PSA: About the Time I Had to Rescue My Kid from Drowning

It came to my attention after my previous PSA that I’ve never told, here on the blog, the full story of the time my four-year-old nearly drowned.  (She’s fine.) I write about this because it’s water season (in the northern hemisphere, anyhow), and for US children ages 1-4, drowning is the leading cause of accidental death.  Of all the things you worry about in your little kids, this one is, statistically speaking, one that *needs to be worried about*. I’m going to tell our story, and then you will know what you need to do in order to keep your young children safe while they are at the pool.

Spoiler: You, personally, watch them every single second.

As you’ll see, that is not me being dramatic and overbearing. That is just *how it is* with young children at the pool. Here’s the story.

Quiet Pool, Lifeguard on Duty

I had four kids in back-to-back swimming lessons at the local YMCA, and so while the youngest had her lesson the older kids would play in the pool, and then they’d switch.  We were at an indoor pool and I wasn’t myself swimming.  I was dressed business-casual (this gets relevant later) — my good real-leather loafers, slacks, tailored t-shirt, probably even make-up and jewelry. The pool was about four feet deep at the shallow end, and my kids aren’t that short.  The four-year-old was just inches shy of being able to hold her head above water — so she didn’t play there.

Where she played was on the broad, shallow concrete steps leading down into the pool, about an 8′ x 10′ area with handrails on both sides and the middle. I had her play on the first three steps, which were shallow enough for her to sit or kneel on, but she could stand with her head fully out of water on the fourth step.  The way the pool was constructed, if you stepped off that last step, at all times you were in immediate reach of either the last step, a bar, the wall of the pool, or all three.  She knew how to paddle to the wall from water over her head, and how to hold onto the wall to stay above water.

Still, she was in the habit of playing only on the shallowest area of those broad, flat steps with the non-slip surface.

That day, though, she asked me if she could play down on the bottom step.  “Are you sure?” I asked.  She was sure.  “Okay. Be careful.”

And down she went to play in slightly-deeper water.

Drowning is Silent

During this time, I was seated nearby on an Adirondack chair watching her.  Not reading.  Not checking my phone.  Not chatting with other parents. Just watching the kid.  Still, you glance around.  There are the other kids having their lessons (yes, I kept an eye on them, too), there might be people setting up for water aerobics, maybe a lifeguard on break passing by.  It was a quiet weekday morning off-season, and my attention was directed towards watching the four-year-old, but of course you sometimes aren’t focusing 100%.

What happened to my daughter is that she slipped off that last step.

I became aware that she was bobbing up and down in the 4′-foot area just slightly too deep for her.  She looked like a kid practicing a bobbing-excercise, except she wasn’t. As her face would almost surface, she was not getting air, and she was very clearly not doing this for fun.  But to someone who didn’t know her, you might have thought she was just splashing around, and splashing very quietly at that.  You did not hear a word of struggle.

Pro Technique: Pull Kid Out of Water

Fortunately, a pool is a relatively easy place to see someone drowning, and it’s a relatively easy place to effect a rescue.  –> If you’re at a pond, lake, river, or ocean, in all but the shallowest water you really do need life jackets, because it is much, much more difficult (often impossible) to find a drowning body, and it’s much more difficult to pull someone out, in open water.

The pool, though, is pretty straightforward: I stood up, marched down the steps, and picked up my child in my arms.

She breathed.

Good.

I carried her up to the deck of the pool and listened to her breath a bit more.

If you see your child starting to drown and can go grab your child immediately? You’re in great shape.

That only works if you are personally watching your child the entire time.

Does it need to be you? What about the lifeguard?

I’ll tell you about the lifeguard.

The Lifeguard Has a Whole Pool to Watch

I stood there on the deck, dripping wet, leather loafers soaked, business-casual clothing soaked, holding my kid and deciding what to do next.  Something you should know is that your child can seem fine but still be at risk due to water in the lungs.  So when the lifeguard on duty hopped down from his chair to come speak to me as I stood there having just rescued my kid, he looking visibly unsettled as he approached, I assumed it was to tell me he was going to have someone to listen to lung sounds.

Instead what he said was, “Um. I’m sorry, Ma’am. You’re not allowed to wear street clothes in the pool.”

I was speechless.

He had not seen anything of what had just happened.

I had literally identified a drowning swimmer and rescued her, and the lifeguard had not seen it.  He had no idea that someone had nearly drowned in his pool, on his watch.

How could that happen?!

Remember that drowning is silent.  My rescue was silent, too. I didn’t spend time shouting or flagging down help, I went and grabbed the kid.  Maybe the lifeguard really was a horrible lifeguard.  More likely: You can only focus on one place at a time.  As he scanned the pool, he happened to miss what was happening in one corner while he was looking elsewhere.

If you want to make sure your kid gets rescued in time, you have to be watching.

Parenting Young Kids is Hard

I will tell you right now that having four young children back-to-back did not make it easy to take the kids to the pool.  SuperHusband’s not really a pool guy (he’s a river guy, hence the name of this blog), and so we weren’t one of these families where both parents go hang out at the pool all summer long.  Watching four children in the pool by yourself is mentally exhausting, because if you don’t want to miss one going down, you literally have to count heads one-two-three-four, focusing from kid to kid in a non-stop cycle the entire time your children are at the pool.

–> Not just while they are in the water, but any time they are near the pool.

I didn’t love this.  I do not miss the years of being so, so tired of counting heads while other people were relaxing and having fun at the pool.  But if I weren’t absolutely obsessive about this, I could easily have had a drowned kid.  Instead I had a child who was very scared, but who got a clean bill of health from the pediatrician when we stopped in for a lung-check immediately after.

There is No Such Thing as 100% Failsafe Parenting

From the time your child is conceived, your child is in danger of death.  The death rate for human beings is 100%.  No matter how safety-obsessed you are, eventually you have to let your child out into the world.  As I write, my rescued four-year-old is now a teenager at the pool with her older sister, and they drove there together themselves.  Bit by bit as a parent you have to let go.  You have to let your children take risks. You cannot protect your child from every possible danger.

