KEVIN PEOPLES. The Dangers of a Feminine Touch

Nov 1, 2017

The Catholic Church’s misogyny is one of the cultural causes for its sexual abuse scandal. It is impossible to believe that any female bishop, or any woman assisting her bishop as a consultor, on hearing rumours or allegations of the raping of young children by priests, would have readily accepted priestly denials or agreed to move the accused to anther parish. Could a woman admit publically she was not particularly interested in the issue?

In my new book, Trapped in a Closed World. Catholic Culture and Sexual Abuse (GarrattPublishing), I analyse my experiences in St Columba’s seminary in Springwood, New South Wales (1964-66) and link those experiences to the child sexual abuse scandal. I argue that misogyny and Catholicism are synonymous. Women, sex and sin have been an unholy trinity throughout the two millennia history of the Church.

There is one particular incident in the book which highlights the fear the Church has of women. In the seminary we were expected to slip out of our old earthly skins and put on our new clerical skins. Like young snakes we were expected to leave the old to rot and dry in the hot Australian sun. Shredding my skin became entangled in the drama of Maureen’s white curtains. Below is an abbreviated extract:

I wave goodbye to the women in my life who gather along the railway tracks, in vegetable gardens and on roads with their white handkerchiefs waving above their heads. In my bags I have a new Maxply tennis racquet from Evelyn, white curtains from Maureen and my new golden guitar… The Rhinestone Cowboy, skating on life, living on handouts, educated by the Church returns to the seminary for another year.

The first thing I do on returning is hang Maureen’s white curtains in my new room on the second floor. The window faces the main building and my room is visible from the study hall where classes are held. Maureen had offered to make me the curtains when I described to her the barren cave I lived in. Curtains are symbolically important. For me they represent civilisation, they offer a sense of privacy and psychological security. They soften hard edges and suggest stability and permanence. As a teenager I complained to my mother when she took down the kitchen curtains to wash every spring. Curtains go up when one intends to stay.

Sitting in class I see my curtains fluttering in the breeze. I am suddenly aware they are dancing in ways I had not anticipated — three floors of barren windows except this one hussy of a window, flaunting her femininity in the face of radical maleness. Jesus, Mary and Joseph, what have I done? If they had been French lingerie, they could not have caused more excitement. When the students realise they are mine they are puzzled. In their eyes this behaviour is out of character. I am an older man, reasonably sane, a prefect, a rugby footballer, a country bloke and not obviously gay.

I wait for one of the Deans to visit me and tell me to take them down. But the first night nothing happens and Maureen’s curtains sail through the next day as brazenly as they did the day before. The second night I hear a knock on my Plato’s cave. It is Peter H., one of the prefects in third year… He says the senior prefects have held a meeting and decided the curtains must come down. I protest strongly. Peter is embarrassed. I ask him for a reason. You know why they must come down, he agonises. I wait for him to say they are girly or sissy. I am twenty-eight, he is, I guess, nineteen or twenty. I ask him if he has curtains in his home. That’s not the point, he argues, this is not home. I knew I could not win and I admire Peter for volunteering to tell me. He is not the Head Prefect, who should have delivered the decision.

I am surprised the move against the curtains comes from the prefects. I remember asking Peter if he was doing the work of one of the deans, but he denied any priestly involvement. The prefects are the eyes of Veechy [the Rector] and the Deans of Discipline. Surveillance officers, they go where the authorities cannot. The curtains are an embarrassment for all. That night I take them down and to my surprise, the next morning an Irish-born student by the name of John Smith (his real name) asks me if he can have them. John explains that his window faces the mountains and if he keeps his window shut they will go unnoticed. And so they did. He thanked me and offered me in exchange some contraband fruit cake which his mother had hidden in his portmanteau… We all have mothers, we all have homes, we all have curtains in our homes, but the femininity and domesticity represented by the curtains was a veiled threat to everything for which the seminary stood.

Kevin Peoples is a retired TAFE teacher who lives in Melbourne. His two previous books are Santamaria’s Salesman (2012) and From the Top of the Hill. (2016). His new book, to be released in Canberra and Sydney in November and Adelaide in December relates his experiences in the seminary at Springwood with clerical sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.

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