Having written the previous blog I decided to watch the movie Doubt, where Meryl Streep the principal of a primary school confronts a young priest whom she suspects of sexually interfering with a young boy. The interaction between priest and nun paralleled my own life. There, the head of our primary school puzzled over our local priest requesting school boys be sent to his room during school hours. Presbytry and primary school were situated opposite each other, across the country road.
Here is where the film suffers seriously from anachronism. In 1963, important for Irish catholic culture all over the world, President Kennedy had been assassinated. I remember, at age 12, we were taken, the entire school, across the road to the church, to say prayers for his soul. The sisters, especially Sister Matthews, our equivalent of Meryl Streep, considered the loss devastating; an Irish catholic leading the greatest empire of the day, cut down in his prime. Irish culture saw itself as oppressed by English imperialism, here was its saviour. For me, the day, dies ires, was as dire as when two yeard earlier we had gathered, the entire school, to attend a requiem mass for a student from my class, who had died at the age of ten.
The serious anachronism of the film? Doubt never mentions pedophilia; it cannot bring itself to develop an effective sexual vocabulary; this is accurate for the times. I’ve seen a doco on how Irish catholic culture was so effective in not discussing sexuality that young people grew up sexually neurotic. It was so in the case of Sister Matthews, that she never suspected the priest of wrong intentions. He was being served altar boys as room service, during school hours. The principal of my primary school, though certainly a woman of the world, was completely unused to the concept of pedophilia. The sister played by Meryl Streep speaks of having encountered this crime more often than might seem statistically realistic.
In my case, when the priest’s real behaviour was revealed it provoked an admirable crisis of faith in Sister Matthews. True to her stalwart nature, she had begun a campaign to bring the miscreant priest to justice. He was after all, still serving in the same diocese, but in the south, in Bundaberg? whereas we were in its northern area, Marian/Mackay. All of this took place in the diocese of Rockhampton. When she complained to the hierarchy, she was invited to resign. If you don’t like the way things are run, resignation is always an option, they told her.
Unlike the neurotic disciplinarian played by Meryl Streep, Sister Matthews, though she dispensed punishment when she saw fit, and wielded a length of bamboo cane with relish, she was also a charismatic, fun loving wholesome leader. One of my childhood artistic triumphs was drawing her patron in coloured chalks on the classroom blackboard for her birthday.
As I related in my previous chapter, the most important document in the bishop’s administration, the priest roster, has gone astray. This would have shown another infamous pedophile priest McCardle, who was charged and sent to prison, being transferred to various areas upon receipt of parishioner complaints which could not be ignored.
The legal individual, who headed my group’s legal complaint against our perpetrator, managed to get access to McCardle in his prison cell; his intention was to get information about how the group of priest pedos worked. One has to admire the effectiveness of church indoctrination, even for the pedo priests who travelled hundreds of miles to hear each other’s confessions. Not entirely hard-bitten, unable to ignore the pangs of conscience, they dared not risk revealing all, even under the seal of confession, to their immediate superior.
But I repeat, sex was not mentioned. My mum and dad never mentioned the subject. Years after the offending priest had decamped, his boss interrogated me, embarassingly, about the nature of the sexual interference: had I been fucked in the arse? I writhed in mortification. Alas, all too late. The adults all wished we children had taken them into our confidence. My dad only found out about what had happened to his three children from a chance comment of mine. Two classmates were ruefully discussing the pedo’s needs and demands, one said to the other, he wanted me to come to his rooms for sex instruction. I overheard this and joined the conversation. They told me my older brother had also been to the priest’s room. So at home I asked my bro about the instruction, dad overheard, then gasped, “he’s got your younger bro in for detention”. He raced to the priest house, the presbytry, knocked on the door and my bro ran out, saying: he tried to pull my pants down but I wouldn’t let him.
My dad was feisty when he got going, stood on the front step, yelling for the priest to come out, so he could knock him down. He threatened to get his 22 pig-shooting rifle. From his open bedroom window the perfumed O’Rourke pleaded with my dad to step inside to discuss this quietly. “Why?”, asked my dad, “so you can play in my trousers too?”
Finally dad relented, took my brother home and had supper, a strained affair. He was by birth a Calvinist and took every opportunity to rubbish catholic culture, now he had a perfect instance of its failings. It became a contentious issue in my parents’ marriage. Meanwhile, O’Rourke fled town that night, leaving some flimsy excuse for his absent boss.
There are a number of issues carefully stacked up to balance and cancel each other in the movie Doubt. The sister’s disciplinarian attitude is underlined. She represents the old order of life on earth, the vale of sorrow where we suffer silently for a greater reward in the afterlife. To the priest and even the young nun her ways are increasingly repellant; a new order is sweeping through the world, the age of the Vatican Council. Against this is stacked the might of the patriarchy, exemplified by the worldly jollity of the three priests at supper, so unlike the dread supper table of the nuns, who seem to be dining at a wake. The patriarchy however cannot withstand criticism. Thus the sermon about the pillow and the wind-dispersed feathers of gossip, that, once released, can never be collected. If you believe in the priest’s innocence, this has to be why the priest submits to the sister’s demand that he withdraw from the parish: his authority would not have withstood the nun’s continued accusations.
I continue to be amazed that the film’s events are an exact chronology of my own life; I wonder what would have played out in our parish if we had been more honest. But sexual prudery was paramount. I remember some senior girls in an older class confronting the sister about sexuality. She recoiled in indignation at the idea that she had been a bad gel before joining the convent, the actual words were more baroquely phrased. Innocently I asked if she had been. The nun crossed her hands across her ample bosom, across the starched habit, and in the attitude of Renaissance hagiography, replied “I am inviolate.” Impressive, but completely mystifying.