Friday, March 1, 2019

Examination of Conscience - a film review

I remember asking my father to explain homosexuality to me once. I must have been around ten or twelve. My father and mother and I were in the kitchen. For some reason, the image is still vivid. The conversation went like this:
Me: What’s a homosexual?
Mother, clearly horrified: Where did you learn a word like that?
Father: It’s a man who hangs around the rest rooms of the Greyhound Bus Station and if you let him he’ll put his hand inside your pants.
I picked up the vibes: I should not pursue the questioning.

So much for those who insist that school is no place for sex education, that that sort of thing should be done in the home.

When the AIDS crisis broke out in the early 80s, I felt a pang of gratitude for having been raised in what I now see was a slightly prudish home. It wasn’t really; men talked crudely about sex when women weren’t around, and I picked up that sex was supposed to be both pleasurable and something to hide, rather than something not to engage in. But Sunday School and church activities played a large role in my life, so I had two contradictory sources of authority on the subject. The men in my life didn’t go to church and often greeted each other with questions like, “Gettin’ any lately?” The church made it clear that sex was something only married people engaged in and was best not talked about publicly. And, of course, there was the unmistakeable message from the church that sex with someone of the same sex was the greatest of all sins.

Because I was a bookish piano-playing kid who went hysterical at the age of four when I watched my father kill a deer, I took my cue from the church folks and not the hunters and fishermen my father hung out with. That meant when I found myself clutching another naked man in the shower of the YMCA in Montreal at age 19, I had no way to explain to myself what had just happened or why. You could call it remarkable innocence. You could also call it total cluelessness.

During the early 1980s, when other gay men in San Francisco were dropping right and left from this new “gay plague” that would soon be called AIDS, I thanked my lucky stars for the prudery that delayed my sex life until I was well into my 20s. It had kept me safe. I’ve since met dozens of men over the years who tell me they knew they were gay by the time they started school, and I've always had difficulty believing them. The idea that one could have a sexual consciousness at that age struck me as inconceivable. Until recently. As I flip through the memories of conversations with sex partners over a cigarette after a roll in the hay, group therapy discussions, 3 a.m. bull sessions in college while taking a break, I am amazed at how many personal stories I have heard of boys beginning their sex lives shortly after puberty, not uncommonly as early as 15 or 16. Many with older boys or men, including faculty advisors, scout leaders, baby sitters or others in a mentoring capacity.

Moreover, most men I know look back on their first sexual experiences with pleasure. In some cases, they initiated the interaction, and even those who needed to be talked into it have told me they didn’t need a lot of persuasion.

Because this has been my personal experience, I have had trouble in the past getting into the heads of child abuse victims. Why, I wondered, would anybody view such an exciting time as abusive? I was clearly making a big mistake in generalizing from my collection of essentially positive experiences. I was not working with an adequate data base, and I was missing all the times boys are intimidated, humiliated and coerced. And, perhaps most importantly, I was falling into the trap set by those who failed to distinguish between pre-pubescent and post-pubescent children. Taking advantage of a 17-year-old, if there is any justice, should pale in comparison to taking advantage of an 8-year-old.

I don’t have a single example, in my limited collection of first-sex stories, of rape. I’m a walking illustration of the reason why, when making generalizations, people should take anecdotal evidence with a grain of salt. And don't miss my point here. It's not that I was unaware of the actual facts of all the child abuse cases. It's just that at a subconscious level my own personal mental file of child sex experiences was so benign that I was inclined to think people were overdoing it. Not unlike white people who cannot see why the Dixie flag might come across to a black person the way a swastika comes across to a Jew - because the memory simply lacks the proper emotional wiring for such understanding.

These thoughts have been with me the past several days since I watched the Spanish documentary, Examination of Conscience (Examen de Conciencia – Netflix Streaming 2019 – 3 50-minute episodes).  There was something about the personal appeal of the two victims of abuse that spoke to me directly, showing the impact personal narratives can have over other forms of exposition. As I listened to the men in this film speak of their experiences, it became clear to me that what had driven them to near distraction was not the physical experience of pain but the disorientation of the event followed by the frustration of being unable to process what had happened to them. They had clearly been taught, and believed, that sex was to be avoided. But suddenly here they were, at the same time, forced to contend with the fact that what was happening with the priests was sexual. One powerful moment in the film is when one child tells his mother how glad he is that his priest loves him. He had accepted the priest’s explanation of the sex act he was performing on the boy as a proof of love and was taking refuge in that love.

All of us have been raised in a Christian (or Christian-esque) culture infused with a morality system which prioritizes sexual behavior over such other evils as, say, violence, greed or deceit. If we had instead been raised in a world where it was normal for adults to bring children to orgasm as soon as they are old enough to experience it, with laughter, friendship and social cameraderie, as just another form of pleasure, like swinging on a swing or hiking and swimming, we would not now be talking of “sexual abuse.” So long as adults teased children into sex instead of forcing them, obviously.  But that’s clearly not what goes on. We teach children that there is something sacred about the sex act, and put it at the very heart of what it means to know right from wrong. The real harm priests do when they engage young people in sex is that they pull them into a world of hypocrisy, lies and deceit, which ultimately involves shame and disgust. Call it a kind of cognitive violence.

