The last two movies I’ve seen have both weighed heavily on me. Both of them have dealt with two same two themes, and with my profession’s response to both.
One of them, ``How to Survive a Plague,’’ is a 2012 documentary about the early days of the AIDS epidemic. The other one, ``Spotlight,’’ is a 2015 film about the investigative unit of the Boston Globe that broke major stories about clerical child abuse in the Boston archdiocese and Cardinal Law’s role in covering it up.
Both of them focus on sexuality and, in one way or another, some of the effects the Catholic religious community’s response to sexual conduct.
AIDS was my story early on. I am pretty sure I wrote some of the first stories about the epidemic that were published in any mainstream paper in Louisiana. It started when I got a call from the Director of the New Orleans Department of Health who told me about a PR person from one of Louisiana’s publicly traded companies. The man, who did some freelance writing on the side, was fired for ``inefficiency’’ two days after his story about his fears of being infected with the HIV virus was published in People magazine.
I talked to that writer, got the go-ahead from a wonderful and understanding editor and ended up writing a four-part package about AIDS, people’s growing fears, legal issues that were beginning to arise, and irrational and homophobic responses to the epidemic. The editor made each one a cover story and we sold out every issue.
Back then we didn’t know that much about how AIDS was transmitted except that gay men and Haitians seemed to have a lot more cases than anyone else. I was, at that time, sharing a house with a gay man – my dear friend Michael – and began wondering if sharing a meal or bathroom with him could put me at risk.
Several days after my first story was published, Michael and I went to the opening of a play that had been written by the guy who had been fired. The writer was ecstatic about my story, and came up and kissed me on the cheek.
I was so scared. As soon as I reasonably could, I exited and went into the bathroom, wet a paper towel and scrubbed hard the spot on my face where the kiss had landed. I didn't know how AIDS could be transmitted, and I didn't want to insult the guy by flinching from his kiss.
In the course of reporting on my story, I talked to a lot of people, everyone from funeral directors to divorce lawyers to operators of the gay bathhouses. Nobody knew much about how AIDS was transmitted and everyone was either terrified or in denial or both.
Several months after my stories were published, I got a job offer from Los Angeles, and moved to California to take a reporting job at a daily legal newspaper. AIDS was still very much on my mind, so much so that one of the very first profiles I wrote for that paper was of the director of the AIDS Civil Rights Project in San Francisco.
My friend Michael then moved to Los Angeles and into my two-bedroom apartment and after he was settled in his new job, we began to volunteer at AIDS Project Los Angeles. At that time AIPLA had an AIDS education campaign featuring photos of Zelda Rubenstein, an actress famous for playing the role of a Jewish mother. The posters with her apron-wearing image had the caption ``now be safe, dear. Don't forget your rubbers.’’
Somehow it seemed to me that this wasn’t the most effective strategy, but Michael and I were willing to do whatever we could to help out. This included, one Halloween, our donning costumes and heading to the gay bars and bathhouses to hand out condoms. (I stayed outside the bathhouses).
After I was in Los Angeles for 18 months, I was recruited for a legal newspaper in San Francisco that was under new New York ownership. I moved up to northern California and persuaded the editors to let me have a weekly column on AIDS and the law. And I never once ran out of subject matter.
At that time so many legal issues relating to the epidemic had not yet been settled. Health insurance companies were cancelling coverage on the strength of one prescription for an AIDS-related drug. Doctors were keeping double books, sending in innocuous diagnoses to the insurance companies for their patients with AIDS. Hospitals were refusing to treat AIDS patients, and funeral directors wouldn’t handle their dead bodies.
Wives of men who turned up HIV positive were suddenly denying their former spouses any access to their children. And blood banks were talking around in circles in their efforts to deny responsibility for testing the blood supply with a test that could have done a pretty good job of screening out a lot of contaminated blood. People were still losing their jobs once their HIV status was known.
Cops donned rubber gloves when AIDS activists were demonstrating in the streets. ACT-Up was fighting desperately to get pharmaceutical companies to push drugs through that might have an effect on the AIDS virus and were shaming companies they thought were profiteering from the epidemic. And for a very long time, the word ``AIDS’’ was never on the lips of then-President Ronald Reagan. Lawmakers like North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms said despicable things about AIDS and gay people, and people even burned down houses where children with AIDS lived.