Still, you can improve your odds by putting your efforts into making risky activities as safe as possible, and being especially careful with the most-dangerous situations.

Cars are insanely dangerous, by the way. For US children ages 5-19, a motor vehicle accident is the most likely cause of accidental death.  And yet: Your 1-4 year old child is more likely to die by accidental drowning than in a car accident.

Anyone can get into a freak accident.  As parents we have a duty to do all we reasonably can to equip our kids with good skills and good decision-making support (including waiting on freedom-privileges if our child isn’t ready), and then one day we have to hold our breath and let our kids go out and do their thing. As parents we have to weigh costs and benefits, recognize our own limitations, and acknowledge that, at any moment, despite all our most diligent efforts, we could find ourselves in the horrifying situation of having just lost, out of the blue, a child more precious to us than anything else this world has to offer.

Let me emphasize here: You aren’t a bad parent if your child dies.  You aren’t a terrible person if your child dies of something that might have been preventable, but for some reason or another you just didn’t know or weren’t able to prevent the thing.  You cannot save your child from every possible danger.  You cannot.

Life is hard.

Watch Your Child Near Water

But still: Your young child is not able to make good decisions about water safety.  Your young child also lacks the emotional wherewithal to stay calm, cool, and collected in a terrifying situation.

When my daughter almost drowned? She was literally an inch from perfect safety.  All she had to do was take *one* step.  There is absolutely no reason she couldn’t have saved herself — except that she couldn’t.  She was four-years-old, and scared, and forgot everything she knew.

Fortunately someone was watching her, and so in the end she was fine.

Summer and Swimming Pool, children playing in the pool.

Photo of kids at a pool courtesy of Wikimedia CC 4.0.

The Conversation You Truly Never Expect to Have with Your Child

I like to think of myself as a parent who is well-informed on the hazards that face teens and young adults.  You do what you can, hope for the best, and understand that sometimes your child’s free will is going to force an uncomfortable confrontation.  Still, I genuinely never so much as imagined, not even remotely, the conversation my husband and I had to have with our 19-year-old this morning.

He told us what he was planning to do.

We gave him our reasons for why that behavior was no longer acceptable in our home.  We observed that his decision affected the safety and well-being of not just himself but his sisters, his parents, his friends, and who knows how many others.  I suggested some readily-available, reliable, neutral, third-party, expert sources he could use for making an informed decision about his plan of action.

And then my husband summed it up: “Son, I’m sure your friends are fine people.  We respect that you are an adult, and you’re free to make your own decisions.  But if you insist on going to Bible study tonight, you’re going to have to find other living arrangements.”

Whoa.  Ha. #CoronaLife.

Never thought I’d hear those words.

I quick gave Mr. Boy a long list of alternatives that would allow him to continue hanging with his FOCUS buddies and maintain physical-distance too. I encouraged him with the hope that the US will quickly act to bring about a turning point in our present handling of the pandemic (via expanded testing, ramping up manufacture of protective equipment, etc.) such that we can become more targeted in our isolation practices.

But, at the moment, living amidst an unchecked outbreak, grateful our local hospitals are taking swift action to mitigate the situation, but also knowing that our go-to physician has not a single N-95 mask in her office? We need to be more careful than, on the face of it, one would assume the situation warrants.

That said, if we get to the point where his Bible study friends are Prepare Your Church for COVID compliant, we can talk.  Except of course we have a mild cough going around our house.  So home it is.

***

My coffee cup siting on a step ladder

Photo penance: I’ve upgraded my office-in-exile with an open step ladder squeezed between the water heater and the spare fridge to create a place to set my coffee while praying.  Yes, I am a chemically-dependent pray-er. Sorry to dash all your illusions about my piety.  Here, enjoy this charming video of a stubborn Italian man going out for coffee.

 

Give Your Bishop Benefit of the Doubt

The amount of vitriol directed towards bishops making coronavirus decisions is . . . telling.

I say this as someone who is not, at all, hesitant to call out egregious behavior at any level of the hierarchy.  I have spent enough time inside the sausage-making factory to know very well that there are serious, serious problems in the Catholic Church.  Your bishop having to make difficult decisions under immense time pressure with very little information?  Not the same thing.

If it’s not even your own bishop you’re sending the nastygrams to?  Oh please.  Who died and made you an expert on someone else’s diocese?

***

Let’s try an exercise in Benefit of the Doubt 101.  To recap, from the CCC:

2477 Respect for the reputation of persons forbids every attitude and word likely to cause them unjust injury. He becomes guilty:

– of rash judgment who, even tacitly, assumes as true, without sufficient foundation, the moral fault of a neighbor;

– of detraction who, without objectively valid reason, discloses another’s faults and failings to persons who did not know them;

– of calumny who, by remarks contrary to the truth, harms the reputation of others and gives occasion for false judgments concerning them.

2478 To avoid rash judgment, everyone should be careful to interpret insofar as possible his neighbor’s thoughts, words, and deeds in a favorable way:

Every good Christian ought to be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another’s statement than to condemn it. But if he cannot do so, let him ask how the other understands it. And if the latter understands it badly, let the former correct him with love. If that does not suffice, let the Christian try all suitable ways to bring the other to a correct interpretation so that he may be saved.

2479 Detraction and calumny destroy the reputation and honor of one’s neighbor. Honor is the social witness given to human dignity, and everyone enjoys a natural right to the honor of his name and reputation and to respect. Thus, detraction and calumny offend against the virtues of justice and charity.

Now for our practice exercise, here are the extensive restrictions Bishop Guglielmone announced for the Diocese of Charleston on Sunday:

. . . I am granting dispensation for your Sunday Mass obligation for the weekends of March 21-22 and March 27-28. Additionally, all scheduled Confessions are cancelled. Any baptisms planned in the next sixteen days should be rescheduled. All quinceañeras must be canceled or rescheduled. Confirmations will be rescheduled according to each parish’s calendar. Funerals and weddings may occur but will be celebrated privately with just the immediate family present. Unfortunately, perpetual adoration will have to be temporarily discontinued. There will be no regularly scheduled parish activities until further notice. All scheduled penance services are cancelled, and there will be no Communion calls at hospitals, nursing homes, or private homes until further notice.

