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Paulists sponsor 'unsettling' play on clerical sex abuse

The Paulist Fathers have endorsed and hosted a one-man play on this extremely delicate subject.

Paulists sponsor 'unsettling' play on clerical sex abuse
Katharine Q. Seelye
United States

January 16, 2013

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When he was a boy in North Carolina in the 1960s, Michael Mack wanted to be a priest, until his priest sexually molested him. He prayed he would forget the experience, but, he said, “the memory tingled like a phantom limb.”

As he grew up, he revisited the moment over and over in his mind. He told no one about it, this secret that was obsessing him, “binding me to someone I never talked to, never saw, but who lived and breathed in my memory.”

In 2002, The Boston Globe began documenting the widespread sexual abuse of children by Roman Catholic priests. The articles, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, prompted Mr. Mack, who was by then living in Cambridge, to consider finding the priest who had abused him.

In 2005, he plugged the name into Google and discovered that the priest was living less than an hour away. Eventually, he arrived on the priest’s doorstep.

The result is “Conversations With My Molester: A Journey of Faith,” which had its debut last year at the Boston Playwrights’ Theater at Boston University to mark the 10th anniversary of the Globe series. Now, Mr. Mack, 56, is reviving the nonfiction drama at the Paulist Center, a Catholic community center in downtown Boston that is dedicated to social justice.

On Friday night, about 50 people attended the opening, which was followed by a question-and-answer session with Mr. Mack and the Rev. Rick Walsh of the Paulist Center. The play and subsequent discussion showed how the priest scandal, stemming from events that took place decades ago, continues to haunt the lives of the victims and reverberate throughout the church.

The opening happened to coincide with an announcement by the Archdiocese of Boston, the epicenter of the pedophile priest scandal, that it was further consolidating its parishes in the face of continued low attendance at Mass, a priest shortage and lackluster fund-raising. The announcement was just the latest sign of the toll that the scandal, along with various demographic changes, has taken on the archdiocese. It has been forced to sell valuable property and close parishes and has paid out tens of millions of dollars in settlements to victims of sexual abuse.

Then there is the toll on the victims. And that is the focus of Mr. Mack’s lyrical drama, in which he is the sole performer on a relatively spare stage for 90 minutes.

One of the most unsettling moments of the performance was when Mr. Mack revealed that as a camp counselor when he was in high school, he had come close to seducing a vulnerable, 8-year-old in whom he recognized himself.

“You lean closer, his hair a drift of baby shampoo,” Mr. Mack said as he acted out the scene. “Your face so close to the heat of his cheek you smell his breath, like apples.” At that point, the images of his own molesting came rushing back, and he stopped himself before anything happened.

That admission — that he had almost re-enacted the very crime perpetrated against him — drew particular praise from the audience. And it led to a general discussion of one of the little-acknowledged effects of molesting, that some victims become perpetrators.

Another effect of sexual abuse shown in the play was the simultaneous feelings of attraction and revulsion that persist in memory. When Mr. Mack was 11 and abused by his priest, he felt half giddy and half terrified. He also felt special, but the complexity of feelings was too much to make sense of.

He found himself “powerfully attracted, and powerfully repelled, finding self-loathing its own dismal ecstasy,” as he said in the play. This only added to his sense of guilt. Just remembering the scene so often, he said, proved that he was responsible for the crime, that he had “wanted it to happen, invited it to happen, made it happen, deserved it.”

After the performance, Mr. Mack was asked why he had not been vengeful toward the priest who had abused him.

“It was not true to my experience,” Mr. Mack replied, in part because victims blame themselves. Besides, he said, the play was his revenge.

“By telling my story, I am making this my truth,” he said. “I’m claiming it and getting it back.”

Full Story: Private Pain, Played Out on Public Stage

Source: New York Times

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