Not everybody will react to the film as I did. Forgive a personal tangent, but I feel in talking about its impact, I have to let you know something about the lens I was seeing the documentary through. 

As the story began to unfold, it finally sank in that I had been missing something important in all these years of following the sex abuse scandal. I was in the habit of looking back on my youth as a time of missed sexual opportunities. Frankly, I felt cheated, and often wished I had had more of it. I had no trouble creating fantasies about going back in time to those occasions when I might have had sex but was prevented by my own inhibitions. I was a good little boy. I listened to my elders when they told me sex was a no-no. I used to joke that I’d love nothing better than to find a time machine which would permit me to go back to those times when messing around as kids might well have led to actual sex, use my current knowledge to go back in time and take advantage of a youthful body and energy. What a waste, I’d say. All those pleasures nipped in the bud. All those times I might have had older people initiate me into sexual awareness. 

How many times, in bull sessions listening to other gay people tell of being seduced by an older relative, or neighbor, or teacher, did I feel pangs of jealousy. The idea that any and all sex between an adult and a child is by definition abuse is simply not realistic. There can be positive experiences, provided the child does not have his sense of self trampled on, and provided that he is not pressured into believing something about himself that will in time turn out not to be true. I would not change our laws governing sex with minors because I believe the law should protect children against the harm their innocence and naivete can lead to, but what is defined as abuse legally is a separate issue from what constitutes psychological damage. And at the very heart of the priestly abuse question is the fact that the church has made the protection of the reputations of the clergy a higher priority than a child’s psyche.

What the documentary brought home to me was the extent to which I had gone in hiding my first sexual experience, not only from the world, but from myself as well. I had been spending too much time being a good academic and devil’s advocate, wondering if maybe priests were being unfairly framed as monsters. I was not spending enough time focusing on how powerful my own early sexual experiences were in creating in me long-lasting feelings of shame and guilt, to say nothing of denial. I was forgetting that in my own experience my first sexual encounter at the age of 19 was so overwhelming that I actually managed to suppress it for several years, bringing it back to my consciousness only with extreme efforts. I came to understand that it’s not a simple case of being forced to do something against one’s will. It’s being forced to accept that something is happening that voices in your head tell you can’t possibly be happening.

Spain, until recently, was a profoundly conservative country, held in sway by the Roman Catholic Church. It  worked in modern times, before, during and after the fascist Franco regime to assure its power could not be seriously threatened by government or social movements that would subject priests and bishops to civilian oversight. What Examination of Conscience makes plain is how the cover-up of clerical abuse went all the way to the top of the Vatican, to Cardinal Ratzinger, first in his role as Chief Inquisitor, then as Pope Benedict XVI. Every single child abuse case reported to the Vatican ended up on his desk. He was the funnel that choked the flow of information, preventing it from seeing the light of day. Examination of Conscience reveals documents showing subterfuge to be actual official policy.

The sickness in the church was exposed in Boston in 2002 but it clearly goes back to much earlier times and its affects are not confined to any single country. The church has dragged its feet to this day in doing anything about it.  After decades of delay the Church finally - finally - holds an international conference on the topic, and the conference ends without concrete plans for action.  George Cardinal Pell,  the highest ranking prelate in Australia has lost his job and a jury has found him personally guilty of child abuse. In France, Philippe Cardinal Barbarin is on trial for cover-ups. In Chile, the entire conference of bishops tendered their resignations over child abuse. Brazil, to date, seems to hold the record on foot-dragging. They have no policy in place. Nothing.

Perhaps if the Vatican were a democracy, or at least had some sort of distribution of power, you might expect to find at least some prelates taking responsibility for this mind-numbing hypocrisy and policy of protecting its own abusers while throwing children under the bus. But the Vatican is an absolute monarchy, and the head is clearly rotten to the core. And that explains the complete absence of transparency. The point is made in Examination of Conscience that Jesus of Nazareth issued only one command to his followers, and it didn't concern women or homosexuals. It forbade abuse of children. By now, of course, the Roman Catholic Church has made it clear they are a political organization, not a religious one - at least not one that takes the moral concerns of its alleged founder all that seriously.  Protect the clergy, they say. Make sure no tongues will wag and give anyone cause to speak ill of our standing in the world. Children? We love children. Look at all the good we've done with our parochial schools. Of course, if we have to choose between a child's mental health and the church's reputation, there's no doubt which of these we will make our higher priority.

It bears repeating: statistics on how widespread this child abuse runs, and how deep, are dramatic, but they only tell part of the story. To those who might be inclined to feel this film covers old familiar territory, I would suggest giving it a chance. There's a world of difference between the power of statistical evidence of wrong-doing, and the impact of listening to two earnest men speak from their hearts about having to live with the church's cover-ups and deceptions. There are good reasons why we tell each other our stories.

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