Kevin Hargaden is a treasure of the internets. I just recently found out it was because he is Irish–none of that American Christian grimness about him, no sirree. He is funny, delightful, and heartbreakingly aware of just how bad things are on the ground. I’m so glad he agreed to write this post, but I am even gladder still for the life and calling he has chosen to live. Please do check out his always excellent thoughts over on his blog, and his be sure to follow him on Twitter as well.
For the last fifteen years in Ireland, living as a Christian has meant living through story after story after story of people abused horrendously within churches. I grew up and came to faith in that time. It has seemed as if every successive year there is another detailed report into the terrifying violence that took place within the church, which was conducted by leaders in the church, which was covered up by the people of the church. For this the church still has not acknowledged wholeheartedly and repented truly.
Invariably war photographers have to document carnage and brutality and their goal is that somehow by recording it – by broadcasting it, by capturing it – the stories of what has happened won’t be lost and won’t be forgotten. The war photographer hopes that by taking photos of war, they will contribute to the cessation of war. As an accidental war photographer of abuse within the church, I feel compelled to retell the story in such a way as to honour the victims, to expose the truth and to prevent it from happening again.
When trying to share these stories there is much to be avoided; the tabloid desire for prurient details, the brutish hunger to turn in aggression against perpetrators and most importantly the commodification of the stories so that they become an instrumental tool to achieve some other aim. The last concern is one about which I must be most alert. I feel like a war photographer who gets his work seen from an obtuse angle. If I present an academic paper that critiques pristine, abstract theological models of church, I will write it heavily influenced by the decrepit, actual crimes of our churches. Yet my address might only tangentially touch on the abuse scandal and instead appear to be preoccupied with the writings of Henrí de Lubac or Karl Barth. I imagine it is a bit like a war photographer who gets his pictures published in a botany journal. “Look! I found this rare orchid… Yes, well noticed. That is a war waging on in the background right behind the flowers.”
There is much to be avoided but there is one thing that I seek: to dignify the victims by honouring the truth of what has taken place.
I had a very low intensity exposure to the church growing up. We had a parish priest called Fr. Vincent Keaveny. When he would visit our primary school, classes would be suspended and we would all be herded into our cramped little makeshift assembly hall. This man, who seemed as old as Abraham to us, with yellow skin, would stand on a little stage in front of us and teach us to sing, “See this little light of mine? I’m gonna let it shine” while performing actions that went along with the song.
It appeared to us as if Fr. Keaveny’s primary purpose was to inform us in many different ways that we were good and that we could do good. He had a curate, Fr. Rossa Doyle, a priest who moved with a deliberative patience that put us at our ease. He was a man who never confused us. When your job is to explain the mysteries of God to children, that is a remarkable achievement.
In recent years I have often thought back on Fr. Keaveny’s approach to pastoring a congregation and teaching young people. At the age of 6 or 7 he left me with only the vaguest impression of who Jesus was, barely a concept of what the Gospel was but absolutely no doubt that God thought I was good.
There is something saintly in that.
My father, growing up in 1950s rural Ireland was an altar boy into his early 20s. He later confessed to me that he would have considered joining the priesthood but he knew he needed a suit to go up to the seminary. His family could not afford that. I wanted to be an altar boy like my dad. How good it would be help Fr. Keaveny as he went around doing the good work of telling people they could be good.
Also, if you did a funeral or a wedding, sometimes the families would give you five pounds and I could spend that on World Cup Italia 90 stickers or put it towards some more Transformer toys.
The only truly negative experience that I had in a church growing up was to do with serving the altar. I was probably too young and I was definitely insufficiently trained. One summer’s morning I went down to the church and there were no older boys around to help. I had to do the job solo. I tried desperately to remember when it was I should ring this bell and when it was I should bring over that chalice.
I can honestly say I did my absolute 8 year-old best that day. And in retrospect, I can see that there were few more sincere, heartfelt acts of worship in my youth. When mass finished, I went into the sacristy and the priest followed me in and began shouting. He called me an embarrassment. He asked me what did I think I was doing out there? He told me I should be ashamed of myself.
At the back entrance to our parish church there is a gentle slope up to the road above. The footpath is lined by cherry blossom trees that would explode into bloom in late Spring. I realise now that their chorus of colour was a Psalmist’s cry, rendered in leaf and bud, ushering the parish into the everyday magnificence of Ordinary Time on God’s watch.
