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Our Fathers: The Secret Life of the Catholic Church in an Age of Scandalby David France
Late Summer 1953
Watertown, Massachusetts — It was near midnight, uncommonly dark. Rain sheeted. A squally wind rattled the rectory's windows in their frames. Father Michael Logan rose from his reading to fasten the sashes, still in the cassock he'd fixed around himself that morning. Behind the rain-streaked glass, he was unsmiling, and utterly alone. Long seclusions, endless nights--these were the consequences of giving yourself totally and with undivided heart to God.
From the window he glimpsed a distressed figure down below as it dashed across the slick courtyard and into the church. The urgency of the man's haste, the terror that seemingly chased him through the night, made Logan anxious. He knew he must go down. Fingering the buttons on his cassock, he headed toward the church, making use of an interior stairway and private passage. He pushed into the darkened nave, through the thick, sweet perfume of ancient devotionals--beeswax, incense, and chrism.
Banks of vigil lights near the altar still flickered. Logan snagged one and lifted it high over his head to illuminate the pews. He called out, but no answer came. He moved slowly up the ambulatory into the velvet blackness, beckoning left, then right, until his torch seized upon the frightened eyes of a man he knew, Otto Keller, the church sexton, bent furiously in prayer.
"What are you doing here?"
Keller was disconsolate. He did not answer.
"Is something wrong?"
When Keller finally spoke, he was almost incoherent.
"No one can help me," he said. "You would hate me now."
Keller gripped Logan's sleeve and pulled himself up from his knees. The candlelight distorted his features.
"I must confess to you," he said. "I must tell someone! I want to make a confession!"
The strange demand of his declaration, its violent formality, unsettled the priest. Ordinarily, he might have advised such a man to confess during normal hours, on Saturday afternoon. The sacraments were governed by divine tradition, not whim; by priests, not parishioners. But this clearly was no time to withhold the possibility of absolution.
He led Keller through the darkness to an elaborately carved confessional box, and both entered, each through a separate door, into separate enclosures. Sitting, Logan removed a stole from a peg on the wall, kissed it hastily, and smoothed it around his neck. He hesitated briefly, said a small prayer, then drew back the curtain covering the grille that separated him from his supplicant, who whispered, "I confess to almighty God and to you, Father, that I have sinned."
Logan fixed his gaze upon a Bible. "When was your last confession?"
"I can't remember."
"Can you remember approximately?" he asked patiently.
Keller's voice shattered with grief. "I . . . I've killed Mr. Villette!"
Logan was thunderstruck. His head swung around, as though knocked wild by a fist, and nearly struck the mahogany wall. He was speechless. Villette? By awful coincidence, the priest had an appointment with Villette, a prominent insurance agent in town, the next morning. It was unimaginable that he would be dead, much less murdered. And the sexton? He had been working in the rectory for some time now, never giving the slightest indication of a villainous streak. What possible motive could he have?
Keller began to explain, his words leaking like poisonous gas through the grille. The confession of a murder. What could Logan do?
He knew what he could not do. He could not turn Keller over to the authorities, could not break the inviolable seal of the confessional, no matter how dark the threat of perdition. In fact he could not do anything at all on the basis of information he received in the confessional. This was a matter of great philosophical complexity, one of the prime credos dwelt upon in seminary. His only concern would be the penitent's soul.
Logan could not know what would happen tomorrow, that the police would come to suspect him for the crime, that a panel of jurors would ultimately conclude that depraved indifference drove the priest, not the sexton, to murder. Worse, they would base their conclusion upon the lying testimony of Otto Keller himself, a deception that Logan, ever bound by the confessional seal, could not contradict.
This was the risk priests took.
A stoic resolve hardened on Logan's young face as he leaned his ear toward the divider. "Go on," he whispered. There never was a more heroic gesture.
At least that was what Dominic George Spagnolia, seventeen years old and not an especially good Catholic, thought as he watched this scene unfold on the large movie screen. He had stolen into the theater to see Montgomery Clift star as the priest Logan in Alfred Hitchcock's I Confess. He was expecting a thriller, which the Keller killing certainly promised, but not the moral conundrum Father Logan was about to encounter. He never had imagined anything like the awful bind that tore at the priest's conviction, or the flooding bravery of a man who placed faith above self-interest, and doctrine over instinct. Most silver-screen heroes were swashbucklers and gun toters; Logan was a hero of a different sort. Spagnolia--"Spags" to his friends--felt as though he'd been jolted from a dream by a brilliant explosion. Later he would call this the work of providence. Right then and there, he knew he would become a priest. He would be a hero.
