Fr. Jekyll and Mr.Hyde

So now we have the truth about Fr. Corapi, and English Catholics are dealing with the truth about a well known and much loved priest, Fr. Kit Cunningham. Fr. Kit appeared to be a ‘lovable eccentric’ who did much good and hob nobbed with all the media types in London. Turns out when he was a young priest working in a school in Africa he molested little boys and then helped cover up his crimes and the crimes of his fellow priests at the school. You can read about it here if you have a strong stomach.

There is shock and horror all around, and the usual bleating from the faithful, “How could it be true! He baptized my children! He was so delightful! He was such a great preacher! He was always kind to the poor! He was one of the best priests I’ve ever known!” Then there is the denial, “Those accusers must be exaggerating! There is a sinister plot! It’s the bishop’s fault! He has it out for Father Sliptalot! We mustn’t judge before Fr. Foolabout has a chance to answer for himself! He never really took a vow of poverty anyway! That woman he was with–he was counseling her! That’s all! She is a crazy drunk and addict! Those men who remember being molested–that sort of thing went on in boarding schools! It’s no big deal! The other priests are jealous of Father Jekyll.”

I don’t understand how people, who are otherwise pretty canny professionals, seem to understand so very little about male psychology. Why is it possible for Fr. Jekyll to turn to the dark side and become the monster Mr. Hyde? It’s because men have that membrane between the two lobes of their brain that allows them to compartmentalize stuff. Men can be objective and separate out different parts of their existence and behavior. This allow us to concentrate better than women, but not to multi task as well as women. It also allows us to get on and do nasty things if we have to without being emotionally involved. So the male hunter has to get food for his family and he sees mama deer with Bambi. He shoots them both and brings home the bacon. A woman would cry and say, “But you can’t shoot that darling little fawn while he’s nursing his mama!!” Bang! “Fuhgeddaboudit. I gotta eat” says the brute.

The same ability to compartmentalize allows a man to wear a uniform and play a role in society more routinely and effectively than a woman. Most men do this all the time without thinking. Dad puts on a business suit and goes out into the world to do business with his business persona firmly in place. Dad puts on his work clothes, his uniform, his persona and gets on with the job. This does not mean that he is always a fake and that his work does not involve his personality or that he is some sort of automaton. It’s just that one part of his brain is kicking in and the other parts of him are blocked. He’s compartmentalizing.

A priest has to do this big time. He’s always putting on a uniform. He wears the clericals. He wears a cassock. He puts on vestments for the liturgy. As he does so he enacts the part of the priest. He’s doing his job. This does NOT mean he’s a phony. It doesn’t mean he’s not real or not a good man or not a good priest. It’s simply part of the job. However–should that man be struggling with a dark side of his personality the uniform and playing the part of the priest can become an alternative reality. He can start believing that the holy priest he is presenting to the world is actually the same as his real personality. In other words, if a priest is struggling with some dark secret, then the alternative priestly persona becomes a secure refuge, and the darker and more obscene the secret, the more perfect the priestly persona has to be. See how it works?  The worse my dark secret, the better I have to pretend on the outside to show everyone (and especially myself) what a good person I am. That’s why the ones who crash and burn are always, “The best priest I have ever known!”

Meanwhile the poor guy is compartmentalizing like mad. He’s pushing away all the dark stuff, not dealing with it, denying it ever happened or saying, “I slipped up. It won’t happen again.” He locks it all down and keeps up the show. Unfortunately, his religious superiors, his parishioners, colleagues, family and friends too often collude with the deception because they also want to believe that Father Wonderful really is as wonderful as he appears. So they overlook the danger signs as ‘little foibles’ or ‘obvious faults’. They did this with Fr. Cunningham (who I knew from my time in England). He was (in my experience) a leery, rather creepy drunkard and snob who was involved much too closely with the secretary of the parish. But everyone said, “He was a benevolent and boozy old coot who had a roguish eye for the ladies.” Seems he had an eye for the laddies as well.

He (and his order) were compartmentalizing big time and so you end up with Fr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Do you remember that scene in C.S.Lewis’ The Great Divorce? A large, pompous fellow (I forget his name–call him Stanley) is talking to the shade of his wife and he’s playing the great dramatic scene of self pity and self importance. Meanwhile the wife (who is a humble soul) is talking to a little dwarf that the big man Stanley holds on a chain. The pompous fool says to her, “Don’t talk to him. Talk to me my darling!” She replies that the dwarf is who she wants to talk to because it is the real Stanley. The pretend Stanley had taken over and the real Stanley was shrinking. Finally the fake Stanley give a final pull on the chain and the real Stanley disappears forever. So it is when a false persona takes over the real person.

Please don’t get me wrong folks. I’m not saying all priests are like this. I’m simply saying that some are, (just like many lay people are) and when this twisted dynamic of compartmentalizing and faking it takes over (no matter who it is) things gets very messy for everyone. Also, please understand that while some people do this big time, many more do it on a lesser scale. Other men do it for a time, and then get over it and grow up.

What makes it all the more complicated is that the priest really is supposed to grow out of himself and ‘grow up into the full stature of Christ  Jesus’.  We really are supposed to fill the vestments and become the ‘alter Christus’ that we are called to be. To do this we have to pretend sometimes. We have to try hard by God’s grace. We stumble and fall and get up again, but what we can’t do is compartmentalize our dark side, deny our wrongdoing and justify our sin. That way lies destruction.

Instead, like all of God’s children, we priests have to acknowledge our sin, turn to Christ, plead for mercy and allow God’s grace to somehow work that transformation in our souls before Mr. Hyde takes over and Fr. Jekyll disappears forever.

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