I wasn’t used to adults raising their voices at me. My parents were gentle and calm. My teachers tended to like me. My football coach trusted me. I went for speech therapy with final year students who practiced on me as part of getting their degrees and in my mind they were the most beautiful women God had ever put on Earth. Adults never shouted at me.
It must have been shock then, that allowed me to maintain my dignity and protect my pride by holding my chin up while I walked out of the sacristy and out of the church. But the moment I crossed the threshold the tears began to fall. My face stung as if I had been hit. There is an inner-city Dublin phrase to describe blushing; that you are “scarlet.” But the “t” goes silent so you say “he was scarleh.” That wouldn’t begin to describe me. Running up that hill felt like scaling a mountain. I sprinted as fast as I could for as long as I could until I was out of breath and then I walked as slowly as I could manage because I wanted to gather myself.
I needed to get myself together because I wanted to hide what had happened from my family. After all, it followed that if the priest was embarrassed by me, I would embarrass my family. If the priest thought I had shamed myself, I surely had brought shame on my family. I didn’t want to disappoint my dad. In my child-logic, that is what this would be. My grandparents were deeply, sincerely devout people. My paternal grandmother lived in the house next to mine. She appeared to pray constantly without any joy. My maternal grandmother lived on the other side of the country. She appeared to have turned joy into prayer. I didn’t want them to know how I had let them down.
For the last five years I have been in college with men training to be priests. From listening to them and from sitting through way too many Canon Law lectures and studying liturgy and the Catholic theology of Eucharist closely I can better understand why that priest lost his head with me. In the gracious providence of God I can report that he has mellowed over the years. Decades since he left our parish, he still checks in on my siblings and me, wanting to know how we’re doing.
I made it back to my house. I sat down to lunch as if nothing had happened. I let it casually slip a few days later that I didn’t want to be an altar boy any longer. Nothing more was said.
And I didn’t tell another soul what had happened until more than fifteen years later when I told my wife.
If I felt such shame for something so trivial – if the holy authority of church leadership unintentionally exerted such trauma on my conscience that I harboured a secret for the majority of my life over something so negligible and so forgettable as ringing a bell at the wrong time at mass – how hard must it be for victims to speak about abuse in the church? What courage must it take to stand up and confront their abusers?
In 2 Timothy, Paul seems to talk about passing on leadership in the church as if it is a relay race. Becoming a leader in the church is like receiving a baton from the older leaders as they finish their laps. For me and my generation, coming into leadership in the Irish church, the baton is damaged almost beyond recognition. It looks so different from the way it ought to look that it is natural for us to question if they are really handing us the Gospel at all.
The succession of investigative reports published since 2005 have revealed a culture of abuse that was “endemic within institutions where there was a systemic failure to provide for children’s safety and welfare.”# My suspicion is that we have not heard the end of this story. My hope is that no similar story will unfold within evangelical churches but my hope is faint.
As I receive the baton then, I feel it is an obligation on Christian leaders to point out the ways in which the message of Jesus and our witness to his Kingdom has been marred by the abuse of children God put in our care. We must continue to re-tell these stories of abuse, in ways that honour and respect the victims, because until we as church absorb them into our identity, justice has not even begun to be done. The astonishing good news that we declare in our churches must be tempered by an acknowledgment of the astonishingly bad things that have gone on in our churches. We re-tell these stories because justice is not opposed to grace, but an integral aspect of it.
Finally I think it is part of the vocation to leadership that we must tell these stories because the only way to stop abuse in the church is to widely disperse the responsibility to protect against it and expose it. In every ecclesial abuse scandal, in every church or institution, regardless of location or denomination, the key criteria at play was the unaccountable access that leaders had tos children and the unassailable authority that leaders had in the face of accusations. Only when we confront ourselves with the stories of the victims and the sins of the church we inherit can we hope to build a church that leaves no space for such violence to grow. Until then, the war photography cannot cease.
Kevin was born and bred in the Dublin suburbs. He has an Irish
aversion to writing bio-pieces since they invariably sound cocky. He
is training to be a minister with the Presbyterian Church in Ireland,
but is studying for that at a Catholic seminary. He can’t sing but he
does lisp. He loves the Simpsons, the parables and making lists but
perhaps not in that order. He blogs at www.hargaden.com/kevin about
faith in contemporary Ireland and he can be found on twitter.
As a reminder, the War Photographer series seeks to ask and somewhat answer questions of representation. How we go about sharing stories that aren’t our own–specifically the hard stories? How do we put a spotlight on some of the forgotten stories of our age while still giving dignity and respect to the subjects?
For more in the series, please click here.