To be launched this afternoon in Sydney is a new book by retired NSW District Court Judge and former Catholic priest, Christopher Geraghty. There have been a spate of books over recent years from former high profile priests in Sydney who left the priesthood, moved into other careers in public service and academia, and have written of their spiritual journey. Kieran Tapsell, himself a former seminarian who left to become a barrister and solicitor, knew some of them, has read their books and is well placed to prepare this review of Chris Geraghty's new book entitled "Dancing with the Devil: A Journey from the Pulpit to the Bench". This is the third book by Chris Geraghty with a focus on his years as a priest. The reviewer concludes it is his best book yet and it provides great insight into the 'cover-up culture' presently causing a crisis internationally for the Catholic Church.
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Priest
It is no secret that over the last forty years, the Roman Catholic Church has seen a steady exodus of priests and religious from its ranks, to the point where many Religious Orders will simply disappear. Many parish churches are closing. Forty years ago, it was almost unheard of for a bishop to resign and seek his happiness elsewhere. Now even that is happening.
In Australia from the 1970s onwards, the Church lost some of its finest minds and most charismatic priests, many of them going on to grace the halls of the public service, academia, and the bench. Roger Pryke was described by his colleagues as being a forerunner of the Second Vatican Council, and of contributing more to the Catholic Church in Australia than anyone. But one day, he simply got up and left his presbytery at Harbord, never to return to the Church. Francis Harvey's biography of Pryke "Traveller to Freedom" details Pryke's problems with the hierarchy; indeed, one might even call it persecution. But the book does not go into the inner struggle of a man who had spent more than half his life in loyal and enthusiastic service for the Catholic Church. It was one thing for a priest to leave his calling to get married. It was quite another to go right out the other door, into agnosticism. Harvey says that he could never get Pryke to talk about it.
Dr. Paul Crittenden was another bright star in the Church's constellation of intellectual luminaries. He too left both the priesthood and the Church. He eventually became Professor of Philosophy and Dean of the Faculty of Arts at Sydney University. His autobiography, "Changing Orders", is a matter of fact account of his coming to the conclusion that he could no longer accept the Church's teachings, and he too became agnostic, but in many ways, his account reads as though he were simply changing cars.
Dr. John Burnheim was a Lecturer in Philosophy at St. Columba's Seminary at Springwood and became the Rector of St. John's College at the University of Sydney. He left the Church after being a priest for 18 years, and became Professor of General Philosophy at Sydney University. In his autobiography, "To Reason Why" he says he prefers not to be categorized by a negative, namely "atheist", and prefers to call himself a secular humanist. His reasons for leaving both the priesthood and the Church are quietly and clearly reasoned, but like his fellow philosopher, Crittenden, he is fairly matter of fact about it. He does not describe any dark night of the soul or momentous struggle preceding his decision.
Dr. Christopher Geraghty was a Lecturer in theology both at St. Columba's Seminary at Springwood and St. Patrick's College Manly. After leaving the priesthood, he became a barrister and Judge of the NSW Compensation Court and District Court. He has written two previous books about his experiences. "Cassocks in the Wilderness" is an entertaining account of his days in a seminary, training to be a Catholic priest from the age of 12 at Springwood, NSW. "The Priest Factory" is about his days at St. Patrick's College Manly, a huge gothic pile, overlooking Manly Beach that, ironically, has gone into retirement as a hospitality college – a quality that many, like the author Thomas Keneally, thought it lacked in its heyday as a Catholic seminary.
"Dancing with the Devil", the last in the trilogy is by far Geraghty's best. His journey is anything but matter of fact. It tells the story of a Herculean struggle that finally led him to leave the Catholic priesthood. Hercules is not the most accurate mythical analogy. It is really Oedipus, watching the unpalatable evidence slowly mounting up, revealing to himself who he really is, and what was happening within the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church of which he was a priest and theology professor. It is not a flattering portrait of an institution where the Popes and the Roman Curia, including the current Pope, had adopted a policy of secrecy over clergy sex abuse of children, leaving them wallowing in the same moral bathtub as the directors of some international corporations who put their company's reputation and profits ahead of innocent people's lives.
