by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D. Profiles in Catholicism
Dr. Knight: Could you tell us about your early academic experiences and your work at MIT?
Michael Mack: I attended MIT from 1985-88 to study Management Science at MIT's Sloan School of Management. But early in the program, I took a poetry writing class for elective credit, and it changed my life. I was inspired to switch majors and graduate with a degree in creative writing. Since then I've been writing and performing poems, stories, and plays -- including the feature-length solo play I'll bring to Chicago in October: Conversations with My Molester: A Journey of Faith.
Dr. Knight: Your play has received rave reviews from New York and Boston. When did you write it? And why?
Michael Mack: I was raised in a devout Catholic family, and wanted to be a priest. That changed after I was sexually abused by my pastor at age 11. My family and I soon left the Church, but I imagined a one-day meeting that pastor again. An idle fantasy, especially when I became an adult and reflected that those formative events happened so long ago (1968) and so far away (North Carolina). And I doubted my abuser would be willing to talk. But while living in Boston in 2005, I learned that my onetime pastor was not only still alive, but living a short distance away in Massachusetts. It seemed providential. I felt compelled to reach out.
Dr. Knight: What happened next?
Michael Mack: It was beyond anything I had imagined -- a series of "truth is stranger than fiction" experiences. I felt guided (by the Holy Spirit as I now see it) through a series of unexpected twists and turns into profound encounters with my past -- sometimes painful and difficult, at other times deeply moving and cleansing. Ultimately it was about healing and forgiveness. Not in neat little knots, but in ongoing "stations" toward greater wholeness.
This included my return to the Church. I had not expected that, but during this journey I found myself remembering and revisiting all I had loved about the Church when I was a little boy -- when I had wanted to be a priest myself.
Because this personal journey seemed so compelling, I wanted to tell it as a story. Since I work as both writer and actor, doing so before a live audience seemed natural. The theater could bring this story to life in a vivid and personal way.
Dr. Knight: So much has happened in the Church since the abuse crisis began in 2002. What stands out for you?
Michael Mack: This is the greatest crisis that the Church has faced since the Protestant Reformation five hundred years ago. These past two decades have been a time of painful reckoning. But given all that has been revealed by survivors and investigators, this reckoning is long overdue.
But it's bigger than the Catholic Church. What began in the Church in 2002 has led to a society-wide reckoning with child sexual abuse -- and sexual assault more broadly. Countless women and men have come forward to share their own stories of abuse within other organizations, and by other individuals. We're moving rapidly to greater transparency society-wide -- and greater accountability.
Dr. Knight: As the Church wrestles with this crisis, what gives you hope?
I'm most hopeful because of those who have sought to address the issue head-on. When the crisis began, some in the Church hoped the problem would simply go away so that "we could get back to the real work of the Church." But now, most have come to accept that THIS IS the real work of the Church. The Holy Spirit has pushed the issue front and center so that we can deal with it, we can reform.
Dr. Knight: Where can the Church go from here?
Michael Mack: It generally doesn't make headline news that the Church has instituted significant reforms. I think that now the American Catholic Church is the safest place to have a child -- in the same way that flying was the safest way to travel after 9/11 -- because of the combination of awareness and reforms.
But we still have work to do. The Church has the opportunity to become a model for how other organizations can deal with the scourge of child sexual abuse. Essentially, a Sacrament of Reconciliation on a large scale. Through transparency (confession), recognition of past failures (contrition), and commitment to reform (penance and renewal).
Dr. Knight: What do you see as root causes for this crisis?
Pope Francis named clericalism -- the elevation of priests and religious to unhealthy degrees of status -- as a root cause. I agree because sexual abuse and assault are fundamentally about the abuse of power. The remedy comes through humility. Within the Church, and in wider society, we're in the middle of a great humbling.
This crisis has made clear that clergy and religious are very human. When I was growing up, they were seen as special, elect, sanctified, closer to God -- partly why I wanted to become a priest myself. This crisis has leveled the playing field with the laity.
Whatever the Church can do to promote lay participation in governance -- with special attention to women -- reinforces the idea that all members of the Church are part of the body of Christ, all participate as people of God.
