Pope Francis asks forgiveness for child abuse by clergy

This is a story with which I can identify because I was nearly a victim of a young Catholic priest when I was in my early teens.

I lived in the working class section of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. I had come home from my first summer as a musician in the Catskill Mountains—and with a bad case of hay fever. My physician had written a prescription for me and said I should get it over to the pharmacy as quickly as possible. That I did. And while I was in there, a young priest walked over to me and asked if I spoke Italian. I spoke a few words of Italian, words picked up from my family banter but, unfortunately, I answered “yes.” His eyes lit up.

He said he had a letter in Italian that needed to be translated to English. I said I wasn’t able to translate from Italian or even speak it fluently. What I picked up of it was simply from my family. The priest stared at me, invoking his power and answered. I need for you to do this, my son. I’m new to this country. Without missing a beat he said, “You’ll come over to the rectory when your medicine is ready.”

I broke into a sneezing fit to accent my affliction but it made no difference. As he received his prescription, he said “I’ll be waiting for you. Don’t disappoint me.” There was no saying no to this guy. In fact, a red warning light went off in my brain. My Rx was ready. I paid, and rolled over the sparse facts in my brain, thinking “I can’t lie to a priest.” I walked out of the store and trudged the three or four blocks to the imposing rectory of St, Mary’s with a high stoop. The red light was still flashing in my brain, but I climbed the steps as if to a guillotine and rang the bell. The young priest appeared shortly, the door swung open and he gave me a big smile. He ushered me into his office, which was well decorated with saints pictures, a small crucifix, thick rugs, rich furniture.

Immediately, he sat down at his desk, I sat in a chair with my back to the entrance. The priest took out the letter, opened it, and handed it to me. One look told me it was “Greek to me,” which I repeated to the priest. He didn’t seem bothered. I added, “I am sorry father. I don’t understand the words or the flowery handwriting.” He reached for the letter and took it back. “No matter,” he said. “I want to ask you some another questions. When you are in the gymnasium changing your clothes, do you see the other boys?” That hit like a fast pass to the head. “What do you mean?” I asked. “You know,” he said, their private parts.” “I don’t look at that. We wear jock straps.” “But without the straps,” he asked, and used his hands to measure in air, “how big are they?” I said, feigning some vague extension, “Well, like this.” His eyes lit up as he widened his hands, “How about like this or this.” “Father, I don’t know. I mind my business . . .” He interrupted, “but what about the black boys?” He used his hands, “Aren’t they supposed to be bigger, opening his hands to the size of a 12-inch ruler?”

This was the capper. I knew I was in trouble now.

I spoke louder and more affirmatively. “I don’t know. I don’t pay attention to things like that. And now, I’ve got to go. My parents are expecting me for dinner. I’m already late. And my father gets very angering when I’m late. He’ll come out looking for me with his strap.”

I started to inch back towards the door. He lifted the letter again. I looked at it and said, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand it.” I moved closer to the door.

He followed me like a wolf. “I’m so sorry you can’t stay. Maybe some other time you can come?”

:Yes, some other time” I said, as I pushed the wood framed glass door and bolted down the steps and ran straight home.

When I arrived home and told my parents the story, my father called the priest a “finocchio,” (Italian slang for poof, or queer). “We’ll go back there now.”

“No, no, please, Jerry,” my mother said to my father. “He’s a priest.”

“He’s got no right to put his hands on our kid to do his dirty business.”

My mother, bless her soul, was one of the faithful. The face-slapping nuns or wino fathers, or young pedophile priests could do no wrong. The abuses went to the top.

“They should get jobs, all of them, and go to work. Then, they wouldn’t have time for this,” my father shouted and started eating again.

And that was that for the church. I never went back to it again. I’d walk around the block to miss it. And news went out around the neighborhood that the young priest had gotten fired. Though no reason why followed that, but by then, everybody knew. And that’s my story multiplied by hundreds, thousands of children.

That’s what living in a state misogyny will do for you. These young entrants are told that sex with a woman was bad. So that left young acolytes as prey.

* * *

Thus, the pope’s off-the-cuff words were the strongest he has made since a United Nations Human Rights Council rebuked the Vatican in February for what it termed a long-standing and systematic cover-up by the hierarchy of sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests.

His words marked a shift from the damage control mode so far adopted by the Vatican. Yet Pope Francis watered down the impact of his apology by pointing out that the priests involved in the scandal are “few in number compared to the [total] number of priests in the church.”

It was also noteworthy that Pope Francis’ impromptu remarks did not figure in the official text of his address to members of the leading Catholic NGO protecting children’s rights, the International Catholic Child Bureau, gathered at the Vatican.

Last month, the head of Italy’s Catholic Bishops Conference, Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, defended Vatican policy of not requiring clergy to report child sex abuse in Italy to law enforcement authorities. “The Vatican requires national laws to be respected, but we know that there is no such duty [to report abuse] under Italian law,” he told reporters.

“We will not take one step backward with regards to how we will deal with this problem, and the sanctions that must be imposed,” he said, adding: “We have to be even stronger”.

Alessandra Aula of International Catholic Child Bureau, the children’s non-governmental organisation that was at the Vatican for the Pope’s address, welcomed his comments.

“The Pope took an unequivocal position on sexual abuse and I think it is a message we all were waiting for,” she told BBC World TV.

In an interview last month, Pope Francis defended the Catholic Church, saying: “No one else has done more [to tackle child sexual abuse]. Yet the church is the only one to have been attacked.”

It came after a UN report accused the Vatican of systematically placing the “preservation of the reputation of the Church and the alleged offender over the protection of child victims”—something the Church has strenuously denied.

The Catholic Church has faced numerous allegations of child sex abuse by priests around the world and criticism over inadequate responses by bishops.

Earlier this year, Pope Francis strengthened Vatican laws on child abuse, broadening the definition of crimes against minors to include sexual abuse of children.

While in office, his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, apologized to victims of child sex abuse, saying he was “truly sorry” for the “sinful and criminal actions.” It is hoped now that Pope Francis is truly taking real and meaningful action to change the paradigm of perversity.

Jerry Mazza is a freelance writer and life-long resident of New York City. An EBook version of his book of poems “State Of Shock,” on 9/11 and its after effects is now available at Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com. He has also written hundreds of articles on politics and government as Associate Editor of Intrepid Report (formerly Online Journal). Reach him at gvmaz@verizon.net.

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