Secrecy and Cover-ups

The Pennsylvania grand jury report that more than 300 priests sexually assaulted over 1,000 victims should shake us to our core. Will it? Most Catholics — saddened, angry, disgusted — are not really surprised. They’ve grown up amid the Church’s culture of secrecy. They’re numb with the realization that those in authority — the cover-uppers — continue to go unpunished.

In 1960, at the age of seventeen, I embraced this culture of secrecy and cover-ups when I entered a convent — choosing a life secluded from the world, where silence reigned. My early years of formation dictated separation, eyes cast down, avoiding the temptations outside the convent walls. Seculars were left to imagine what went on inside.

I need to say that, once the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II) opened in Rome on October 11, 1962, (closing in December 1965), dramatic church reform unfolded. Nuns around the world embraced change, opened their shutters, shed their habits for modern dress, and moved out of institutions to serve the poor. Of course, some resisted. But for women religious, Vatican II challenged and lessened the culture of secrecy and cover-up.

Still, back in 1960, I proudly donned the habit, a “cover-up” that exposed only my face and hands. Underneath these layers of starch and wool, I admit to feeling mysterious. Such other-worldliness could be intoxicating, leading to a misguided sense of power. It was an unnatural role for women, whose nature is to nurture, connect, unify, and empower — not dominate — others.

Five years after I entered the convent, I welcomed the changes dictated by Vatican II. I’m proud to say that the community I belonged to embraced the changes with courage. We ‘uncovered’ ourselves. It was both risky and liberating at the same time. We shed our cloak of secrecy, because sharing our charism and spirituality, our humanity, our community practices with others outside the convent cloister was the compassionate thing to do. Everyone was richer for it.

Why didn’t the majority of priests and bishops do the same? Richly decorated vestments, for example — often gem-encrusted, embossed and gold-trimmed — are only an external sign of a grab for power and mystery. Why, when parents of children abused by priests reported the crime, did bishops insist they keep it secret? Offending priests disappeared without explanation, only to turn up in another diocese. I know of friends who reported abuses and were told either “It’s none of your business,” or “We’re handling it.”

Cultures are formed over centuries and unless they evolve and change, they face crumbling rather than renewal. Even within our own families, secrets can fester. But that doesn’t make it right or healthy. Such cultures of secrecy perpetuate pain, block healing, and silence those most in need of truth. The Church’s secrecy seems motivated by a determination to protect the Institution at the cost of its own faithful people. We are watching a culture of patriarchs desperately trying to hold onto their power.

In my twenties, I shed my cover-up and experienced a new freedom — that of allowing myself to be seen as a flawed human being. Eventually I left the convent, though I am still close to many sisters and hold them with deep respect. They’ve evolved and so have I. For decades I’ve joined with others who’ve dedicated time and energy to stripping away the cloak of patriarchal secrecy.

Let us hope this revelation in Pennsylvania willfinally be the light that shines in the darkness.

Matthew 4:16… “The people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.”