by Stacia Friedman and Len Lear
It’s Father Paul F. Morrissey’s duty as an Augustinian priest to help relieve the pain and suffering of others. But what if the pain and suffering is within the Catholic Church itself? That is the central issue Morrissey addresses in his provocative novel, “The Black Wall of Silence,” which he will discuss at a book signing hosted by Chestnut Hill College on Tuesday, May 12, 7-9 p.m., at Sugar Loaf Chateau. (The public is invited.)
The cover shows a priest muffled by his own collar. “We are all muffled in some way, torn between loyalty and honesty,” says Morrissey, 75, who, like the central character of his novel, serves as a prison chaplain and spiritual director. In his novel, a gay priest discovers that the Church’s cover-up of sexual abuse may result in the incarceration of an abuse victim. (Morrissey grew up in Upper Darby, the second oldest of 14 children in his family.)
“I try to show the similarities between the Church and the prison system,” says Morrissey. “Bishops protect the Church at all costs, even if it means relocating an admitted pedophile. To survive, whether in a prison or in the Church, you have to follow the code or open yourself to retribution. In my novel, I attempt to pull back the curtain of silence on these issues.”
The book has received rave reviews. For example, Rev. Donald Cozzens, author of “The Changing face of the Priesthood,” wrote, “For most priests, there comes a time when silence becomes betrayal. That time has come for Father Paul Morrissey, who dares to speak painful truths. A gripping story of a man’s struggle for his own integrity as his protagonist confronts conflicting loyalties to his church, his conscience and to his very humanity.”
Richard Taylor, of Mt. Airy, author of “Love in Action,” said that Morrissey’s book “gives readers an intimate, seldom-described peek into a gay priest’s life — his sometimes conflictual and often deeply wounding relationships with Church authorities.”
In the gripping story of “Silence,” a Father Zach, while serving as a chaplain in Riker’s Island Prison, learns from an inmate’s confession that a priest whom the prisoner is accused of murdering had sexually abused him when he was a teenager. Father Zach discovers that his friend, now a bishop, was the one who reassigned this priest after his first abuse. The battle of the priest, determined to defend the inmate, and the bishop, intent on defending the Church, drives the plot to its courtroom climax. Which will prevail, honesty or loyalty?
Sister Sophie, a Catholic Sister who has served the Church for decades, is Father Zach’s spiritual director. She is also his “prophet” in a way, urging him to speak the truth — in this case, to testify in court for his inmate friend, even if it implicates the bishop in a cover-up of sexual abuse.
“Father Zach realizes he lives in two prisons, the Catholic Church and Riker’s Island,” says Morrissey. “This is a universal theme. Readers will be able to identify with the characters, whether they are Christian, Jewish or Muslim, because we all tend to censor ourselves in some way in order to fit in and be accepted. The question my book asks is: ‘Can Catholics speak our truth, or must we hide?’”
Gay priests, pedophiles, sexual abuse? Many would prefer to sweep these taboo subjects under the rug, especially in light of the Pope’s upcoming visit to Philadelphia. “I am excited about Pope Francis’ visit in September,” says Morrissey. “Pope Francis has urged us to ‘Speak clearly’ … You need to say all that you feel with honesty. I love the Church. I know it’s hurtful to bring these issues out into the open, but there has to be pain for the healing process to begin. It’s like a boil. It won’t heal until you lance it.”
One of the priest/author’s goals is to clarify the difference between pedophiles and gays. “Pedophiles are fixated sexually on children and teenagers. Gays and lesbians are attracted to their peers. The Church has purposefully confused these issues. Celibacy does not cause anyone to become a pedophile or to become gay or a lesbian. Removing gay priests from the Church will not stop the problem. Neither will re-locating known pedophiles.”
After serving as a hospice chaplain for many years, Morrissey became a chaplain in the Philadelphia Prison System at the age of 65. “Prisoners’ voices have been silenced just the way I have been silenced,” he says. “There are currently 8,000 inmates being warehoused in Northeast Philadelphia, invisible from I-95, most of them poor blacks, Hispanics and addicts. Many of them can’t afford bail. Their trials are often delayed.”
Morrissey now volunteers at a support group for ex-inmates and their families at St. Rita’s in South Philadelphia. “It’s even harder for them when they get out,” he says.
Father Morrissey is also the author of “Let Someone Hold You: The Journey of a Hospice Priest” (Crossroad, 1994), which won the Catholic Press Award and the Christopher Award. Currently, he is the editor of “Voices From Prison and the Edge,” a quarterly newsletter for prisoners, their families and others affected by crime.
For more information, visit www.blackwallofsilence.com.