ALONG CAME A SPIDER
By Elizabeth McKenna
Elizabeth McKenna came to Canada from Scotland when she was five years old. Her parents were determined to give their children a better life than was possible in the old country. Her dad was a hard working man, a brick layer and mason by trade. He landed a good job at Algoma Steel Corporation in the small town of Sault Ste. Marie , Ontario .
The extreme work ethic of Elizabeth 's parents was only surpassed by their unshakeable faith and devotion to the Catholic Church. In addition to providing their children with material goods impossible to attain in Scotland , the McKenna's were equally committed to assuring that their young souls would be saved by total devotion to Catholicism. Their hard work paid off. Their devotion to Catholicism, however, would prove to be the total undoing of Elizabeth and permanently destroy the unity of the McKenna family.
Sault Ste. Marie was a great place to raise kids. It was a family town where Italian and Scottish immigrants worked side by side. There was skating, tobogganing and sleigh rides in the winter. The summer was filled with sprinklers, childish squeals, picnics at Bellevue Park and long sunny days at the beautiful local beach.
Elizabeth was raised to work hard and succeed. She received top grades in school. She studied piano, organ and voice. Every year she entered the Kiwanis Music Festival and brought home loads of awards and presented them to her proud parents. She was the “perfect little Catholic” and deeply loved her religion. The family home did not have a single room that did not display at least one crucifix and photos of Christ, the Virgin Mother and other patron saints. Each evening, after dinner, the family prayed the rosary together. On special holy days, the family said all 15 decades. The McKenna's home was conveniently located directly across the street from Blessed Sacrament Church, and Elizabeth stopped in each day after school to have a little “visit with God”. She attended daily mass. Confession was every Saturday afternoon and the Stations of the Cross were at least once a week. Sunday afternoon never passed without attendance at afternoon Benediction. All was well in Elizabeth 's world. Her patron saint was “Little Teresa” and Elizabeth knew that when she grew up, she would become a Sister of St. Joseph. Like all little girls, Elizabeth did grow up and that's when the real trouble began.
Elizabeth had started playing the organ and singing at daily mass at around age twelve. When she was 13, the old Irish monsignor sent her and her girlfriend to St. Michael's choir school in Toronto to learn Gregorian chant, choir direction and classical organ. It became necessary for Elizabeth to briefly discuss each day's liturgy with the priest who was celebrating mass. This was not a problem until Father Francis Reed, a young priest, fresh from the seminary was assigned to Blessed Sacrament Church, to Elizabeth 's parish.
Things had not been going all that well at home the year Father Reed arrived. Elizabeth had planned to enter the convent that September, instead of returning to grade 12, but had changed her mind because of increasing doubts about her vocation and concerns about her beloved church. Father Reed's predecessor had been Elizabeth 's spiritual director. So, naturally, she brought her spiritual and existential angst to her new confessor, Father Reed. Father Reed was a tall, slender man, sporting a brush cut. He was meticulously neat and tidy, a somewhat quiet and introverted individual. He could regularly be seen walking the aisles of the church in his cassock, reading his breviary.
Elizabeth was feeling tormented, as only a teenager can, as to whether or not she truly had a vocation to the sisterhood. She poured out her heart, her thoughts, her deepest fears, and greatest hopes to the new priest. She bared her very soul to Father Reed as she never had to any other human being. It was so comforting that he seemed to understand. She criticized the church for what she thought was its hypocrisy. How could a church founded by Christ hoard such great riches and wealth while so many of God's children died of hunger? Her developing womanhood was also causing concern and Elizabeth was piqued by what she perceived as being considered lesser than the Catholic men folks because of her gender. She confided shyly to Father Reed that if she didn't become a nun, then, of course, she would marry and she didn't know how she would be able to bear to “perform her marital duties”, to allow a man to do “that disgusting thing to her”. Father Reed was a tremendous source of consolation and solace. He talked with her for endless hours. He became somewhat of a mentor, introducing her to a new world of books, music and philosophy. He apparently found her an adept student. So adept, that one day, he told Elizabeth that she was very special. And accordingly, he was going to call her by a special name: “Beth”. Moreover, he insisted that she begin to call him “Francis”. But, of course, these personal names must only be used when the two of them were alone.
