For decades, Michael Mack imagined conversations with the priest who had invited him, a skinny 11-year-old, into the rectory to make costumes for a church play, molested him and then vanished.
Throughout Mack’s childhood in the Washington area and then later as an adult in Massachusetts, the unanswered questions ran through his life “like a thread,” he said.
Sometimes he’d picture himself asking the priest something basic: What was that about? Or the priest apologizing. Other times, his visions were detailed: the two finding that they shared things in common, like poetry. Or when the clergy sex-abuse scandal exploded in the early 2000s, Mack envisioned himself with the priest on a traveling, healing church road show.
But it wasn’t until a few years ago, when he attempted to actually have those conversations, that Mack, now 57, began healing. And for the past two years, he has been telling the story of that journey in a one-man play, “Conversations with My Molester: A Journey of Faith.” The show, which Mack is bringing to his home region Saturday for the first time, recounts his attempts to contact the priest, the unexpected people he meets on that journey and the way forgiveness has helped loosen the grip abuse has had on his psyche.
A lifelong spiritual seeker, Mack wound up returning to Catholicism and says he ponders reviving his childhood dream of becoming a priest.
“My face drizzling its festival of yes to this mathematics of forgiveness as I sob and let go,” he says in the play. “Slip downstream like a tattered salmon, into my portion of ocean, offer aloud a prayer, for my molester, that wherever he is, he knows the freedom I know now.”
Clergy and abuse survivors who have seen the show, which was performed several times in the Boston area after opening in 2012, say that audiences have marveled at Mack’s lack of fury and readiness to forgive, calling it healing in a way that might not have happened a decade ago, when rage and litigation seemed the only appropriate reactions.
“I think the wise powers that be are confronting the issue and looking for ways to deal with it, “ Mack said in an interview this week. “At first, the church wanted to deny as much as possible. But now it’s more about atonement.”
Mack spent his childhood in the 1960s moving around Northwest Washington and suburban Maryland before his mother’s struggle with schizophrenia prompted his father to send him and his siblings to Brevard, N.C., to live with an aunt for a year. It was there that a priest who befriended his family abused him one spring Sunday after finding the boy alone in the church playing piano and inviting him into the rectory to make costumes.
A few days later, the priest left town, and soon after, Mack’s father took his children back to the D.C. area. Mack kept the incident a secret but immediately began imagining conversations he’d have with the man. Many were a search for explanations; others had Mack playing the role of confession-taker and forgiver.
It wasn’t until the clergy sex-abuse scandal erupted in Mack’s adopted home town of Boston a decade ago that he started to talk to others, his brother, a friend. He typed the priest’s name into an Internet search engine and was shocked to see that the man lived a short distance away, in central Massachusetts. That began a years-long period of Mack slowly moving closer to speaking with his abuser. He called and hung up. He wrote a letter but waited many months before deciding to deliver it.
What happens with the priest and Mack’s ultimate conversation with his molester are spoilers he didn’t want to divulge before Saturday’s show, at the Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria. But it doesn’t give too much away to say that the show includes powerful conversations with his abuser’s priest-friends and then with people who live in Brevard, which Mack visited in 2011.
He sees his abuser in a very different light during that visit and accepts the invitation of a younger priest now working at the Brevard parish to come to Mass and confession. This homecoming service — his first in years — reveals the dramatic relief Mack felt being able to finally grieve in his native spiritual language.
The play conveys Mack’s lifelong quest for that joyful, open 11-year-old boy he had once been. And for boyhood in general. The boy for whom “praying was sweet breathing.” The boy whose body became “an empty rowboat” as he tried to float, disassociated, from his abuse. The play includes a scary scene when, as an older camp counselor, Mack invites an 8-year-old homesick boy to sit on his bed.
“You lean closer, his hair a drift of baby shampoo.” Nothing happens, but the idea of boyhood innocence remains a drug.
The topic of child sexual abuse is far more in the open than it was when Mack was abused. With Pope Benedict in 2008 becoming the first pope to meet publicly — in Washington — with clergy-abuse survivors, Pope Francis personally asking for forgiveness and appointing a survivor to be his adviser on the topic, and the number of reported complaints in the United States down, the issue seems to have moved into a new phase.
Yet this is not a subject many church leaders want to air out.
And it’s not as if life is simple now for Mack, an MIT-trained poet who also wrote a play about his mother’s schizophrenia. Until Thursday afternoon, he wasn’t sure if any of his many relatives in the Washington area would come to the play, as they have never been to its showings around Boston. (As of Friday, two were planning to attend.)
David Clohessy, a survivor and national director of the country’s largest support group, SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests), said it’s not uncommon for survivors to fantasize about conversations with their abusers — and some seek them out. But often to disappointment.
Even if the meetings either don’t happen or disappoint, Clohessy said, “the overwhelming majority of survivors find healing and forgive” on their own, even though the public face of survivors is often one seeking justice in the courts or media.
“I think there is a great and justifiable emphasis [among survivors] on the positive impact of forgiveness,” he commented. “More and more survivors understand that letting anger eat away at you is self-destructive.”
On Friday, rehearsing the play in the seminary chapel, Mack’s voice cracked during a scene about his 2008 return to Brevard, where he considered the image of a boy looking out the rectory window.
“If he could speak, what might he shout,” Mack says. “The face of a boy willing to do anything.”
Before his shows, Mack sometimes studies photos from his childhood to come closer to the red-lipped little boy shown during an era of packed parishes and huge Catholic school classes. Two images show him from that year in Brevard, playing in a country river, grinning up from a raft. Mack wonders if the photos were before or after — or, as he says in the play, his mind has already written the abuse “letter by letter into the tissues of his body, encoding it in indelible ink.”
“The imprint is there,” he said in the chapel. “The question is what we do with it.”