Against this backdrop, I met someone, fell in love and married him. He was an Irish Catholic widower, someone I would never have dreamed could possibly have been infected. This proved to be a mistaken assumption, and suddenly the AIDS epidemic came home for me. So many of the legal issues about which I had written were now our own personal battle.
In the middle of this, my eldest child was killed in a mountaineering accident. I didn’t know where to turn. My husband was demanding his HIV status still be kept secret, I was terrified about my own health status, our daughter – who had lost her mother to a form of cancer a year before I showed up – was going through a stormy adolescence, and my husband was visibly fading right before my eyes. Then I discovered he had no life insurance and that the expansiveness that sometimes accompanies early-stage AIDS dementia left us ruined financially. Eventually, after my husband’s first serious hospitalization, it was clear that I was to be the sole support of the family, financially, physically and emotionally.
I went to a meeting of a support group for parents who had lost a child. Can’t remember the name of the group, but I used to call it ``Mothers of Dead Kids.’’ I remember sitting in a circle of folding chairs in a church basement, listening to other mothers talk about how they couldn’t take pleasure from their tennis games because they were mourning their lost children. One woman actually said ``I just can’t enjoy a manicure any more.’’ I’m sure their losses were as monumental as mine, but I thought to myself that I was up to my neck in alligators and couldn’t ever even think of manicures or tennis games.
And then there was the fight for the drugs. I ended up buying black-market AZT from men whose lovers had died, leaving behind half-empty bottles of the antiviral drug. Insurance companies were then still cancelling policies on the strength of an AIDS-related prescription. The list of drugs my husband had to take grew and grew as each new opportunistic infection surfaced. Doctors were throwing anything at AIDS they thought might help, and my husband ended up taking drugs that had been developed to treat such conditions as leprosy and tuberculosis.
I’m a fairly resourceful journalist and even before the World Wide Web developed, I was out there searching the literature, looking for any new drug that was promising. I found a clinical trial of Crixivan, the first of the new class of protease inhibitors that ultimately did prove effective. Got him into that trial with its complicated protocols. But ultimately it was too late and his body was too damaged from the ravages of the various opportunistic infections.
Meanwhile his mind was failing. The brilliant handsome articulate lawyer I married became skeletal, confused, and often the things that came out of his mouth made little or no sense. He was in and out of the hospital and when he was home, I had him in a day care program for people with AIDS.
Ultimately he slipped out of the house in a driving winter rainstorm in January – a lot like this January – and after a desperate five-hour search, the police found him standing in bar in soaking wet clothes – just a t-shirt, sweatpants and sneakers with no socks --- drinking a cup of tea.
He then went into the hospital for the last time, into the hospice unit at a Bay Area hospital with a very large AIDS patient base. He was there from January until his death at the end of April. Most of the time he didn’t know me any longer. Like me, he had been raised Catholic and I thought just maybe he might want to see a priest. A friend made arrangements for a gay-sensitive priest to make a call at the hospital. I remember walking into my husband’s room that night, noting the priest’s business card on the tray table and asking how the meeting with the priest went. ``Oh, the plumber was here,’’ was my husband’s response. And that was that as far as reconciliation with Holy Mother the Church was concerned.
At least I had made the effort. And this effort was despite the fact that the Church kept saying that the use of condoms that kept me from getting infected was expressly forbidden and that homosexuality was a gravely disordered condition. This was despite a visible percentage of gay members of the Catholic clergy, and the fact that a number of them were also falling victim to the epidemic.
When I saw ``How to Survive a Plague,’’ it brought it all back. It’s a really good documentary, comprised of archival news footage from the early years of the epidemic. Then film has more of a New York focus, but when the footage from the International AIDS Conference that took place in San Francisco in 1990 came on the screen, I recognized all the players. I had covered that conference, the disruptions by ActUp, and had had a very hard time not joining the group in its demonstrations in the street.
From the perspective of more than 20 years on, it's hard even for me to believe things were as bad as they were. I guess I was just so involved in the day-to-day struggle that I didn't dare stop and try to look at the big picture, the way the film ``Surviving the Plague'' did.
The other film, ``Spotlight,'' brought home once more the great scandal of sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests. I saw the film last week, just before I went to Seattle, which is where I spent most of the first 37 years of my life. Ironically, the very day I left Seattle to return home to the Bay Area, the Archdiocese of Seattle released its list of names of 77 priests and other religious for whom there had been either admissions of sexual abuse of minors, or what the archdiocese called ``credible allegations.''