The sole exception to this policy is the celebration of the final sacraments for those in danger of death. If you need a priest for the Anointing of the Sick or Last Rites, your pastor will provide a number you can call.

Parish churches will remain open during their normal hours so that you can come to pray.

Whoa!  Obviously he hates Jesus, right?  Not so fast.

We cannot, of course, know the inner thoughts of the bishop.  Experience tells us that even our own motivations are often difficult to fully understand. The exercise of using our imaginations to guess at a  favorable reason behind the bishop’s decision does not cause Instant Saintliness to descend upon the man.  But it is good for our souls to carry out this exercise, so let’s do it.  I’m gonna lay out my answer to the practice problem, but this is one of those open-ended essay questions that allows for multiple possible correct responses.

***

I observe that just this week, Bishop Guglielmone laid to rest a still-young priest. If ever there were an incident to make you keenly aware of the precariousness of life and the immeasurable value of a priest’s ministry, that was it.

Next I observe that at this writing, at least ten priests in Italy have died of COVID-19. Many more are infected, and note that survival of a serious case often entails long recovery and debilitating loss of lung function, at least temporarily. We have no information about the long term effects of infection.

Finally I observe that the priests of the Diocese of the Charleston are not known for their retiring manner or unwillingness to minister to the people.  Short of an unequivocal, clearly-defined order, there is just no locking these guys up for safekeeping.  You think your boomer parents are hard-headed? Smart money says that as we speak, countless stubborn old men across the diocese are fuming at being put on a leash by their bishop, convinced that having survived war / cholera / parish council, hell no they aren’t going to back down now.

And yet we know that statistically speaking, we can expect that COVID-19 is going to claim its share of priests.  If you wish to contemplate the role of faith in such outcomes, study the lives of the many saints who perished nobly while ministering to the sick.  The question, then, is not whether we will lose many priests to this epidemic, but rather how.

Now let us review some facts from your fifth grade catechism class:

  • Any person (Catholic or not) can baptize validly, and in an emergency can baptize licitly.  Furthermore, baptism of desire is effective for salvation. Therefore, if you must choose where to kill your priests, this is not the best place.
  • Marriage is probably not the best hill to die on (and you can have your wedding if you’re okay with a small service), and priests cannot ordain so that’s a moot point. Confirmation would be worth considering, and here I’ll insert my rant that I wish all bishops would get more on the stick about the value of confirmation.  Okay, end rant, let’s move on.
  • Confession is a tough one.  There are workarounds, like the drive-through method.   Ask your bishops, charitably, to please consider figuring out ways to safely administer general absolution.  Still, perfect contrition does suffice.  For the moment we will charitably assume that having suspended the sacrament of Reconciliation, the bishop is working diligently on good tactics in view of reinstating it in a priest-protecting manner.  But, remember: Perfect contrition suffices.  Cultivate in your heart a more fervent love of God.
  • Last Rites, in contrast, cannot be delayed (as with Matrimony, Confirmation, or the Eucharist), it cannot be carried out by laymen (as with baptism), there are no substitutes available (as with perfect contrition in place of Confession), and its effects are soul-saving.

My conclusion:

It is horrifying to have to be making these sorts of spiritual-triage decisions, just as it is horrifying for a doctor to have to decide which patients to treat and not to treat.  And yet, your priest can only catch the virus once and then it’s caught.

The bishop’s decision that his men will be deployed to go straight to the most dangerous field of ministry, encountering those who are actively sick, and who are to be ministered to in environments where contagion is rife, suggests that cowardice is not, at all, a factor here.

Pray for your priests, pray for your bishop, and knock it off with the rash judgement.

File:Extreme Unction LACMA AC1994.171.5.jpg

Artwork: Extreme Unction, etching of a priest visiting a deathbed while the family prays, Italy circa 1755, courtesy of Wikimedia, Public Domain.

Pro-Tip: My kids talked me onto Spotify this winter, and on my way to the most recent parish council* meeting, this bit of colorful music was playing as I prayed for myself and for our priests:

I can report that internalizing the refrain “Don’t Murder Me” was highly effective.  I had resolved to speak at least three peaceful sentences before devolving into yelling at my pastor, and get this: I made it all the way to the end of the night!  And then I yelled.  But not in front of everyone? So that was better?  Maybe?

*Note well: The very moment my pastor asked me to volunteer for the council, I instructed him to kick me off as soon as he got sick of me, no hard feelings, this is what it’s like to have me in your parish. So either he likes having a contrarian in the group or he’s taken on one of those masochist St. Rose of Lima  penances and now secretly wishes he had vowed to roll in nettles every night instead.  I dunno.  Pray for your priests.

View from My Office: Social Distance

As of this morning we’ve got six people working from home in our 2.5 bedroom house — and one them is a child with a cough who’s taken over the master bedroom because she’s in quarantine.  Thus, picking back up with our intermittent penance, my office now looks like this:

Laptop on a shelf in a crammed-full workshop

Photo: Yes, I fled to a corner of our crammed-full “garage”, because it is the one space that no one else wants, and there’s a solid door separating me from the rest of the house.  I’m happy about the arrangement:

Me posing next to the water heater

Photo: Me just finishing up morning prayers in the warm, consoling presence of the water heater, perhaps a little too smug in having stolen the SuperHusband’s folding lawn chair from his exile in the camper (because: we’ve been evicted from our bedroom by the sick child).  I need a folding chair, not one of the good lawn chairs from the patio, because I need to be able to clear the emergency exit out the back door of the garage when I’m not using the chair, and we’re not working with the kind of spaciousness that lets you just put the chair somewhere else.

This would be why there’s a construction project in my yard.

***

At least until everyone starts remembering I can now be found hiding behind crates of books and a table saw in my 16 square feet of personal space, this move is game-changer.  I’ve been struggling for the last two years with no office space of my own, and due to construction the SuperHusband has been working from home several days a week all fall, therefore needing during the day the small, cluttered office we previously shared in shifts.  Many colleagues can attest that this has not had a winning effect on my productivity.