At home, Elizabeth 's dad, Harry, was not the least bit pleased with her new found criticism of his perfect church! Nor was he pleased by her emerging struggle for independence and her increasing insistence that she make some decisions for herself. The simmering conflict between Elizabeth and her father came to the boiling point in the early evening of Ash Wednesday, 1965. Elizabeth had announced to her father that the following year, she was not going to study piano. She wanted to put all of her energy into getting high marks in Grade 13 to assure herself a placement at a top University. Her father scoffed at his daughter's position. “You're not going to University”, he bellowed. “You already have far too much education for a female and for your own good.” For the first time in her life, Elizabeth would not back down from her father. She held firm to her decision. Then, in an unprecedented moment of uncontrolled fury, Harry slapped his daughter across the face. It was more the shock and unexpectedness of the blow than the force behind it that knocked her to the floor.
She quickly picked herself up. Weeping and holding her smarting cheek, she ran across the street to the church. There, Father Reed was just finishing distributing ashes to the foreheads of the faithful. When the ceremony was over, Elizabeth went to the sacristy. Seeing her state, Reed pulled her into the “walk in closet” where the priests donned their vestments. There he put his arms around he, comforted her and told her he loved her. He asked her to come back in an hour and meet him in the basement, where he could talk to her privately. And the lamb walked into the slaughter.
Elizabeth was 17 years-old when she walked over to the church that night. She had led an utterly sheltered, almost cloistered life. She had attended Catholic schools exclusively. Her high school was a “girls only” institution run by the Sisters of St. Joseph. The uniforms worn by the students had to be exactly 16 inches from the floor. The girls walked from class to class, in silent military style in pairs of twos. The gym outfits were unique: a white tunic reaching 2 inches above the knees with a baggy pair of white bloomers underneath. After gym class, the girls rushed to the showers. There, they each had their own cubicle, where they disrobed, covered their nakedness with a huge bath towel and then showered, each of them in a closed, private cubicle. Nakedness, even amongst individuals of the same sex, was unthinkable.
Sex was a taboo subject. Elizabeth wasn't allowed to date or wear any form of make-up. She could attend sock-hops chaperoned by the nuns and CYO (Catholic Youth Organization), chaperoned by the priests. The nuns explained that after a woman was engaged it was acceptable to kiss one's fiancée on the lips, but nothing more than that until after the wedding. If a man committed a sexual sin of thought, deed or action, the woman was as guilty as he for being the “occasion of sin”. In physics class, Sister Donalda relished repeating to her students the story, (most likely fictitious) about the Catholic teenage boy and girl who decided to “go parking” one night. They were both found dead in the morning from carbon monoxide poisoning! The sister seemed to take particular, almost triumphant delight in the ending to this story and would finish her tale of terror by stating with pursed, tight lips: “You won't even smell the poison coming, girls. Carbon monoxide has no odor.” Every girl was required to wear a full panty girdle, lest her bottom jiggle and lead some poor unsuspecting male into sin.
In those days, in that culture, the story of Adam and Eve was accepted at face value. Elizabeth suffered a fairly common, but excruciatingly painful condition when she had her menses. She would tolerate the pain until the words on the blackboard started to blur. Then, she would go down to the front desk and ask the sister who doubled as secretary and school nurse if she could have something for her cramps. The nun would scowl at her. “This pain is God's punishment for the sin of Eve. God also is preparing you to bear the agony of childbirth. So, do you want to do God's will or do you want to be weak and take medication?” Fifty per cent of the time, to her own disgrace and shame, Elizabeth took the pills.
It was this young girl who walked across Cathcart Street that Ash Wednesday night to talk to Father Francis Reed in the basement of Blessed Sacrament Church. Once inside, Francis invited her to sit beside him on the stairs leading up to the little stage where the children put on Christmas pageants and the like. The stairs were narrow, and this choice of seating placed the priest and this teenage girl in full physical contact. But, he was a priest, fully covered from neck to feet in his holy cassock. Beth blushed, but she was not going to argue with a man of God.
They talked about the incident that had taken place earlier with Elizabeth 's dad. Francis promised that he would speak to her father and tell him to cut her some slack, to let her get her driver's license. Francis shyly admitted to Beth that he had never held a girl's hand, that he had never danced with a girl and that he had never even been on a date. Then, he took Beth's hand and held it. Beth's head was reeling. Then, he told her that he wanted to kiss her soft beautiful lips. Beth protested, totally flustered and confused. But Father Reed insisted it was perfectly fine, and began kissing her. He explained that he loved her and that it was O.K. to kiss someone when you love them. But, he was a priest and he was not her fiancée . This was totally opposite to what the nuns taught. But the good Father spoke of how, soon, celibacy would no longer be required and that he would be free to marry. In other words, they were now engaged. Elizabeth knew that a priest's words superceded anything said by a nun. Priests were the experts on sin. They heard confessions, didn't they? Beth returned home in a daze that night.