Geraghty's contribution to this dreadful issue is remarkably frank, and it shows that there was a persistent clerical culture, enshrined in Canon Law since at least 1922, requiring strict confidentiality about clergy sex crimes on children. Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, the eminence grise of John Paul II, was the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for 25 years before being elected Pope as Benedict XVI in 2005. It was his Congregation that was in charge of administering the "secret of the Holy Office", that forbade Church investigators and others, from revealing the information they gained to anyone, including the police, on pain of automatic excommunication. In 2001 Ratzinger wrote to the Catholic bishops changing some of the procedures, but again imposing "pontifical secrecy", where excommunication was still possible, but not automatic. It was only in 2010, after cover up scandals were breaking out all over the world, that as Pope, he adopted as general Church law, a policy recommended to him as far back as 1996 by the Australian bishops, of notifying police about what he himself called "heinous crimes". Secrecy was designed to protect the good name of the Church, but it backfired spectacularly. From 1951, when Geraghty entered the seminary at the tender age of 12, until he finally left the priesthood 26 years later in 1977, he was swimming in this cover up culture.
Father Vincent Kiss was a seminary colleague of the author, and a serial pederast, who was eventually sentenced to ten and a half years jail. Kiss was "Director of Vocations" for his diocese, and he used to visit St. Columba's Seminary at Springwood to meet with "his boys". Geraghty was, at the time, a Professor at his old Alma Mater, having completed, some years earlier, a Doctorate of Divinity. One night, a student came knocking at his door and told him, tearfully and shamefully that:
"...he and the Director of Vocations had been really good friends for years – close friends since before my visitor's pubic hairs began to sprout like tangled wires in his loins...he spoke of trips to the Gold Coast, or to Sydney as a young teenager, fast cars which he was encouraged to drive, unlicensed, luxury hotels, steam-baths.... Rigid with guilt, my visitor was forcing himself to reveal a shameful secret. He wanted me to take his hand and guide him out of the black bog into a land of peace and freedom. It had not dawned on him that I was such a baby in the woods, thrashing around in the thicket of twisted human passions."
Kiss would arrange for the student to sneak out of his seminary room at night, and whisk him off to a motel, and after it was all over, hear his confession so that he could be back before dawn to attend morning Mass and receive Communion in a state of supernatural grace.
Geraghty was firmly fixed on the horns of a dilemma. The College faculty used to meet to discuss the students' progress. But, he points out:
"My night visitor had spoken to me in confidence, but I was wondering what other scandals might be bubbling under the cover of hymns and incense.... Despite my failure to explore the intimate details of Father Kiss's "missionary" activities, from the little I was told, I knew in my bones that what he had been doing constituted a grave sin. Years passed before I would click on the "crime and punishment" tab of my internal computer.... One of my ingrained and principal concerns was loyalty to the institution founded by Jesus and his Apostles. Its reputation had to be protected — at all costs....
"Of course, what I should have done was go straight to the village police station at Springwood and report the criminal offences. But my visitor told me later that had I proposed that course, he would never have told me his story. In truth, I didn't know what to do. I was way out of my depth... I suspected that this charismatic character who had gone through the system with me, was some seriously sick priest, but it did not enter my head that he was also a criminal. I was not living in the wide, open, secular world of New South Wales. I had only ever functioned in the ecclesiastical world – the parish, the Catholic school system, the seminary, the priesthood..."
Geraghty says that the cover up by cardinals, bishops, senior priests "even a Pope" was incomprehensible "for any reasonable person outside the tight system of the ecclesiastical world", and that it was "inevitable that the system would come unstuck". He acknowledges that his own response to his visitor's predicament was "breathtakingly inadequate", but it was also understandable, because culture in a hierarchical organization, like the Church, flows from the top down.
The perverse nature of the clerical culture...
At the time of this student's visit, Cardinal Ottaviani's 1962 direction, Crimen Sollicitationis, having the force of Canon Law, expanded a similar 1922 direction. It provided that where allegations of sex crimes against children by a priest were made, a Canonical Tribunal had to investigate it. The complainant, witnesses and anyone associated with the tribunal, and anyone who became aware of the allegations by reason of their office, were required to "observe inviolably, the strictest confidentiality in all things and with all persons", the breach of which involved automatic excommunication. Excommunication is the Church's worst form of punishment, involving the expulsion from the Church community, refusal of the sacraments and participation in the liturgy, refusal of burial in sacred ground and, if you take the doctrine seriously, the eternal fires of Hell.