Hence my one recommendation for those now embarking on the everything-at-home lifestyle: Even if it means setting up your office in a closet or a bathroom or behind stacks of crates in the corner of the garage, get yourself your OWN space.

Think about the work that you do. When SuperHusband works from home, he has two needs.  One is the big computer with all the monitors (which I kinda need too, buuuut . . . some office chores are going to have to wait), and the other is the ability to pace around while he conducts phone calls in his booming made-for-the-choir-loft voice.  Our shared office is, acoustically, in the same space as our kitchen and living area — in which living area our college student is now going to be doing all his classes online, since the university shut down.

The boy is already a pro at claiming the 11pm-2am shift for getting work done, and since we have all teenagers now, SuperHusband can pace and exclaim on the phone all he wants before noon, the dead aren’t rising unless they absolutely must.  Once the kids emerge from their slumber and start needing to do schoolwork, though, we agreed that the Dad is gonna need to go out to the dried-in construction zone and do his phone calls there.

Just as well I cede that space, which I’d been using as a day office when too many people were home and I had a lot of editing to knock out, because it is possible for contractors to keep on keeping on without spreading contagion (not a real touchy-feely profession), so SuperHusband’s planning to take a few vacation days this spring to accelerate construction.

***

Notes on separating kids during illness: In the past, we didn’t strictly quarantine sick children for cold-type symptoms.  We did our best to keep actively ill children out of the kitchen, but beyond that to an extent we accepted the inevitable.  With COVID-19, however, the parents decided that if at all possible, we’d like to not have two parents sick at the same time.  Yes, our young adults living at home can run things in a pinch — we have two now old enough to wield a power of attorney if it comes to it — but it would be better not to have to lay that much responsibility on them.

For our kids, the decision to make the master bedroom sick-central is victory.  Many many years ago we did start strict quarantine for vomiting children.  We have the luxury of a second bathroom, and once we began the practice of setting up a camping mattress, portable DVD player, and a collection of easily-bleached toys in the spare bathroom, and insisting ‘lil puker stay put until the coast was clear, we stopped having stomach viruses run through the whole family.

That arrangement is just fine for a clearly-defined illness of short duration; a nasty cough, in contrast, can linger ambiguously for weeks, and COVID-19 is growing notorious for its waxing and waning.  So our current exile is thrilled to have her own bedroom for the first time in her life, with private bath, big bed, space for all the Legos on the square of open floor (I insist a path be cleared before delivering room service), and even a sunny window seat on top of a big ol’ storage box.

If our system works, corner of the garage is a small price to pay.

***

Related Links

The Darwins are blogging about many aspects of pandemic-living, including some pro-tips on homeschooling.  If you aren’t already a regular reader, that’s something you need to change in your life.

Looking through my years of homeschool-blogging, here are a few that may be of help:

And finally, Finding Writing Time, Homeschool Mom Edition. Two things to learn from this older post:

  • No, you really cannot work full time from home and homeschool simultaneously;
  • Scheduling is everything.

At the time I wrote this one my kids were younger, so the natural flow was kids in the morning, mom-work in the afternoon.  With teens, I’d say it’s the other way around.  If you’re Simcha Fisher and have it all? The job from home, the morning shift getting littles out the door, the  big kids trickling home in the afternoon, the babies hanging around all day, and the dinner on the table? I don’t care if your kids do wear odd mittens and think that’s normal. You’re my hero.

Listen people: You can’t fully-totally-amazingly homeschool and work a full time job from home with no adult help.  Childcare is work.  Educating people is work. Work is work. There’s no magic.  Pandemic season is going to be hard.  Drop your expectations. Hold together the absolute minimum and you’ll be ahead of the game.

What More Do Old People Have to Give?

If you have not already seen it, watch this sorrowful video showing the increase in deaths in Bergamo, Italy, since the coronavirus outbreak began.  The speaker shows you first a newspaper from mid-Febuary: One and a half pages of obituaries. Typical for the area, apparently.  By mid-March, flipping through the paper as the coronavirus epidemic intensifies: Ten pages of obituaries.

Most of these deaths are elderly people.  At this writing, my own grandmother is 96 years old, and though now facing what will probably be her final illness, she’s had many long years of healthy retirement.  My mom died when our children were ages 0-6, and her mother became very ill with dementia about that same time, so for my children, their experience of “visiting grandma” on my side of the family is long road trips to Florida to see their great-grandmother.

They have many happy memories of playing dominoes and taking Grandma to eat out at local chain restaurants, and listening to her approve and disapprove of various styles and habits. Two years ago there was the never-to-be-forgotten discovery of toy bananas when we all went to Walmart, in which the elder and younger generations ganged up against the mother in the middle in the Great Banana Impulse Buy Debate.  (They eventually won, but I exacted my price. Totally worth it.)

It is not unlikely, now, that my grandmother’s final illness will be COVID-19 instead of the slow-moving cancer she’s currently dealing with.  “But she was old and sick,” people will say. Well, yes, but we were hoping to see her again in June.

She’s 96.  We knew last summer that our visit then might be the last. But what if she were eighty?  We’d have lost an entire lifetime of visits for most of the children; none of them would have any but the faintest memory of her.  I would have lost nearly two decades of mentoring from a woman whose vocation and outlook on life is so much like my own, and whose differences are like iron sharpening iron (clean your house, Jennifer!).  I think I can safely say that her children and other grandchildren and great-great-children feel the same: These last nearly twenty years she has enriched our lives so much, despite “doing nothing.”

Suppose you’re sixty right now.  You are looking at retirement soon, you’re tired out, thinking about downsizing, probably dealing with some health problems, and maybe beginning to feel like you haven’t got much more to offer the world.  And yet, if you don’t die of COVID-19, you may yet make it to eighty.  During which time:

  • You could grandparent a child (your own or a neighbor’s) from birth to adulthood.
  • You could mentor a young professional from young adulthood into the peak of his or her career.
  • You could, from the comfort of your desk, armchair, front porch or fishing hole, provide another ten or twenty years of incisive analysis and otherwise-forgotten experience related to difficult issues developing in your area of expertise.
  • You could finally write that memoir or novel, learn to paint, play the piano, or perfect your putting game, and in the process encourage some younger person who needs to hear by your example, your words, or your companionship, “What you are doing is worth it.”
  • You could write letters to the editor and bless out upstart politicians and conceited middle managers, in the process saying what the rest of us wish we had the nerve to say, but aren’t old enough not to care what other people think.
  • If you’re a priest, you could . . . well, you don’t get to retire.  Sorry.  Nice try.

