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Twice-told tales
The rhetoric surrounding the Catholic Church’s current priest sex-abuse scandal owes much to the 19th century’s sensational anti-Catholic propaganda

There was a girl thirteen years old whom I knew at School, who resided in the neighborhood of my mother, and with whom I had been familiar. She told me one day at school of the conduct of a priest with her at confession, at which I was astonished. It was of so criminal and shameful a nature, I could hardly believe it, and yet I had so much confidence that she spoke the truth, that I could not discredit it.

THIS IS NOT an interview with one of the victims from the ongoing sex scandal in the Catholic Church. It’s from Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, As Exhibited in a Narrative of Her Sufferings During a Residence of Five Years As a Novice and Two Years As a Black Nun, in the Hotel Dieu Nunnery in Montreal — an 1836 exposŽ of the horrors of Roman Catholic convent life that rocked the United States and Canada when it was published. Explicitly sexual (for its time) and glorying in its sadism, Monk’s book detailed accounts of secret tunnels that ran between rectory and convent, the rape and torture of novices and nuns by evil priests, and the conception by nuns of priests' infants who were then baptized, murdered, and buried in convent walls. Within two years of its publication, 300,000 copies of Awful Disclosures had been sold; until the appearance of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin nearly a quarter of a century later, it remained the best-selling book in the United States. (Awful Disclosures is still in print today and, not coincidentally, features a near-naked nun on its cover; in used-book-store catalogues, it is most frequently listed under "erotica.")

Monk’s book wasn’t unique. Consider these titles: Six Months in a Convent, or, the Narrative of Rebecca Theresa Reed, Who Was Under the Influence of the Roman Catholics About Two Years, and an Inmate of the Ursuline Convent on Mount Benedict, Charlestown, Mass., Nearly Six Months, in the Years 1831-2; Rosemund: A Narrative of Captivity and Sufferings of an American Female under the Popish Priests in the Island of Cuba; and Open Convents: Or Nunneries and Popish Seminaries Dangerous to the Morals, and Degrading to the Character of a Republican Community. Considered luridly campy today, such titles, featuring near-pornographic anti-Catholic propaganda, were published in the dozens by Protestants in the early to mid 1800s.

The books were, of course, blatantly untrue. Maria Monk, for instance, was mentally unstable, and her book was probably ghostwritten by a Protestant minister (perhaps Theodore Dwight). But they were incredibly effective as propaganda in favor of a white, "Christian" (i.e., Protestant) America and fanned the flames of a vicious nativist movement (that 20 years later took shape in the American Party, also called the Know-Nothings, who wanted to "purify" immigrants from US politics). In 1834, for instance, during two nights of rioting, the Ursuline Convent in Charlestown was ransacked and burned to the ground. About 4000 people watched, and the fire brigade protected the rioters. Although a highly publicized trial took place in the following months, only one person — a young teenage boy — was convicted, though there was ample evidence to convict many more. (While Rebecca Theresa Reed’s sensational Six Months in a Convent, about the Ursuline Convent, was published months after the riot, her story had circulated in the Boston newspapers beforehand and probably sparked the incident.)

It is no longer acceptable — for good reason — to attack the Catholic Church in the same vicious terms used by Maria Monk and Rebecca Theresa Reed. Indeed, in the ongoing coverage of the priest sex-abuse story, the media have bent over backwards to avoid any hint of traditional American anti-Catholicism. Still, when we hear men describe sexual assaults by priests in the confessional, as well as repeated stories of seminaries being hotbeds of flagrant homosexual activity and even indoctrination — minus, of course, Monk’s dead babies and the Inquisitional instruments of torture — we can’t help but look for links to these earlier works.

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Issue Date: June 6 - 13, 2002
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