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Sex, Money, Power

Mary Chesnut, famed Civil War diarist, wrote of 'the thing we cannot name' -- sexual exploitation by white men of slave women (Photo by Fotosearch/Getty Images).

The Washington Post has another story up about the disgraced Bishop Michael Bransfield, late of Wheeling, West Virginia. Get this: the forcibly retired bishop spent $4.6 million to renovate his mansion, turning it into a luxury bachelor pad in which he slurped Cointreau and hit on sexy male priests and seminarians. From the story:

Nowhere did he spend more church money than on the turn-of-the-century mansion at 52 Elmwood Place in Wheeling, according to investigators.

What started as a modest renovation before Bransfield’s arrival in 2005 soon sprawled, at his insistence, into a costly undertaking, according to the construction manager, architect and four others involved in the project. By the time it was finished, the residence would feature a $20,000 dining room table, a master bath with a heated floor and a climate-controlled wine cellar that could store hundreds of bottles, they said.

“It was always, ‘this’ or ‘that’ is what the bishop wants,” said Jim Baller, who served as the construction manager during most of the renovation.


Bransfield said he wanted a built-in bar modeled after the cocktail lounge in the Hollywood home of entertainer Bob Hope, Baller and two others involved in the renovation said. Bransfield had spoken at Hope’s funeral Mass in 2003 and remained close with Hope’s widow, Dolores, who provided interior decorating advice before her death in 2011.

The basement floor was excavated so the area behind the bar was three steps below grade, putting the person serving drinks at the same height as those who were seated. A person deeply involved in the work said Bransfield told him at the time that he liked to be able to “look directly into the eyes” of the people to whom he was serving drinks.

The story goes on to talk about how Bishop Bransfield would invite priests he was interested in sexually to watch TV with him in the bar, while he would drink Cointreau, a sugary orange liqueur, from a teacup until he got sloshy. One of my Twitter followers wanted to know, snarkily, if, having spent all that money, Bishop Bransfield had hot and cold Cointreau faucets installed.

The diocese, which entails one of the poorest states in America, offloaded the entire property for only $1.2 million, declining to list it publicly. Sounds from the Post story like they sold it to an insider, who got a fantastic deal.

The waste of money was not really what got Bransfield forced into retirement by the Vatican. It was his sexual harassment of priests and seminarians. But here’s the connection: the bishop was all-powerful, and nobody — not senior priests, not laymen — had the guts to stand up to this dirty old man. These poor low-level clergymen had to endure that drunken pervert’s advances, because he held power.

It’s the same story with former Cardinal Ted McCarrick: money, sex, and power. It shouldn’t surprise us that men who feel at liberty to waste other people’s money to satisfy their lust for luxury would grant themselves leave to take other people’s sexual dignity for the same purposes. If ever the full story is told about Vatican corruption, I am certain that we will learn that the nexus of sex and money at the summit of Church power explains it all. In fact, a priest friend overheard a well-connected Vatican insider respond, upon first hearing the McCarrick news, that the Uncle Ted case “could bring the whole thing crashing down.” My source didn’t know what “the whole thing” meant in this case. I think about that line, though, when I wonder why, after all this time, Pope Francis still hasn’t produced the promised thorough investigation of McCarrick.

I bring this up because of this thread by a Christian college professor I follow. She’s commenting on this NYT story on the pervasiveness on the Internet of sexualized images of children:

Here’s a link to the Lincoln Cottage piece; it’s about sexual abuse on the plantation. Enslaved black women had no protection from their white masters. Excerpts:

The particulars of a plantation and a movie studio are certainly different. Nonetheless, predatory behavior, whether in a field of cotton or at an afterhours party, retains an eerie echo across the eras. Perpetrators, then and now, have used economic coercion and physical force to subdue victims; they demonstrate a brazen entitlement to the bodies of others; and rely upon threats of retaliation and shame to silence victims.

Also prevalent in both the modern era and the past, has been the knowledge of bad actors being met with a lack of acknowledgement from society. What we today term “open secrets” were described by white Southerner Mary Chesnut in 1861 as “the thing we cannot name.” Chesnut continued by noting the delusion needed to ignore sexual misconduct: “[E]very lady tells you who is the father of all the Mulatto children in everybody’s household, but those in her own, she seems to think drop from the clouds or pretends so to think.”

Read the whole piece to get an idea of the pain and cruelty that enslaved black women suffered.

This evil outlasted slavery. Over two decades ago, my great-grandmother, long since passed, told me how hard it was for her when she and her husband moved into our small Southern town during the Great Depression. Times were so hard that she took a job as a telephone operator to help feed the family. Very few women worked outside them home back then. She told me that the upper-class women in town — the wives of doctors, lawyers, and the merchant class — looked down on her, and women like her, for their labor.

“But everybody knew that their husbands, all of them, had black women,” said my great-grandmother. She meant sexual partners. “Those wives knew it too, but they couldn’t say anything about it. They just had to live with it.”

My ancestor said this to highlight the hypocrisy of the well-off women, who, however much they “demeaned” themselves by working outside the home, at least had the blessing of husbands who didn’t have mistresses. In that Jim Crow society, though, for a white woman’s husband to have a black mistress was considered especially shameful.

I thought about that for a long time, though. No black woman in that town could have refused the sexual advances of a white man. She was powerless. And no black man could have defended his wife, his sister, or his neighbor from a rapey white man. It would have gotten him killed. Sexual abuse was a privilege white men had over black women — and, if you think about it, over their fathers, brothers, and husbands, who had to remain passive as their women were raped by the power-holders. It is possible, of course, that some of these black women really loved their white paramours. But how could you tell? It didn’t matter if they did or didn’t, they had to submit. The social order of the time commanded it.

This was not in slave times. This was fewer than a hundred years ago. Think too of how powerless children were back then — not just altar boys, but all children — if a male sexual predator (of whatever race) came after them. I’ve mentioned in this space in the past something a sex abuse victim in New York told me back in 2002: that as a Catholic schoolboy in the 1960s, a priest at his Catholic school in Queens raped him (he was 12). He went home and told his working-class mother. She slapped him and told him never again to say such terrible things about a priest. The hierarchy inside that woman’s head was such that the idea that a priest would molest a boy was unthinkable. The power that malicious clergy had in those days because of society’s prejudices was diabolical. And not just clergy — I can think of older people I have known personally who had to endure incest as children, because the social order under which they lived — particularly within the family, but also in general — could not bring itself to contemplate such violation. So those without power suffered quietly. And still do, in a different way.

When I came home from Russia last month, I was thinking about how moved I had been by that country, but also shaken up by it. How can a people that have been so traumatized by the 20th century recover? How long will it take? Can it ever be done? If you have ever known well someone who has suffered from severe trauma (sexual assault, child abuse, PTSD from war, etc.), you know that this is not something most people can easily put behind them. What about a society? A people? We have some experience treating trauma in individuals. Can this be done with entire societies?

Anyway, I just want to highlight Karen Swallow Prior’s point about sexual abuse of the powerless, including children, being an enduring part of human society. There is something in human nature that renders some people, especially men, unfit to hold and to exercise power. Not every power holder — and probably not most power holders — are abusers of any sort. But the experience of history ought to lead us to keep a keen watch on those to whom much has been given.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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