People with “not much more time” still have much to contribute.

I won’t say that every old person is therefore wise.  I won’t say that every younger person facing a shortened lifespan due to medical problems is therefore living the well-examined life.  Nor do I say that the value of human life can be measured in utilitarian terms; your life is of infinite worth even if you can’t do anything at all.

But sick people and old people and the perfectly healthy young person who also dies of this thing do bring value to the world.

Nothing we can do, individually or as a society, can eliminate every untimely death that this new coronavirus will cause.  We can, however, delay the spread of this disease so that our healthcare systems are not swamped, and therefore no one needs suffer for lack of all the current treatments medical science has to offer. Slowing the epidemic also buys us more time for doctors and nurses to learn which existing treatments are most effective, and for researchers to develop new treatments or preventatives that will save people who would otherwise perish.

They are worth it.  Stay home.

File:St. Wolfgang kath. Pfarrkirche Pacher-Altar Sonntagsseite 01.jpg

Photo: St. Wolfgang Altarpiece, Austria, showing scenes from the life of Christ.  I’m sure you can think of ways it relates to this post, but honestly I just thought it was cool looking.  You can read about the artist here. Image courtesy of Wikimedia, CC 4.0.

 

 

How to Look Like a Saint While Heading to Hell*

Head’s up: This post is not g-rated, and it does dissect the allegations in a real abuse case.

To all but those few who knew his secrets, the news about Jean Vanier comes as a complete shock.  (Count me among the shocked).  How can this guy who did so much good — a guy who was seriously being considered for canonization — have been guilty of such crimes?

This is a question we can’t just set aside as impossible to answer.  It is not impossible to answer, and since sin didn’t go to the grave with this latest scandal, we have a responsibility to understand and act on the answer.  So, unpleasant though it be to launch into this topic right now, here are the three things that make it possible for an evangelist to live a double life.

#1 Stealth Predators Test the Waters

It doesn’t matter whether we are speaking of consensual affairs among willing adults or the most nefarious rape, if you want to live a double life, you have to move carefully.  Read this account of an abuse-survivor’s story to see how it’s done.  I chose this story in particular because it shows you exactly how a predator avoids detection (though in this case he got caught sooner rather than later), because we’re looking at a case where the predator tested the waters, fish got away, man had to move on.

What to note:

  • The predator (priest in this case) starts by building a trusting relationship.
  • Early on, the idea of secrecy or covert-ops is introduced (“tell your mom you’re seeing me for spiritual direction”).
  • The first abuse is an action that can be explained away.

Hence the insistence by the predator’s superiors that the abusive encounter was merely a “boundary violation.”  Let’s be clear: A man pressing his erect penis against a woman’s body, even through the barrier of clothing, is engaging in sexual activity.  No decent man will know he has an erection (this is not something men are unable to detect) and choose to physically press his pelvis against the body of a woman who is not his wife.

Legit foreplay for a married couple.  Not legit under any other circumstance, and no sane adult man is going to let a teenage girl become aware he has an erection by physically putting her in contact, even through clothing, with that part of his body.  Nope.

And yet we see in this sample case that the behavior gets excused.  Why? Because it was chosen by the predator for the ease with which he could wiggle away from the charges.  The girl was mistaken.  Either she doesn’t know what she’s talking about (because how does a young teen know what an erection is), or if she does know, then obviously she’s a hussy and she’s making a false accusation — bad family, dontcha know.  I’m concerned someone might be abusing her, and that’s why she’s acting out.  And gosh, I shouldn’t have hugged her, I shouldn’t have let her sit on my lap, it’s just that she reminded me so much of my niece, and she really seemed like she wanted a hug, and listen guys, I realize I had a lapse in judgment.  I’m so sorry.  I realize my mistake, and I’m not going to let it happen again.

A predator who gets away with his or her crimes is someone who operates carefully.

#2 Toxic People Choose to Surround Themselves with Enablers

Obviously the predator has to move beyond those initial tests.  So how do you get away with your abusive behavior when sooner or later word is bound to get out?  You do this by making sure that no one close to the facts is going to report.

To a toxic person, there are two types of people in the world: Those who will tolerate the abusive behavior and those who will not.  The non-tolerators are systematically removed from the toxic person’s circle of friends.

Much of this is self-chosen by the healthy person.  If you have a boss who underpays and overworks, the simplest thing to do is look for another job.  If that friend is always dragging you down with gossip and drama, you start hanging out with different friends.  If a relative is taking advantage of your generosity, you set firm boundaries.

In ministry, self-respecting volunteers and paid staff don’t stick around long if toxic people are in charge.  They move on early. Gradually, without ever having been caught at any serious crime, the predator-in-charge finds him or herself surrounded only by those who will, for whatever reason, look the other way at sinful behavior.

And of course the career-climbing predator has additional tools available to help clean out the org chart.  Whereas a holy person will not lie to sabotage a fellow employee, a skilled predator is well able to build a case against those who need to be eliminated.  An insinuation there, a careful retelling of the facts here, and next thing you know that volunteer who wouldn’t shut up about actually following child safety procedures is out the door.  Once you are in charge of a ministry, it’s easy enough to find some pretext for making a staffing or organizational decision to unload the contingent who gets in your way.

Reality to consider as we pray for our priests?  It is almost impossible for a pastor of souls to know what is really going on in his parish or diocese.  Unless he makes a powerful effort otherwise, his life is going to be saturated by the company of people who revel in winning the game of being part of the priest or bishop’s inner circle, and people who want to play that game are not healthy people. Thus even a holy man is likely to end up enabling toxic behavior — and it’s hard to be a holy man.

#3 The Devil is Prowling and Sinners Lie to Ourselves

Allow me to quote the St. Joseph’s Baltimore Catechism: Venial sin is worse than the measles.

