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Tag: MJ Lisbeth

Bishop’s Roulette

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Guest Post by MJ Lisbeth

Today I am going to make a confession.  (How Catholic of me, right?)

As I’ve mentioned in earlier guest posts, I was raised a Roman Catholic and, in my late adolescence and early adulthood, “gave my life to Jesus” and became an Evangelical Christian. My belief was eroded, if you will, by a combination of reading, study, and experiences that included finally coming to terms with my gender identity, sexuality, and the sexual abuse I experienced from a priest. I didn’t have a moment when I blurted, “I am an atheist!” or even “I don’t believe.” Rather, I realized that, somewhere along the way, I’d lost whatever faith I had.

Even so, I made one final attempt to be part of a “faith community.” For about a year and a half, I attended services at a church that would have appalled both the Catholics among whom I grew up and the Evangelicals to whom I professed my devotion to “the Lord.” (When I say that, I think of all of those African-Americans and women I’ve heard referring to “The Man.”) At the suggestion of someone whom I esteemed, and still do, I attended the services and participated in the programs of an “accepting” congregation.

I worked with someone I’ll call “Jenna” in helping to feed un-housed people. She told me she was an atheist but got involved with the church for “social reasons.” One day, I asked her to explain. The church did charitable work in areas that were of particular interest to her, she said. That work included in LGBTQ equality and helping folks in places like the Horn of Africa and Southeast Asia. Doing it under the auspices of the church “signaled” — she used that word — that she was “walking the walk.” Jenna’s family and friends didn’t take her work seriously — or believe she was doing it, especially the LGBTQ outreach — out of anything more than self-interest or money — never mind that she was a volunteer and used her own money to go to those places where she helped people, and to buy food, clothing and other items for the un-housed in our city — until she started working with the church. But she also admitted that being involved with the church spared her from having to explain her atheism to family members, co-workers, and others who wouldn’t have been sympathetic.

Likewise, that church legitimized, at least in the eyes of some people, the volunteer work I did in animal welfare, adult literacy, and LGBTQ equality. About the latter: I hadn’t yet come to affirm (or, in the parlance of the time, “change” or “transition”) my gender identity. But the church, which was among the first to hold funerals for victims of the HIV outbreak, gave me the “cover,” if you will, I wanted and needed in order to help people like me and to claim that it wasn’t about self-interest. Not only did my church involvement legitimize the work I was doing; but it also deflected the suspicions some people had about me. Hey, I didn’t even try to set some of my relatives and in-laws right (I almost said “straight” but the pun would have been too obvious!) when they expressed the hope that I would “meet somebody nice” and get married right on my second try.

Well, there would be no second try for marriage. Later, I did get involved in a relationship with a woman — whom I didn’t meet at church — and we lived under the protections of that document people associated with gay couples — the domestic partnership agreement — for several years. One funny thing, in retrospect, about that partnership is that it, like my church involvement, gave me “cover,” even among my conservative relatives and in-laws, at least for a time.

After being an atheist for, probably, about 30 years — roughly half of my life — I have come to realize how much legitimacy is conferred on all sorts of things done in the context of a church or other faith community by someone who professes his or her belief but is denied to those who do the same work without the imprimatur of religion. Also, there are some ceremonies and passages that are legitimized, by societal standards and even the law, by a declaration of faith or the “witness” of the faithful. Have you ever seen anyone take an oath of office without placing his or her hand on a Bible and ending his or her pledge with “So help me God” or words to that effect? And, even though conservative religious folks howl when cities, states, or countries tell people they can marry whomever they want as long as they are of age, those couples-to-be, whether they are two of the traditionally-defined sexes or nonbinary, are as likely as not to exchange their vows in a place of worship. Why? Sometimes they are trying to make their unions more palatable to prospective in-laws. Or one or both members of the couple may have grown up in the church and it is, therefore, the one place where everyone whom they’d want at their ceremony can gather. Another reason is convenience: while one can be legally married by a county clerk or some other secular official, getting married in a church or synagogue or other worship sites “kills two birds with one stone”: it sanctifies the union in the eyes of some and, in most places, makes the marriage legal, as, typically, the minister, priest or other officiating clergy member signs, along with other two other witnesses, the marriage license certificate shortly after the ceremony ends.

Knowing what I’ve just described, I am especially worried that far-right Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christians, as well as conservative Catholics and their counterparts in other churches and religions, will try to make their churches — and, possibly, baptisms or professions of faith — the only way to give or receive charitable gifts or works. This is more or less the case already in Utah, where public benefits are among the lowest and most difficult to obtain in the US. As in most other states, caseworkers refer people who’ve been denied benefits to other organizations — including churches.

 In the Beehive State, most roads to such assistance lead to the Church of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons).  People in need are thus subject to “bishop’s roulette.” Some officials are generous with their help.  Others, however, are more rigid and judgmental, especially with LGBTQ people and single mothers, who are often assumed to be “sinners” who had their children out of wedlock. Or, if they are willing to help, it’s on the condition that the person in need reads aloud from texts, attends church, or even sets up a date to be baptized. 

When the intentions of churches and other religious institutions are assumed to be noble or pure, they lend legitimacy, in the eyes of many, to charitable work — or the denial of charity. Never mind that prelates and others in the church use their power to bully those same people they help, or choose not to help, or those who do the helping.  For now, I am living in a safely “blue” state where, while some religious groups have political influence, they don’t hold nearly as much power as the Mormons have in Utah—or religious conservatives, whether on the Supreme Court or in local school boards, want.  And for now, at least, most young people want little or no truck with religious institutions. Still, I worry that while the proportion of religious conservatives in the total population is shrinking, their influence is growing as they become more virulent and vicious.  I hope that one day I won’t have to proclaim faith I don’t have, join a church whose motives I can see all too clearly, or simply deny who I am, to get help I may need—or just to be allowed to rescue cats. And I hope those young people won’t have to be similarly duplicitous in order to get education, jobs, or housing because they ran into an admissions officer, HR Department, or loan provider who believes it is more important to “save souls” than to help. In short, I hope none of us become unwilling subjects in “bishop’s roulette.”

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.

