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Split: A Child, A Priest, and The Catholic Church

A Child, A Priest, and The Catholic Church

Mary Dispenza (Moon Day Press 2014, Trade Paperback) 229 pages, $12.99 cover price

I wonder how many Catholics approach a church in a new town, perhaps the arrival of a new parish priest or bishop, the way I do. There one sits in the pew, getting a good look at the inevitably genial appearing man performing the sacraments and delivering a suitably serious yet broadly accessible sermon message, and the thought is inevitable – 'So is this one a child abuser too?' Please don't pretend shock at reading that; anyone who has read a newspaper or encountered any other form of serious new media over at least the past twenty years has wondered the same on at least one occasion or another.

And it is, forgive the pun, a goddam shame. I was not only raised in the Catholic faith (being of Irish-Italian ancestry I scarcely had a choice in the matter), in addition a little over two years ago I emigrated from Canada to the Republic of Ireland; a nation so Catholic it's like the Vatican with better beer and a lot more rain. Being Catholic, for most although indeed not all, requires a sort of dance – a minuet of morality if you will. Ireland is over ninety percent Catholic, yet at the time of this writing all available polling data indicates that the constitutional referendum approving same sex marriage is going to pass by a three to one margin. As my grandfather used to advise me, 'Go to Mass, sit in the back, say your prayers, and ignore the priest when he talks about politics.' There's some sound advice for you.

However, it may be relatively easy to shrug off words and still remain devout in one's heart, but when subject to violent and unrepentant actions, well that's a whole different story. That is Mary Dispenza's story and I heartily beg you to take the time to read it. Split is her memoir from the time when she was raped by her parish priest in Los Angeles at the age of seven, through the next sixty years as the effect of that act clouded her life and her later attempts to find justice through the legal system were repeatedly blocked and stone-walled by the Church and the Church's lawyers.

What is remarkable about Dispenza's story – the title Split by the way refers to the split she found between the girl she was as Little Mary before the rape, and the girl then woman cloaked in shame afterwards – is that the horror of that moment did not shake her faith in the slightest. Mary Dispenza in fact entered the convent at the age of eighteen and served the Church as a nun for fifteen years. I intend in no way to make light of her decision by drawing this metaphor, yet it is the equivalent of being brutally beaten in a bar and coming back the next night for Happy Hour. 'Well it wasn't the bar's fault.'

Dispenza manages the quite difficult feat of telling her story thoroughly, passionately, yet with a clear journalistic focus on the facts. When she finally confronts her assailant – Father George Rucker, in case any reader of this review is in addition to the thirty-three recorded cases of rape and abuse this beastly, sick man perpetrated – both her actual demeanor and the reporting of it in Split are equally admirable.

There are two more aspects to Dispenza's story which make Split the story of a life well-led and well told. Upon leaving her religious order, she becomes a well-loved and nationally recognized school principal. She does not say as much, but it is fair speculation that her devotion to the advancement and protection of her elementary school pupils would have a natural source to it. And then, there is the final irony.

After a life of devotion to the Church and working in a senior position within the Chancery of the Archbishop of Seattle which she had come to after leaving the school system as a principal, Mary Dispenza was fired with immediate dispatch. You see, after most of an adult life marked by an inability to form true emotional or physical bonds in relationships, Dispenza came to terms with her sexuality and announced herself as a lesbian. Perhaps naively, she thought her colleagues would be happy for her. Only a very few were. Yes indeed, a Church that would shuttle abusive priests from parish to parish – Rucker was always sent to educational ministries where he had young children near to his foul hands – no matter what the charges, was able to condone the shielding of rapists within its cathedrals, yet to one who is devout to the teachings of Christ and unreservedly loves another human who just happens to share similar genitalia must be cast out. 

If I have two wishes for Mary Dispenza, who is in a happy and long-standing relationship as she well deserves, they are these. One, I hope Split is a cracking, storming success. It will provoke thought and it should be discussed. Second, I truly hope she writes more books about whatever subject interests her. She will never find a more difficult subject to write about than her own life and she has done so with a masterly hand of calm, reflective and lucid prose. I say this without a gram of hyperbole: I was honoured to read this book.

Be seeing you.


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