I knew some of the names on the list already because there had been extensive news coverage of some of the cases. Some others confirmed suspicions I had. Other names were a complete shock to me.
One of the names belong to a Jesuit who had taught philosophy at the university where I got my undergraduate degree. I majored in philosophy, but for some reason, never took a class from this particular professor. He was always hanging around in the student union, had a great number of fans among my fellow students I didn't think were particularly intellectual rigorous, and just seemed a bit too much hale fellow well met for me. So I deliberately avoided his classes.
He died in 1976, a little more than a decade after I graduated, and shortly after that, I got a letter from the university, soliciting me -- as a philosophy major -- for a donation to help fund a lecture series in this man's honor. Because I never had him as a teacher and wasn't particularly fond of him, I declined to make a donation.
As it turns out, this particular man had abused boys when he had been on the faculty of another Jesuit university. The father of one of his victims came onto campus with a gun with the intent of killing the alleged abuser. What did the Jesuits do? They transferred him over to my university where, according to case files, he abused more boys.
The university knew about his past, yet asked me for money to pay for a lecture series in his honor! This is one of the reasons I will never donate any money to the school where I got my undergraduate degree.
Another name on the list was a priest who had, for 10 years, headed the Catholic Youth Organization in Seattle. Like most Catholic kids my age, I was active in the CYO. I attended CYO summer camps, and worked there as a counselor for a number of years. Took part in a lot of CYO activities on the parish level as well as some that were diocese-wide.
There was a news story in the Catholic Northwest Progress in 1964 that this particular priest had to take a leave of absence related to ``ill health'' and ``exhaustion'' related to his parish duties. He was shipped off to the Servants of the Paraclete Center in New Mexico, a facility where priests who had problems relating to sexual abuse of children were treated. According to the archdiocese records, he was on leave for six years, after which he returned, and was placed in new parish assignments. Yes, that's right, parish work, where he had daily contact with altar boys and other kids who were enrolled in parish schools.
He was replaced as head of the CYO by a priest I had known since he was a seminarian and we both were counselors at CYO camp. When we were at camp, he is the one who painted all the beams in the main lodge with beautiful designs that were derived from Haida and Tlingit art. I would have to say that my love for this tribal art dates from this time and today, you will see a number of examples of Haida and Tlingit work in my home.
His record shows no instance of being sent off for treatment anywhere. He was moved from parish to parish. Somewhere along the way he allegedly abused a boy who grew up to be a labor union official alongside a member of my family. Years later the boy accused this priest of abuse, and when he got no support for his allegations, he drove to the parking lot of the parish where the abuse occurred and blew out his brains with a hand gun.
That priest is still alive, albeit in his mid-80s now, has been laicized, and, according to the archdiocese' report, is now living a life of ``permanent prayer and penance,'' whatever that means.
Another one of the priests whose name was on the list is a guy I remember as the seminarian who always drove the big green bus on which we hauled the kids off to summer camp. He was a big but gentle man, who always led the camp songs with particular gusto.
One of the names on the list belongs to one of the priests that were sent into our religion classes at Holy Names Academy every Wednesday. They were ostensibly there to supplement the religious instruction we got from the nuns, but I think the real purpose was to check and make sure of the orthodoxy of our religious training.
This particular priest came to my religion class during our junior year. This was the year that we were given the notorious pamphlet ``Modern Youth and Chastity'' to study. (It was very unintentionally funny, warning us that, among other things, we were in a state of mortal sin if ``venereal commotion'' occurred. Seriously!)
Because this was what we were studying at that time, we would place the pamphlet open on the desk behind which he sat when he came to class. He would always give one quick glance to the pamphlet, blush fiercely, slam the pamphlet shut and say ``now gurrrrls, take out a sheet of notebook paper and write out the words to the `Hail Mary' and the `Our Father.' '' This guy was on the list as an abuser and yet was totally unable to talk about anything pertaining to sex with my class.
Well, I could go on and on with all the familiar names. Suffice to say that the Catholic priesthood in the Archdiocese of Seattle in the years of my youth was rife with abusers. And they weren't the marginal guys. One of them had the plummy assignment as editor of the Catholic Northwest Progress, the diocesan newspaper. Others were pastors or curates at the most prestigious and wealthy parishes.
