Why did so many Catholic priests molest children? This is not a question I expected to address when I began work several years ago on a memoir. My original goal was much simpler: to describe the strange semi-monastic existence I led as a teenage Catholic seminarian during the 1960s. While many of our contemporaries were participating in the biggest generational rebellion in history, my classmates and I were quietly and obediently conforming to tradition, praying and studying in splendid isolation. And doing so just a few miles outside Liverpool, whose most famous sons were driving the revolution in popular culture that was a cornerstone of the great rebellion. But then I discovered that the repressive way of life I intended to describe had a sinister significance: it had been blamed for the abusive behavior of priests towards children that has caused so much pain and scandal in recent years. Which quickly brought me to a modified version of the question posed above. Why exactly did seminaries predispose so many priests to molest children? For answers to this question I turned to the scientific literature about child abuse – a natural move given that my eventual career was in science rather than the priesthood. And although many different theories have been proposed to explain abusive behavior, the circumstances that are commonly regarded as predisposing individuals to such behavior include several that I could readily identify in the seminary environment I had experienced. On the culpability of seminaries, therefore, the Church-sponsored report that had indicted these institutions seemed to have been correct. On other issues, however, the report seemed to have missed the mark. The abuse underlying the recent scandals actually occurred decades ago, in an “epidemic” that began in the 1950s and tailed off in the 1980s. Repressive training was not the only explanation offered for the behavior of the priests involved, but many of the others seemed inconsistent with the timing of the epidemic; they were developments in society and the Church that occurred too late to have had the influence ascribed to them. The same was true of several factors that supposedly caused the sharp decline in abuse that began around 1980. The scope of my research therefore expanded once more. If the prevailing explanations of abusive behavior and its decline did not fit with the timing of the epidemic, new insights were needed. To find them I went delving into the history of the seminary system, from its establishment in the 16th century to its evolution in the 20th, and correlated the latter with the recent history of the Church and American society. This led me to two paradoxical conclusions about the abuse epidemic: that it was caused by an ancient reform intended to eradicate rather than encourage clerical corruption; and that it was reversed by modern Church policies that had no obvious connection to sexual abuse. Then, in May 2011, the Church released another major report on the abuse crisis. In contrast to its predecessor, which was produced to a tight timetable in the aftermath of the 2002 abuse scandal, the new report was based on a carefully executed five-year study. And its conclusions were distinctly different from mine. On close analysis, however, these conclusions were not entirely consistent with the data on which they were based. Indeed, they ignored crucial data that potentially negate one of the report’s main arguments, that the abuse epidemic was primarily a by-product of the “permissive society” that developed during the 1960s and 1970s. Boys of the Cloth therefore stands firm in its unusual conclusions about the abuse crisis. True to its original intention, it still presents an account of the strange way of life in a minor seminary during the 1960s – a period that turns out to be crucial for understanding the abuse epidemic. And true to its expanded intentions, it explains how the ancient reform that established the seminary system led to a modern tragedy, and how the Church fortuitously eliminated some of the most important forces that had created this tragedy. One issue the book does not address in any detail is the Church’s deplorable handling of cases of abuse. All too often, victims received too little sympathy and their abusers too much; all too often, mollycoddled molesters were given new access to young children, with predictable and tragic consequences. My decision not to discuss this issue is in no way intended to downplay its importance; like many people, I find the bishops’ response almost as appalling as the original abuse. There is little I can add, however, to the excellent critiques of their behavior that others have already produced. Boys of the Cloth closes by reflecting on the significance of its conclusions for the prevention of abuse by priests in the future. And if just a single child is spared the agony of that experience as a result of the book’s existence, every effort that went into its creation will have been rewarded beyond measure.