The Prayer Circle

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Guest Post by MJ Lisbeth

Five of us, in a circle, could barely fit into the cinderblock-walled, windowless room. George: earnest, stringy-haired lab assistant. Julie: tall, blonde lithe fresh-faced freshman. Deanna: the petite, attractive brunette whose ambitions in life were to translate the Bible “the right way” and to “bring souls to the Lord.” Thalia, a tall, rawboned Black woman whom, as it turned out, Julie had invited to a prayer meeting but didn’t seem to have talked much with her, or anyone else in that group or on that campus.

And me. It was the middle of October, a few weeks into the semester. At the beginning of it, I knew only Deanna, from the year before. With her smile and friendly manner, she had little trouble meeting people. On the other hand, when I met her, I was almost as socially isolated as I had been the year before, when I first arrived on campus. The one friend—or, more precisely, the friendliest acquaintance—I’d made was with Robert, a young gay man: the first person with whom I’d ever had a real conversation about sexuality—my own, his or anyone else’s. The other male freshmen, it seemed, were performing the same kinds of exaggerated masculine heterosexuality—or, at least their notions of it—I saw in high school.

I am now ashamed to admit that I spent time with Robert when there were no witnesses, save for two friends of his—one, a straight guy, the other a lesbian, both of whom seemed a few years older than either of us. On the other hand, as I became friends with Deanna, I made a point of being seen with her: Nobody would question my sexual orientation or gender identity—in those days, almost everybody conflated the two, as I did—at least, not openly.

Oh, and she was one of the reasons I joined a campus Christian fellowship and was in that room with her, George, Julie, and Thalia. I told her, and she told them, I thought I might be gay, mainly because I couldn’t identify with other males and the only trans women I knew about were Christine Jorgensen and Renee Richards, both of whom seemed as different from me as the frat boys on campus. Turns out, Thalia told Julie she thought she was gay, which didn’t surprise me but, of course, I didn’t voice that.

The ostensible purpose of the gathering was for us to “be filled with the spirit” so that Thalia could “overcome” her “sinful” desires. They probably wanted to pray the gay out of me, too, though no one said as much. Anyway, George began with some soliloquy about gathering in the hope of receiving the Lord’s help and blessings. About all I can remember accurately is a paraphrase of a verse from Ephesians: “For we are members of his body, of his flesh and of his bones.”

Since George was earnest in the way only a young person who believes he has God and truth and justice on his side can be, he wasn’t being ironic when he paraphrased that verse in the presence of me and Thalia, one of the few people I’ve ever met who seemed more alienated and adrift than I was at that time. He intoned, “Lord, we entreat you.”

Then Julie started to drone a bunch of syllables that began and ended with drawn-out vowels sandwiching truncated consonants: aaahbaaah, or something like that, followed by sounds even less coherent or recognizable, at least to me. Before that day, I’d heard from other members of the fellowship that she could “speak in tongues.” I guess that’s what they were talking about, I thought.

As Jo droned on, Thalia started to let out long, low sobs that turned into wails, then into near-howls. She lay on her side—I opened my eyes while everyone else’s were shut—in a near-fetal curl, shaking like a child who needs a warm blanket. Her body’s vibrations turned into seemingly-volcanic convulsions, in which she thrust her arms and legs, as if trying to heave them away from her body. Her howls abated into a series of staccato grunts.

Julie continued her incomprehensible “prayer.” Deanna shouted, “Satan, leave her! You have no authority over her!” But Thalia continued to heave, grunt, and thrust her arms and legs. Deanna grasped my left hand, George my right. They said, in unison, something vaguely comprehensible—a prayer? a Bible verse? —that I can’t remember now. Julie finally said something I could understand: “Oh Lord, we pray for our sister, Thalia, that you may heal her. “Amen,” she, George, and Deanna chanted in unison.

The following day, I woke on the worn carpet of that room. Deanna slept in a dorm bed to the left of me; Julie in another bed to the right. I saw George a couple of days later and asked about Thalia. “The Lord is helping her now,” he said. I never heard about her again.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.

Ban the Book, Banish the Pain (If You Can)

Guest post by MJ Lisbeth

During the past week, these stories were in the news:

  1. A former University of Michigan football player suffered sexual abuse at the hands of a university physician. At age 45, he felt something was wrong with his prostate. But when the doctor snapped on his glove, the former gridiron hero leapt up from the table, yelling, “No, nobody is ever going to do that to me again!” He simply couldn’t allow himself to be penetrated again. Another fifteen years would pass before he could say that he was raped—and allow a doctor to perform the examination that would lead to a diagnosis of late-stage prostate cancer.
  2. In Tennessee, the McMinn County Board of Education decided to ban Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus. In its decision, Board members cited its “nudity” (mind you, animated and of animals), “offensive language” (Tell me, what eighth-grader hasn’t said, let alone heard, “bitch” or “god damn!”) and “disturbing content,” including suicide and people hanging from trees.

I read Maus not long after it was published. Like most other readers at the time, I learned of it by word-of-mouth: graphic novels weren’t yet taken seriously in the literary world. While it’s not the first I’d heard or read about the Holocaust, it related the story in a visceral way that academic works and even most conventional novels could not. If you’re not familiar with it, the Jews—including Spiegelman’s parents—are mice, the Nazis are cats and the Poles are pigs. Most important, though was the way the novel conveyed, not only the tragedy of the Holocaust, but the personal traumas of Auschwitz internees, including Spiegelman’s own parents—his mother would commit suicide years later– and of Spiegelman himself. In other words, it conveyed something of which, at the time, I had an inkling if not the language: intergenerational trauma.

While he was at Michigan, Chuck Christian did not tell anyone that Dr. Robert Anderson did things to him not warranted by a physical examination. Later, though, a friend several years older told him that one day, he found a note on his locker saying he couldn’t practice until he talked to the coach. Bo Schembechler, who wasn’t exaggerating when he claimed to be the most powerful man in the Wolverine State, had gotten word that he didn’t let Dr. Anderson complete the physical examination. The player said, yeah, “because he was trying to do this to me.” The coach bellowed, “Quit being a wimp and get it done.” He did—which included submitting to the rectal exam he was trying to avoid.

