Blame it on Woodstock(s)

The U.S. Catholic bishops got their money’s worth from the ‘Causes and Contexts’ study of the church’s sex abuse catastrophe, a report conducted by criminologists and social scientists at John Jay College, with the bishop’s picking up half the 1.8 million dollar tab. As Laurie Goodstein noted in the NYT, the Woodstock defense long floated by Pope Benedict XVI and others to deflect accountability from church leaders did indeed find its way to the heart of this newly released study, which blames a cohort of callow priests formed prior to the 60s who then unraveled and acted very badly indeed amid that decades’ cultural maelstrom and its aftermath.

I was an altar boy for four years at the height of the 60s and the only unraveling priests I observed were those who left the profession, usually to marry (usually to nuns and ex-nuns). Those that remained tended to misquote popular songs in their homilies, but otherwise clung invincibly to the perquisites and privileges that lay people were more than delighted to continue bestowing upon them. I do not believe the ‘Woodstock defense’ will prove useful toward understanding this human disaster, but as time takes time we’ll have to check back in a few decades, once real historical work grounded in real questions has kicked in.  For now, let’s simply note that Catholics in Ireland have proved far more resolute than American counterparts in their determination to trace a comparable story to its roots over a century old, taking into account historic codes of silence, the church’s authoritarian manipulation of data and sources, and a kind of totalitarian occlusion of reality that for decades made painful, traumatic truths simply melt into air.

There’s plenty more to write on this; there’s part of a book in me on the subject down the road. My personal preoccupation is with historic Catholic violence—especially in families, the one institution shockingly neglected in discussions of the crisis. Yet I remain equally committed to understanding and even celebrating how a tradition that imparted no great blessings on my family—least not from this vantage point–has meant so much to others, not only those who’ve performed abundant good in the world, but especially that community of U.S. Catholic historians who lent me a vocation three decades ago when my only alternative to historical understanding was personal oblivion.

At some point I’ll need to document my extremely fleeting and tangential links to some of the folks at John Jay and their two-part study. But for now I’d simply like to note a tantalizing irony. To many Catholics of a certain age “Woodstock” denotes not a mud-ridden carnival of music and skinny- dipping featuring a half-million youngsters congregated at Max Yasgur’s farm in August 1969, but a venerable seminary in rural Maryland where generations of Jesuits learned theology during final years of arduous training prior to their ordination as priests. At that Woodstock titans of the Jesuit order—most notably John Courtney Murray, S.J.–rigorously prepared young men like our waterfront priest Pete Corridan for apostolic service to the world.

Readers of the John Jay study tempted to lament the loss of this golden age of manly clerics —and the riotous age of unreason that succeeded it–might do well to reflect on a single paragraph found in Joseph E. Califano’s 2004 memoir.  Califano, who went on to become, along perhaps with Sargent Shriver, the most prominent Catholic public servant of the past half-century, revealed in his memoir that a Woodstock-trained New York Jesuit sexually molested him at the order’s Staten Island retreat house when Califano was a Jesuit high school student in the late 1940s.

Joe Califano later acknowledged he spent more time dwelling on this episode in composing the memoir than any other from his long and varied career, but finally decided to include the story because, as he insisted at the time, he believed the number of clergy sex abuse survivors was far greater than the grossly understated figure of 11,000 being casually tossed around at the time he was writing. It was quite clear that Califano would never have disclosed his abuse had it not been for the wave of revelations that followed the Boston Globe’s 2002 exposes.

Anybody who thinks there was something anomalous about the 60s and 70s, where sex abuse in the church is concerned, needs to learn about the code of silence and the code of violence that sustained it for over a century, and counting. The second most powerful Catholic in the Philadelphia Archdiocese is not currently under indictment for misdeeds committed back in the glory days of Country Joe and the Fish.

Joe Califano’s story is but one among tens of thousands that fit no convenient scenario highlighting any one narrow sliver of U.S. social history. This is instead a story grounded in a century and a half of U.S. Catholic experience, and anyone who suggests otherwise is simply dissembling.

As it happens, the Maryland Woodstock’s John Courtney Murray went on to partake of several LSD trips in the early 1960s at precisely the moment this celebrity Jesuit was composing a landmark declaration on religious liberty that imparted a distinctly American stamp on the documents of the Second Vatican Council. I hope few will dismiss Murray’s contribution to the Council on the grounds of an “acid offense” though the way things are going in the church lately …(and moral theologians kindly take note: LSD had not yet been criminalized at the time of Fr. Murray’s experimentation, an experience this patrician Republican shared with his friend Clare Booth Luce, among other unlikely postulants).

The more familiar 1960s countercultural Woodstock defense will surely diminish into a footnote or perhaps a very short chapter in the epic narrative that will unfold from widely disparate fragments in the decades yet to come.  I believe that the “other Woodstock,” the long-shuttered seminary in Maryland, and many historic Catholic redoubts like it will loom much larger in more authentic subsequent accounts. Seminaries and Catholic colleges and publications all abetted a kind of totalitarian Catholic mindset between the 1920s and 60s, largely in response to the threat posed by communism, a very real not phantom enemy to the church through most of the twentieth century. As is usually the case amid such titanic struggles, truth was the first casualty, and I suspect tens of thousands of young Catholics suffered as collateral damage under the yoke of the code of silence, via which transgressions large and small readily de-materialized.

This is the historical context that truly demands fearless exploration. Forget Yasgur’s farm, the “causes and contexts” of sex abuse and especially the hierarchy’s decades of cover-ups are traceable to forces at work not in Jimi Hendrix’s virtuoso guitar work but in the religion itself.


3 thoughts on “Blame it on Woodstock(s)

  1. Louise Mowder May 22, 2011 — 5:06 am

    Tonight I just watched the German film, “The White Ribbon,” which is essentially a fictional dramatic enactment of Alice Miller’s “The Drama of the Gifted Child.’ It recapitulates the cycle of Catholic discipline, authoritarian parental philosophy, and inherited patterns of brutality and violence that you are talking about in the Irish tradition. I thought of your arguments about the ferocious instruction of these lessons, from one generation to the next, all ordained and demanded by the Catholic Church in order to justify its own systems of maintaining power and control. It would be fascinating to discuss the different tones and forms that the marriage of patriarchy and violence took in the Catholic churches of German and Irish immigrants to the New World, especially as intermarriage between the groups was so common.)

    You’ve written a brilliant essay here on the John Jay report. As soon as I read the Report’s blaming of *Woodstock* as the cause of all those abusive relationships between priests and children, all I could think was “Tell it to the Irish.” They are brave enough, at any rate, to admit that this brutal infliction of the Church’s patriarchal power on the trusting bodies of their literal children began long, long before the “Summer of Love.”

    The John Jay report is cowardly and dishonest, not to mention insulting to the generations of tormented Catholic children who are abused yet again.

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