Chapter 1: The Call of God–or My Mother? Vocation, 1961-62
The conversation that changed my life forever took place when I was about ten years old. I told my mother that I wanted to be a priest. This was by no means the first time I had confided in her about my future career plans. Like most young children, I had one new idea after another on the subject. Some ambitions lasted longer than others; I distinctly remember a lengthy racing-driver phase, inspired by my great boyhood hero, Stirling Moss. All of my previous confidences, however, had shared the same fate: they were acknowledged politely and then promptly ignored – interpreted, correctly of course, as the naïve fantasies of a young boy. Had my newfound interest in the priesthood been treated in the same way, it would probably have lasted no longer than the usual few days. But to a devout Catholic woman of my mother’s generation, there could be no greater blessing from God than to have a son become a priest. And my mother was much more than devout; she was fanatical. So unlike the host of secular ambitions I had expressed, my clerical ambitions were warmly encouraged. One year later, I was headed off to Upholland College, the seminary for the local Archdiocese of Liverpool. While the idea of becoming a priest might not even occur to most young boys, in my case it seemed perfectly natural. The Church and its priests were a constant presence in our family. Our Sunday routine included not just Mass in the morning but Benediction in the afternoon. My brothers and I served as altar boys, and attended the parish school with our sisters. My mother typed the handouts for Mass each week. Priests visited our house regularly, and one we knew so well we called him “Uncle.” My father’s sister and aunt were both nuns. In short, we were extremely Catholic... ... September 8th, 1962, a Saturday: the day I went off to Upholland. The Feast of Our Lady’s Birthday, which in my mother’s opinion was a most auspicious day for her son to enroll in the seminary – particularly one whose patron saint was St. Joseph, Our Lady’s husband. My mother loved such omens. The weeks before my departure had been a frenzy of preparation, as we worked to gather all the clothing and other items on a list the Archdiocese had sent us. This time, thankfully, there were to be no hand-me-downs; everything was purchased new, apart from the sweaters, which my mother knitted. The seminary seemed suspicious of bright colors, perhaps fearful of their effect on the soul: gray and black predominated, with shirts, sweaters, trousers and socks in the former, blazer and shoes in the latter. When everything was finally assembled we packed it all into a big seaman’s trunk, which my father and I had lugged all the way back from a downtown department store on a bus. With preparations complete and September 8th fast approaching, the big question was how to get to Upholland. The distance door-to-door was about fifteen miles, which nowadays seems like nothing, but in 1962 represented quite a journey. There was no easy way to get there by public transport, especially with a heavy trunk in tow, and we did not own a car. Fortunately, another boy in the parish a year older than me, Brian K., was also entering Upholland, and my mother arranged with his parents that they would take me in their car. And so at last the big day arrived. For me it was almost unbearably exciting: saying my goodbyes to my parents and six siblings, riding in a car for one of the first times in my life, driving through strange places for what felt like hours, and finally reaching Upholland in what seemed the remotest location in the world. As the car turned into the college driveway, Brian and I waited excitedly for the first glimpse of our new home. By luck or design, the landscapers who laid out the grounds made sure that the college would make a dramatic first impression. From the road, little was visible: a high sandstone wall, sturdy stone pillars flanking the driveway entrance, and a gatehouse just inside. The driveway curved gently to the right for two hundred yards or so, flanked by dense shrubs and tall trees that blocked any sighting of the college buildings. Then, all of a sudden, the driveway broke into the open and there stood the college, so close that it filled the view, monolithic in reddish-brown sandstone. The first impression was more of a fortress than a school. Two massive wings intersected close to the point where the driveway emerged, joined at the corner by a substantial square tower. Each wing was about a hundred yards long and had three main stories, the lower two generously tall. The wing straight ahead was more elaborate than the other, and was clearly the formal front of the College. The tower at the front corner was matched by two similar structures at the midpoint and far end of the wing, all crested by what looked like battlements; the top floor of each tower even had slit windows, from which the guardians of the faith could presumably fight off the temptations of the world. A two-story portico projected forward from the front of the middle tower, its tall stone arches providing access to the college’s formal entrance…….