Much of the abuse occurred in the 1950s and 1960s, yet the Archdiocese did not make the names public until 2015. Most of the priests on the list are now dead or very old. But I have no doubt that abuse occurred in the subsequent decades and that some of the perpetrators are even now in parish assignments. The 77 who were named are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg, I fear.
The film ``Spotlight'' focuses on the efforts of an investigative team that uncovered evidence of the hierarchy's cover-up and enablement of the abuse that happened in Boston. Unlike largely secular Seattle, Boston was a heavily Catholic city. Many of the reporters and lawyers involved in the case were members of the very same religious community that was accused. In some cases, reporters were pressured by friends and family members to halt their efforts, for fear of embarrassing the very church that had formed them.
I totally get this. While I knew about some of the abusers in Seattle, it simply undid me to learn about others. And, in the case of the CYO director, in the back of my mind, I had a memory of his name associated with the Paraclete's treatment center for years, but I just couldn't bring myself to believe it for sure. Not this smiling young priest who was such a key part of my growing-up life!
``Spotlight'' made me so proud of my profession as a journalist and of those reporters and editors who had the courage to take on this difficult story. I only regret that I was never in the right place at the right time to write part of it myself. At the times I was in the right place, I was not at publications with the kind of leadership that could take on such a hot-button issue. And when I was at publications with great and courageous editors, we were always focused on technical subject areas that did not lend themselves to this kind of story.
I am very proud of one friend and former colleague who did a bang-up job covering the abuse cases for the LA Times. Once lawyers for the archdiocese learned she had grown up Catholic, they had a very mistaken assumption she would assume that their side of the story was the only one worth telling. Boy, were they ever wrong!
I have been thinking so much in the past week about sexuality, the Church, and its clergy. One of the thoughts that is foremost in my mind is the utter stupidity of sending 14-year-old boys off to the seminary, to a life of celibacy. I've been the mother of teenage boys and, trust me, at that age, they know so little about themselves as humans, much less as sexual beings. The idea that they could be kept sequestered in a hothouse for nine years, to emerge as fully formed priests with a lifelong commitment to celibacy at the age of 23 simple boggles the imagination.
And then there is the emphasis on avoiding the ``particular friendship'' during the seminary, for fear, I would suppose, of encouraging homosexual behavior. One friend of mine told his spiritual advisor about having same-sex attraction to another seminarian and was sent to a doctor who prescribed valium at such a high dose and with unlimited renewals that my friend was left with a heavy addiction that took him years to shake. Another seminarian I know acknowledged an issue with masturbation to his advisor, who then said to him ``well now young man, let me see your organ . . . . ''
So it seems to me not particularly surprising that these young priests who emerge from the seminary confused and emotionally immature end up unable to have any kind of meaningful peer relationships, sexual or not, and instead feel they can have a special kind of closeness only with children.
Another issue is misogyny. It is, it seems to me, an inescapable part of seminary training. One of the so-called ``fathers'' of the church that seminarians study is Tertullian -- actually Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus -- a writer from Carthage in the second century of the Church's existence. Tertullian, who is considered the founder of western theology, wrote that woman ``is an open sewer from which vomits forth the filth of the universe.'' He's the one who said that women should wear black for all of their lives ``because of their participation in the sin of Eve.'' He viewed remarriage for widows as adultery, and said that sex even within a marriage coarsened the body and soul and drove out the Holy Spirit.
If this is what is taught about women in the seminary, no wonder we are so devalued by the church, and why priests may turn to male children as a sexual outlet instead.
A while back someone on Facebook chided me for posting something critical of the Church. He, who is a conservative Catholic, said that since I had so obviously turned my back on the Church, I had no right to speak out.
My answer to him is that my Catholic upbringing has left deep fingerprints on my psyche. It's a huge part of who I am. The very hardest thing I ever did in my life was to leave and, as I have often said, the only thing that would have been harder would have been to stay.
Yes, I dance with the Goddess now, and love celebrating the turn of the wheel of the year with the women in my coven. And I will never again kneel before a man in a Roman collar, even if it's sweet Francis in his white cassock.
When I was growing up, we were taught to think of the church as ``Holy Mother, the Church.'' But even the most indifferent of mothers don't fail us the way the church did. I know abuse of minors is not unique to the Catholic church, but this is the milieu in which I grew up and with which I have great familiarity.
So anyway: these two movies. I don't usually cry at movies. But I blubbered my way through both of these. Both hit me where I live. Your mileage may vary.