We are bombarded almost daily by instances of sexual abuse perpetrated by religious leaders, and rightly so. However, another kind of abuse, which can be equally pernicious, gets virtually no attention—psychological abuse. In the LGBTQ community, such abuse can take many forms, from the more talked-about harm done by conversion therapy, to the imposition of corrosive church doctrine on vulnerable populations, to, as in my case as a former Roman Catholic, abuse in the confessional booth.
For years, I rationalized that what happened to me caused an immediate and visceral reaction, but I was not initially aware of its long-term insidious repercussions. It was not until late in life when I began writing my autobiography, The Wrong Side of the Room: A Life in Music Theater, I realized the disastrous effect that this one incident had on my well-being.
As a young child I became aware of an enormous attraction to men. Even at age four, when handsome movie stars undressed on screen, I became extremely uncomfortable and experienced a sort of gnarling reaction in my gut. I was confused. What to make of this? At puberty the meaning became all too clear, as the weird sensation morphed into intense sexual arousal. Growing up in the 1950s in a highly religious Sicilian family in a conservative town in the Midwest, I did not have any outlets for such a passion. I was a very impressionable child, and I believed firmly in what the church taught.
Even as a devout Catholic, I was amazed at how vehemently religious institutions deny the obvious natural instincts of the human body. As I described in the “Perilous Pubescence” chapter of my book, the terrifying image of punishment delivered to those who masturbated was a case in point:
“In my catechism classes before confirmation, it was made clear that ‘spilling seed’ outside of marriage was considered a mortal sin, meaning that if you were to die in this state, you went directly to hell. There was no get-out-of-purgatory free card. The thought of this struck such terror in me that I began going to confession almost every Saturday to “purify” myself. As I walked to church, I was so frightened that I might be struck by a car and killed in my blackened state that I waited at every corner until there were no moving vehicles in sight before crossing. After confession — huge sigh of relief — I could walk home normally. Hell was again off the table—temporarily. My family and relatives noted my blossoming piety and began teasing, “Norman is so religious. I’ll bet he’s going to be a priest someday.”
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Little did they know, I was no longer the good little boy they imagined, but rather a degenerate sinner on the fast track to hell. My efforts to stop these damnable acts took on herculean proportions equal to those body builders I lusted after. Could reason triumph over religious dogma? My logically oriented mind embarked on a Byzantine quest to make it work for me. Certainly, god could never be evil or capricious, could he? Why would he endow us with such a powerful force, then send us to hell for bowing to it? This was illogical to me. Maybe it was a test we were meant to overcome. No, we’ve entered a capriciously mad world with that thought. Still, he provided us with the spontaneous release of the nocturnal emission. Why would he do this? The seed was spilled outside of marriage whether we participated in it or not. Perhaps the problem was not the discharge, but the touching. If there was no touching involved, would it still be a sin? Maybe not. Could I bring it about without any physical stimulation, simply by staring at the magazines? Great effort expended, no satisfactory result.
Now what? Prayer? Is there a special saint to help with this? I couldn’t locate one. No, I needed to develop a firmer resolve, turn myself into sterner stuff. Willpower alone kept me going for a few weeks. I thought about my relatives’ line: “It’s a great life if you don’t weaken.” I weakened.
At age thirteen, a friend talked me into a seemingly innocent game of strip poker. Naive as I was, I didn’t realize until I was practically naked that I was being seduced. Only when I left his house did the enormity of what I had just done hit me. If masturbation was a mortal sin, this act had to be several degrees worse. I couldn’t imagine confessing such a sin, but I knew that I must. I could not survive with this malignant stain on my soul. I thought about how disgusted my parents would be if they found out about it and resolved that they must never know.
Saturday finally arrived and never had I walked to church more slowly and deliberately, or with a greater sense of dread. As luck would have it, I drew as my confessor the Monseigneur, the ancient, stone-faced, and stern man who headed the parish. After the scripted opening of “Bless me father for I have sinned,” in a most quavering and subdued voice I mumbled, “I committed an impure act.”
“An impure act.”