Elizabeth had never questioned how she felt about the young parish priest who was 10 years her senior. Catholic girls don't have feelings for priests; especially not those kinds of feelings! Yes, she worshipped him. She thought he was the smartest, holiest man she had ever met. He seemed to know everything. He was the first person in her life to treat her just like an adult. He listened to her and praised her for her brains and musical talent and now he had told her she was beautiful. She did “care for him”. Tonight, he had said that he loved her. Maybe what she felt for him was love, too! The young girl's world, already complicated enough, was now being turned on its head.
The relationship between the Francis and Beth continued in this manner for the next six to eight months. They spent increasing amounts of time together. He would tell Beth to watch from her bedroom window and when he flickered the lights in his bedroom at the rectory across the street, she was to sneak out and join him in the church basement. He would leave the side door unlocked. Reed became more ardent about expressing his love to Beth. Then, the summer before she left for the University of Toronto , he introduced something new into their relationship. When they kissed, he wanted to insert his tongue into her mouth. Beth had never heard of such a thing and was repelled, but Reed was insistent and she obeyed. However, this tongue business was more than she could handle. She was fraught with guilt and fear and shame. The worst hell of it was that she could not talk about it to anyone. Francis and made her swear that she would not talk of their relationship to anyone else until he said so.
After Grade X111, Elizabeth began her studies at the University of Toronto . Things did not go well at the University. Elizabeth fell into a profound depression. She was unable to concentrate. Slowly, she stopped attending classes. Her roommate attempted suicide and had to leave the University. Elizabeth went to the Catholic Information Center where she met a Paulist priest, named Father Dick Troy. He was like a grandfather figure, somewhere in his early sixties. He helped her girlfriend to find suitable lodgings and from time to time would take the two girls out for pizza or a movie. Elizabeth could never have known that this man would play a significant role in her destiny. By the late spring, Elizabeth started taking pins and superficially scratching her arm. This made her feel better. At least she was punishing her evil wicked flesh. Surely God would see this and not go quite so hard on her! The self-mutilating behavior was discovered and Elizabeth was admitted to the Clark Institute (a psychiatric facility) for the month of May. Diagnosis: Passive Aggressive Personality. Once in the shrink house, Elizabeth knew she had better abstain from scratching. Instead, she went on a 30-day water fast. If she didn't find a way to punish her body, she would surely have to kill it and then, without question, like all suicides, she would be plunged into hell.
Elizabeth returned home that summer and things picked up as usual with Reed. Then, one fateful evening in July, the phone rang. It was Father Dick Troy, the Paulist from Toronto . He had left the priesthood, he explained and was in town for a couple of days and would love to see her. Happy, Elizabeth took a taxi to the Holiday Inn, where she struggled to call Father Troy, “Dick” and to not gawk at his civilian attire. After giving the underage teenager a rye and ginger ale, Dick lunged at her. He pushed her back on the bed and tried to kiss her while he groped her breast. She pushed him away and disregarding his apologies, fled for home. Once there, she couldn't sleep. After mass the next morning, she went across the street to the rectory to talk to Father Reed.
When she entered his office, Father Reed was sitting behind his desk, very official in his black suit and collar. Elizabeth sat in a chair, her head lowered with shame, and through her tears she told her priest of her terrible sins of the night before. What he did next would always remain the most horrific event of this young woman's entire life. He walked towards her, saying: “Beth, it's just like falling off a horse. You have to get right back on.” Ignoring completely her sobbing protests, he undid her blouse, pulled up her brassiere and began fondling her naked breasts and nipples as Elizabeth sat there frozen. He was making strange, unfamiliar moaning sounds. When he stopped, it looked like he had wet his pants. He had, but his bladder was not to blame. A large, wet, dark stain covered his genitalia and surrounding area. “Now, get dressed and go home” he ordered. “I have to go upstairs and get cleaned up.”
Life, as Elizabeth had known it was over. She was forever changed. As she walked down the pathway to the street, she reached up and grabbed the small gold cross Reed had presented her for Grade XII graduation. This symbol of Christ had been hanging between the very breasts that were now the source of the most egregious, mortal sin. The fine chain easily broke and Elizabeth let it slip through her fingers onto the grass beneath.