The perverse nature of this clerical culture can be seen from the fact that Crimen Sollicitationis provided for an investigation and trial for alleged clergy pedophiles, with punishments in the nature of spiritual exercises in a religious house, suspension of priestly faculties and "in extreme cases", of defrocking (degradatio), but only when there has been "grave scandal to the faithful and harm to souls, attained such a degree of temerity and habitude, that there seems to be no hope, humanly speaking, or almost no hope, of his amendment". Excommunication is not listed amongst the punishments. On the other hand, once the Church decided to investigate the allegations, anyone involved in the investigation, including the bishop to whom it reported, would be automatically excommunicated if they went to the police, even if doing so was required by civil law. There would be no canonical trial, no opportunity to give an explanation, no gradation of punishment according to the circumstances, and no suggestion that it would only be applied in extreme cases. The excommunication was automatic, and in this case, it could only be lifted by the Pope himself. Raping children could be forgiven with a slap on the wrist (and so often it was), but ratting on a pedophile priest to the police was beyond the pale.
The source of the cultural problem was the doctrine that clergy were ontologically different by virtue of their being smeared with the holy oils at Ordination — something still consistently preached by the current Pope, and that seems to be a theology based on the Pharisee's prayer in the Gospel parable: "Oh God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of men...". Even if priests lapse by raping children, it could be fixed up with Confession — something that Geraghty assumed happened in the case of Father Kiss, because, despite what the student told him, the Director of Vocations turned up in the morning to concelebrate Mass with the seminary priests.
The truth is, as Geraghty explains:
"However much we pretended that priests were above the common herd, that we were different, that we were all, as a group, unusually holy, that we were in the world, working in the world, ministering unselfishly to others, but that we were not of the world, the truth has always been that we were merely men, just human beings. Many of us were generous indeed, and committed to doing good. Some few were really holy, but they were truly the exception, and often a real pain in the arse. Others were weak and inadequate — some really crazy. Some a danger on the loose. And some few were truly evil. It does no good to the Church or to the priests to pretend otherwise."
And that was the unpalatable evidence that kept piling up for this modern day Oedipus, as it has piled up for so many others who were encouraged to become professional workers in the institution, supposedly founded by Christ himself, to guide humanity. All the prayers, meditations, novenas, litanies, rosaries, stations of the cross, the incense, the liturgical theatre, the beautiful gothic buildings, recitals of the Holy Office, the plain chant and polyphonic music to the Creator, the retreats, and the isolation from the "evil world", made no difference whatsoever to human behavior. Not that the clergy were any worse than any other group of human beings. They were just no different. The old refrain "we are all sinners", doesn't cut any ice, because the whole point of these endless devotions, rituals and practices was to make a difference. They may be great art forms in literature, theatre and music, and like all other art forms, may make people feel better about themselves. But if they don't improve human behavior for the clergy, who practise them more than most, there's something basically wrong with the theory. It also makes you wonder whether or not requiring the Church's most enthusiastic followers to live a life of sexual repression may have added to the problem?
St. Augustine could describe how, after a life that he considered meaningless, he went through a difficult struggle to proclaim, "You have made us for Yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You". But there is a much more common journey in the opposite direction, of people who were born into the Catholic culture, were impressed enough by it to want to devote their whole lives to promoting it, and sincerely did all the things that they were taught to do to become "holy". Gradually, painfully, like Oedipus, watching the evidence come in, many of them ended up paraphrasing Augustine's words, "Our hearts are restless, until we realize that You are not there, or if You are, You're not talking to us". Peace and personal integrity, for many, come not from finding God in the Catholic Church, but crossing the bridge, like Stephen Dedalus in James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, out of its religious fog. Geraghty does not go that far. He still retains something of his Catholic belief and practice, albeit with little connection with or respect for the institutional Church.