Schembechler would enjoy demi-god status for decades as the University of Michigan’s football coach and Athletic Director. For most of that time, Dr. Anderson also worked for the University. Christian and his friend were far from the only victims of Anderson’s sexual, and Schembechler’s psychological, abuse. Indeed, Schembechler’s stepson is also a plaintiff in the class-action lawsuit. He and Christian have incurred physical as well as mental health problems as a result of the abuse they suffered. It’s not difficult to imagine that some of the victims’ families, friends, co-workers and others have been affected by the trauma resulting from violence they could not name until long after they experienced it.

It’s also difficult not to think that Spiegelman’s mother committed suicide, and Spiegelman himself had a nervous breakdown, as a result of pain that could not be named. In the book, one gets the sense that Spiegelman’s father hadn’t talked much, if at all, about life and near-death under the Nazis before his conversation with his son.

In short, the pain Spiegelman, who is now as old as his father was in Maus, and Christian, who is dying from his illness, is, if not a result of, then at least related, to suppression of their truths, and of truth generally. I shudder to think of what damage McGinn County Board of Education members—who profess to Christian faith (and one of whom said he’d never seen the book but had read the reviews) –are doing to the children for whom they profess so much concern by suppressing an honest discussion of what violence, whether physical or emotional, does to people. I shudder because I see that damage in Charles Christian.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.

When I Continued Believing By Other Means

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Guest Post by MJ Lisbeth

Just after my mother died, I started seeing the therapist, again, who helped me during my gender identity affirmation process.

Some would argue that I should’ve found a different therapist. In fact, I asked her whether she thought working with me again was a good idea. Mind you, she didn’t need me: She is well-regarded in her areas of specialty (which include gender identity and expression) and so does not lack for people — some of whom could pay more than I ever could — who want to avail themselves of her insights. But she assured me that as long as I felt our working relationship was beneficial, she had no qualms about it.

If you spend any amount of time with a therapist — a good one, anyway — you find yourself discussing experiences and issues that you might not have thought were related to the ones you wanted to work on, but you come to realize are related, if not root causes. And so it was during a recent session with Carol (not her real name).

Not surprisingly, she knows things about me that not even members of my family or all except a couple of my closest friends know. (She is the second person I told about my sexual abuse at the hands of a priest.) In one of my early sessions with her, years ago, I mentioned that I didn’t drink or do drugs. She asked whether I was attending any twelve-step programs or other similar support groups. I said that I wasn’t, but I wasn’t drinking or using — which was the truth. Also true — which I revealed later: I stopped attending meetings about three years after my second sponsor died — like my first, from HIV-related illnesses.

Being the therapist she is, she expressed neither approval nor disapproval. In fact, she didn’t mention it again — until a few months after I started working with her again. It came up in relation to something else — I forget what, exactly, but it probably had to do with my mother’s death and what it stirred up in me. I admitted that I drank, but not as a result of my mother’s passing: I’d resumed a few years earlier, a couple of years after my gender affirmation surgery. I wasn’t suffering from the “crash” some people are said to experience after any long-anticipated experience. Rather, I’d taken a celebratory trip and, in a place where nobody knew me, had a couple of drinks.

I didn’t wake up under a bridge or in the hallway of a seedy building — or in another place where nobody knew me. I didn’t wake up beside someone I’d never seen before and would never see again. I didn’t want “the hair of the dog” and in fact felt no pain or regret. If anything, I felt as I might’ve had I spent the evening in any number of other ways and didn’t want much besides waffles, fruit preserves, and coffee.

Since then, I’ve re-discovered an old taste for wine, beer, or hard cider with supper. But I uncovered no hidden craving for hard liquor, which I enjoy once in a great while, on special occasions, and with other people. (A bottle of whiskey, cognac, or vodka lasts me for months, or even more.) And I don’t feel that those libations are a “must” with a meal or other people.

After hearing these revelations, Carol asked a question that surprised me only because I didn’t expect to hear one so direct from her, or any other therapist: Have you thought that you aren’t an alcoholic or any other kind of addict?

When the props around you are pulled out, you might flail about. But then you might re-orient yourself to your new surroundings. For a moment, I wanted to scream at Carol: She had knocked out one of the last blocks of a wall that I confused with my identity. Being someone who’d undergone a gender affirmation (what people used to call a “change” or “transition”) and an atheist, I didn’t think I still had any such structure—especially since my belief in a supreme being was all but gone by the time I started to attend AA and NA meetings.

More than a few people in those programs — and outside them — told me not only did I need to believe in a “Higher Power,” but that it was simply impossible to remain clean and sober without “turning it over” to that “HP.” (If you speak Spanish, the HP monogram is particularly ironic.) While they denied that there was any “religious” connotation to their assertion, the way they talked about it, and the very thinly-disguised prayers they said at meetings, said otherwise.

While my first sponsor grew up Catholic and my second knew the Book of Common Prayer forwards, backwards, and sideways, they—fortunately for me — didn’t try to convince me that I needed a God, I mean Higher Power, to whom I could “turn over” my problems. On the other hand, they also didn’t downplay the need to “make amends,” though they emphasized that I shouldn’t blame myself for the ways I harmed others, or simply made mistakes. “Use whatever works to keep you sober,” my first sponsor told me.

So, while both of my sponsors didn’t convey the most toxic aspect of twelve-step programs—denying the religiosity of the program while premising one’s sobriety on it — I came to realize, with the help of my therapist, that I was also clinging, in some way, to the shame and guilt my Catholic upbringing and my later Evangelical Christianity had inculcated in me. Despite my sponsors’ assurances, I sometimes wondered whether I could stay clean and sober without a god or some other “higher power.”

What I realized, after working again with Carol, is that fear is exactly what enabled the priest in my old church to prey upon me: He understood, with a perverse kind of intuition, that I wanted a strong, protective authority figure — or, at least, something that would make me feel protected. And he knew that a child, or anyone who is vulnerable, can very easily mistake an authoritarian or manipulator for a source of strength, or at least safety — and could surrender his or her sense of him or herself to a promise and illusion of protection against the very dangers to which the church or he himself — or any other institution and its representatives–exposes him or her.