Dr. Knight: You had the first-hand experience concerning sexual abuse... How did it affect you?
Michael Mack: Child sexual abuse by an adult is a profound violation -- psychic violence. When the adult is a priest -- an official representative of Christ -- it creates a powerful conflict between two of the most powerful human drives: sexuality and spirituality.
The Church teaches that sexuality is a gift from God, and to be honored and respected as a sacred part of life and that one must treat sexuality with great care. And yet, my experience with a primary representative of the Church was the opposite. It brought me debilitating confusion in my thinking.
Dr. Knight: Could you give an example of how it might affect a child's thinking?
For me, it went like this: "Somehow I made this happen. I don't know how, but it must have been me. Father is good because Father is a priest. So I must be bad. Why did God let this happen? Because God knows I'm bad. I hate myself for being bad. God must hate me too. I am worthless. I will hide my worthlessness by keeping this a secret. I won't tell anyone. Father wanted me to keep this secret, didn't he? Only Father knows. But God is Father too, right? God knows everything. God knows I'm worthless. I deserved this. I'm going to hell. I deserve to be punished."
Dr. Knight: Was your behavior affected?
Michael Mack: I withdrew. I acted out. I got into trouble. As a teen, I became hypersexualized, returning in my imagination repeatedly to those formative memories. I hated myself for that, couldn't bear those intense feelings, but kept going back. I turned to drugs and alcohol, which brought temporary relief, but also chemical dependence. Things didn't begin to change until my 20s when I first began to share what had happened with me with trusted friends and advisors.
Dr. Knight: When the Paulist priest, Father Brad, asked you to come to Chicago to present this powerful play, what did you think?
Michael Mack: I was pleased and grateful. This play -- and the conversations that follow -- is a ministry that seeks to foster a community of healing. As a little boy, I wanted to be a priest, and while that didn't happen for obvious reasons, very recently a priest friend told me that I am doing priestly work. That was meaningful to hear. If my journey of healing can help others in theirs, then I'm grateful for this good work. Work I could never have imagined doing when I was younger.
Dr. Knight: Forgive any presumption, but it strikes me that you must love the Catholic Church. Both to have returned after your experience of abuse, and now to be doing this work of reconciliation and healing... Is that fair to say?
Michael Mack: I do love the Church, but it's complex. When I was a child, before the abuse, my love for the Church was simple. I felt part of something deeply mysterious and beautiful and holy. The abuse was a great betrayal and a hard awakening into human weakness. I left for 40 years (I think of that as my 40 years in the desert). I returned through the irresistible promptings of Spirit, which the Conversations play details.
I love the Church in the same way that I love my country -- which too is laboring toward "a more perfect Union." It's a complicated love that recognizes our profoundly fallible humanity. But still striving, in fits and starts, in failures and successes, for greater goodness and wholeness. I can't help but believe that the Spirit of Christ is at the very center of the Church, in the same way, that Christ is at the center of every human being.
I must add that I'm deeply indebted to the many family members, friends, mentors, therapists, clergy, and laypeople who have helped along the way, and encouraged me to keep going. I can't imagine anyone truly healing alone. By doing this work, I can give back in gratitude.
Dr. Knight: Could you tell us a bit about your play? How long is it? Who should go? Will there be time afterward for questions?
Michael Mack: Conversations with My Molester: A Journey of Faith is about 90 minutes long, with no intermission. It should be seen by those who care about this issue -- Catholics, abuse survivors, family members, mental health professionals. It's not particularly graphic, but it does deal with very difficult themes -- so I'd say age 15 should be the minimum age for an audience member.
Dr. Knight: Will there be time for questions?
Michael Mack: Every performance is followed by a post-show Q&A when possible. The Q&A is not essential to the play itself, but it is essential to the ministry. To the healing process for everyone attending. People come to see this play for reasons beyond entertainment (though reviewers have called it very entertaining). People come because they have a personal investment in this issue. The Q&A gives people's investment a chance to be addressed.
October 26 at Holy Name Cathedral at 6:30 in the auditorium
October 27 at Old St. Mary's at 2:00 in the Church