Untangling web of family secrets, lies and Vatican ties, a woman discovers a path to freedom through truth and transparency
I grew up the youngest of thirteen children in a home oozing with religiosity and steeped in Catholic dogma.
My five brothers were named after the Apostles (they were even given the middle name ‘Mary’ — yes, all 5 of them), while we eight girls were named after saints. Dad, knighted by Pope Pius XII, was our pious leader as we recited the Rosary each night, kneeling before the large crucifix in our paneled living room.
Despite my family’s heightened devotion to the Church — or perhaps because of it — I became a master of secrets and lies, hiding a plethora of abuse and my own outrageous behavior.
I often think of my family as a microcosm of the Catholic Church: parading the faith and my father’s high-level connections to the Vatican, while covering up the darkness. The betrayals and levels of hypocrisy that existed in my home were as staggering as the number of miles Dad flew around the world — sometimes with only a briefcase and multiple passports — as a secret servant for the Vatican. With my father and the Church as my teachers, I came by my secrets and lies honestly.
Protecting children and living truthfully were qualities Jesus perfected and preached according to biblical teachings. Mother Theresa and other great spiritual teachers, too. But, ironically, the institution that should by now be expert at sparing our children harm, the Catholic Church, continues to let their finances and fear trump faithfulness.
How else to explain the recent “you wouldn’t believe it if it weren’t true” moment inside the walls of Vatican City, when nearly half a million dollars was secretly funneled away from Bambino Gesu (the Papal children’s hospital) to redecorate the bachelor pad of Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican’s former Secretary of State? Their legal defense proclaimed this to be a legitimate business expense, because the ‘Pope’s hospital’ was going to hold fundraisers at the Cardinal’s swank flat — I imagine that would have covered some mighty extravagant drapes and finials.
Despite Pope Francis calling for transparency, there are few consequences for the collared ones involved in a scandal. In this case, the Vatican tribunal of three charged only the hospital CEO with wrongdoing, and then quickly suspended his one-year sentence. To no one’s surprise, least of all the thousands of victims of clergy abuse who have been down similar roads before, the Cardinal was completely shielded from any responsibility; he was never under investigation, nor ever called as a witness.
Inside the Vatican — as with my family — the threat to money, power, and prestige prevents transparency.
But how much longer can the Catholic Church sustain ‘do as I say, not as I do’?
Having grown up entrenched in this same culture of secrecy, I can tell you it’s almost impossible to create change without an awareness of the problem. After that, the real change agent must step in: willingness. Without a willingness for full disclosure, a culture will not evolve.
When I was eighteen, my father discovered I was secretly dating a woman, and confided in me that he too was gay. For many years, I was his confidant, learning that Dad had many male lovers including a few priests and other closeted gay men – not that they had much choice back then, but to be closeted.
If you were to have met my father, you likely would have commented, “He’s one of the holiest men, I have ever met.” He was devout to the point of nearly becoming a priest, and believed in procreation at the highest levels, daily Mass, and a passionate commitment to the poor and sick. Yet, all the while, he was cheating on his wife — my mother.
He used to say, “Shame can be quite the disciple.” Yet, I never saw my father look ashamed when we frequented gay bars together, unbeknownst to my mother and twelve siblings. He actually seemed free and quite shameless; perhaps it was the freedom of being in a gay bar, a place he could actually express his true self.
What I know for certain is that where there are secrets, there is not a prayer for accountability, responsibility, or transparency.
If Brene Brown is correct to say that silence, secrets, and judgment are the petri dish of shame, then I suggest transparency might be the terminator of shame. It might be the very thing that saves the Church, our children, our families, and ourselves.
For a long time, I carried shame that didn’t even belong to me. Metaphorically, I handed it back by not remaining silent, by not keeping secrets anymore because it was not mine to carry. I wrote Hiding Out: A Memoir of Drugs Deception and Double Lives(HarperCollins) as a sort of living amends to my younger, secret-keeping self. The book offered her a platform to tell it like it was, no holds barred, and also to take full responsibility for what was mine.
Are you keeping secrets? Is there something you are hiding long beyond its proper expiration date? Is it because of shame? As we approach the holidays and spend more time with loved ones as we gear up for 2019, I say it’s a great time for all of us to step into the light and dare to be transparent. Will you?