In other words, just as the churches to which I belonged and their representatives sold the belief that as long as I surrendered to them, I would attain “salvation” — which meant a life free of sin and damnation — the twelve-step programs claimed that as long as I “gave it over,” I would be on the “right” path. And the churches and programs said that straying from their God or Higher Power would lead to the road to death, damnation, and despair.

“So, even though I didn’t believe in God, I believed I was an alcoholic and addict because I still had the need to feel weak, helpless, worthless.”

My therapist didn’t say anything. She didn’t need to.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.

My Last Witness

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Guest Post by MJ Lisbeth

In previous essays, I’ve talked about sexual abuse by a priest and other misfortunes that were related, directly or tangentially, to the Roman Catholicism in which I was raised and the Evangelical Christianity of my early adulthood. Still, in some ways, I’m lucky: It’s been a while since anyone has made a full-on effort at “witnessing,” proselytizing, or converting me to any system of belief.

One of the last real attempts was made by a student during my first year of living and working as a woman. As far as anyone knew, I was the first faculty member to make such a “transition” (which I now call my affirmation) and within seconds, or so it seemed, of announcing my intention, everyone in the college knew about it. Some saw me as a novelty; others, I felt, were genuinely supportive; still others said all the right things to my face. And a few, maybe more, thought I’d see the “error” of my ways.

Two in the latter category were waiting for me to end my “experiment:” a gay male professor and a gay male student who were convinced that I would realize that I was really one of them. But I was in my mid-forties and had been through more than a few “experiments” in my time—including, I am ashamed to say, a marriage—which, if nothing else, taught me what I’m not. Others included a female faculty member whose flirtation I’d reciprocated during the previous year, even though, naturally, I had no intention of pursuing anything else with her.

Oh, and there were a few female students who tried to appeal to the twilight of my maleness. When I taught as a man, more than a few students—mostly female, but a few males—tried to pique my interest, shall we say. Now, I don’t think I was, or am, particularly attractive, though in those days, I was in really good shape. (Cycling!) A few students, I know, were trying to appeal to me, if subliminally, in a sexual way to win my sympathy, an extension on a deadline or a higher grade. Others, though, saw me as the male figure they’d never had in their lives. “You’re the first man who really listened to me” said a night student in a job and marriage that exploited her. Still another interrupted the advice I was giving her about her essay to exclaim, “You’re looking into my eyes!” I apologized. “No, it’s OK,” she explained. “Most men look at my body, at my breasts.”

Years later, I would glance into Glenda’s eyes — by which, I must say, I could see why more than a few people were mesmerized. (Think of Gigi Hadid.) We were discussing one of her assignments and she noticed, as many other people have, that I make a fair amount of eye contact, mostly to gauge how, or whether, someone has received what I’ve said or conveyed. (People have also noticed that I pay attention to facial expressions and body language, which may be a result of some of my experiences.) But if I was looking for a gateway to Glenda’s mind, she was seeing my glance as an opening.

“You know, the enemy is deceiving you.”

I asked her to explain.

“You know, The Enemy.”

It was 2004: The Cold War was more than a decade past and China wasn’t on most people’s radar. “Who do you mean?”

She sighed. “Satan.”

I politely explained that, as our relationship was professional and we were working in a state-sponsored secular educational institution, I couldn’t discuss religious beliefs. (Truth is, I didn’t want to.) Trying to make her condescension seem like concern, she intoned, “Don’t let him fool you.’

Over the course of the semester, I met with her several times. Her work was average, maybe a bit better, but she was consistent and diligent. And she made as much use as anyone has of my office hours. She made a lot of eye contact, most of it, I realized, not instigated by me. She leaned on my desk and, I noticed that over the course of the semester her attire had become, shall we say, more tailored. During our discussions of her work, she dropped in comments about “the Lord,” “my Savior” and “Jesus.”

At the end of our last class, she barged in front of me and flashed her final paper. “I have to talk to you about this.”

“OK.”

“I deserve a better grade.” (She got a C-)

“All right. Tell me why. Did I miss something?”

“I know I should have gotten a better grade.”

Mustering my patience, I asked her to kindly explain herself.

Silence.

“I know I should get a better grade.”

“Please, tell me why.”

A long silence.

“I know I’m not perfect. Tell me what you think I missed.”

Another silence. “Look, I’ve graded hundreds, maybe thousands, of papers and assignments. Nobody could be right every single time. Nor could I. So, perhaps, I was wrong. But I’m not seeing it. I was hoping you could explain.”

Still another silence. “I just know I deserve better grade.”

Once again, I politely asked her to explain.

“Alex (not his real name) got a B.”

He’d struggled early and I wondered whether he’d make it through the semester. But I saw gradual improvement that could have been explained by sessions in the college’s writing center or other extra effort. I said as much to Glenda.

I saw a tear roll from the corner of her left eye. I tried to soften my tone as I said, “Well, his hard work is showing some results.”

“I helped him,” she blurted.

“W-what do you mean?”

“I helped him.”

“How did he get a better grade than you?”

“I wrote his paper.”

“OK. Maybe I’m not the smartest person in the world. I don’t understand. How did he get a better grade than you?”

Her faucet opened. “I was just trying to help him like God wanted me to!” she wailed.

“God wanted you to cheat?”

“No, the Lord wanted me to help him. When I finished his paper, I didn’t have enough time to finish my paper.”

I waited for her to ask for a chance to revise her work. Thankfully, she didn’t. I was about to order her out of the room. Thankfully, I didn’t have to: she left. I never heard from her — nor about The Enemy or her Lord — again.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.

He Told the Globe

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Guest Post by MJ Lisbeth

It was exactly what I would have feared.

It was exactly what he feared.

His mother passed away without knowing two things about him. At least, he had never mentioned them to her. Now he was about to tell one of them to his father — like mine, a blue-collar Italian American of the generation that gave birth to Baby Boomers.

His mother had worked as a secretary. So did mine, among other jobs. My mother went to her grave having learned of one of my secrets, which is often conflated with his. My father learned of that secret — or, more precisely, truth — about me the same day, when I was about the same age as the man who is the subject of this post.