As an expert sinner, let me tell you, it is very, very easy to talk yourself into sin.  Venial sin, mortal sin, all sin.  The smarter you are, the better you can be at making up rationalizations for why this sin here is not a sin at all, and that one over there is maybe just a teeny tiny sin, especially after you consider all the mitigating circumstances.

The degrading nature of sin is plain as day to those who aren’t caught up in the self-built snare of lies used to justify the sinful behavior. That’s why sin hates daylight.  When you suspect you are sinning, you work hard to hide to the sin.  Sometimes you do this by acting in secret; other times you camouflage the sin so it passes as no-big-deal. If it must be discussed, you come up with words and phrases that make the sin sound like something harmless, or perhaps even something healthy.

This does not mean that adultery is just the same as making a frowny-face at your husband when he interrupts your phone call.  This does not mean that abusing a child is the same thing as that time you let the kids have brownies for dinner.  What it means is that the more intentionally we engage in the battle against even our smallest sins, the more easily we can understand how people who are dedicated to a life of good can also be deceiving themselves into committing serious evils.

The teeny-tiny devil who helps us justify our little sins is just a miniature, cute-faced version of the big devil haunting the peripheries.  To commit a little sin, tell yourself a little lie. To commit a big sin, tell yourself a big lie.  Same process.

There is no easy solution to all this.

What we want is to be able to say, “Now that I understand how this happens, I can prevent it from ever happening again!”

Not so much.  All we can really control is our own behavior.  We can choose not to be complicit in corrupt activities.  We can grow in our own holiness so that we are more aware when someone else is pulling out the excuses to justify a sin. We can teach our children and other souls in our care how to recognize and avoid sin in ourselves and others.

To the extent that we have authority to do so, we can take steps to battle against the structures and excuses that enable serious sin to flourish.

Meanwhile, free will’s a bear.  Be as good as you can, help fight evil where you can, and then fast and pray.

That’s what you can do.

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Photograph: French cuirassier during a re-enactment of the Battle of Waterloo, courtesy of Wikimedia CC 3.0.

Related: Repentance, Mercy, and Prudence

*Lord willing, Jean Vanier repented of his sins and is now enjoying the delights of Heaven.  May we all benefit from the bountiful mercy of Jesus Christ who will do anything He can, even die for us, that we each might be saved from our two worst enemies.

Manliness and a Perfect Funeral

Hathaway’s funeral was perfect.  Chanted Extraordinary Form Requiem Mass at the old but not old-old St. Mary’s church in Aiken, then procession to the graveside for a Melkite burial.  Nothing says “four last things” like a Dies Irae in the hands of a good cantor.

As our line of cars, lights on, hazards flashing, police escort, ambled down US 1 towards the cemetery, traffic of course made way.  But this is a land where funerals are still taken seriously, and even on the four-lane highway where there was no practical need to do so, most vehicles coming the other direction pulled to the side, stopped, and put on their lights, paying their respects.  You have no idea of it, I thought as I passed driver after driver putting life on hold for two minutes of stillness in honor of a complete stranger, but you are witness to the funeral of one of the world’s great men.

***

John’s daughter asked (shortly after his death) if I could speak at the funeral meal.  After the perfection of the funeral homily and the solemnity of the mass and burial, what I had prepared seemed woefully inadequate.  It also was not very gentle, but fortunately there was a line-up of nice friendly people to follow, including a dear friend with the gift for coming across as a big, chummy teddy bear while he reminded the audience of the value of redemptive suffering and the need for masses and holy hours of reparation.

I’m sure most people did not like what I had to say, but the one person it was written for thanked me for saying it.  Below is the text, with most of the typos removed.

***

When we try to explain the difference between men and women, we tend to resort to stereotypes.  We know that men possess, on average, more physical strength than women, so we use examples of large, muscular men performing heavy manual labor.  We know that men have an inborn, undeniable vocation as providers and protectors, so we reach for clear examples of those.  When we think of providers, we might give the example of a successful business owner, or an accomplished professional; or we might think of an ordinary workman or farmer putting in long hours at physically grueling labor in order to provide a simple but decent living for even a very large family.  We know that men are created to be protectors of the family and community, and thus we look to the sacrificial life of men who have careers in the military or as law enforcement officers.  These are not bad examples.  But they don’t get to the heart of what it means to be a man.

John Hathaway had the rare and excruciating vocation of showing the world what it means to be a man.

You could not look at John and think “typical big strong muscular man.”  (Though at times he astonished me at how strong he was.)  But what is a man’s strength for?  It is for serving God and serving his family.  John Hathaway used every ounce of his physical strength in fulfilling his vocation as husband, father, and Christian.  I remember him telling me the story of literally crawling to Holy Communion one time, so determined he was to receive Our Lord despite whatever parish he was visiting not noticing he needed the sacrament brought to him in the pew.  John was a wealth of medical knowledge – if I had a difficult medical question, he was on the short list of people I’d go to with such questions – because he was utterly focused on husbanding his strength, as the expression goes, so that he would be as strong as he possibly could be in order to serve his wife, his children, and God.

As a provider, John fell in the terrible predicament of those who are extremely talented but not in financially lucrative ways.  He was an English professor in a nation where adjunct professors sometimes literally live out of their cars because they cannot afford rent.   Many men find themselves in this position, willing to do whatever it takes to provide for their families, but thrust into overwhelming circumstances beyond their control.  The despair this can cause men is at times deadly.

John Hathaway deployed extraordinary determination and perseverance and ingenuity in figuring out, day after day, year after year, how to provide for his family.  And he did provide.  He absolutely embodied what it means for a husband and father to be a provider.

As a protector I want to talk about John’s role in defending his children’s very lives.

We live in a time when it is legally and politically and socially acceptable to say that John and Allie and Gianna and Josef and Clara should simply be killed.  They should never have been allowed to be conceived, for fear they not measure up to some ideal standard of human health.   Allie, the same Allie who has been a pillar of strength and a fount of practical help to Mary over this past harrowing week; the same Allie who is delightfully talented and devoted to sharing her talents with the community . . . is someone that even Christians will sometimes say, “it would have been better if she’d never been born.”

