Purple Birds

In the South’s conservative culture, beliefs and narratives about romantic and sexual relationships are often heteronormative, centered on Christian marriage, and steeped in notions about personal privacy (for some). While those traditional beliefs and narratives support and enable many relationships, they also exclude, invalidate, or castigate some couples in loving relationships, while also serving to hide the hurtful criminal acts of sexual predators and abusers. This essay about Catholic culture in Louisiana explores the author’s experiences with and knowledge of a few varied relationships that lie outside of societal norms.

Purple Birds
by Margaret Donovan Bauer

“Blue jays and cardinals should get married and have purple babies,” my child self told my mother, as I watched the two species outside our kitchen window, so much alike, it seemed to me, with their similarly shaped crested heads, their vibrant colors. I’d learned in school that red and blue make purple. Purple was my favorite color.

“It doesn’t work that way,” Mom replied.

What a shame, I still think. Then, I was just puzzled. Why wouldn’t a blue jay and cardinal fall in love? They looked to me like a perfect match.

***

During those blissfully ignorant years in the 1970s, I also matched up the nuns who taught at my Catholic elementary school with the priests who said Friday morning Mass, which my whole school attended. I was not Catholic, and my church’s preacher had a wife. Friday Mass was the only time I saw the priests, and apparently, I didn’t know any more about the priesthood than about birds.

At some point in my first years of school, I shared with my mother my idea that Sister A, our principal, and Father B, the principal of the Catholic high school, should get married. Wouldn’t they have a lot to talk about? And maybe also my favorite teacher, Sister C, who was so beautiful, and Father D, so handsome. But in response, my mom said again, “It doesn’t work that way.”

Didn’t it? I was surrounded by matches in the couple-centric culture I’d observed, both in my little town where it seemed like all adults were married and on TV. By the end of shows like The Love Boat, everyone was paired up.

As it turned out, the principal nun eventually ran away with one of the elementary school teachers, a married woman with children who were grown by the time these women made the bold decision to share their lives after so many years (probably two decades by then) of working together. Their romantic story – or scandalous, depending on your perspective – reached me many years later, by which time I’d made my own escape from a husband I was not suited for but had married because marry was what you did after college.

“Good for them,” my mother said when I reported the gossip about Sister A and Mrs. E. My mom had followed her heart too, some years before, leaving my father and then my hometown to pursue her own dream of being an artist, marrying a man who was fine with her having aspirations beyond raising children, in contrast to my father, who wanted her to stay home, in case her children needed her, even after we were all in school.

Apparently, Mom was not the only woman in that small Louisiana town who escaped a lifestyle that did not suit her. Good for Sister A and Mrs. E, indeed.

Even more years later, decades now, photographs on social media reveal that my former teacher and elementary school principal are still together, I report to Mom, and we both cheer.

Women like my mother, my teacher, and the principal nun ultimately refused to live according to socially prescribed expectations that limited their chance at happiness— and they set a fine example for me. When I left the nest, I kept flying, toward my own unconventional dreams: a career as a university professor, a job no one suggested when I expressed my desire to teach. Nor was my passion for this work easily accepted by romantic partners, including the post-college husband I left. It would take me as long to find my own perfect romantic match as it took my former teacher and principal and my mother.

***

In the not-similarly inspiring future for members of the priesthood whom I remember from my childhood, I would eventually realize that handsome Father D likely had no interest in beautiful Sister C, but it had nothing to do with the vows of celibacy required of their calling. The man I wanted to set up with my favorite teacher during my naïve matchmaking days has been investigated for sexual assault of a minor.

So, it turns out, such pedophiles may not be other priests, in other towns. In fact, such criminal predilections might be the reason he went (or was sent) to another town. And then another, I discovered, as I scrolled through newspaper clippings after a headline shared on social media inspired me to Google his name. Sexual deviance may be why pedophiles pursue the priesthood in the first place, hiding their sexual proclivities in plain sight. No one expects them to marry, and children are trusted in their care.

It sickens me to think that any of the little boys I went to school with might have been assaulted by this priest. I have no idea, because those kinds of stories are suppressed, if not also repressed, too deep for gossip, often considered as shameful to the victim as for the predator. But whether my friends fell prey to him or not, somebody’s sweet, not-innocent-long-enough childhood friend accused Father D of molesting him when he was a boy.

According to the brief news stories I was able to find, an accusation against Father D was supposedly investigated by a bishop, who has since been accused of transferring pedophile priests to other parishes to avoid further inquiry and Church scandal. No record of an investigation of Father D by this bishop was found when the Church finally got around to looking into such cases in the early 2000s, compelled by public outcry and demands for action.