I am a transgender woman. He was gay. At the time of his fateful encounter with his father, that was still enough to make him a pariah, at least in some circles. That, and that he had AIDS. I have lost eighteen people to the disease — five of them between Memorial Day and Christmas in 1991. At that time, getting infected was a death sentence in every sense of the word: You lost your job, possibly your family and friends, and much else, before you lost your very life.

Of course, I consider myself fortunate not to have been afflicted with HIV. But if there ever was anything good to be said for it — especially in those days — it focused its victims, at least some of them. They did not fuck around; they knew they had no time for bullshit.

Which is why he had that conversation with his father. In the early 1960s, a boy named Phil Saviano attended St. Denis church in the Diocese of Worcester, Massachusetts: the locale of the College of the Holy Cross (Justice Clarence Thomas’ alma mater). Later in that decade, I was an altar boy in the Catholic church nearly everyone in my blue-collar Brooklyn neighborhood attended.

By now, you may have guessed (especially if you’ve read some of my earlier posts) what I’m about to say next. Phil and I were sexually abused by priests. To this day, I have not talked about it with my father or anyone in my family. But he would tell his father, some three decades after his experience. Not only that, believing that he was dying of AIDS, he revealed that he was about to talk with reporters from the Boston Globe.

His father was furious. “He couldn’t understand why in the world I would want to do that,” he recalled. For a decade, they were at a standoff over the issue. Then their parish, St. Denis printed a message in its church bulletin urging people to come forward if they had been abused. His father sent him the bulletin.

Turns out, the Reverend David A. Holley had ingratiated himself to a number of young boys, including Phil. A year before he had the conversation with his father — and Globe reporters — Saviano read a newspaper article saying that Father Holley had been sued in New Mexico for sexually molesting other boys. Until that time, he’d thought he and his friends had been the only victims.

If you saw the 2015 film “Spotlight,” this story — or, at least parts of it — may sound familiar. Shortly after meeting with Globe journalists, he asked officials at the Worcester Diocese to pay for his therapy. When they refused, Saviano sued the diocese. In the early stages of the case, he learned that seven bishops in four states had known that Father Holley, whom the church secretly sent to four different church-run treatment centers, was a serial child molester. (In 1993, Father Holley was sentenced to up to 275 years in prison in New Mexico. In 2009, still incarcerated at 80 years old, he died.) Church officials offered him a modest sum to settle the case on the condition that he sign a confidentiality agreement. He refused. “I’m not going to my grave with that secret,” he explained. “It would make me no better than the bishops.”

Finally, the church gave Saviano a $12,500 settlement and dropped the demand that he sign a non-disclosure agreement. “I think they figured I wasn’t going to be around much longer,” he said. But, by then, powerful new anti-AIDS treatments had been developed and he lived until last Sunday. He was 69 years old.

When you realize Phil lived for nearly three decades after the settlement, that amount of money isn’t nearly the windfall that it seems to be. If his life has any more parallels to mine than I’ve already mentioned, he’s spent at least that much on therapists and, possibly, medical help for conditions caused or exacerbated by his trauma. Also, while I don’t know much about him, it wouldn’t surprise me if, prior to coming forward, he’d lost jobs and educational opportunities as well as experiences with values that can’t be calculated at least in part because of his experiences. That he accomplished what he did is astounding: During the nearly three decades after his revelation, he advocated tirelessly for people like me and, among other things, founded a survivors’ network.

So, although Phil Saviano had to experience, at least for a time, exactly what I’d (and he’d) feared, he survived and showed us that we could do exactly what our abusers and their enablers didn’t want: Tell the truth about them and, most important, ourselves. (That is the essence of the “Me Too” movement.) It’s no exaggeration that it’s the (or at least a) reason why some of us are alive today.

He faced what he, what I, feared, what so many fear. If that doesn’t define a hero, I don’t know what does.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.

My Day Of Remembrance: 28 November 2021

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A week and a day ago, many of us — trans and gender-variant people, along with our allies — participated in Transgender Day of Remembrance. A now-annual commemoration, it was first observed a year after Rita Hester was found brutally murdered in her Boston apartment — twenty-three years ago today.

This year, hundreds of TDoR commemorations were held all over the world. Nearly all of them, including the one in which I participated, involved, among other things, each participant reading the name of a trans or gender-variant person killed during the past year. I was given the name of Iris Santos, about whom I knew nothing until I read her name and the date of place of her murder (23 April 2021, Houston, Texas) to the crowd.

As important as TDoR commemorations are to me, I have not participated every year. Reading the name of a complete stranger who could have been me always leaves me trembling from a storm of emotions: sadness, grief, fear, rage — and, even at this late date, guilt — among them. They stay with me long after the commemorations have ended. You might say that in some way I “adopt,” if not by choice, the victim whose name I’ve read. Sometimes it’s more than I can deal with.

While people normally feel sadness and grief over someone’s death, especially if they were close to the deceased, my guilt comes in part from knowing that I am old enough to be Ms. Santos’ grandmother — and that I could have been one of the names read rather than one reading her name. She was enjoying a meal at a picnic table when an unidentified suspect approached and shot her. Iris was “so young with so many things to look forward to,” according to Tori Cooper, the Human Rights campaign director for community engagement for the Transgender Justice Initiative. In that sense, and in the way she was brutally murdered by someone she didn’t know, Iris was like too many of us: Researchers at UCLA Law School’s Williams Institute report that trans people are four times as likely as cisgender folks to experience violent crime (including homicide) and most of those victims are, like Ms. Santos, trans women of color.

Another factor in my guilt — and rage — comes from knowing how too many other trans- and gender-variant people die — and how I almost became one of them. Although I cannot fault the organizers of TDoR, the commemorations leave out one group of victims that also are a disproportionately large — and unmentioned — part of our community.

According to Williams Institute researchers, “transgender adults have a prevalence of past-year suicide ideation that is nearly twelve times higher . . . than the U.S. general population”. In other words, between TDoR gatherings, trans adults are twelve times as likely as other Americans to have thought about taking take their own lives. Oh, but that’s not the worst news: “the prevalence of past-year suicide attempts is eighteen (italics mine) times higher than the U.S. general population. In other words, if one member of a group of 100 randomly-selected American adults has tried to take his or her own life during the past year, 18 members of a group of 100 trans folks has tried to end theirs.

