hearing the story, I vicariously struck back at my abuser. Perhaps that reveals some baseness in my character. If it doesn’t, then perhaps this does: I also felt a vicarious thrill in picturing the young man vanquishing his abuser.

All right, I’ll admit: It was the way he tore the life out of that man of the cloth that so excited me. In fact, I’ll confess something perhaps even cruder: I found myself wishing I’d come up with the way he ended a decades-long string of abuses.

According to reports, the young man, identified only as “Alexandre V.” suffocated the priest by ramming a cross down his throat.

Yes, you read that right.

Now, I know that killing should never be condoned: I have opposed capital punishment from the moment I learned about it. Still, I have to concede that if I were on a jury at his trial, I would have a difficult time voting to convict him. I would hope that other jurors, and a judge, would consider not only Alexandre’s suffering, but also the way the priest “shattered a whole family,” in the young man’s words.

He was not being at all hyperbolic. Perhaps not surprisingly (at least, I’m not surprised to learn) the prelate, Father Roger Matassoli, is also alleged to have abused Alexandre’s father as well as other boys during the time he served in the northern French diocese of Saint-Andre-Farivilliers.

Alexandre probably knew about other boys Father Matassoli is said to have abused. What he and his father—as well as their fellow parishioners — probably didn’t know, until the allegations of abuse came to light, was the circumstances by which Father Matassoli arrived at their Oise parish. They probably knew only that he was transferred to their diocese from the diocese of Clermont in 1967 because of — you guessed it — allegations of sexual abuse which, of course, the church hushed up.

How many lives and families did Father Matassoli “shatter” there? We may never know, but at least that cycle has been broken.

Now I can only hope that young Alexandre gets the help he’ll need — and Thelma never got. I know how much they both need it: It took me nearly half a century to get help.

And help is all he can hope for. Although it’s tempting to see a young man ramming a cross down the throat of a priest who abused him as a kind of “poetic justice,” the truth is that there is no justice in situations like ours. I just hope that the French authorities understand as much. At least he is in a country where such help is not contingent on his (or his family’s) ability to pay for it, and where the church is losing its power to silence victims young and old.


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    When I read about this case, it struck me as a singularly fitting end for a member of a cult which has always believed in ramming its belief system down other people’s throats. There may be no perfect justice in such cases, but I think Alexandre V managed the best humanly-possible approximation for his abuser.

    Now, I know that killing should never be condoned

    Well, I suppose killing might be a bit extreme — there’s nothing wrong with these child-molesting priests that a shotgun blast to the nuts wouldn’t fix. But I would respectfully ask you to consider — who benefits from the Christian fetishization of mercy at the expense of justice and revenge? It’s the wrongdoers who have reason to fear justice. It’s the abusers whose interests are served by convincing their victims that revenge is somehow dishonorable. Every time one of these black-collar criminals gets caught doing something disgusting to some vulnerable person, the church authorities immediately start yammering about the virtue of forgiveness, redemption for sinners, praying for those who persecute you, blah blah blah. It’s exactly the kind of belief system that abusers would want victims to be brainwashed with, to shield the abusers from getting what they deserve.

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    Appalachian Agnostic

    Thank you for your perspective. I was one of the people who saw Thelma and Louise and thought good grief, why didn’t they just go to the police and tell them exactly what happened? It didn’t sink in that they thought no one would believe them.

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    Karen the rock whisperer

    I saw a Facebook meme the other day, the gist of which was: treat the young man the way the priest was treated–send him off to another parish and let him do it again.

    Beneath that dark humor is a thirst for justice. I abhor the idea of killing people in general, be they death row inmates, evil priests, or members of Iraqi wedding parties. But the thirst for justice rings oh, so true, and we live in an eye-for-an-eye culture. I don’t happen to like that, but damn, my gut totally understands it.

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    Brian Vanderlip

    Thank-you MJ, for sharing this story. I don’t agree with capital punishment and I don’t much support the punishment paradigm itself but I sure understand how one can want to kill their abuser, to see them suffer. I think the pain that remains in the body from abuse carries the extreme harm into all kinds of things, ways of being and imagining.
    When I was in therapy and doing child-work there, so much came up about the depth of childhood suffering within the Christian church. Your story is enduring evidence of the harm done to children by adults in authority. I am happy to know that you have been able and fortunate enough to do the work needed to live consciously and be the author of your own life. Grateful to read your post.

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    I never saw Thelma and Louise until about a year ago as an almost-50-year-old woman and after the #MeToo movement. The movie came out while I was in early stages of escaping evangelicalism so I didn’t see it when I was a very young, inexperienced woman. I wasn’t surprised with how strongly I felt the emotions of triumph when Thelma shot the rapist – after decades of living on high alert all the damn time, wondering if your mere existence might entice unwanted attention, and always having an exit strategy in place hoping it’s enough – it’s rewarding to see a woman being able to FINALLY ward off her attacker in a way he will never be able to hurt her again. And still women aren’t believed – what were you wearing, were you drinking, did you lead him on, all the bullshit excuses used to excuse abuse.

    Thank you, MJ for another fantastically written and meaningful post.

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Bruce Gerencser