How Long Has This Been Going On?


A reader writes:

Of course this has gone on for centuries; it is only the fact that we no longer blame the victim that has allowed those abused by the church (or indeed, any other institution) to come forward in the last few decades.

Did you never wonder about St. John Bosco? I sure did. John Bosco worked extensively with working class boys. In the measured prose of the Oxford Dictionary of Saints:

"He devoted himself also to the needs of young men, especially on Sundays. His attractive, charismatic personality soon drew many to his oratory and his evening classes. Soon he resigned his post as chaplain and lived in poverty with his mother and about forty destitute boys ...

John Bosco also had a reputation as a visionary, a wonder-worker, and one with an extraordinary gift for handling difficult youths without punishment but with a gentle but effective firmness. Don Bosco often used to take boys on Sunday expeditions in the country, with Mass to start with, followed by breakfast and open air games, a picnic, catechism class, and Vespers to conclude."

I read this entry many years ago and found myself returning to it with curiosity when the whole Covenant House scandal occurred. Bosco eventually established schools and vocational training houses for over 500 young boys and of course, his order specializes in schools and seminaries to this day. It gave me a lot of food for thought.

I cannot know about any particular instance. But if one believes that a celibate priesthood can be a magnet for sexually repressed and conflicted or emotionally arrested homosexuals, and if one understands that all priests, like all human beings, are sexual creatures, and if one believes that the core problem is also total authority, a closed clerical culture and no external accountability, then the question of what went on for centuries before the abuse crisis emerged into the sunlight remains. More than remains: it haunts.

Before his death Bosco wrote about himself in the third person:

"I will reveal to you now a fear . . . I fear that one of ours may come to misinterpret the affection that Don Bosco had for the young, and from the way that I received their confession - really, really close - and may let himself get carried away with too much sensuality towards them, and then pretend to justify himself by saying that Don Bosco did the same, be it when he spoke to them in secret, be it when he received their confession. I know that one can be conquered by way of the heart, and I fear dangers, and spiritual harm."

(Photo: Peter Muhly/Getty.)