Underneath the priest’s cassock

În numele Tatălui, şi al Fiului, şi al Sfântului Duh…

I pray, signing my body with a hand gesture and three crossed unified fingers: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. And like this,  three times.

On top of a small hill in Romania’s southern countryside, the church of the monastery looked intimidating to my eight-year-old eyes. In the form of a cross, it had an open porch, which, supported by eight columns of white stone, seemed like it was about to devour my body. The path from the entrance to the main church was wide, and long as if my whole family was about to enter the afterlife. But again, this is how it looked like into my eight-year-old eyes.

My grandmother, proud and young was our tour guide for the day. She would come here frequently, but mostly after her son died in his early thirties before I could have had a slight memory of him. She was leading the way with her eyes closed – different from myself, with eyes wide open with curiosity. Behind her, my uncle, bold and fit, was telling us a story he remembered from his childhood. It was something about running around wild fields and getting lost into woods similar to the ones we could see from a distance. And then there was I, holding my mother’s hand on one side, and my father’s on the other.

At the top of the stairs, a nun was waiting. From what I’ve learned after the visit, she was the abbess of the monastery, blessing us with her guidance and presence, as a courtesy to my grandmother. Leaving her birth name behind, the nun went by Maria those days. She had a kind smile and soft hands, which I felt when she caressed my cheek before letting me enter the confessional.

“Are you a good or bad girl?” I remember him asking.

And so, standing by the massive oak carved door, I silently waited for my turn. Confessing sins was not unusual to me, as my grandmother would take me to the local church every Sunday. After having an argument with a friend, I was ready to confess and let go of that anger.

It is not how you see it in films, or probably, it wasn’t this time. There was no wooden box or stall. It was just a simple white room, with a low ceiling, dense walls, and only two dark wooden chairs in the middle; also, the place where I met the monk.

We were alone, and as the abbess shut the heavy door behind me, I felt my blonde hair fly and a chilly breeze travelling down my bare legs. He was already sitting when I entered. He had a long grey beard and was wearing ecclesiastic clothing – a black cassock adorned by an epanokamelavkion, a jewelled cloth veil. Holding a squared pages notebook in his lap, he talked softly. “He must be very old, I thought.” He asked me to take off my red coat, as “the colour was confusing” him. And so I did, even if it was the end of November and inside the temperature felt lower than outside. Left in my pale pink knee-length dress, I silently sat, after I kissed his hand, his golden cross and bible, a gesture I was also familiar with.

“Are you a good or bad girl?” I remember him asking. Impulsively, I admitted to being good, but he didn’t seem to believe that. And I didn’t believe myself either since I was still caught up in my anger about the fight with my friend. Which I was about to tell him when he asked:

“Have you ever had any sexual thoughts about any of your friends?” That was not something I was familiar with.

 

When, at the end of September, the Vatican released the statement about the defrocking of Rev Fernando Karadima, now 88 years old, following an investigation from 2011, which found the Chilean priest guilty of sexually abusing teenage boys over many years, that day came back to me.

Defined by Al Jazeera as “Chile’s most notorious paedophile priest”, Karadima is believed to have an abusive past since 1984, but the accusers were not considered credible until years later. In 2010, when more people came forward, and the charges went public, the Vatican started investigating.

However, while Karadima was found guilty, on Sunday, January 16, 2011, the Vatican issued its ruling quietly. The press, in fact, were not informed until weeks later. And the punishment? The former priest was supposed to live a life of an all-expenses-paid retirement of “penance and prayer” away from his parish and believers.

But if a man is capable of raping and molesting so many children, do you think he still has faith to believe that the punishment you gave him is the right one? Is the prayer you impose him still a true one? His mouth can recite the words with his body kneeled, but his mind can be elsewhere.

He asked, “Have you ever had any sexual thoughts about any of your friends?” That was not something I was familiar with.

The scandal goes back a long way. Stories dating from the early eighties have been coming out since 2009.  They have been raising questions about the  authority of the Catholic Church ever since. Knowing that their aggressor has always denied any wrongdoing, and escaped civilian justice because of the statute of limitations in the country, has brought people immense suffering, not only to the victims and their families, but believers too, the people devoted to the church.