Now, I know that the purpose of TDoR is to raise awareness of how too many of us are victimized through the hate and brutality of others—and that homicide is, unfortunately, one of the few crimes that can be verifiably linked to hate and violence. We cannot always know what was on the minds of trans, or any other, people who kill themselves: They don’t always leave notes recounting the personal, familial, professional, and societal rejection and exclusion they too often have faced—let alone the fears they might have, especially if they are young, at the prospect of living at the mercy of such prejudice.

If someone ends their life, or tries to, because they do not know how to deal with their gender identity and wish to express it — or, more precisely, the possible costs of doing so — it is generally known only to the victim themselves and, perhaps, someone to whom they confided. I know this because I tried to kill myself, in part because I simply could not imagine how I could live as the person I have always known myself to be — and because of two other people, one of whom I loved and another who might have become a friend.

(Herein, I will use male or female pronouns because during the time the people I’m about to discuss lived and died, “they,” “them” and “their” were not in use as gender-neutral pronouns and, therefore, the people I’m discussing used pronouns that reflected the gender to which they were assigned at birth.)

His body was found three days before Christmas. He — and I — were only a couple of years older than Ms. Santos was. Though we didn’t meet until our sophomore year at university, we had lived, it seemed, parallel lives: We were altar boys who attended Catholic schools in blue-collar urban communities. We played sports and did many other things expected of male children of our milieux—and a few things that weren’t. Oh, and while there were whispers about our sexuality, before and after we met, most people “read” each of us as cisgender heterosexual (or, at least, bisexual-trending-toward-hetero) males. I won’t say anything about my looks, but my friend — whom I’ll call Keri — was handsome-bordering-on-gorgeous in a young Antonio Banderas sort of way.

Although I tried to do the “dude” stuff, I felt an aversion to most members of the male gender. Keri, though, stood outside of that in a way I could not articulate at the time. I did not see him as I saw other men or boys, which is probably the reason I loved him. I also — if you’ll pardon a hackneyed expression—felt his pain. He felt trapped, as I did, and I now realize he knew it.

Which is why he called me the day before his body was found. I don’t remember exactly what he said as much I recall only a desperation in his voice. Occasionally, I hear echoes of that plea in others, but at the time it was unlike anything else I’d heard: It could have been my own. I think Keri knew that, and that I would show up at his place within minutes of our conversation.

He expressed a hopelessness, a despair I had never heard before — except from myself. “I can’t be who I am,” he lamented.

I could have said the same for myself. He knew that, even though I hadn’t. To this day, I wonder whether that was why he called. Did he want to hear me say, “Yes, I am a woman, too”? It would be years, decades, before I would. Instead, I held him in one of the longest embraces of my life and whispered, “Whoever you are, it’s wonderful, and I love you.”

As sincere as I was—I rarely used the word “love,” and perhaps will never say it often enough–it must have seemed like a platitude, at best. I was trying to console him in the way people try to comfort each other when they can’t, or won’t, truly experience another person’s pain. Much later, I realized that I could have truly loved him, or anyone else, only if I had been willing or able to acknowledge and act upon the truth about myself.

Still later, I realized that I didn’t “kill” Keri by not “saving” him that night. Although he might have lived — another fifty days, another fifty years? — had I given him what he — and I — needed, I came to understand — with the help of the therapist and social worker who worked with me during the first three years of my gender-affirmation process—that what killed him was the hatred, whether or not he experienced it directly, of the world around him. As Miguel de Unamuno wrote, Hombre muere de frio, no de oscuridad : People die, not from darkness, but from cold. The world, specifically, the human race as he knew it, was simply too cold for him, for anyone. He was frozen out.

In short, he was murdered by the world in which he lived, just as Iris Santos was by a random stranger with a gun. I could say the same for someone I met just before I started my gender affirmation process. Fran (not her real name) had lived with her boyfriend who, as she told me, “is the only person who truly loved me.” Her family — who included, I suspect, at least one person who sexually abused her—rejected her, ostensibly for her “choices”: She’d spent years recovering from, and relapsing into, addiction that lessened the pain of the work she’d been doing to support her addictions.

She learned of my gender affirmation process second- or third-hand: Someone had seen me “cross-dressing.” At first, she expressed disapproval — which, I sensed, wasn’t entirely her own. But she would ask me incisive questions about my “change”: What led me to it? How do I see the person I hope to become? How are my family, my co-workers, other people, treating me?

Finally, she confessed, “I admire you.” When I demurred, “I’m only doing what I need to do,” she said, “Well, I wish I could have.” She was about the same age as I am now which, she claimed, is “too late” to live the life she wished she’d had: as a man, with her boyfriend. “He doesn’t know I’m really I’m a gay man.”

Not long after, Fran washed down a bottle full of pills with another bottle of vodka.

She, like Keri, died from the darkness. In other words, she was murdered. Although I understand the purpose of Transgender Day of Remembrance, I really wish I, or someone, could have read their names, just as I pronounced that of Iris Santos a week and a day ago.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.

After The Rocket, The Church Flamed Out

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A Guest Post by MJ Lisbeth

Maurice “Rocket” Richard is revered by people whose grandparents weren’t born when he played his last National Hockey League (NHL) game in 1960. (That is a pivotal year in this story.) Possibly the only US athlete to attain iconic cultural status in his own country—and the world—as Richard enjoyed in Canada, especially in Quebec, is Muhammad Ali.

His younger brother Henri—“Pocket Rocket,”–while not as much of an idol or even as prolific a scorer, nonetheless followed his skate-tracks (is that the hockey equivalent of footsteps?) into the captaincy of the Montreal Canadiens and the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Four Hall of Fame goaltenders played behind “Pocket Rocket” during his twenty-year career. One of them was “Rogie” Vachon.

If you’ve read any of my previous posts, you might think that my longtime fandom of hockey—and, in particular, the Canadiens—is incongruous. How I came to that is the story of another article, which I may or may not write, altogether. But that, or the fact that the NHL season begins this week, is not the reason I’m writing this article. Rather, the three players I’ve just mentioned are emblematic of another development I’m about to describe.

