Punching Priests

Smacking a religious figure was a risky move, especially in a foreign country.

When I was sixteen I punched a Priest. Father Dan was a little padre, about my size at the time. A big Irish or Pollack father would have sloughed off my pitiful jab and pounded me into the sidewalk. But Dan, possessing the pliable heart of a true drama queen, fell into the gutter and began to wail.

It was London, England, 1976. In those days smacking a religious figure was a risky move, especially in a foreign country. You might be charged with some ancient statute — The Reverend Protection Act of 1584 — specifying beheading for assault on one of God’s soldiers. Corporal punishment against children seemed mandated by big religions: vicious ruler-slaps and hair-pulling by old nuns, forehead pokes by bearded orthodox dudes, ear-boxing by irritated Rabbis, all part of a sound religious upbringing, and you weren’t ever supposed to hit back.

So as an increasingly angry crowd gathered, I ran. Fast. Up alleys and cobblestone streets, past drunks and curbside newsstands, through a maze of ancient gray buildings, until I was hopelessly lost.

Months earlier as I was contemplating my European adventure, I had no idea the trip would end with me assaulting a priest. I’d attended Holy Rosary School, a bland brick institution most likely designed by a disgraced Soviet Cold War architect, where priests were a major part of my existence; men to be feared, admired, and sometimes loved. I’d spent my entire life observing the classic Irish Catholic doctrine, even serving as an altar boy. Every couple weeks I’d make the Saturday trek to confession to relate my seldom-changing retinue of minor infractions: cursing, disobeying my parents, and later, continual horny thoughts about Charlene Trotman.

In the 1970’s priests and nuns still ran the show, but the church was beginning to show cracks, as Catholics realized how wonderful it was to eat hamburger on Friday followed by protected guilt-free sex. The Latin mass was abandoned for a more crowd-friendly presentation, somber organ music supplanted by guitars. Nuns discarded their heavy “Sister Bertrille” winged black garb for more colorful habits.

In Montana the priests were of Irish and Eastern European decent, big tough men accustomed to lauding over parishes. A relationship with a priest can transcend time. Forty years after I served as his altar boy, the first person I called when my father died was Father Hoolihan. The young Irish priest I fondly remembered was now an old man, but twenty minutes after I reached him he was sitting next to me at my Dad’s deathbed, holding our hands and speaking softly with a brogue so lyrical and comforting I wanted to bathe in his words.

Tim’s parents with Father Hoolihan

Including Father Hoolihan, I’ve had relationships with three priests. Father Gergen was the first. An older man of indeterminate age, he sported a gym coach’s sharp crew cut, baseball-gloves for hands, and arms six inches too long for his body. He’d mumble in low bass, with unintelligible sermons that sounded like “Jesus grrrarr apostle begets mrrrr.” If you were caught fighting he’d drag the combatants to his backyard where he’d set-up a boxing ring, shove oversized boxing gloves on their paws, and encourage them to beat the hell out of each other.

He also had a profound fear of hippies. Like many of his generation, he accepted the following equation: long hair = Charles Manson, and given the math calculated that as your hair grew so did your propensity for evil. On Monday mornings he’d stroll into class, rusty garden shears dangling from a hand, and hack away at any boy’s hair that exceeded his collar line, with barbering skills so awful the recipient had to go to a real barbershop to save his butchered scalp. Father would then instruct the girls to kneel, checking to assure their dresses (of course females were not allowed to wear pants) tented the ground around them, and collar lines were throat-high, lest we boys be sexually tormented by any indication of thigh or cleavage erupting from a twelve-year-old girl’s body. Those who actually had cleavage — and of course I am referring to Charlene Trotman — managed to circumvent this rule by wearing zippered blouses which could coyly be zipped down once he’d left the building.

Initially I was terrified of Father Gergen. He seemed mean and dangerously doltish. I wasn’t even sure if he spoke English. But when I began to serve as his altar boy I discovered him more the gentle giant. One morning he invited me back to the rectory after the service for breakfast. His rotund Polish housekeeper put out a heavy breakfast, and in-between bites Father inquired whether I’d be free to serve a funeral later that morning. Altar boys at funerals and weddings rode in limousines, wore special red cassocks, and most importantly, were always tipped, so of course I agreed, excited to elevate to professional status.

Father appreciated my enthusiasm, and throughout the summer we became a team. After early Mass we’d adjourn to his place for breakfast, sometimes followed by an hour of basketball, or perhaps a little boxing instruction (my father also loved boxing, and I had been indoctrinated to the gloves from an early age). Then we were off to the gig. At funerals I adopted the sad cherubic look so appreciated by the grieving relatives. At weddings I took special care to make sure my black dress shoes were spiffed glossy, and learned the direct correlation between my gratuity and how vociferously I complemented the bride. But the next year Father Gergen was gone, our Starsky and Hutch-like religious partnership dissolved, to be replaced by Father Heretick.

