Split: A Child, a Priest, and the Catholic Church

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I wonder how many Catholics approach a church in a new town, perhaps the arrival of a new parish priest or bishop, the way I do. There one sits in the pew, getting a good look at the inevitably genial-appearing man performing the sacraments and delivering a suitably serious yet broadly accessible sermon message, and the thought is inevitable—“So, is this one a child abuser too?” Anyone who has read a newspaper or encountered any other form of serious news media over at least the past twenty years has wondered the same on at least one occasion or another. Being Catholic, for most although indeed not all, requires a sort of dance—a minuet of morality, if you will. As my grandfather used to advise me, “Go to Mass, sit in the back, say your prayers, and ignore the priest when he talks about politics.”

However, while it may be relatively easy to shrug off words and still remain devout in one’s heart, when one is subject to violent and unrepentant actions, well that’s a whole different story. And that is Mary Dispenza’s story, one I heartily beg you to take the time to read. Split is her memoir of the time when she was raped by her parish priest in Los Angeles at the age of seven through the next sixty years, as the effects of that event clouded her life, as well as her later attempts to find justice through the legal system, efforts that were repeatedly blocked and stone-walled by the Church and its lawyers. What is remarkable about Dispenza’s story—the title, by the way, refers to the split she found between the girl she was before the rape and the woman cloaked in shame afterward—is that the horror of that moment did not shake her faith in the slightest. Mary Dispenza in fact entered the convent at the age of eighteen and served the Church as a nun for fifteen years.

Dispenza manages the quite difficult feat of telling her story thoroughly, passionately, yet with a clear journalistic focus on the facts. When she finally confronts her assailant—Father George Rucker, who has thirty-three recorded cases of rape and abuse to his name—both her actual demeanor and the reporting of it in Split are equally admirable. And there are two more aspects to Dispenza’s story that make Split the story of a life well-led and well-told. Upon leaving her religious order, she becomes a well-loved and nationally recognized school principal. She does not say as much, but it is fair speculation that her devotion to the advancement and protection of her elementary school pupils has a natural source to it. And then, there is the final irony: After a life of devotion to the Church and working in a senior position within the Chancery of the Archbishop of Seattle, which she had come to after leaving the school system as a principal, Mary Dispenza is fired with immediate dispatch. You see, after most of an adult life marked by an inability to form true emotional or physical bonds in relationships, Dispenza comes to terms with her sexuality and announces herself to be a lesbian. Perhaps naively, she thought her colleagues would be happy for her. Only a very few were. Yes indeed, a Church that would shuttle abusive priests from parish to parish—Rucker was always sent to educational ministries where he had young children near to his foul hands—was able to condone the shielding of rapists within its cathedrals, yet one who is devout to the teachings of Christ and unreservedly loves another human who just happens to be of her same gender must be cast out.

If I have two wishes for Mary Dispenza, who is in a happy and long-standing relationship as she well deserves, they are these. One, I hope Split is a cracking, storming success. It will provoke thought and it should be discussed. Second, I truly hope she writes more books about whatever subjects interest her. She will never find a more difficult topic to write about than her own life, and she has done so with a masterly hand of calm, reflective, and lucid prose. I say this without a gram of hyperbole: I was honored to read this book.

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Star Count 5/5
Format Trade
Page Count 242 pages
Publisher Mary Dispenza
Publish Date 2014-Nov-05
ISBN 9780989656320
Bookshop.org Buy this Book
Issue March 2015
Category Biographies & Memoirs


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