Spags watched Logan show up for his appointment with the insurance broker the next day as though he knew nothing. Nothing, that is, beyond the sanctity of the confessional, which he would guard at great peril. The secret. It was safe with him.
St. Benedict, Louisiana — Bernard Francis Law, knew one thing about Louisiana, though he was twenty-two. It was much too small to contain him. Law was worldly at a young age. His father, first an air force flier, then a commercial pilot, led his family on a peripatetic life. Law knew six different homes before he was eighteen. He had been born in Mexico, raised in the Virgin Islands, schooled at Harvard--he was luminously intelligent, a polyglot, a natural leader, tall and handsome. When this young man drove fifty miles through the lonesome Florida Parishes north from New Orleans to arrive finally at the remote doorstep of St. Joseph Seminary College, he would have been tempted to exclaim in dismay as the locals do, "Shut my mouth wide open."
An only child, he was especially self-sufficient and kept his own counsel, but he wasn't a loner; just the opposite. He was personable, caring, inquisitive--a humble and obvious leader. At Charlotte Amalie High School, on the island of St. Thomas, the mostly black student body voted him senior class president, telegraphing respect and warm regard for their white classmate.
Law was raised a Catholic, though not of the rosary-thumbing variety. His mother had converted from the Presbyterian Church as a condition of marriage, and Catholicism was difficult to internalize in adulthood. The priesthood was nearly the last thing on Law's radar screen. In his generation, most future priests entered minor seminaries at age twelve or thirteen. But at twenty-one, in his senior year at Harvard, majoring in medieval European intellectual history, he came under the influence of Monsignor Lawrence J. Riley, a Benedictine monk whose Catholic faith was frenetic, almost evangelical. He proselytized in the manner of the Protestants among whom Law had grown up; he practiced "spread-the-word" Catholicism. Moved by his fervor, and drawn to his theological conservatism, Law prayed for a vocation, and it came the way it was supposed to, as a certainty. He selected St. Joseph in part because of its Benedictine roots.
It was smaller than he could have imagined, and much more cloistered. St. Joseph's lawns were dotted with silent floating apparitions, black-hooded monks, eyes blind in prayer. Harvard, this wasn't. But Law would make the best of it. He would spend two years here immersed in philosophy and prayer.
Cleveland, Ohio — Neil Conway knew, beyond all of his confusing efforts to deny it, that he had just fallen hopelessly in love--quite inconveniently, to say the least, given that he was now fully committed to entering St. Mary's Seminary on Cleveland's East Side. No amount of prayer could still his hammering heart. He damned the affliction. He never saw it coming.
It had been prom night at St. Ignatius High School, and he had escorted another senior as a matter of grace and politeness. She was a nice girl, and as beautiful as he himself was handsome--and she was from a good family, as was he. The Conways were local legends, enormously wealthy, uniformly good-looking, well mannered, and exalted in the eyes of Cleveland's Catholic society. Neil's father, Timothy Conway, a grocery store executive and energetic fund-raiser for the bishop, was a Knight of St. Gregory, the highest papal honor extended to a layman. (He was allowed to call himself "Sir Knight of Gregory the Great Timothy Conway," though he never would; that was not the sort of man he was.) He belonged to seven private clubs, and for the summers sent his thirteen children to the family's 122-acre farm near Akron, on the hilly Western Reserve of the Connecticut Land Grant, while he remained in the nine-bedroom hilltop mansion in Shaker Heights, stoically alone save for a live-in staff of three.
Despite the servants and financial comforts, the demands were nonetheless a life-sucking drain on Neil's mother, Margaret Mary, who died of a "tired heart," as it was called in those days, when she had not yet crossed the threshold of old age and Neil, her second youngest, was only just twelve. That left to Neil's father the task of raising his baker's dozen, which he accomplished in the boot-camp style of Captain von Trapp before the arrival of Maria. An inscrutable and ghostly figure, he took to an unhappy routine, arriving from work at precisely 7:30 p.m., demanding a kiss from each of his offspring, and nothing more. Any child who interrupted this routine met with stinging belts and hands and shoes.