"Throughout my life I have learnt to love the message of Jesus, and the ramshackled community of his followers we have dared to call the Church. I have loved her for her life-giving liturgy, her hymns, her local rites and simple ceremonies, her celebration of life in all its moments of fulfillment and of tragedy, for bringing all kinds of people together, for blessing them, consoling them and burying them. But I am irritated by her ancient formulas of frozen truths, her rigidity, her methods of control and torture and her suffocating infallibilism.
"I love her when she looks after the poor, when she helps to heal wounded sinners, when she pays silent attention to the elderly and the sick, when she visits prisoners in goal. But I am saddened by her anxiety to exclude, by her conceited triumphal pride, her denial of natural justice, her paranoid secrecy, her savage excommunications, her subjection and rejection of women, and by her neglect of our black brothers and sisters here in Sydney."
He writes movingly, without being mawkish...
But a painful journey into atheism or agnosticism, or Geraghty's disillusionment with the institution, while retaining some form of Catholic spirituality, seem to be a common feature for many who have done a reverse St. Augustine. Unlike the other books about or by former priests, mentioned above, Geraghty's gives us a blow by blow description of the conflicting inner loyalties. He writes movingly about his depressing struggle, without being mawkish. It eventually led him to abandon the priesthood and, depending on how you want to define "membership", the Catholic Church.
"My Church was like the Commonwealth Bank, like BHP or the Murdoch press. There was one boss, a cohort of sycophantic middle managers and a tribe of little Indians. Like the other institutions, my system cynically mixed fact and fiction together until it was unable to separate truth from horse dung. The CEO in the Vatican governed the international organization by threats and secrecy. The Jesus message was lost in the theological drain, in the interminable reports and internal memos ... the company employed right-wing, reactionary spin doctors and advertising gurus to relate to the masses and waste their money."
Geraghty provides plenty of evidence to support his conclusions about the Church as a "big corporation", prepared "to do what it takes" to get what it wants. The hierarchy does not come out well. There are offers being made by an Archbishop to a promising priest who had fallen in love, to live a double life with his partner hidden from view, while commuting in a clerical collar to work in the Church bureaucracy. Dishonesty to avoid "scandal" seems to have been the First Commandment, even if it amounted to blatant hypocrisy. To their credit, the priest and his partner declined the offer. But not so creditable were priests who lived the double life easily with their hidden mistresses, or, in one case, ran an inner city brothel. On one occasion, when Geraghty was invited to write a series of articles for the Catholic Weekly, the Chairman of the Board, Fr. Frank Mecham, had rewritten them and then had them published under Geraghty's name, contrary to the editor's undertaking that nothing would be changed without consultation. Then there were the "Temple Police", "the spivs and spies" on the lookout for any divergence from their idea of orthodoxy in the ranks of the clergy, resulting in Geraghty and others being banned from speaking in several dioceses, without having the opportunity to defend themselves. Actual sins of the flesh could be tolerated, but not the suspected sins of the mind.
Geraghty met his French wife of over 30 years, Adele, when they were both learning German at the Goethe Institute in Germany, where she immediately corrected his French. The story of his love affair that lasted over a long period of time, while he wrestled with his loyalties and his past, is both charming and gripping. At the same time, his descriptions of the procedures that a priest had to go through to get a dispensation from his promise of celibacy are straight out of Gilbert and Sullivan, were they not so childishly embarrassing. Geraghty didn't bother.
This book is beautifully written. It has the tightness and suspense of a detective story, and the drama of Sophocles' Oedipus the King, with the same internal struggle in facing a depressing and unpalatable truth. It also contains strikingly accurate descriptions of people, for those who knew them. And turns of phrase like this:
"I felt at that time that the religious leaders I had paid so much notice to were the whitened sepulchres of the new covenant, like the breed of vipers of messianic times. However, over time, my assessment of them has softened a little. I see them now as old frogs, thrashing about in an evaporating pool, full of wind, croaking out the same old message in the night — obedience, submission, conformity in all things."
The next time Benedict XVI pontificates to the world (as only a Pontifex Maximus can) about "relativism", "materialism", "secularism", or his latest favourite, "indifferentism", ecclesiastical jargon for any mode of thinking inconsistent with obedience, submission and conformity to his dogma, the image of an old frog, thrashing about in his evaporating pool, will be inescapable.
Review by Kieran Tapsell submitted to Catholica 1 June 2012
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