Henri “Pocket Rocket” played his first Canadiens, and NHL, game thirteen years after Maurice “Rocket” first donned la sainte flanneleThirteen-and-a-half years passed—and six other siblings were born to Mme. Richard—between the days Maurice and Henri first opened their eyes to the world. Vachon was called “Rogie” by everyone he knew because his birth name was a mouthful for almost everyone else, whatever language he or she spoke: Rogatien Rosaire Vachon.

Now tell me, how many people do you know named Rogation Rosary? For that matter, unless you’re, say, about my age and were raised in a Catholic community, how many families have you known with eight children?

In the milieu in which the Richard brothers and Vachon were born and raised, however, such things were normal.

In the 1950s—when Rocket’s career was at its apogee, Pocket Rocket’s was being launched and Vachon was idolizing them—the province of Quebec, which includes its capital city of Quebec as well as Montreal, was probably the most Catholic part of North America. An older co-worker on one of my first jobs described Quebec City as “the second Vatican” because he saw so many priests and nuns walking its streets. And two of Montreal’s nicknames were the “la ville au cent clochers” and “la cite des saints”: the city of a hundred spires and the city of saints.

In that sense, Montreal, Quebec City, and the province of Quebec hadn’t changed much since French settlers first arrived in the 16th Century. The French royal family and aristocracy were Catholic, as was most of France, so charters to set sail for, and claim, the New World, were given only to Catholics. The Huguenots, Protestants who were about 15 percent of France and were more educated than most French people—and who thus comprised most of the merchant and professional classes as well as most of the country’s technocrats—were not allowed to claim lands for the French crown. So, from the day French colonization began, Quebec, like other French colonies, was a Catholic stronghold.

Because most of Quebec outside of the eponymous city and Montreal was rural and agrarian until the 1950s, the language and culture didn’t change much as it did in, say, Paris, Marseille or Strasbourg. Quebecois who didn’t live in the capital or in Montreal were unlikely to encounter, much less marry, anyone from outside their culture or church. That meant that the province remained culturally and religiously conservative, even by the standards of the Pre-Vatican II church and McCarthyite America.

It also meant that the Church exercised control over institutions, and the daily lives of people, in ways that are unimaginable to most contemporary Canadians or Americans but would be familiar to the Irish of a generation ago. The church was in charge of everything from schools at every level, nurseries, orphanages, and most social services. That meant, among other things, that young people who defied the Church’s prohibition against pre-marital sex used “Catholic birth control.” It also meant that girls were discouraged from pursuing more than the most basic education unless they were going to be nuns or serve the church in some other way.

The type of education offered, and its unavailability to girls, dovetailed with the Quebec church’s ideology of la revanche des berceaux—the revenge of the cradles. Encouraging people to have lots of kids was not new to Quebec: the Church has done it from the day it began. In Quebec, though, as in Ireland, it came to be seen as a way to keep French language and culture—and the rural way of life—from being subsumed by their British conquerors. The Church itself also served this purpose, as it did for the Irish and Polish, as it was one of the few institutions that had help from the outside world.

As a result, Quebec’s population grew far more rapidly than the population of its neighboring provinces. Further fueling that centuries-long baby boom, if you will, was immigration—mainly to Montreal, and most of it Catholic: Irish, Portuguese, Italian and Polish. One notable exception to this pattern was the Jewish immigration from central and eastern Europe which, as in the United States, came at around the same time as the Italians.

In the 1920s, when Maurice Richard was born, rural areas of his native province had some of the highest birth rates in the world: around 7.5 per Quebecoise, or about 39 per 1000. Today, such fertility in industrialized countries is found only in some ultra-orthodox religious communities like the Hasidim. Birth rates in Quebec, and the rest of Canada, fell somewhat until the 1950s but remained higher than in the developed countries of Europe. At the end of the decade, however, events would conspire to change the size and structure of families, and Quebec society, as quickly and dramatically as would happen in Ireland a generation later.

In 1960, Quebecois elected a new Liberal provincial government headed by Jean Lesage. By that time, Quebec had fallen far behind neighboring Ontario in economic as well as egalitarian terms. Furthermore, the province’s economy was dominated by English-speaking Quebecers. Lesage believed that modernizing Quebec’s economy would not only make it more competitive with that of Ontario and other provinces, but would also help to preserve the distinctive culture of la belle province by freeing it from Anglo domination.

What Lesage initiated is often called “The Quiet Revolution.” It included not only economic reforms, but social ones: The Church would no longer have control over schooling. Instead, the government would take over and modernize the curriculum and methods while expanding the education system. With these changes came perhaps the most significant development of all: for the first time, females would be entitled to the same education, including post-secondary, as males. In 1961, 4.7 percent of women aged 20 to 24 had a university education. Three decades later, that figure had jumped to 27 percent. With that change came greater female participation in the paid workforce: from 15 percent of women of childbearing age in 1961 to 74 percent in 1991.

The most dramatic change of all, however, is one that’s inevitable whenever women have access to education: They have fewer kids and have them later. By 1987, Quebec’s women, whose mothers might have given them five or six siblings, were giving birth to, on average, 1.37 children. That is even lower than the birth rate in Scandinavian countries and on par with Italy, where there are fears of a “demographic crisis.” While fertility has crept up somewhat in recent years, it’s still below the accepted “replacement” rate of 2.1.

With that decrease in childbearing and rearing came another inevitable development. In 1958, two years before Lasage’s election, 85 percent of Quebec’s people identified as Catholics, and 88 percent of them attended mass every Sunday. While approximately three-quarters of Quebecers still identify themselves as Roman Catholic, as we have seen, such a number tends to be high because people continue to identify themselves, out of habit, by the religion in which they were brought up even though they no longer participate or believe in it. Also, sometimes the responses of people, especially children, are filled out for them by other people.

Church attendance rates give a truer picture: From 1986 to 2011, the proportion of Quebec’s Catholics who reported attending church monthly dropped from 48 to 17 percent. Today, the weekly attendance rate is estimated at 4 percent: even lower than in European countries like the Czech Republic and Estonia, which have some of the lowest rates of attending worship services in the world. And barely a third of the people say religion—any religion—is “important” to them.

