Seeking the Divine

In spite of the textile title, this is my site for general introspection. I am listening to Beethoven’s Violin Concerto with Itzhak Perlman. My mind wandered to my mid adolescence when I had been sent to an excellent boarding school run by the Divine Word Missionaries; originally it was attached to the seminary, as a natural progression to becoming a priest. Why, as a working class boy, I had access to this will become clear below. Like all boys abused in the Catholic system, I served as an altar boy. The church then was almost medieval: sodality banners were hung at each side of the aisle in the church; St Joseph on the left in front of where men were seated, on the right Mary in front of the women. Easter was especially complex with its solemn rituals: the red sanctuary lamp was constantly lit to mark the presence of the host in the shrine, I forget the exact nomenclature. On Good Friday, the priest, robed in black, removed the host (where I forget? I think to a private chapel in the nunnery next door). The doors of the shrine were left opened for people to see that there was no divine presence.

This was the atmosphere in which I was raised. Bathed is probably a more accurate description. I hero worshipped the priests; for good reason, as they were at a social apex, material socialising and spirituality combined. I determined to become a priest and must have made this known to my teachers, the Sisters of Mercy, especially the wonderful Sister Matthews, who looked after me and guided me through difficult times. I was a gifted student, always appreciated by a good teacher. Then came the day that I fell over in the school yard and grazed my knee. I was crying and one of the sisters said that I had to go to the nurses’ room/library, at the end of a row of classrooms facing an open aired verandah. The priest who was there, Leonard O’Rourke, asked he whether I wanted to become a priest. He also said he knew that I liked to read books; all of which puzzled me as my concern was my bleeding knee. I was about eleven years old at the time. He had been sitting across the room but got up and stood behind me. He started to grope in my shorts and finally asked me “Is this it?” The question meant nothing to me. But I did notice that when he saw a sister enter one of the classrooms he arranged us out of her sight.

The abuse involved several visits to his room; for me, a priest’s command was unquestioned. At one stage he lent me two books, one being Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana. When I returned it he asked my opinion. I replied that I had a list of words I did not understand: “lesbian, marijuana and cocaine”. His response was that we need not concern ourselves with those. Recently, when my fellow victims and I brought forward a charge against him in the Bundaberg Local Court, the public prosecutor described my evidence as prima facie,as opposed to some of my co-accusers who were unwell, or comparatively inarticulate, working class. I was appalled at the magistrate’s expression of amusement at their attempts to articulate their narrative.

But, back as an eleven year old, about to finish primary school, my future stretched before me. My dad, who overheard me discussing “sex education” with my also abused older brother, was horrified that another brother was being detained by O’R; he raced to the presbytery. Peter ran down the steps, saying to dad: “he wanted to measure my dick but I wouldn’t let him”. O’R wanted dad to come inside and discuss the situation calmly, to which dad replied: “why, you want to measure my dick too?” O’R fled town that night and somehow managed to be transferred to Bundaberg, which is why he was tried in the Local Court there, as he later abused a number of boys there also. My later conciliation discussion with the Bishop of Rockhampton included my enquiry about the so-called priests’ transfer books. Mysteriously, they had been moved to Brisbane, where they had disappeared. My dad was good friends with the older priest of Marian parish, Father Fraher, a godly, old school guy, although he once asked me, after mass had concluded, whether O’R’s abuse involved anal penetration. How embarrassment.

I know Catholic theology is a mystery to many; the man I live with was born Anglican but is now an unbeliever. For instance, from his memory of church practice, confession is a totally alien concept. Among Catholics, confession cannot be granted by the priest if it is clear that the “sinner” is unrepentant, merely going through the motions. That’s a particular dilemma; a person who is addicted to certain behaviour may become intensely contrite but afterwards he commits the same sin. Personally, I do not think the church has examined the concept of addiction at all well.

In my case, I was raised to view my local priest with awe; after all, during the ritual of the Mass he transformed the materiality of bread and wine into the real Body and Blood of Christ, a spiritual feat of extraordinary power. His hands were magical; it is not too farfetched to extrapolate. At the core of my abuse by O’R was the puzzle that a priest could behave in such a manner, could combine such two behaviours. Matters might have been alleviated matters if his superior, Father Fraher had said to me quietly that this abuser was a-typical, that his behaviour sprang from a cynical, worldly place deep within his psyche. ( Perhaps the concept of child abuse was so new then? I still cannot fathom the need for a grown man to manipulate the genitals of a pre-pubescent boy.) However, this conversation did not take place.

I was so particularly naive and brought up in a dysfunctional family (my mum had been a post-WW2 refugee, brought to Australia on an Italian IRO International Refugee Org ship). She spoke little English and her behaviour was un-Australian. I feel solidarity with the situation of Arabic women wearing their traditional dress. Sunday mass was a ritual where the women of Marian (my home town) were able to wear their prettiest hats, the competition was fierce. Meanwhile, my mum wore a black headscarf, not seen even at  Australian funerals. So much for a few of my socialisation problems; but back to the situation that might have occurred where this older priest could have made the situation clear. I now feel that this did not happen because it would have involved rubbishing the product, a concession that some of his colleagues (we now know, post-Commission just how many) were cynically abusive.

Religion after all is a solitary matter; it’s sink or swim; you face your demons internally. How apposite it is that one Bishop (of Sydney?) refused to join the coalition of religions wanting to offer sanctuary to refugees, saying it would be unAustralian. Meanwhile the chubby Bishop of Brisbane, (I know not if either of the above is an archbishop, they are equals, the pope being primus inter pares) recently declared that same sex marriages would amount to a parent marrying their child. Only slightly improved from the Bernardi obscenity of males marrying their pets; US style ultra right wing evangelical speak has arrived on our shores. God help us, or as the Mormon guy having gay sex in the sauna said, “don’t use the G-word”.




About anton veenstra

tapestry weaver, fibre artist, gay/qr activist, multiculturalist
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