The other day I was thinking about altar boys and priests. I was one of the former for a while, and it shaped the way I view the latter.
After a month’s holidays, I spent a long August getting up every morning at half six to get on my BMX and go in to serve mass in the local chapel. August is high point in the fruit fly season. On my first day back, when it came to the point in the mass when I’d have to get up and walk six yards to carry the cruets three yards to the priest, I discovered a pair of fruit flies had drunk themselves to death overnight in the wine. It was not the done thing for altar boys to speak to the priest unless they had been spoken to, and for a moment I considered bringing this to the priest’s attention, but then figured I might bring an undignified interruption to the sanctity of the mass, and I was conscious of taking too long, so I brought him the cruets untouched. He didn’t notice the flies, poured the wine into the chalice, and I made my way down to the foot of the altar to get ready to ring the bell for consecration.
My second ring of the bell announced the fact of two drunken fruit flies transubstantiated into the blood of Jesus Christ. I looked up in horror as I saw the priest gulp them down in one.
That night my dream was a scene from a David Cronenburg-Ken Russell collaboration, with Jesus speaking to me from within the body of a fly.
The following morning I raised the matter with the sacristan. I asked him what to do if the wine had flies in it: “Take them out, for God’s sake”. In the following days and weeks, there would be a white gauze placed over the cruets, but this was not always enough to deter the fruit flies, and I found myself regularly lifting these fatally inebriated specimens out between finger and thumb, and then bringing the priest his raw materials.
If I think about it purely in terms of my own experience, all these stories about priests abusing children seem impossible on the surface. Rather than the inappropriate closeness one might be inclined to imagine, it was very rare for the priests to acknowledge the presence of the altar boys at all. We’d be standing in formation, wearing the tunic and surplice on, for a good five minutes before the priests would even arrive in the sacristy, and when they did, changing to their gear in a thrice, we’d be out onto the altar doing the bowing routine after no more than a curt ‘good morning’ at best. For the most part, the attitude of the priests to the altar boys was one of sublime oblivion. When you were out on the altar doing your thing, it was a remarkable event for the priest to whisper a word of thanks.
As far as I can see, the function of altar boys -only boys were allowed, of course- was to lend priests symbolic power for their appearances in front of the congregation. Ten year old boys are a good foot shorter than your average priest, the spectacle served to reinforce the standing of the priest as an imposing, senior pastoral figure. The tasks altar boys had to carry out were perfunctory. Apart from the aforementioned cruet-carrying, the other thing was carrying a paten, holding it under the mouth or hands of people receiving communion, depending on whether they were old school communicants or not. The objective was to prevent the host falling to the floor, in order to spare the tortured and crucified Christ from further indignity. I was 100% successful in meeting this objective, not least because I never saw a single host in freefall, due no doubt to the effective stewardship of the priests.
After the mass was finished, there were no high fives or pep-talks from the priest on how to serve better mass. The altar boys had to go straight through the sacristy to their own changing room, which doubled up as a broom cupboard. There was to be no hanging around outside the sacristy looking for autographs, and no hanging around the broom cupboard either, since the Legion of Mary would be arriving in a matter of minutes for their poker night or whatever.
The dominant attitude of priests and their acolytes in the church toward altar boys was that they were little better than chattels. Their function was little more than the glorification of the church’s socio-symbolic order, with the priests enjoying the beatifying gaze of the congregation as they towered above their little helpers.
So while I might have kept my distance from priests, and they kept their distance from me, I can see how a child who had been approached by a priest for special attention would have been easy prey: priests were powerful public figures, and children were deemed to be their obedient servants. It’s hard to imagine, under those circumstances, any child abused by a priest thinking that their story would be believed over that of a priest. It’s equally hard to imagine that a child’s story would be taken seriously by church authorities. So whether we’re talking about why paedophiles become priests, or why priests become paedophiles, we need to refer to the prevailing authoritarian culture of the church, and the broader treatment of children by the church: not simply the libidinous excesses of particular individuals and how these might be policed.
Which leads me to the matter of Sean Brady and his role in the Brendan Smyth affair. His first declaration on having failed to report Smyth to state authorities was described accurately as the Nuremburg defence: only obeying orders. The subsequent homily on St. Patrick’s Day, full of apologies, was greeted by a round of applause from the assembled congregation. I found it hard to stomach the accounts I read of the latter. With their applause, the congregation was exonerating someone who maintained a role in the perpetuation of child abuse. People do not generally deserve a round of applause for examining their conscience, not least in grievous matters such as these, and it is testimony to the moral perversity of the typical Catholic Church congregation that these people saw fit to clap Brady. It demonstrated how much children really matter in their scheme of things. For these people, the child abuse cases are like troublesome fruit flies in the communion wine: just get rid of them, so we can all get things back to the way they ought to be, with our holy men in charge and our first communion dresses and our confirmations for children at 12 and our gender-segregated schools and our elite schools and then some day someone will strike a gong and it will all be over. But it won’t.