And it doesn’t take a demographer or religious scholar to see that this decline in religiosity is a “feedback loop”: As women become more educated and less religious, they have fewer and less religious kids, who in turn have fewer and less religious kids.

So what does that mean for my favorite hockey team? Well, large, often impoverished families with few economic opportunities provided a steady stream of aspiring players. Even for the vast majority who didn’t get to don the uniform of Les Habitants, or any other NHL team, their salaries, meager as they were, earned on junior or minor league teams nonetheless helped their families. That immediate “fix” was a disincentive, in much the same way tips from a good night of waitressing or bartending are, from furthering their education, which could do more to help them and their families in the long run.

Now, with a drastically decreased birth rate, Quebec has a smaller talent pool to offer the hockey world. Moreover, young men in Quebec, no doubt influenced by parents who spent more time in school than their grandparents, are opting for more education. And new media, including the Internet, have introduced them to a world of possibilities beyond hockey rinks, where they would compete, not only with other Quebecois and Canadians, but with hockey players from the US, Sweden, Russia, Finland, Czech Republic, and other countries.

It is little wonder, then, three Montreal Canadiens legends, all of whom are enshrined in the Hall of Fame, had sons who didn’t become NHL players. And, chances are, their kids and their peers probably aren’t attending church. After all, there’s so much else to do in Montreal or Quebec City, even on Sunday morning!

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.

Why We’re Still Paying

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Guest Post by MJ Lisbeth

A few days ago, I wrote about the report on sexual abuse in French Roman Catholic churches. While I was, naturally, recalling my own experiences of sexual exploitation by a priest, and of living in France, what motivated me to write the article was a conversation with someone I met only recently and, to my knowledge, knows nothing about the experiences I’ve described in other essays and articles.

She is a professor of English and African-American studies in a nearby college. While growing up, she shuttled between the US and Jamaica, where she was born. She, therefore, has a visceral understanding as well as an academic knowledge of something that’s become a punching bag for religious and political conservatives in this country: Critical Race Theory.

While we mentioned it, and one of us remarked that those who rail against it have absolutely no idea of what it is, we didn’t talk about it in depth. Rather, a seemingly unrelated topic led us into a conversation about, among other things, how our accomplishments have “drawn targets on our backs” for those who wanted to discredit us or, worse, get us fired on spurious charges—and how the very rules we followed were used against us for following them.

“You have paid for what you know,” I sighed. “And I’m not talking about your college and grad school tuition.”

“And I still am.” I nodded. “And so are you,” she added.

Of course, she could have been talking about any victim in the French report or others like it. People who are sexually abused or assaulted, or suffer any other kind of trauma, by definition, spend the rest of their lives paying for what was done to them. Those psychic wounds—and, too often, physical debilitations—are intensified, and passed on generationally (and, according to recent research, genetically) through the racism, sexism, homophobia and other prejudices encoded in our laws, embedded in our institutions and, most important, enmeshed in the lenses through which people see their world and act on it.

Critical Race Theory, as I understand it, posits that race is a social construct and, therefore, racism is a product, not only of individual prejudices and actions, but also something woven into legal systems and policies. Thus, the fact that we’ve had a Black (actually, multi-racial) President, and African-American athletes and entertainers are among the wealthiest people in America, no more validates the claim that “racism is over” (a claim I’ve heard, not only from conservatives, but from people even further to the left than I am) than defrocking a few priests—or sentencing them to “prayer and penance”—will eradicate clerical sexual abuse.

The French report, and others, say as much: Nothing less than a reform of, not only the way rogue priests and deacons are disciplined, but of the very systems that have enabled them to commit their crimes, is needed. For one thing, there needs to better screening and monitoring of clerics-in-training, and young clerics. As an example, a priest (not the one who sexually abused me) in my old church was defrocked—years after accusations that he sexually exploited boys in the parish were verified. I’m glad that he was cast out of the priesthood (my abuser died before I, or any of his other victims, spoke of his deeds), but he really shouldn’t have been a part of it in the first place: My morbid curiosity led me to discover that before he was “transferred” to our parish from another, he’d been kicked out of a seminary for sexual misconduct. That didn’t keep him from enrolling in—and graduating from—another seminary!

Just as the Roman Catholic Church, and other religious institutions, need to prevent predators from becoming prelates, it also needs to dismantle the systems and structures that allow officials, from the Pope on down, to shield perpetrators from justice. Local priests are transferred from one parish, or even diocese, to another when parishioners complain about their behavior; after Bernard Francis Law resigned as Archbishop of Boston and moved to Rome, Pope John Paul II appointed him as the Archpriest of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, which made him a citizen of Vatican City—and thus immune to prosecution by US authorities.

Then again, even when perpetrators are called to account for their crimes, it’s often a hollow victory: Because victims, for a variety of reasons, don’t talk about their sexual abuse for decades after they experienced it, by the time a priest is accused, the accounts are verified and the wheels of justice grind along, the perfidious prelate is very old—or dead, as my abuser was by the time I or any of his other victims spoke up.

Cases like Law’s are cited as reasons why systemic change, while needed, is not enough. More than a few people, including commenters on my previous post, have suggested that what underpins the system—the Bible itself—is the root of the problem. I would agree, as the Abrahamic religions, in all of their iterations from the Taliban’s version of Islam to the most liberal Episcopal or Reform Jewish congregation–is premised on gender, racial, and other social hierarchies specified in everything from the Books of Exodus and Leviticus to the letters of Paul. Bringing in a mixed-race transgender minister, and rooting out an individual paedophile, can do no more to change the inherent biases of the Bible and the institutions based on it than choosing another Black President or CEO, or driving out another individual racist, will destroy the system that perpetuates intergenerational traumas and inequalities—or getting rid of a few rogue cops or arresting a few drug dealers or users will eradicate the draconian laws and unjust social conditions that fuel the demand for, and business in, banned substances.

Until structures, systems, and institutions based on arbitrarily-defined groups of people and designed to protect or punish some of those groups (just as arbitrarily chosen) are, not reformed, but dismantled, their victims will continue to pay for what they are forced to learn—and what the perpetrators can’t, or won’t, understand. The woman I mentioned at the beginning of this essay knows as much.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.

Bruce Gerencser