Friday, October 2, 2015

Mary Dispenza's Powerful Memoir SPLIT: Moving from Childhood Rape by a Priest to Catholic Institutional Abuse As a Lesbian — "I Can Live with the Consequences of Love"

On the day that news broke of the pope's meeting with Kim Davis, I was finishing Mary Dispenza's painful, liberating account of her struggle to come to terms with her sexual abuse by a priest as a little girl, followed by her struggle to come to terms with her gay sexual orientation as an adult — and, in both cases, her narrative centers on her difficult attempt to deal with the callousness and cruelty of Catholic "pastoral" leaders as she struggled along. And so Mary Dispenza's story now blends together in my mind with the revelation that, while refusing to meet with a single LGBT Catholic on his recent tour of "mercy" in the U.S., Pope Francis met with Kim Davis.* Of all people . . . .

I learned of Mary Dispenza's memoir SPLIT: A Child, a Priest, and the Catholic Church (Bellevue, WA: Moon Day, 2014) at the SNAP conference two months ago, where the book was cited several times by presenters in sessions I attended. And then I came home and asked my library to obtain a copy for me via interlibrary loan — which resulted in the library's notifying me that it wanted, instead, to buy a copy for the library.

What follows is not really a review of SPLIT. It's more a set of disconnected booknotes. 

What really grabbed my attention as I read Mary's memoir was, of course, her painful attempt to deal with the reality that she is lesbian, in a church (which was her employer at the time) whose pastoral leaders commonly make life a living hell for LGBT human beings. I won't deny that I found it difficult to read the first part of her memoir, recounting her repeated sexual abuse by Father George Neville Rucker when she was a little girl attending a Catholic school in East Los Angeles. 

I cannot deny that I struggle to wrap my head around the understanding that a grown man, any grown man, can repeatedly shove his fingers into the vagina of a little schoolgirl, and then, when he's confronted about this behavior years down the road by one of those girls grown to be a woman, claim that he digitally raped only her. Though it then turns out he did the same thing to many other little girls — some 33 have come forward as adults — and that the pastoral officials of the archdiocese knew what he was doing and moved him from place to place, including to parishes largely populated by impoverished Latino families, where church officials continued to look the other way as he molested more children:

The Catholic Church knowingly allowed Father Rucker to have continued access and opportunity to prey upon children, while covering up his growing record of abuse. He was transferred from parish school to parish school, always having access to children and young girls. His role as the parish priest and pastor gave him the power he needed to remove girls from the classroom without any quesitons asked by the nuns who taught. No one at the local level was above the parish priest (SPLIT, p. 170).

I find it exceptionally difficult to imagine that Father Ruckers can do what Father Ruckers do, and that pastoral leaders with authority over Father Ruckers can look the other way as children's bodies are invaded and their psyches split by childhood sexual abuse. I don't want to think that such things happen, and I therefore struggle to identify with the experiences of those victimized by such callously cruel behavior. I find it easier, as someone who did not experience childhood sexual abuse but has followed a path similar to Mary Dispenza's towards accepting my sexual orientation as God's gift to me and others in a church whose leaders are rabidly hateful towards people like me, to identify with the part of her memoir which recounts the latter struggle than I do to identify with her almost mind-boggling account of her abuse by Father Rucker.

But I know that in order to be human, I have to identify with Mary Dispenza as she deals with the way in which Father Rucker split her body, mind, and soul. After her childhood abuse, she went on to become a nun and then, as an adult working for the Catholic church, to recover the memory of the childhood sexual abuse and begin to deal with it.

Here's what else is mind-boggling: the church that victimized her in the person of Father Rucker through childhood rape and which then revictimized her by covering up Father Rucker's activities and fighting viciously against her and other women trying to obtain closure and justice then turned around and victimized her all over again by firing her, as an employee of a Catholic diocese, when she came out of the closet. 

Here's how she summarizes the spiritual-religious motivation to come out of the closet in such a ruthlessly cruel, anti-human religious institution — knowing that she would pay a high price for doing so:

I can live with the consequences of love. That is the only way that makes sense to me. David Whyte in his poem, Self Portrait, writes, "I want to know if you are willing to live, day by day, with the consequences of love . . . ." When it is my time to pass on and I am asked that final quesiton — and I believe there is one — I don't think I will be asked, "Whom did you love?" or "How did you love?" but simply "Did you love?" I will answer, "Yes, I did" (p. 151).

And so, as she notes, the very spirituality that the Catholic church instilled in her first as a Catholic schoolgirl (who happens to have been being sexually abused by her pastor as she was being formed spiritually!) and then as a nun became the basis — the necessary basis — for her repudiation of a religious institution so rabidly hateful that it could victimize her as an innocent little girl, and then as an adult gay woman: at the coming-out turning point in her life, Mary wrote the following letter to the church:

How can I stay in a church that does not accept public challenge, especially when it relates to my life — to the essence of who I am and how I love? How can I stay in a church that upholds silence and invisibility? 
Fuck the church. If anyone is to mend this brokenness it must be I. Am I asking too much to think I made a difference? Am I asking too much to want a colleague or friend to tell me so? Someone please ask me to come back so that I know I really once belonged. Someone please say, "Thank you," so that I know what I gave was real. Someone please say, "Your opinion matters. We want to talk about it," so that I know I was and am a part of the church. Someone please say, "The church needs you, because your experience is vital to our understanding and challenge of intergrating sexuality, spirituality, and shame" (p. 146).**

And, of course, no answer to this appeal was ever forthcoming from the "pastoral" leaders of the church, as it has not been for any of us fired by Catholic institutions when we came to terms with our sexual orientation and began to live honestly and out in the open as who we are, so that Mary has now found another — a loving and affirming — religious home.

And I can totally relate to that story. As I suspect a lot of other people may do, as well, now, in a church whose "kind" and "available" pope can meet with Kim Davis.

But not with the Mary Dispenzas of the world.

*Please see my next posting in which I discuss the news now coming from the Vatican that the pope met with a gay Argentinian friend of his and that friend's partner while he was in D.C. — though none of the long list of LGBT Catholic leaders who had requested meetings with the pope was granted a meeting.

**This passage is entirely in italics in the original. I have removed the italics to make it more easily readable here — with apologies to Mary.

The picture of the cover of Mary's book is from her website, which contains information about ordering the book.

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