“Say it again. I can’t hear you.”
Oh, god, I have to repeat it. I did, nearly choking on the words. There was a long painful silence. What was happening? I waited nervously. Not a sound. Then the floodgates opened.
“Is it not enough that you are a disgusting and depraved boy yourself? A sinner of great magnitude in the eyes of god? A disgrace to his beneficence? And to your family? No, apparently not. You must go about corrupting and bringing other innocent people down to your contemptible perverted level.” The penance was only about double the length of the prayers that I usually received, much less than I had anticipated.
“I don’t ever want to hear you come to confession with such a sin again. Now go. And may god have mercy on your evil soul.”
I said the penance as quickly as possible. I couldn’t breathe. I needed to get out of that church now!
When I came out into the sunlight, I was shaking all over. Never in my life had I been so devastated. My head hanging, I straggled toward home as slowly as possible. Was I really that evil? I never meant harm to anyone. Why was I the corrupter? I wasn’t the one to initiate the act. Could god ever forgive me? What could I do now?
I did nothing. I tried to live with this shame, vowing that I would never again commit such a vile act. Though I thought I recovered from the incident, I wasn’t aware of how heavily it weighed on me. I was completely isolated. No one to talk to; no friend I could confide in. Soon after, the strip-poker friend, whom I refused to hang out with ever again, had a steady girlfriend. I realized he had moved on from the adolescent experiment. I had not.
In high school I became so morose that my parents constantly asked what was wrong with me. At sixteen, I broke down and told them I must see a psychiatrist. They were horrified. This was not the age of therapy. You had to be psychotic to see a shrink. The psychiatrist vowed that he would not ever tell my parents why I was seeing him. He claimed he could help me change if that’s what I really wanted.
Ir turned out to be a total waste of time and a mortifying embarrassment to me and my parents.
At age twenty I moved to New York and for the first time encountered gay men all about me. I stuck to my vow of celibacy for two months, but eventually loneliness won out. I went to a gay bar and met a man. I was so nervous and terrified of what I was about to do that sex was utterly out of the question. I was so devastated by my disastrous performance that I went into a tailspin. All I could fathom was that I couldn’t have sex with women and now it was obvious I couldn’t have sex with men, either. There I was, the hopeless romantic who lived on dreams of a great love, doomed to spend the rest of my life alone. My depression became so intense that I attempted suicide. Even then I didn’t internalize how that confession and the dreadful shroud of guilt imposed on me by that priest set me up for this calamity.
Today, when I hear the piously religious assuredly claim that homosexuality is merely a choice, I go ballistic. “How dare you suggest that you know what I experienced?” Choice, indeed. Would I have made such a choice at that age? Hardly. I will concede that there may be those few who on the continuum of sexuality between zero and ten—with zero being completely heterosexual and ten being completely homosexual—fall precisely in the center and thus are able in their bisexuality to choose one or the other. But for the majority, it’s twaddle. And if you insist that is a choice, you must own up to its inverse—that every heterosexual could just as easily have chosen to be homosexual. What’s the likelihood that straight people would admit to this?
As for the Catholic Church, I honestly believe that in my case sexual abuse by a priest would have been far less harmful than what the Monseigneur did to me, and undoubtedly to countless other impressionable children. One might say, “But, that was all fifty years ago.” True, but how much has actually changed? Many religions have become more homophobic. Yes, there are more avenues to which troubled young people can turn for help. In the 1950s, however, we had an advantage: No one’s radar was remotely tuned to homosexuality. Unless you were blatant, you could hide in anonymity. This is no longer the case.
I was one of the lucky ones. Eventually, I threw off my guilt like an old worn and ragged coat and embraced my gayness fully. I met a man with whom I’ve shared fifty years of life, and in 2014 we were married, proving that “It Gets Better,” at least for some of us. My heart aches, though, for those unfortunate ones who never rebound from the psychological abuse they endured.
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(The image accompanying this piece comes courtesy of Wikicommons Images and belongs to Joe Mabel. It has been cropped to fit the space allotted and the license can be found here.)
Last modified: February 21, 2019