Mr. E: A Very Personal Encounter
I have been watching the recent agony and embarrassment of the Catholic Church with some personal interest, for reasons I will soon explain. It is now several years since the issue of priestly sexual abuse surfaced, though it has likely persisted for centuries in the dark corners of the vestries and the shadows of the cloisters. And, sadly, is likely to persist so long as the Church insists on clinging to the absurd requirement that its priests be celibate. Human beings are, after all, human beings. For now however, the Church seems intent on digging itself deeper into the mire, and I think a part of the problem has been its inability to see the issue other than through its medieval lens of sin and redemption. Those in authority seem not to have accounted for the significant social changes that have taken place in the past few decades, or for the fact that the vast majority of us now see the issue in a quite different light: not the actions themselves, but the harm caused by these predators and the sometimes devastating consequences of their actions.
You will understand why I have been thinking about these things when I tell you about Mr. E. Mr. E was a teacher of mathematics at the private boarding school I attended in the south of England from the age of six until I was twelve years old, when I moved on to “public” school. He was a small, ordinary-looking, bespectacled man with thinning grey hair, an earnest mien, a ridge of wrinkles across his brow, and the smile of a benevolent uncle. With a white dog collar and a black cassock, he could easily have passed for a Catholic priest. Outside of school, in his regular life, he happened to have recently inherited a farm not far from the Hertfordshire village of Braughing (say it like “laughing,” with an American accent) where my father was, at the time, the vicar of the parish. Learning of this felicitous proximity, and needing to spend a weekend away with my mother at a diocesan conference, my father gladly accepted Mr. E’s offer to put me up for a night while they were gone.
They drove me there in my father’s sporty grey Armstong-Siddeley automobile and left me off in Mr. E’s charge. I was, as I remember the occasion, at once reticent and excited. It felt odd, certainly, to be staying with one of my teachers, but he welcomed me kindly and we spent the afternoon exploring the farm-yards and the barns, discovering in one of them an ancient, upright motor car with dusty, decaying leather seats and brass lamps for headlights, now dulled with age and neglect. Mr. E let me sit in the driver’s seat and pretend to drive this magnificent relic from the early days of horseless carriage vehicles. There was much else, too, of similar vintage to be discovered and explored, and the afternoon passed quickly.
Then it was dinner in the cold, bare, stone-floor kitchen… and time for bed. I was eleven years old. Nothing, as yet, had alerted my body or mind to the advent of adolescence, but I was aware of a certain discomfort as Mr. E helped me into my pajamas and tucked me up in a bed adjacent to his own. I lay there without sleeping for the longest time, listening to my teacher’s movements in the darkness as he prepared himself for bed. I was aware, too, of his breathing, his awakened state, and I think I may have held my own breath—in fear, or anticipation of I knew not what. Until he spoke… and there was a strange hoarseness to his voice.
“Are you awake?” he asked.
I barely managed a whispered, “Yes.”
“Are you cold?”
It was, in fact, cold in that big old house. I was shivering.
“Would you like to come into my bed?”
I recognized that this was not an invitation. It was an instruction, coming from my teacher. I had been taught to do as I was told. And, really, I knew of no possible evil intent.
I did know, however, that what ensued was not right. Imagine my shock when his head slid down under the covers, breathing heavily, and took that part of me into his mouth. I felt the response, felt a strange and—I knew—forbidden but still intensely pleasurable sensation that I tried simultaneously to resist. It was not right for Mr. E to be dong this. I could not imagine what it was all about, but I was quite sure that my father would not approve.
After some minutes down there, engaged in this peculiar activity, my teacher re-emerged, and I was left with the clear impression that there was something that remained incomplete, something that had been expected of me that I had been unable to fulfill. There followed more movement down there, the sensation of something strange and hot and fleshy pressed up against my body, along with a dangerous, musty smell that was entirely new. Then I heard Mr. E say--coldly, I thought—“You can go back to your bed now.” And I did, appalled by what had happened, yet shamefully excited in a way I could not understand. Back in my own bed, I felt suddenly alone, dismissed, and with the feeling that I had somehow proved a failure…
My father came to pick me up the following day. On the way back home in the car he chided me for having seemed rude and ungrateful when we said goodbye. He, too, was disappointed in me: he expected better manners from his son. I said nothing. What could I have said?
