French clerical abuse
Mon Dieu. The seduction, manipulation and submission that leads to French priestly abuse exposed – by a French priest.
Not just an ordinary French priest.
But by the Prior of the prestigious super-secret Order of Carthusians, who dedicate their lives to searching for God in solitude.
Says Peter Biddlecombe
Zut alors. Don’t be put off. The book, Risques et derives de la vie religieuse by the Prior of La Grande Chartreuse, Dom Dysmas de Lassus, is nowhere near as boring as it sounds. Even though it doesn’t come with a free bottle of the monastery’s famous Chartreuse.
In fact, take my word, it is almost worth learning French just to be able to read it. Not, however, your ordinary everyday French. But a particular form of French full of specialist technical terms that would have brought un rougissement délicat to the face of my French schoolteacher. And he was an ex-Marine, who had survived D-Day and the Normandy invasion.
It is not just unique in monastic terms. Carthusians rarely write books. When they do, they are always anonymous. They always say they are written by A Carthusian. And certainly not by the Prior of one of the most famous Carthusian monasteries in the world.
It is not dry-as-dust, long-winded, full of tortuous monastic footnotes and spam-bots that make you begin to wonder whether it was written by a machine with a dog-collar rather than a real life human being.
But that’s not all.
No Carthusian, named or otherwise, has ever before written a book on spiritual abuse. How it begins. How it develops. How it destroys lives. Both physical and spiritual
If this book doesn’t knock your existential rocks off nothing will. For it is nothing less than a 450-page no-holds-barred humdinger of a monastic page-turner on all aspects of clerical abuse.
The holy Carthusian Prior begins with a quick run through of all kinds of, what is technically called, marginal behaviour in specialised environments. Nudge. Nudge. Wink. Wink. He is no sooner out of the Sacristy than he is into the phenomenon of abuse, the Desert Fathers, church law, the clash between the “rule” and the “spirit” of the Rule. His conclusion as he reaches the sanctuary steps: We must follow the “spirit” in the “rule”. Well, he is a theologian. And he is French.
He then goes on to talk about – Quelle surprise! – men and women who, as The Imitation of Christ says, are determined to give up everything, “despise earthly things and to love Heavenly; to forsake this world, and to long for Heaven.” Trouble is for too many forsaking this world and longing for Heaven turns out to be a form of Vatican roulette.
Land on two adjoining numbers, vertical or horizontal and they can end up with a charismatic superior, whether novice master or Prior or Abbot, who claims he has never heard of John Cassian, ignores all the rules, strict and otherwise, totally disregards all aspects of canon law, boasts non-stop that he has the biggest organ in the diocese and makes himself the Lord of all he surveys. Including the boiler house and not only the back parlour but all the back passages in the monastery guest house as well.
Land on three numbers horizontal and they can end up with a choirmaster who insists of giving selected novices oh-so-private singing lessons where he assures them, under one confessional oath or another, that he has been blessed with a unique gift of being able to turn basso profondo basses with "large" E2 to E4 voices into sopranos in a matter of seconds. Trouble is they end up not being able to sit down for a month.
Even worse. If that’s possible. An unlucky few can end up being assigned to a sacristan, who claims he has problems with his eyes because of the time he spent using negative pressure isolator systems to study BSL-2 organisms in gnotobiotic murine models. Either that or because of all the time he spent training to become an Oxford rowing blue so that he could not only dip his oar in whenever and wherever he wanted but because he enjoyed nothing better than the whole crew throwing their cox in the river whenever they won a race.
A few, would you believe, hit the double zero and end up in Dante’s Second Circle of Hell where instead of devoting their lives, as they expected, to the Cappadocian Fathers and Divinization and Mysticism or Evagrius Ponticus or, even, St Bernard’s Sermons on the Song of Songs they are subjected to one penetrating study after another of the different way different religious orders do things. Vertically and horizontally. If that was not bad enough, they then have to endure one lecture after another on the Australian Cistercian writer, Michael Casey, and all things down under.
But, however, the Vatican dice roll, whatever the numbers they hit, the holy Carthusian Prior claims the novices will live lives of almost total secrecy.
