Sunday, February 20, 2011

Brothers keepers

I attended a Catholic high school in Philadelphia run by the Christian Brothers. Known best, I suppose, for their undrinkable swill of wine, the Brothers are a very old teaching order of men who conduct a network of schools, colleges and reformatories around the world.

When I was a student at West Philadelphia Catholic High School for Boys in the 1960s, the Brothers still wore black cassocks and a peculiar little white celluloid collar in the shape of a pair of tombstones. They affected religious names like Pius and Fidelis of Mary, lived communally in a rectory adjacent to the school, and observed a vow of celibacy.

Most of us boys were in awe of them, as we had been conditioned to regard all members of the clergy, male and female, as a special species apart from humanity. In fact, when I was very young and in a Catholic elementary school, I thought there were four types of human beings: men, women, priests and nuns. The Brothers were no exception. As Catholic clergy, they seemed to us, and to our parents, to exist in a world apart; celibate, sequestered, indeed, secretive in their daily routine and communal activities.

We boys also feared the Christian Brothers, and with good reason. In those days (though I understand that this has changed) they enforced discipline with intimidation, bullying and brutality. That some people still look back on such behavior with a kind of grim fondness is a curious and, in my view, pitiable practice. Often I witnessed the brow-beatings and physical beatings which misbehavior or lack of respect provoked. I watched a Brother slap a friend of mine so hard that the boy was propelled out of his chair, hitting his head on the chalkboard, nearly knocking him out. I witnessed another Brother hit a boy across the buttocks with a two-by-four plank (which he called the Board of Education), and when the boy, at the last instant, put his hand behind him to shield himself, the blow crushed his graduation ring on his finger, so that he had to be taken to the hospital to have it cut off.

Insults, mockeries, slappings and beatings were part of the routine of the school. In fairness, however, I must add that we received a good quality of education, and many of us were fond of the Brothers who taught us, considered them friends and advisers, and remain grateful to them for the sense of discipline and self-control which their treatment of us engendered. It was not all fear and trembling; the Brothers seemed genuinely to enjoy teaching us, could be great fun, and made deep and lasting impressions on most of us.

But there was one aspect of the Brothers' lives that, while apparent to a few of us at the time, did not become clear until much later. Many of the Brothers -- I would say, most of them -- were gay. Some were so flamboyantly so that their homosexuality, in some cases their femininity, was evident to even the most thick-headed and naive among us. Others were more adept at concealing it. But in the decades since my graduation, it has become clear to me that most of them had entered the order either to deny their sexuality, or to gain access to boys.

Looking back on my years at the Brothers' school, I can recall that there were one or two incidents which must have involved sexual scandal between Brothers and boys. I remember that one Brother simply disappeared from the school, which was then flooded with rumors that he had seduced a boy. If that was so, it was quickly and thoroughly covered up. That others did so I have no doubt, and either got away with it or had their crimes concealed, as is the long established practice of the Church. There can be little doubt, as well, that Brothers engaged in homosexual activity within the confines of the communal residence. Personally, I know of at least one such incident. When we add to this the fact, of which I am aware, that alcohol was widely and lavishly used by the Brothers, sexual activity would seem to have been inevitable.

Some years after I left the school, in the Eighties I think it was, the Christian Brothers imploded. The order dissolved in a whirlpool of self-examination and self-scrutiny; most of the Brothers left, and many of the others dispersed into communities of laymen outside the strict control of the archdiocese. They changed their names, abandoned their clerical garb, and the order itself seemed paralyzed by self-doubt and a desperate search for identity.

Why this was so I never learned. Even the former Brothers with whom I remained in touch would not discuss it. It was as if what had happened was some shameful secret, some mutual admission of concupiscence, that none of them wanted to disclose; indeed, it was almost as if they had sworn an oath of secrecy.

In looking back on my experience with them, however, I think that what probably happened was that increasing instances of sexual molestation of boys caused the Brothers (who may have been more honest among themselves than were the priests) to examine as an order their behavior and the reasons for the members assuming their vocations. I suspect that in the course of that self-examination they were forced to admit that the motives for their having joined the brotherhood were grounded more in their sexuality than in their spirituality. In short: They had to confront the fact that they had become Brothers for the wrong reason.

And so a large number of them quit the order and returned to lay life. There, I expect, they either married in order to continue their self-deception (I know of one or two instances of this), or admitted finally to their homosexuality and entered that lifestyle. But this is only what I surmise; I do not claim to know it for a fact, and would appreciate hearing from former Brothers or people close to the order who can throw light upon the subject.

However the larger issue does seem clear: Like the priests and nuns with whom they served, the Brothers' vocations were motivated in large part by a conflict over their sexual identities which they strove either to legitimize (indeed, to sanctify) by their religious service; or, more diabolically, their joining was nothing less than a calculated attempt on their part to gain easy access to adolescent boys in order to satisfy their own bestial appetites. In concert with this, the Church of course displayed its habitual crass and cruel cynicism by concealing, abetting and even spreading the disease of child abuse, while holding up the Brothers as pure examples of the celibate service of God.

Let me state again that I do not say that all of the Brothers were either gay or pedophiles, but in my experience, a large number were gay and a few, I suspect, were pedophiles. Of some I have nothing but fond and grateful memories, since those men, whose vocation to educate boys was true and noble, expressed a genuine desire to teach and guide us. I could name them here (some undoubtedly were gay), since they remain in my memory and in my esteem. But it seems to me that they were in the minority, and that the sense of guilt suffered and crimes committed by their fellows, together with the heinous efforts of the hierarchy to aid and protect them, unfortunately must outweigh the selfless service of the remainder.

Once again, I do not claim to know these things; only that I have reason to believe that they are so. Therefore, I invite anyone who knew the Brothers in the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties to write and inform me. Is my recollection that most of the Brothers were gay correct? And why, in fact, did the Brothers undergo such seismic shaking as I was aware of in the years following my experience with them? I would very much like to know.