It was a year or so later that my father came up to my room in the vicarage one evening, before I went to sleep. He had received a telephone call from the headmaster of my school, to let him know that Mr. E had been sacked for “playing around” with boys. Had anything happened, my father wanted to know, that night I had spent with Mr. E on his farm? I acknowledged, yes. A grave silence. Did I want to talk about it, my father asked? I said, no. I would not have known how to talk about it. And my father said, alright then, and quietly left the room. Closing the door behind him. I think he was simply too embarrassed, too ashamed of having misplaced his trust and exposed me to this abuse, too devastated to know what to say himself. We never spoke of it again.
So, yes, it was a wound. Yes, I was abused. Yes, it went deep, and yes, there is a reason that the memory has stayed with me so clearly. There is a scar. I could attribute to the experience some of the inhibitions and reactive patterns that remain with me to this day: my reticence, my guardedness, my distrust of authority, my aversion to what I perceive to be any invasion on my privacy… Such explanations belong in the realm of therapy, and I do not discount their significance or value. It is possible, our culture has discovered, to repair such damage by means of bringing it to the surface and examining its effects.
In so far as I understand Catholic dogma, to sin is to require confession and absolution—which is perhaps a kind of personal therapy. Sins can be “washed away” by “the blood of the lamb.” But such putative redemption for the sinner fails to address the harm brought down upon the victims of his actions, for which actual reparations may be needed. This is the piece that is missing in the response of Church authorities. It’s not just about finally holding the wayward priests accountable and protecting the Church they betrayed, or even about preventing such behavior from occurring in the future. (I have my doubts as to whether that would be possible); it’s about the harm that persists, and festers in the lives of those who have been abused.
The strategy of the Catholic Church has done little to resolve the issue. Rather, it has left the whole thing bogged down in guilt, recrimination, anger and defensiveness. The missed opportunity is for the make-up—not the words of regret or apology, or the breast-beating, but the action that lays out the plan for more skillful behavior in the future, for Church policies that unflinchingly and publicly recognize its responsibilities to its flock, particularly its children.
But what, I ask myself in retrospect—and with regard to my own experience—would be the Buddhist view?
Let’s not excuse the inexcusable. I have no wish to be what Thanissaro Bhikkhu jocularly calls a “Buddhist doormat.” I’m not sure that it helps, though, to write Mr. E off as “evil.” His behavior comes in part out of ignorance, in part out of misguided concupiscence, in part out of the man’s inability to control his appetite. All “unskillful,” to say the least. Mr. E must surely by now be long gone from this world, but there are millions like him; and if we are to take the Buddha’s teachings seriously, they are all deserving of compassion. That is not the same as tolerance, nor obviously of approval. It’s simply the recognition that I do myself more harm by clinging to the offense than by acknowledging it, and letting it go.
To extend goodwill, to wish for the true happiness of such creatures as Mr. E is not to excuse them, then, but rather to extend the wish for them to see the harm they cause to themselves and others by their actions. I believe, too, in this aspect of karma: that their actions are inevitably followed by proportionate consequences, and that they bring as much suffering on themselves as they do on those they harm. I see the likes of Mr. E not as monsters, but as desperately unhappy beings, condemned to live out a life of torment unless they find in themselves the capacity to change. Society, of course, must act to protect its young from such people. If that involves locking them up, so be it.
For myself, I am not condemned to allow this past abuse to cause me perpetual suffering. I am blessed with the ability to choose the path of freedom. For those men and women, boys and girls who have been the object of similar abuse, I wish the same. From the work I have done with men like myself, I know they are more numerous than most of us can possibly imagine. The deeply human gift of sexual desire and the equally human joy of sexual experience can all too easily be perverted. For those so dreadfully cursed in their lives, I wish the release of enlightenment, which would be a gift to us all.