Abbot, choirmaster, sacristan, whoever will stress that the relationship between the two of them is so personal and so precious, it cannot be shared with anyone else. The novice will invariably agree. He has given up everything and more in search of something better than, as The Imitation says, “the trivial enjoyments of this corruptible life”. These people, he believes, are the experts. He has nobody else to turn to for advice. He agrees.
The net begins to close ever tighter around him.
The holy Carthusian Prior calls it “twisted mysticism.”
The novice is then told he is one of the chosen. One of the select few. It is the triumph of grace. To reject it is to reject not only everything that has been done for him but to reject God himself. And to reject God. Mon Dieu. Ca ce n’est pas possible.
He is told the love of God made flesh must express itself in carnal intimacy.
After such “twisted mysticism”, says the Holy Carthusian Prior, comes not De Rance but the Marquis de Sade. Punishment. Suffering. Physical. Mental. Pychological.
The Abbot or whoever tells the novice that in the Name of God, for his own sake, he has to refuse to allow him any contact with not only other members of the community but also with his own family. He is then totally isolated. Confined to barracks. Forced to remain in his own room until he’s developed bed sores the size of milk jugs. Totally without a "Get out of jail free card."
Does he rebel?
No. Because he is where he is because, as he has read in The Imitation a million times over, “For your sake I will gladly bear whatever you shall send to me. From your hand I will accept gladly both good and ill, sweet and bitter, joy and sorrow; and for all that may befall me, I will thank you.”
No, again, because he has been so manipulated and conditioned as a result of what he read in The Imitation a million times over he genuinely believes that what he is suffering is the will of God.
The holy Carthusian Prior backs up his argument with case history after case history.
He tells the story of a former nun, who, Heaven help us, must have been baked up to the eyeballs. She meets a priest when she is just 16. She believes that the light he carried “restored meaning to my life”. The priest declares she is a “born contemplative” and offers to guide her if – Guess what? – she fully surrenders herself to him.
“He held between his hands my brain, my heart, my soul, my spirit and my body,” she said.
It wasn’t long before he was also holding her hands underneath his habit. And, no doubt, telling her it was a sacred tradition. That the sacred tradition was the unwritten word of God. That the unwritten word of God was the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. That the Holy Spirit handed it to the Church. The Church handed it to the faithful. Now it was her turn to receive it.
“It is a gift of God,” he told her. “I owe the fruitfulness of my apostolate to our relationship.”
That’s not all that was fruitful. The priest always offered Mass after their meetings. Did that not prove, he told her, that what had taken place between them was blessed?
All the guilt was, therefore, thrown back on the victim.
Who am I to say this is not a gift of God? How can I deny that our relationship has not made me a better priest?
The solution, says the Holy Carthusian Prior, is Safeguards. Safeguards. And more safeguards.
All superiors must follow the rules.
Formation must not just be intellectual formation. But formation of the whole person.
Similarly, freedom. Freedom must be freedom to decide. To decide which direction people want to go. To decide who shall be their guide, who will help and challenge them. To decide if they want to continue or take another direction.
Except – Who am I to argue with a holy Carthusian Prior? - we already have all these safeguards. The trouble is they are not being implemented. They are being ignored by the very people, who should be implementing them. Worse still, the people who should be implementing them and are ignoring them are also the ones who escape scot free. They escape the consequences of their actions. The physical and mental damage they create. The psychological scars. The long term effects they have on people’s lives.
Instead, they invariably end up by spending the rest of their days lying in the sun. Metaphorically speaking or otherwise.
Their victims, however, end up trying to survive on scraps from dustbins piled up outside the Abbazia delle Tre Fontane in Rome. Metaphorically speaking or otherwise.
The aim of the book, the Holy Carthusian Prior says is transparency. Nothing should be kept under wraps. Everything should be revealed. If people have been abused. They should tell their story.
He, of course, puts it slightly differently.
“One of the aims of this book,” he says, “is to combat the reflex which prevents victims from defending themselves.”
But then I did tell you he was French.
But, Mon Dieu, it’s worth reading.
Even though it doesn’t come with a free bottle of Chartreuse.