Another Kind of Abuse

Inside of a large, traditional catholic church with pews and cross visible.
Inside of a large, traditional catholic church with pews and cross visible.

The email came early one Tuesday morning two years ago, the kind of email that makes a writer's heart beat with excitement and just a bit of fear.

It began: "I'm an editor at the Times opinion section, and we're looking for someone in LA to write an essay for us about the sex abuse scandal in the church there...." The email address included the editor's name followed by @nytimes.com. Yep. That Times.

I wondered why the editor had contacted me. True, I am an LA-based, Chicano writer. At the time, I had six books under my belt and I sometimes touched on the Church abuse scandal in my fiction. So, after some thought, I figured a simple Google search could have brought The New York Times editor to my inbox.

But I tried to stay cool and wrote this simple response to the editor: "Thanks for the email. I would be interested. Please send the guidelines."

She quickly wrote back and offered an explanation of her own: "So we often ask novelists or literary writers to write essays off of a news event. The idea is to get some good, evocative writing into the paper (often with some personal anecdotes or stories), but also to offer some interesting argument or insight about the news. We were thinking you might have something interesting to say about abuse, Catholicism and Latinos in LA, but the angle would be totally up to you (and of course it would depend on whether you grew up in the church/feel like you can offer a personal perspective)."

Made sense to me. So, I hunkered down and wrote it. After some back-and-forth with the editor, it ran online on a Thursday evening and in the print edition that Sunday under the title, "The Priest That Preyed."

The op-ed focused on the title story of my first fiction collection, Assumption and Other Stories, published a decade earlier by Bilingual Press. In it, I had fictionalized one of the more notorious priests who had served in my mostly Mexican-American parish back in the 1960s. Now dead, he had left a trail of abused children across southern California. Church records that came to light during private litigation showed that the Archdiocese knew of the abuse but merely moved the priest to other parishes in response to the complaints. Though not a victim myself, I did note that I was no longer a member of the Church.

Then the emails started to appear in my inbox. Unfortunately, the first missives were filled with a lot of anger and very little logic.

One email from a person named Carlos had as its subject line "selfish behavior" and began with this: "You are foolish--and too proud--to have renounced Catholicism. That will go against you at your Judgment."

Carlos continued: "One queer priest does not absolve you of your religious obligation that you owe to God and Jesus. It's Diocesan Appeal time--write a check. Be generous."

Carlos apparently did not understand that child sexual abuse has nothing to do with sexual orientation. Nor did he acknowledge the point that the Church knew about this priest's actions but only shuttled him off to other parishes filled with children at his disposal. But Carlos figured that all was not lost for me: I could buy my way into heaven by writing a check to the Church.

Other angry readers offered no better. One person named Paul also confused sexual orientation with child abuse.

"May I ask you a question?" he began. "Do you support homosexual mockeries of marriage? Do you support the idea of homosexual 'couples' adopting little children?" Well, actually, I do support same-sex marriage and see no reason why same-sex couples shouldn't be able to adopt "little children." Paul correctly had me pegged as a liberal, I must admit.

But then Paul took another bizarre leap of logic: "If so, why bother writing articles full of rage against homosexual priests who are doing no less than the homosexual lobby has been doing for decades. There is a word for that sort of thing--hypocrisy."

And there was one from a person named Lilly: "Your book is disgusting and you are a liar! Enough said since you are no longer a Catholic."

I doubt Lilly ever read Assumption and Other Stories. But what was disturbing about her attack was that she felt free to dismiss me and my opinions simply because I had left the Church.

While I was tempted to engage in a vigorous cross-examination of Carlos, Paul, Lilly and the others who attacked me with their "arguments," I restrained myself realizing that I would be wasting my already limited time.

Instead, I was comforted by those emails from survivors of sexual abuse--as well as those who have worked with victims--who also took time to write to me.

For example, there was Linus who told me that he had been abused by a priest at the age of seventeen. He quoted back to me my own words from the op-ed: "...fiction can never match the audacious brutality visited upon those children for so many years." Linus wondered if playwriting could also address the abuse scandal in the same way my short story had.

Put another way, could other forms of creative writing address clergy abuse while offering some kind healing? I believe the answer is yes.

As an LA-based writer, I often use my city's history to shape my narratives and propel my characters. Sadly, some of that history includes ugly examples of what some people and institutions do to the most vulnerable of our community. Los Angeles is as much sunshine and beaches as it is depravity and evil.

But it is my home and I will do my best to bring it to life through literature even if it makes a few readers a bit angry with me. In the end, there will always be a Linus out there who gets sustenance and comfort from my words.