I would say John’s life work was one steady, undying protest against that evil.  He tirelessly spoke and wrote and worked to persuade the world that his children deserve to live.

This vocation of his was painful.  It was physically and spiritually exhausting. He deployed every spiritual and physical weapon at his disposal against the constant and at times overpowering despair and darkness that descended on his life.

I can recall at times literally thanking John for still being alive.  I thanked him for the depths of the agony he endured by dint of continuing to pursue medical care in order that he might, for as long as possible, be present in this life to his family.  I thanked him selfishly: I knew that death would be easier and more pleasant for him, and I knew that when that time came I would feel his absence profoundly.  John was a delightful person to know and to talk to and to be with.

In closing I want to commend Mary for her choice of a husband.  She has faithfully withstood no end of criticism for marrying a man who lacked the superficial traits that are idolized by our society.  But she has known what others don’t see: That she married a man who truly embodied manliness to its fullness.  He cherished her, he sacrificed daily for her and the children, and gave his life and every ounce of his strength to providing for and protecting his family.  He made his own and by extension their relationship with Jesus Christ his number one priority.  He was everything any man could ever aspire to be.

File:Iglesia de La Compañía, Quito, Ecuador, 2015-07-22, DD 149-151 HDR.JPG

The pale and fleeting beauty of the Shadowlands, as seen in the Jesuit church in Quito, Ecuador. Photo by Diego Delso, delso.photo, License CC-BY-SA.

The #2 Thing Anyone Can Do to Help the Church

There are two myth-making forces at work in the McCarrick scandals.  One is denial.  Clinging to the idea that there are a few bad apples, and they are just so very sneaky and that’s why they got away with their crimes.

The other myth is that the good guys can fix this.  We imagine we can run over to Costco and pick up the plenty-pack of Accountability Spray, and with enough elbow grease the house will be squeaky clean again.  Everyone pitch in!

If the Church is a house, myth #1 is that the fridge is a disaster and needs to hauled to be the dump, can’t decide whether to fumigate the couch in the den or just burn it, and let’s rip out that musty carpet in the back bedroom — then everything will be fine again.  A few cobwebs and a squeaky staircase?  Typical old house.  Relax.

Myth #2 is that sure, we belong on an episode of Hoarders, but if we call in the team we can all work together until the junk has been cleared out and the walls and floors are all scrubbed down.

That’s not what we have.  What we have is extensive rot in load-bearing walls.

What does the rot look like?  It looks like this comment from the fabled orthodoxy-wonderland Diocese of Lincoln:

I’m glad someone has finally spoken about this.  A fellow-seminarian (now-priest) and I were tormenetd by MK’s [Msgr Kalin] behaviors for a long while.  Our experience was part of what led +Fabian to order that at least 2 people accompany MK on the stadium walks.  I wish it weren’t true, but it is.

What was happening is that Msgr. Kalin, who was both diocesan director of vocations and director of the University of Nebraska Newman Center, was molesting his students.  The former student explains:

Since you seem to be afraid to read between the lines, I will state it plainly: repeatedly asking to touch and be touched in inappropriate places, asking for “French kisses”, and doing these actions without being given permission — to say nothing of the entire grooming process by which these actions/gestures were normalized.  I finally said something after my friend walked into the chapel literally *shaking* after one of these episodes, because until then, I thought it was just me.  It was at that point I woke up to how twisted the whole situation was and had been for some time.  Now, think about the fact that this is coming from the person who made himself your confessor and spiritual director.

UPDATE: Here is an account of Wan Wei Hsien’s experience that provides a clearer timeline of events.

This is the same Msgr. Kalin who was the picture of a balanced commitment to priestly chastity in an interview for American Catholic: The Saints and Sinners Who Built America’s Most Powerful Church:

When I asked Kalin about homosexuality, he said, “I get to know a candidate pretty well before I recommend him to the seminary, and if I think someone is an active homosexual, I’ll take him aside and we’ll agree that the priesthood isn’t for him.  On the other hand, Bishop Flavin always said that he didn’t care what someone’s inclinations were, as long as he was sincerely committed to a chaste life.”

American Catholic by Charles Morris, p. 387

Predators cover their tracks.

A healthy, sane person would react to such betrayal with shock, despair, and disbelief.   If the lone-predator myth were true,  then when Msgr. Kalin’s deception was uncovered, a clear-thinking supervisor would do a thorough investigation and either exonerate the accused or determine the man was not competent for ministry.

What was bishop Fabian Bruskewitz’s solution to this problem?  Require seminarians to only visit their director in pairs.

That’s right: The bishop understands that the director of seminarians can’t be trusted alone in the room with a seminarian . . . but he still thinks the man is competent to direct the formation of the diocese’s future priests?

This is the behavior of people in abusive relationships.

***

Here’s an interesting article in that it shows you the shiny veneer of a dysfunctional family.  Compare the key players in that happy vocations story to the names in Rod Dreher’s efforts to dig out the facts on the Kalin case (quoted above).  Gives you pause for thought.

***

People in abusive or dysfunctional relationships behave in insane ways.  There is constant blame-shifting, avoidance of responsibility, and generating of excuses and distractions to cover over the real problems.  Anyone who tries to speak reason or point out real problems becomes the enemy.  The status quo must be preserved.  Everyone tied up in the abusive relationship has somehow come to believe that their safety is threatened if anything disrupts their twisted, tormented way of life.

So seminarians are sent to see their director in pairs.

A generation of priests in one of the most boomingly orthodox dioceses in the nation were formed by a notorious lecher who was left in office after his crimes were known to the bishop.

That’s not about McCarrick.  That’s about Bruskewitz.  Different theology, different politics, different dioceses . . . same problem.  All across the nation and around the world, whitewashed pillars of the church are decayed to the core with this rot of abusive and dysfunctional relationships.

***

I and others who have been writing about the McCarrick fallout get letters from church-workers, clergy and laity alike.  We get thanked for our open, outspoken coverage of the bishops’ failure of leadership.  And invariably there’s a coda: “I can’t say anything myself.  I have to be careful.”