After that day, Elizabeth 's life careened out of control. She began a rapid descent into her own personal hell. She became morbidly depressed. She recalls her mental pain and anguish as sheer torture. Anxiety attacks were frequent and horrible. Elizabeth walked around like a zombie. She was unable to cry. She was unable to get angry. She could no longer feel anything. That's when the more serious self-mutilating began. The pain of a razor blade or the burn of a cigarette pushed into the soft pink flesh of her skin was something she could feel and it gave her relief. Once again, she was admitted to a psychiatric hospital, this time labeled as a schizophrenic. She continued to see Father Reed. Somehow, she believed that she should, could and must reverse the process he started that day in the rectory and return to the comfort of her former relationship with the priest-man which she now needed more than ever. Of course, this would never happen.
Word of Elizabeth McKenna's descent into madness spread quickly through her small town. Friends scattered to the winds. A psychiatrist told her that she had a psychotic disorder and that she would never be able to return to school or hold down a job. Her illness, he explained was incurable. At age 19, Elizabeth had been handed a death sentence. That fall, her former friends returned to University. Elizabeth sat numbly in her parents home, waiting. Waiting for nothing. Waiting for her life to be over. Mr. and Mrs. McKenna did not know how to relate to their “new daughter”. Simple people, with grade 8 education, they could make no sense of how their child had undergone such a sudden and total metamorphosis.
There had been no prior lunatics in the family. Elizabeth 's siblings were equally awkward. She started to stay in her room. She would come downstairs when the family left in the morning and make sure she was back in her room when they returned. She ate dinner alone, after the others had finished. She wanted to spare them the pain of having to even look at her. Elizabeth didn't sing any more. She never touched the piano. Her infectious laugh was silenced. She tried, for her family's sake to be a “good crazy person”. It was quite clear to her that God had started his punishment. Yet, Father Reed continued to say mass and hear confessions. His daily routine was uninterrupted. He seemed totally nonplussed by the events that were destroying Beth. And each night, Beth lay in bed, wondering why God did not simply fill her room with carbon monoxide and spare her further agony, like the teenagers in Sister Donalda's story.
Elizabeth began to go in and out of mental hospitals as if through a revolving door. There, she was subjected to some 65+ electro shock treatments and massive doses of antipsychotic medication. She would sit on the ward staring into empty space with her co-prisoners, wanting to die. From time to time, she would be given a weekend pass and was allowed to go home to visit for a weekend with her parents. They would invite Father Reed over for dinner. Then, they would go upstairs to bed, leaving the good Father alone with their daughter, telling him to “talk some sense into her”. And there, on the living room floor while her parents slept peacefully upstairs, Francis would again, abuse Beth.
Of course, Father Reed did not view his actions as in any way abusive or wrong. “I'm teaching you to be a good Catholic wife”, he explained. “I'm trying to help you to get over the terrible hang ups you have about your body”, he further rationalized. He drew the line at intercourse. In his twisted soul, that would be wrong. Instead, he stimulated himself by touching Beth's body, culminating with her orally or manually bringing him to orgasm. At the rectory, he watched pornography while demanding that Beth stimulate him to satisfaction.
Elizabeth has been asked more times than she cares to remember why she simply didn't stop seeing him. Her eyes fill with sorrow and she tries to bring a limp smile of chagrin to her lips before she answers: “He had been my soul source of consolation and succor. He was now the only ‘friend' remaining from my former life. After the 9 th or 10 th incidence of abuse, I just gave up. I got to see him and we talked as regular people and then in exchange I had to pay the price, like a zombie. He ejaculated in my face, between my breasts, wherever he chose. I had come to feel like his personal sexual toilet. Near the end, he presented me with 4 long men's skate laces. He said they were a present for me. Then he produced some tape. He wanted me to tie his wrists and feet to the bed, cover his mouth with tape and bring him to gratification. I obeyed. I felt like his personal, sexual slave. At this point, I figured that there was nothing too degrading for me to do for him. From my point of view, he had taken my purity and was therefore the only man who might marry me. No decent man would want such utterly spoiled goods. To my mind, I had performed acts lower than the lowliest prostitute. It just didn't matter any more. Maybe, it's like battered wife syndrome. I don't know. I do know that I hated, detested and loathed the sexual acts I committed with him. My body is covered with scars that testify to that. The whole situation seemed hopeless and I had given up. For the first few years, I prayed that God would make him stop. Then I prayed that God would make him ejaculate quickly. I constantly prayed that God would take my life. But God did not answer any of my prayers.”