Heretick — perhaps the worst possible moniker for a priest — making me wonder what he had done wrong in seminary to receive such a name. Like Gergen he was old school, but with a pleasant demeanor. Pudgy and bald, he appeared to be smiling at a joke heard an hour earlier. I never received an invitation to share a meal, but he did love playing basketball (his version of HORSE replaced with JESUS). And ultimately, it was Father Heretick that facilitated my departure from the Catholicism. One day during religion class Father Heretick instructed the girls to leave the room, went to the blackboard, and wrote MASTURBATION in huge letters. “Who knows what this is?” He looked at the boys as if he’d discovered stolen loot. “Mas-ter-BA-tion,” he said slowly. “Jerking off. It’s a sin.”

And suddenly it became clear that I needed to part ways with the Catholic Church. I could accept the sexism and obsession with old-man rules, a corporate mandate of gaudy infrastructure while people starved, pretend flesh-eating, the very fact that the entire religion was based on a best-selling book that appeared to be a work of fiction, but reducing sex with the one I love to sin status was the last straw. And while I continued to honor my parents by attending Sunday mass, I had little interaction with priests after that. Until, of course, Father Dan.

The summer after my junior year of high school I convinced my parents to finance a month-long student tour of Europe, supervised by my French teacher, Mrs. Burgoff. We gathered in Denver to meet up with two other high school groups that would join us on the trip for our flight to Madrid.

Father Dan was overseeing a group of five young men from the Colorado all-boys prep school where he was stationed, a place I soon learned was actually a repository for the unwanted or problematic youngsters of cruel rich people; parents that felt the desire to procreate, but wanted none of the hassle of actually raising offspring. During the school year they sent them to boarding school, then off to Europe for the summer.

I frequently had to room with the group, most of whom reminded me of rangy, abused dogs. Tom, the ringleader, had taken his abandonment to heart, and emerged a sociopath who enjoyed cajoling his fellow students into joining his bizarre and often violent festivities. He had a wrestler’s stocky frame, topped with a bowl haircut with long bangs that threatened his eyesight. His voice was an octave too low for a teenager, and he’d use it to boom orders at fearful classmates, wakening them with hard slaps, or pouring pitchers of water over their heads. In Rome we stayed in an ancient convent that had been converted into a dorm, and Tom organized a hallway kickball tournament that destroyed a five-hundred-year-old statue of the Virgin Mary, leaving Father Dan to sort out the carnage among a group of crying old nuns chattering in Italian. In Paris Tom defecated in the bidet just to see the reaction of the young maid who came to clean the room. He enjoyed discussing his penis in the third person, threatening homosexual assaults that were only comical to him. A whirlwind of pain, he slapped and punched his classmates at every opportunity, smiling as if his viciousness was actually designed to promote camaraderie; the kind of guy destined to someday lead deadly fraternity hazing rituals.

I’d endured my share of bullies over the years, but where I was raised they were truly scary kids amplifying their own physical mistreatment. Accustomed to a good beating, they were happy to go toe-to-toe with anyone that resisted. I perceived Tom more a poser, and suspected if I resisted he would move to easier prey. So the first time he attempted to assault me I replied with uncharacteristic bravado, throwing him on the floor, knee planted in his ribcage, screaming various violent epithets in my best Travis Bickle impersonation. I’m a non-violent sort, but Tom bought the act, classifying me as a crazy to be avoided.

Tim in high school.

My faux nuttiness drew Father Dan’s attention. Perhaps he was innately drawn to troubled youth, but the day after the incident he pulled me aside. “I hear you had a run-in with Tom. We need to get along,” he said gently. “Let’s sit down and rap about what’s going on.”

I’d never been invited to rap.

But it made sense. Father Dan embodied the “hip priest” persona, the kind of father I’d only seen on shows like Baretta and Streets of San Francisco. A soldier for Jesus, he was also a stylish advocate of human rights, hemp, and soft rock ballads. Instead of the traditional black garb, he wore colorful sport shirts with his clerical collar, a wooden crucifix encircling his neck that was large enough to top a steeple. Prematurely bald, he kept the remaining perimeter of his hair long and shaggy, a “clown do” topped with huge Gloria Steinem wire rim glasses.

