I have a confession to make

I grew up in Philadelphia in the 50s and 60s, then one of the most Catholic cities in the world.

It was so Catholic that you didn’t say you came from a particular section of Philly, like West or South or North or Upper Darby, but the parish you belonged to, like De Sales (as in St Francis de Sales), MBS (Most Blessed Sacrament), Transfig (Transfiguration), etc.

On the block I lived in De Sales, most of the residents were Catholic. In fact, I can’t remember one who wasn’t Catholic, and most were Irish Americans — Kelly, Mahoney, Henry, Brannan, Egan et al – with a few sprinklings of Italian Americans.

We all had our baptisms, our first communions, our confirmations, and occasionally ordinations which many of the neighbours attended. I will never forgive the priest who baptised me – though this took place in South Philly (sorry, the parish eludes me) – who said after the ceremony: “Some day this boy will become a priest.” My mother believed that until I was in my 30s, and came to visit my family in Australia and I didn’t know where the local church was.

And like a few others in my parish, I was lucky enough to become an altar boy. It was thought to be a privilege, and the nuns who taught us and the priest who drilled the Latin responses into us (I can still recite many of those prayers) and our parents, of course, were filled with pride as they watched us assist at daily masses, weddings and funerals.


We were not so chuffed. It meant getting up early and falling asleep as you were kneeling down on the steps of the altar while being prompted by the priest to “ring the bells,” as he held up the host to be consecrated to the Body of Christ. “Hoc est enim Corpus meum.” “This is my Body.”

“Ring the bells,” the priest would shout, and it would wake you up. Most of the good fathers could see the humour in it, but not all. And you would sometimes get a severe reprimand after the Mass, and be told to get a proper night’s sleep. At 12 or 13, who gets a proper night’s sleep?

Now, you’re probably waiting for me to tell you about the priests who took advantage of us altar boys, and tried to get into our cassocks. Sorry, it didn’t happen to me, nor can I remember it happening to any of my mates. I do remember the priest in charge of the altar boys having a private conversation in a classroom with the nun who looked after us, late one Friday afternoon, and I inadvertently opened the door to catch them canoodling, or so I thought. But were they really? They were very close but I can’t say for sure what was going on. There were no bad habits, heterosexually speaking, as far as I could see. And I know a lot of former priests who have married ex-nuns, and this hasn’t brought down Western civilisation as we know it. In fact, if priests were allowed to marry, a good deal of child sexual abuse really would become a thing of the past.

There were frustrated nuns and Christian Brothers, who beat me with rulers and yardsticks and banged my head against a bathroom marble wall, but they never touched me in an intimate way. I guess I was fortunate because I was sacked as an altar boy for sneaking out of rehearsals for the May procession by crawling along the pews to the side door. It worked the first time, but five of my mates followed me the second week, and we were all suspended. I didn’t miss those early starts.

But I have a confession to make. It’s about confession. In the eighth grade, a group of us used to get together in the garage of one of our gang – definitely not a bikie gang – and chat about sport and cars and, yes, you guessed it, sex. Then someone invited some of the De Sales girls to come along, and make out, as we called it in those days. I think some sex actually occurred, but I never saw it. However, the father of one of the boys in our group must have guessed something wrong was going on in his garage, and as I was about to engage in lip gymnastics with a classmate, I heard a hard rain falling on the roof. It was Mr M hosing us down, so to speak, accompanied by his shouts:  “Get out of there now. I know what you’re up to (he had fathered 8 children so I’m sure he did).” We scrambled out rather sheepishly and we thought that would be the end of our nightly hanky-panky.

But the next day, Ruby (her name has been changed to protect the innocent), my classmate, and several others involved in the garage gang, including me, were called to the principal’s office, where the nun in charge of the altar boys and a priest, were interrogating the 13-year-old playboys and playgirls. We weren’t allowed to talk to each other so we couldn’t get our stories straight. The priest took me into his office: “Did you have sexual intercourse with any of the girls?” he asked in a rather kind way, I thought. “No,” I answered honestly. “Did you kiss anyone?” he asked as a follow-up question. I hesitated, but said yes, because I figured it wasn’t a mortal sin. “Are you sure?” he asked. When I finally said “yes,” softly, he said: “Wait here.” He came out 15 or 20 minutes later and gave me a stern lecture about the dangers of sex, and not to do anything like it again.

All the boys were given the same sort of treatment, but Ruby, alas, got the confessional inquisition. Yes, the priest made her say her confession in the church next door, and asked her about sex in the garage. She denied it, of course, like any smart Catholic girl would, and told me later she was mortified. I was reminded of this experience when Cardinal George Pell told a press conference yesterday (photo above) that priests should not disclose to the Royal Commission on child sexual abuse what they heard during confession. He said: “The Seal of Confession is inviolable.” (http://bit.ly/QcfsaI)

Yes, but it was okay for at least one priest to use the confessional to try to get information from a 13-year-old girl about whether she had sex in a garage.

I’ve never felt the same about confession since.

And if that’s a sin, well then, bless me Father, for I have sinned.

2 thoughts on “I have a confession to make

  1. An excellent nostalgic snapshot of times past, Tom, but it made me sad, too, because kids like you and your friends, and their parents, and perhaps their children, including yours, have become what I carefully term secondary victims. Your post could be typical of literally tens of thousands of others, to whom the church offered a foundation for basic morals, discipline and belief, without a hint of sexual predatory practices. Include in that ‘secondary victim’ roll call that vast majority of priests who honored their calling with dignity and proprietary. This is real failing of Pell and the church hierarchy (particularly in America) in allowing the considerable few to undermine the very underpinnings of the decent majority. No winners in this one, but thanks for the fond(ish) memories of a time when you had hair and was thus considered a candidate for ‘lip gymnastics’ with Ruby.

    • Malcolm, I was going to comment on your excellent piece in the Magpie on Saturday on the Church, but you have summed it up eloquently above. I think of my cousin, a former priest, who married a former nun, who are still practising Catholics, but could have contributed far more if they were allowed to do so. They are among the tens of thousands you refer to. Pell and his ilk, particularly in America, as you say, have a lot to answer for. And to me, the sad thing is that they don’t understand what they’ve done wrong. They think they are infallible on matters of doctrine and everything else, while only the Pope has the infallible tag on doctrine. None is infallible on “lip gymnastics.” Thanks for your comment, and you’re right, it’s been a long time since I had hair. PS I still read your blog religiously, although the intricacies of Townsville politics do sometimes elude me! But thanks to you, I’m learning. I love your tales about Mayor Mullet!

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