It was as far back as 1983, when James Hamilton was honoured with a divine invitation. At that time only a teenager, the boy could finally join 300 young people who would gather once a week for a Mass to listen to Father Karadima talk about “sainthood” and “obedience and humbleness”.

Coming from a very religious family, as his mother attended a Catholic school for girls, his days were light and routine was built upon religious traditions. So as he joined the priest’s parish, he “felt like [he] was being chased my God.” But is God supposed to touch your genitals, kiss your mouth, play all sorts of games with your sexuality and insecurities? This is what the Father was chasing Hamilton for in the name of that God.

Now 54, at the time 17, Juan Carlos Cruz was another silent victim. After losing his father at the time, Cruz found in Karadima not only the spiritual figure but also the parental figure he was looking for. But when the teenage boy confessed to being confused about his sexuality, Father Karadima took advantage of that knowledge to keep Cruz’s silence on a most monstrous matter: the fact that what James Hamilton was going through, Juan Carlos Cruz was too.

I wasn’t able to look the monk in the eyes as the confession continued as if I was the one asking these obscene questions. I kept looking down at the irregularly ripped piece of paper – which he gave me, with notes on what I should work on, like my temper. He was probably referring to the fact that I did not reply to the question he last asked. And then he told me I could go.

There was no touch, no looks, just words. And still, it affected me. I would not say that I stopped having faith at that moment, but my faith in whoever believed was entitled to ask certain questions was definitely lost. It left a slight crack open for many other questions to arise in my young head.

And if one question made an eight-year-old doubt the truth she lived with all those years, you could only imagine what Karadima’s victims went through.


Silencing, intimidating, forcing one into submission in the name of God. And these are only two cases, while another eighteen were identified in 2011. And yet, Rev Fernando Karadima has only been given a sort of silent exile, leaving a convicted paedophile at large with only penance and prayers. But the victims never gave up; they fought until Pope Francis had new evidence, which led to the deprivation of Karadima’s ecclesiastical status.

While evidence always seemed to be lacking and judges  dropped the case or closed it abruptly, always ruling in Karadima’s favour, the country was crying over its abused children. As the – now – former priest has never pleaded guilty to this day, one man’s word always won against hundreds of others, and Karadima is still freely walking impeccably dressed with perfectly groomed nails, hiding what’s underneath the cassock.

And now even if it seems like justice, as defrocking is seen as the clergy’s equivalence of the death penalty, why is this man still able to walk freely while other paedophiles and sexual abusers are imprisoned?  

A study conducted by university professor and researcher Gabriela Culda, along with Codruţa Rîndaşu, a university student in Psychology at UBB University in Cluj, Romania, has looked at how Romanians see paedophilia and how they think it should be punished.

What makes this man less of a human, to still walk freely while other paedophiles and sexual abusers are imprisoned?

It started with a simple online survey, shared on social media, completed by 1,081 people. In  Adevãrul.ro, a prestigious Romanian newspaper, Culda said that “the study showed that the majority (742 respondents, 68.7% in per cent) perceive paedophilia as a disease and that just over half (551) feel that paedophiles can not control their sexual intercourse.”

Interestingly, the researcher adds, “that regardless of whether respondents perceive paedophiles as having or not control of behaviour, they ask for the same  punishment,” which is chemical castration. However, 5.6%  said that they would also consider the death penalty.

And we shouldn’t be surprised, in Germany, citizens think that “28% of interviewees think that “paedophiles should die even if they have never committed a crime,” says the research by authors Sara Jahnke, Roland Imhoff and Juergen Hoyer in 2014, “Stigmatisation of People with Pedophilia: Two Comparative Surveys”.

Speculations and arguments are many, as it is our nature as humans to give opinions, and engage in matters affecting not just us, but an entire community. In this case, the believers, the ones who follow a path and kneel at sacred paintings in church, and pray in God’s name as they feel lost, or happy, and kiss the priest’s hand as they enter the room, were affected and scarred, forever…

…Amen.

 

 

 


Featured images courtesy of Kat J on Unsplash.

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