I was initially excited about having a dialogue with a priest who seemed at the cutting edge of Catholicism. Perhaps the church had rethought their position on masturbation. Father Dan suggested we meet after dinner, and to my surprise, suggested a corner tavern. Ecstatic that the legal drinking age was often lower or non-existent in Europe, I was none-the-less shocked that an adult would encourage me to drink. As I nursed a beer, Dan downed several scotch and sodas, becoming visibly buzzed. I explained my position on Tom, suggesting he was an early candidate for incarceration, but Father Dan took my comments as an affront to his stewardship. “Perhaps the problem isn’t Tom, but you,” he suggested. He then proceeded to get rip-roaring drunk, encouraging me to join him. “I’m on vacation, and this is my chance to let off a little steam. Loosen up,” he said, winking lasciviously. As his speech slurred he became pushy and intimate, a close talker, forcing more drinks and physically hanging on me in a way that felt wrong. I made excuses to leave as he protested loudly.

I was completely inexperienced at dealing with adult dysfunction, and decided it best to avoid him. But invariably he’d confront me, my rejection firing his resolve to draw me close. He insisted I join his group in a bar, and again I recoiled at his drunken embraces and juvenile actions. It became clear to me that many of the boys’ problems could be emanating from Father Dan.

After a farewell dinner in London Dan cajoled me into joining his group at a pub. As usual, he encouraged us to imbibe freely, outpacing us two drinks to one. After an hour his attentions turned to me, regaling me with slobbery criticisms about “how uptight” I was, his face so close I was stained by scotch and sausage spittle, his hands roaming my torso as I continued to back away. When I said my goodbyes, Dan followed, stumbling out the front door, demanding I return. I ignored the request, which enraged him, and he grabbed me roughly from behind. And that was when I punched the priest.

Afterwards I wandered the streets for a few hours, terrified as only a child can be. In those days there was only guilt when grownups acted inappropriately. After a few hours I snuck back to my dorm, and lay awake wondering what the morning might bring. Perhaps a knock on the door, Father Dan flanked by Bobbies. But nothing transpired. The next day we boarded the flight home, Dan and I avoiding eye contact, and I decided never to mention the incident.

A few weeks later I was driving with my father, Dad casually piloting his big Bonneville with one hand. “I got a letter from a priest a couple days ago,” he announced. “A guy named Father Dave or Dan, something like that, from a school in Colorado.”

“What did he want?” I asked nervously.

“Said you were a troubled kid with a lot of problems. Suggested I enroll you in his school to straighten you out.” There was a moment of terror, as I considered life in some kind of boy’s prison, before I realized my parents would never agree to such an arrangement. I marveled at Father Dan’s audacity, later suspecting the letter was some kind of preemptive move to protect himself in case I revealed the details of his questionable supervision. “Something happen on the trip?” Dad asked.

“Sort of. I punched him,” I told him flatly.

“You punched him? You hit a priest?”

“Yeah. He was drunk, put his hands on me. I didn’t hit him hard, but I knocked him down.”

Dad smiled. “Good for you. Never let another man touch you, even a priest.” He went silent for a moment, lost in some long-ago decade. “When I was a little kid in the 1920’s my Mom ran a boardinghouse, mostly for Irish immigrants,” he finally said. “There were always a couple priests living there. I liked most of them, but a few were real bastards. A couple of them I should’ve punched.”

Neither Dad nor I offered any additional details on our adventures with the clergy. Years later after he’d died, with the Catholic Church reeling from scandal, I sometimes wondered what occurred that made him want to punch a priest, suspecting his experience worse than mine. Men of my Dad’s ilk seldom discussed personal demons. But when the church’s illusion of absolute power crumbled, it was amazing to see decades of shame and heartache leak out, the church an angry scab that needed to be peeled back to heal.

The truth is, I have no idea if Father Dan was dangerous or just a sloppy drunk lacking awareness of personal space. But he did manage to instill in me a lifelong resentment of anyone that uses power to manifest their own dysfunction. And sometimes I think about the two men that taught me how to punch, my dad and Father Gergen, wondering if they weren’t giving me a gift they hoped I’d never need.

As I was writing this I became curious about what became of Dan. Even with the power of the internet I was unable to locate him, but during my research I discovered that over 6,500 clerics, including nuns, have been accused of abusing over 17,000 victims. I was even more surprised to find a full page of allegations against priests in Montana, especially disappointed to see Father Heretick (now deceased) named among the accused.

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Tim O’Leary’s short story collection, Dick Cheney Shot Me in the Face: And Other Tales of Men in Pain, will be released on February 16, 2017. Pre-order Tim’s book here. Visit O’Leary’s website to learn more.