And yet, my sleuthing through newspaper coverage of the rumors reveals, Father D’s current congregation supports him, apparently accepting his denial of any wrongdoing, at least according to the last time he made the news, almost a decade ago. Even though his accuser named two other priests in his complaint, and one of those priests was later charged with statutory rape in the place he was transferred to. And even though the other priest he accused left the priesthood, married, and later committed suicide after one of his victims confronted the former priest’s wife with his allegations against her husband.

I’m from the region where Father D continues to say Mass to his faithful (gullible) congregation. I observed via social media how people in this community rejected the testimony of another victim of sexual assault, Christine Blassey Ford, during the hearings for Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court appointment. Their acceptance of the priest’s (an authority figure’s) version of events does not surprise me. That area of the Deep South is still very much a patriarchal society. But I am more inclined to believe the plaintiff in this case than to share the congregation’s faith in their priest. I’ve witnessed so much willful obtuseness in recent years, as people grasp mindlessly their conventional idols, in spite of overwhelming evidence that they are worshipping false gods whose practices are far afield of the tenets of their faith.

***

Also making the news from back home, a priest who grew up on the same street I grew up on. He was the eldest son of a good Catholic family. How proud his mother was that one of her sons was a priest, prouder still, I’m sure, as he rose in the ranks to monsignor. But at least two women had a different reaction when Father F was appointed as a judicial vicar. One of them had twice, in the 1990s and early 2000s, reported his sexual molestation of her when she was a teenager in the late ’70s and early ’80s (when my sisters and I were also in our teens and twenties). Upon hearing of his latest appointment, to a position in which he would be the one called upon to hear cases like her own against him, she tried a third time to bring attention to his crime.

It turns out, the original investigation of Father F was organized by the same bishop who left no written record of (among others) the Father D investigation. This bishop’s findings regarding the accusations against Father F determined that “the alleged victim [sixteen when his molestation began] was an adult under canon law at the time” and by that reasoning the case seems to have been dropped. Though a sixteen-year-old was “a minor under state law,” this statutory rape was not turned over to the police. Rather, Father F was allowed to continue his successful, upwardly mobile career in the Church. Ironically, that Church decision may have brought about his downfall. When his next promotion made news, his victim resumed her efforts to seek some kind of justice.

Not knowing what exactly a judicial vicar is, I looked it up, and based on what I read, I assume this last appointment would allow him to preside over cases against clergy like those his own victims tried to bring forward. These women may have thought so too, and this time, when the previous plaintiff came forward for the third time, another woman reported that she too had also been molested by Father F when she was a teenager. Father F was finally removed from his position and put on leave from the Church—almost twenty-five years after he was first reported for sexual abuse, almost forty since the abuse took place. How many other victims were there, I wonder. And this time, the case was turned over to the local police department as well, though I can find no further reporting on it. As Father F has disappeared from the news, perhaps some deal was made to drop the charges if he quietly resigned.

***

As I recall from my years growing up in south Louisiana Cajun country, large Catholic families rejoice when one of their sons enters the priesthood. There will be plenty of grandchildren from their other children, they assume, as they celebrate this son’s supposed acceptance of a life of celibacy. I do not understand the excitement over a loved one giving up the option to have a spouse and children – and even, supposedly, a sex life. Do they believe his sacrifice paves their way to heaven?

At its worst, the priesthood becomes a place where pedophiles and other sexual predators can find easy prey: parents trust their children with them, vulnerable adults confess their deepest secrets to them.

I wonder too if perhaps, in contrast to pedophile priests, some are just frustrated by their celibate lives. Would Father F have been interested in teenage girls if he were allowed to engage in a mature sexual relationship with an age-appropriate partner, eschewing secrecy and repression? The testimony of the second woman who came forward about him sounds like she felt seduced by an older man she had a crush on, a stark contrast with the descriptions of abuse suffered by, for example, several siblings molested by another priest who visited their home regularly. These victims reported their abuse, ironically, to this same Father F, by then Monsignor F, who promised, but never delivered the justice they sought. Rather, the case was covered up to avoid scandal. Was Monsignor F hindered from pursuing these victims’ case by his own sexual misconduct?

***

While I am left to wonder about Father F, I am sadly confident that it was the second son of my neighbors, Father F’s gay brother, another favorite teacher of mine, who was likely the source of embarrassment to their good, Catholic mother. Her purple bird was just not natural, she probably thought.

Let the purple birds fly, my mother and I would say, having both escaped our own cages.


 

Margaret Donovan Bauer grew up on a bayou in south Louisiana and now writes on a river in eastern North Carolina. She is the Rives Chair of Southern Literature and a Distinguished Professor of Harriot College of Arts and Sciences at East Carolina University. After publishing books and articles about Southern writers, she is now publishing essays and working on a memoir about growing up in the South.

Lesson Plan: NH-MSF Lesson Plan Personal Narrative

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