Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Kevin Peoples, Trapped in a Closed World

This wonderful book is both a personal story and a critique. It's a long overdue demolition of the old Catholic seminary in Springwood in the Blue Mountains outside Sydney and the utter disaster it was. It's also excellent on the child abuse issue and its extent in the priesthood. 

I was a student there from 1963 to 1965, roughly the same time as the author, Kev Peoples. We were good friends although he was 10 years older than me. He tells, with frankness and honesty, his own story of Springwood as a mature-age student. It’s a compelling tale, beautifully written. And his analysis of the culture of the seminary at that time is supremely well done, informed by his personal experiences and doubts, and subsequent familiarity with noted psychological studies of the psychosexual immaturity ingrained in young men by that seminary system. 

Kev's impeccable research into clericalism, the various popes who invented and refined it, their authoritarian prescriptions, the small man Cardinal Norman Gilroy of the Sydney archdiocese, and others, and their views on the purpose of seminaries and the ideal priestly culture, is presented in detail and always with a breath of horror. And his summaries of the contrasting and more modern research, particularly of some major psychological studies into the negative effects of such a priestly life, and catholic culture in general, are very sobering and enlightening. The critique of the church’s misogyny is excellent.

It seems obvious to me now that a major part of Kev’s personal Springwood problem was the fact that he was actually sent there, rather than to a mature age college, none of which existed in Sydney at that time. St Paul's in Kensington was opened in 1968.

I can see how some reviews of this book could be critical: 

 1. The causal link between the old seminary system and priestly child abuse is not clearly established. The great majority (over 90%) of graduate priests did not become abusers. The real culprit surely is mandatory celibacy. 
 2. Kev seems not to possess a cogent reason for wanting to become a priest. At the age of 28 he comes across as a very confused young man. He seems to have absolutely no idea as to what he wants to do with his life. 
 3. He evidently has no priest models that attracted him to such a vocation in the first place, eg, running parishes, youth programs, liturgy, giving homilies, counselling, educating, comforting the grieving, sick and dying. I for one, perhaps as a measure of my immaturity, looked forward to enjoying the ‘status’ a priest had in the community at that time. His to-ing and fro-ing about whether he should stay or go is rather immature. He  either wants to be a priest or he doesn’t, surely. He finally admits ‘At heart I am a layman’ (149). 

Kev also never clarifies what sort of an institution he would regard as a better model for a seminary. Those of us who went to Rome know. We enjoyed Propaganda Fide College. We were liberated, let out of prison, and the Second Vatican Council, just concluded, was inspiring us. We could freely exit the college at any time (apart from at night, a rule many of us ignored) to tour Rome, shop, eat, see movies, etc. We were treated like adults - we could smoke, drink, and celebrate birthdays and national days with our international colleagues. Wine was served at every meal. We could form study groups, social groups, meditation groups, film/music groups or any other type of group. We went to delightful rural holiday hostels in Castelgandolfo and other villages. Or we could travel alone or in groups throughout Europe during the long summer breaks. The collegial spirit was deep and supportive. 

Sure, there were negatives (the ‘superiors’ were absurd, immature men whom we Australians universally pilloried and ignored) but overall it was a University College experience. And many of the professors lecturing us at Urban University were progressive and inspiring in their views (eg, Carlo Molari). I made deep and lasting friendships there, which I still enjoy today. 

Our colleague Bob Donnelly’s letter from Prop to Kevin in October 1966 details a college experience I don't recognise at all. It is plain wrong regarding not being able to eat out ‘without permission’ (most of us never asked for it) and wrong about ‘spying prefects’ and limited contact, debate and conversation between the students. Donnelly, perhaps because he was older, was obviously not comfortable breaking stupid ‘rules’. We younger Australians, especially those of us at the new philosophy college 'Torre Rossa', broke them all the time and there was never any ‘penalty’. As for being confined to our rooms, that was not true, and in any case no negative for me. I was absorbed in my recently purchased books and articles on new, progressive and frequently radical philosophical and theological perspectives. I appreciated the time and space to devour them. Or I was in someone else’s room debating them. We were intellectually alive. Bob Donnelly, liked and admired as he was by us, had never become part of our group, and he was whisked off to Genoa before he could embrace it. Another example perhaps of an older man out of his time and place at a younger man’s college. 

Had Kev been sent to Rome (he had the opportunity apparently) I am convinced he would have also been liberated, his instinctual, far more human, theological beliefs been confirmed and strengthened, and he would very likely have stayed and been ordained (like Lawrie Jennings, also from his older age cohort). His natural charm, friendliness and warmth would have been an enormous asset to college life and the priesthood. He fitted in with the younger cohort. He was a great loss. He’s a perfect example as to why mandatory celibacy is a self-defeating absurdity in today’s world. 

At first I found Kev's deliberate interweaving of two quite separate narratives in the book - his own seminary experience and the church's sexual abuse scandal - questionable. But as the book proceeds I was absolutely captured by the tension between both stories and their links and contrasts. Underneath it all a major, very potent   narrative emerges - a powerful and surely incontestable argument against the church's medieval policy of mandatory celibacy. 

Not for everyone this book, but fascinating all the same.

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