"I wasn't raised in a family," Neil liked to say; "I was raised in a large Catholic institution."
An emotionally complicated home life was a major motivator for many seminarians--a 1965 study found that a preponderance of them were from homes where parents exhibited definite psychiatric symptoms, 60 percent being alcoholics. By declaring a vocation to the priesthood, Conway brought great pleasure to his father. It was part of a campaign to win over his affections. Conway was also an equestrian star, renowned in local competitions, and played football well, even though he disliked it intensely, because this too pleased the old man.
But that was not the only reason he made up his mind to serve his church. Neil had a special relationship to God. He was prayerful and holy, and beginning at the age of fourteen, attended Mass every single day, despite the teasing of his siblings. He loved the church--the acoustics of the cathedral, the precise rituals, the way his thoughts would become a reverie above the gorgeous, undulant Latin liturgy.
He had not been at all interested in girls or sex, which made it easier. On the day he settled on his vocation, he swore off masturbation. If this was to be the consequence of his commitment, it would be a painless trade-off. He continued to accompany girls to various social events, like the prom, but they failed to knock him off his moorings.
But now, as in a dream, the prom music swelled and blurred into indistinguishable notes, and through the parting crowd the most dazzling pair of eyes, the fullest red lips, and purest white cheeks came floating toward Neil on the din of his throbbing heart. Those lips didn't stop until they pursed and planted against his--his mouth, his cheek? Even seconds later, he could not recall. All he knew was the soft deep heat of them, the way they scorched his heart. He was in love.
With a member of the football team.
Dislocated sensations sparked and exploded in his mind. Conway had never felt so emotionally vulnerable before, and nobody would have been more surprised than he that it was a boy, not a girl, who moved him. After planting the kiss, the young man stood back and giggled; the girls who were standing nearby giggled, too. Was this a cruel joke, a way to ridicule or shame him? He did not know. He should have felt shame. But instead Conway split wide open in a dreamlike grin. Afterward, for years to come, that was what he fixated upon. Even if he had enjoyed the peck, what kind of idiot would let the world know such a thing?
Vatican City — Pope Pius XII, a bookish and aloof pontiff, and not especially well liked, was profoundly interested in theological scholarship. He issued more papal encyclicals than most of his predecessors, on subjects ranging from the Blessed Virgin Mary's veneration to the exact hour at which Mass should be celebrated. His church was an interior one, a papacy of the mind and soul. Matters of world affairs were nearly inconsequential compared to his belief in God and heaven.
He had had the misfortune, however, of trading his cardinal's hat for the pontifical tiara at the opening bell of Hitler's march across Europe. The world clamored for him to become engaged in the war, but he buckled when he might have led. Even when evidence surfaced about Hitler's persecution of the Jews, Pius remained deplorably silent. He never publicly addressed Germany's anti-Semitism. On the grounds of neutrality, he had refused prominent rabbis who pleaded for his intervention to help stop the deportations, and rejected American entreaties to exercise his moral leadership.
In his defense, Pius had felt he was advancing a spiritual course to peace. For instance, late in August 1942, Andrej Septyckyj, a Ukrainian churchman, wrote begging the pope to denounce the killing of more than two hundred thousand Ukrainian Jews. The pope wrote him back, failing again to address the atrocities. Instead, he quoted Psalms and advised Septyckyj and his compatriots to "bear adversity with serene patience."
This approach did nothing to slow the genocide. Historians attributed tens of thousands of deaths to "the silent pope." Half a century later, his successors would offer an unqualified apology for the church's indifference.
In the years after the war, Pius did find his voice to fight evil. But the subject was not genocide or world war. It was instead a threat to priests and the priesthood itself, coming from the most cunning place: "the wiles of evil and the enticements of passion." Now, in March 1954, in the middle of the postwar baby boom gripping the West, he wrote and issued his most famous and lasting encyclical, Sacra Virginitas. Addressing himself to "Our Venerable Brothers, the Patriarchs, Primates, Archbishops, Bishops, and other Local Ordinaries in Peace and Communion with the Apostolic See," the pope acknowledged that threats to chastity would be one of the most devilish problems facing the clergy. He cast lust as a power emanating from outside, an animal impulse that pitted the corporeal body against the soul, the province of the Lord. He called upon those that would serve the Lord to carry on an operatic battle of soul over body.
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