This behaviour continued until Elizabeth was 29 years old. Then, Father Reed suggested to her that he was going to perform the same sexual acts with the “pretty young nun he worked with”. She warned Reed not to try to contact her again, or she would go to the bishop. In a final act of total desperation, she packed a meager suit case and with a few dollars in her pocket, left Sault Ste. Marie to go to Toronto to “find help or commit suicide”. That move would usher in the next horrifying chapter of Elizabeth 's life, but that is a story for another day.
Early in 1990, Elizabeth McKenna contacted church officials in Sault Ste. Marie and told them she had been sexually abused by Father Reed. Monsignor Norman Clement, the vicar at the time, arranged to meet Elizabeth at the YMCA in Toronto . The monsignor listened to Elizabeth 's story with what seemed to be genuine concern. He said that when he returned to North Bay , he would apprise the bishop of the situation and that Father Reed would be questioned and sent for psychological testing. He was on his way to Rome for two weeks, but assured Elizabeth that he would get back to her within a couple of weeks after his return to Canada. Elizabeth told the monsignor that she wanted Father Reed to get help and to be placed in a position where he would not harm others. She left the YMCA that day feeling relief and joy and hope. Finally, the secret was out. Finally the burden had been shared. Now, the bishop would take care of everything.
One interminably long year passed without a word. Perplexed, Elizabeth wrote to Monsignor Clement. In return, she received a brief rather terse note stating that if she wanted anything further, to get a lawyer and have that lawyer communicate with the church's lawyers. At this point, Elizabeth didn't know the difference between a civil and a criminal action. But, the church would soon give her the education of a lifetime.
Ten years and three lawyers later, Elizabeth found herself in the formidable position of taking the stand in a civil courtroom in Toronto . This was the culmination of her struggle. She had filed a complaint with the police in Sault Ste. Marie in 1997. They subsequently charged Father Reed criminally. Then, the Crown Attorneys refused to prosecute stating in a letter that there was little chance of success because of “consent' and her “psychiatric history”. Out of one side of their mouths, they were saying that a judge or jury would find that she had consented to all of Reed's acts and out of the other side of their mouth, they proclaimed her too crazy to be believed (but not to negate consent.) The only recourse left was civil court. Elizabeth spent 20 days on the witness stand. Twenty days of being grilled and demeaned. She is convinced that this was no more than a tactic to break her. For, after they utterly ran out of questions, and Elizabeth left the stand, church lawyers negotiated a settlement. While Elizabeth was being cross-examined, Father Reed's parishioners caught wind of where their priest was during the week and why: sitting in a Toronto courtroom as a defendant in a sexual assault case. Father Reed reportedly “bravely offered to step down”. In response, his congregation gave him a standing ovation of support and “each one shook his hand before leaving the church”. One of the parishioners wrote this in a letter to the editor and a well meaning friend faxed the devastating news to Elizabeth .
In a document dated December, 2000, Bishop Jean-Louis Plouffe , Bishop of the Diocese of Sault Ste. Marie and President of the Canadian Catholic Conference of Bishops wrote a somewhat mealy mouthed apology to Ms. McKenna, stating that on behalf of the People of the Diocese of Sault Ste. Marie and on behalf of the Faithful, past and present “we sympathize and empathize for whatever hurt or harm she may have endured for the wrongful conduct of Father Reed.” Shortly after receiving that apology, Elizabeth gave an interview to Chris Eby of the National Post. When contacted by Mr. Eby for the article, Bishop Plouffe stated: “We're not dealing with anything criminal here….This was a civil case.” He described Father Reed as a very holy man. ‘You ask anyone, he's a very good pastor. This was terrible for him, and many people have been hurt by this.” Shortly after the article was published, Bishop Plouffe's lawyer sent a letter threatening to sue Elizabeth or to begin an action to negate her settlement, charging breach of confidentiality. The charges were false, but any comfort that Elizabeth might have squeezed from Plouffe's flaccid apology was now utterly destroyed.
Elizabeth McKenna continues to live in Toronto where she advocates for other victims. “ I hope to make the road smoother for others who follow me. I hope to make the church a safer place for children and women. Most of all, at this point, I want the crimes of priests who abuse and destroy what the church call's “age-appropriate females”, to be brought to the attention of the public and for the perpetrators and their protectors to be dealt with appropriately.” Father Reed continues to minister to his flock in the three small communities of Massey, Webwood and Walford in the Diocese of Sault Ste. Marie.
@copyright Elizabeth McKenna, March, 2004. All rights reserved.