Yes, I know about that.  I know about being pushed out of a parish ministry because I held someone accountable for a gross failure of common sense where child safety policies were concerned.  I know about silence and “discretion” that involves never, ever, speaking up with plain answers.  I know about people accused of sexual crimes against children threatening lawsuits if you share public information about the status of their legal case . . . even as they are in the process of inviting your own children to their home.

I know about that.

***

I also know that things are complicated.  I know that false accusations happen.  I’ve been the key witness in a case defending an innocent man against an egregious and absolutely fabricated, revenge-motivated accusation.  I know that decent people get overwhelmed in difficult situations, and we don’t always handle the moment in the best way.  I know that sometimes you are under the gun and you do something really dumb, and you regret it later, and you resolve to never do it again.  I know that sometimes you examine a situation carefully, and you still come to the wrong conclusion about the best way to handle it.  I know that sometimes you just don’t understand how serious a situation is, and you don’t treat it with the gravity it deserves.  Stupid happens.  It happens to all of us.

***

Here’s the difference between stupid and dysfunctional:  Healthy people don’t build their lives around defending and perpetuating stupid.

***

So what can anyone, in any state of life, do in response to the rot of abuse and dysfunction in our Church?

Of course #1 is to fast and pray.  You know that.  You don’t need a blog post about it.

The response that hurts is #2: You have to act like a healthy person.  You have to refuse to be part of the cycle of dysfunction and abuse.

The only way for the Body of Christ to be healthy is for members of that Body to be healthy.  The gangrene stops here.

***

That’s not fun.  It gets ugly fast, because the dysfunctional people will pull out every weapon they have to fight your insistence on sane behavior.  You can expect lying, evading, shunning . . . the works.

What does it mean in parish life?  It means you might not have much of a parish life.  It means that you might become the persona non grata, because you refuse to play along and pretend everything is fine.  It means you or a family member might be denied the sacraments.

***

Oh no!  In that case—

Think about it.  You’re afraid that if you refuse to sin, and if you refuse to be party to perpetuating sin . . . you’ll be cut off from the grace of God?

That’s not how God works.

How God works is that He rewards His prophets by having them thrown into a cistern.  He rewards His son’s obedience with the Cross.  But His grace is right there the whole time.

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Photo courtesy of Wikimedia, Public Domain.

The Disconnect After You Realize Abuse is Happening

There are two extra torments after you realize you’ve been party to an abusive relationship:

  • You wonder why it took you so long to realize what was happening.
  • You wonder why other people can’t see what is now so obvious to you.

When you realize that you’d been duped for so long, you can end up blaming yourself.  Surely you should have seen the warning signs. Surely you should have been smarter than to get pulled along with all this.

When you experience the frustration of seeing so clearly what others are still denying, all sorts of other, complicated dynamics ensue.

You might second guess yourself: Are you the crazy one?  Are you blowing this out of proportion?  You’ll no doubt hear from others that yes, you’re just “being dramatic” or “making a mountain out of a molehill.”

You might feel betrayed by friends or family members who should be supporting you, but instead are loyal to the abuser and are denying anything significantly wrong has happened.

Unless your friends on the other side of the divide are truly magnanimous, you will probably lose friendships.  Even if you are still civil to each other, it won’t be the same as before.

It is quite likely that you who have called out the abuse, or who have merely refused to cooperate with it, are suddenly under attack.

***

All these things are the fallout of the nature of abusive relationships.

By definition, the abuser has sought to normalize his or her behavior.  The only way abuse gets perpetrated in the first place is by the abuser somehow convincing people the behavior is acceptable.  One of the reasons we don’t recognize abuse when it happens is that the abuser has done his or her best to make sure we don’t recognize it.

Another reason is that abusive behavior falls on a continuum.  Just how far over the line someone has strayed is not always easy to discern.  It can be hard to judge where on the continuum you’re sitting.  We all sin. We all have our weaknesses.  We have to live with one another, and it’s normal to show mercy and give the benefit of the doubt.

And finally, false accusations do happen.  We who are honest rightly want to avoid jumping to conclusions and criminalizing imperfect but not predatory behavior.  Those who are dishonest will in turn exploit every weak spot to cultivate doubt about the seriousness of the abusive behavior, and to cast the critics in the worst possible light.

Oh and then there’s the fact that those who have recognized the abusive behavior are themselves flawed persons who don’t necessarily know the best way to handle the situation.

***

So all this stuff happens.

It is horrible.

But it’s not something you can blame yourself for.  It’s just part of wrestling with the beast.

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Artwork via Wikimedia, Public Domain

Four Ways to Avoid Becoming a Bitter Catholic

Up at the Register this morning, I’m talking about ways to not become a person you hate being, in the aftermath of other Catholics being truly horrid:

Bitterness isn’t born ex nihilo. Bitterness is the festering of a spiritual wound, and many Catholics are infected by bitterness because they have suffered real, penetrating, stinging wounds at the hands of their fellows.

When you see someone being rabidly ugly, that didn’t come from nowhere.

When it’s you being rabidly ugly, it often feels like “righteous anger.”

Hmmn.  Are you filled with a sense of peace? Do people generally agree that the way you speak and act is gentle and life-giving?  Do even some of your opponents speak of you respectfully, because your are well-known as someone who is rational, calm, and has good sound reasons for your beliefs?

Or is it maybe possible that, fault of the hurt you’ve endured at the hands of people who had no right to treat you that way, you’ve started to get a little bitter?

Maybe a lot bitter.

It isn’t easy, but there are some things you can do to help yourself heal.  These are some of the things.

And then there were ducks . . .

FYI it’s my editor Kevin Knight at NCR who wins the award for my favorite photo caption ever.  That’s his genius, not mine, concerning the ducks.  But he is so, so, right.  Ducks, guys.  Make that #5.

Related:  Do you you know Catholics who have grown parish-shy? This fine cat photo was my illustration for Taming the Feral Faithful: How to Lure Serious Catholics Back to Your Parish.  You can find an index with this and many other articles about discipleship and evangelization at my D&E index over at the Conspiracy.

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Photo: w:User:Stavrolo [GFDL or CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons