One of the more uncomfortable homilies I can remember included a paean to the “heroic silence” of St Maria Goretti in the face of prolonged sexual harassment by her eventual murderer, Alessandro Serenelli. Maria’s silence, for the homilist, evoked that of Christ during his trials and passion — a connection he meant to be inspiring. It made my skin crawl.
The Gorettis and the Serenellis were poor peasant families sharing a duplex in rural south-central Italy provided by a nobleman for whom both families worked as sharecroppers. Alessandro was a dissolute young man, and Maria was the nearest vulnerable target. For months he harassed her in private with lewd comments and eventually sexual advances, which she rejected but kept secret.
Maria — whose feast day the Church celebrated yesterday — was not quite twelve-years-old when Alessandro, then twenty, finally tried to rape her at knifepoint. Thwarted by her determined resistance, he stabbed her fourteen times. She died the next day in a hospital bed. The year was 1902.
The homilist praised Maria’s silence as Christ-like and a model for us, including other little girls like Maria. I’m sure most parents would agree that if our children were harassed and threatened, we wouldn’t want them to endure with “heroic silence.” We would want them to tell someone immediately.
On her deathbed, Maria revealed that Alessandro had threatened to kill her if she told anyone about his harassment of her. She also said that she feared that if she revealed what was happening, her mother would want to move to get her away from the Serenellis, which would mean a difficult search for new work and a new home.
Maria’s father had died of malaria two years earlier. Alessandro’s own father drank heavily, and his mother was dead. Perhaps no one was in a position to restrain him, even if Maria had sought help. Even so, no child should have to bear such a burden alone.
Abusers often warn children to keep quiet, threatening them either with violence or other penalties — or with not being believed. It is a grim reality of parenting and pedagogy today that we must impress upon children that there are secrets that are not okay: secrets they feel unhappy about, or about things that worry them, or that they’ve been threatened not to tell.
Children must believe that they can and should bring such secrets to their parents no matter what. They must feel confident that their parents will believe them and that they will not get in trouble.
Tragically, Maria’s cultural, domestic, and educational milieu had not equipped her with these tools — tools we all want for our children to enable them to cope with and survive such a threat. Maria’s secret was a “not okay” secret, which she kept for reasons that are both completely understandable and also painfully misguided.
None of this seems to have occurred to that homilist, who saw only Christlike heroism in Maria’s silence.
To some pious souls, the very idea of suggesting that Maria’s silence was tragic rather than heroic, or that her family and her culture left her inadequately equipped for this crisis, may seem shocking and impious — tantamount to a direct challenge to Maria’s virtue and heavenly beatitude.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Maria was a devout and virtuous girl whose short, difficult life ended violently, and who now enjoys the beatitude of heaven. Her heroic virtue was reflected, among other things, in her concern in her final crisis for her attacker’s soul, according to her reported words: “No, God does not wish it. It is a sin. You would go to hell for it.”
Maria was also a child growing up in an era when personal dignity, bodily autonomy, and the rights of women were very differently understood than they are today.
Under Italian law at the time, rape was deemed an offense, not against the victim, but against “public morality.” A rape victim was socially dishonored, and both she and her family could be shamed and ostracized unless the victim redeemed her honor through a so-called “reparative” or “rehabilitating marriage” (matrimonio riparatore) to the man who raped her, thereby also clearing him of any criminal wrongdoing. (Italy’s “marry-your-rapist” law, successfully fought in court in 1966, wasn’t repealed until 1981.)
Beyond the particulars of historic Italian laws and mores, speaking out about sexual harassment and violence has always been difficult and taboo, for adults as well as children. Silence about sexual misconduct has historically been the norm, not the heroic exception.
Even in our #MeToo era, survivors of sexual harassment and violence who speak out often pay a steeper price than the aggressor. (The overturning of Bill Cosby’s felony conviction on possibly doubtful grounds is a dramatic recent example of why many survivors fear that speaking out isn’t worth it.)
It is possible both to admire and venerate Maria Goretti and also to recognize the limitations and failings of her cultural milieu and their tragic effects in her brief life.
To turn a blind eye to those limitations and failings — to elevate her traditional Catholic cultural world above reproach — goes hand in hand with refusing to acknowledge the blind spots in our own religious milieu. Once we ask what Maria’s culture or upbringing may have failed to impart to her, we may have to ask, “What might our own children not have learned from us?”
Many prefer to focus on the evils of external enemies — the sexual revolution, secularism, pornography, gender ideology, etc. — rather than engage in honest self-criticism. Asking what we may have to learn or how we may have to grow can be difficult; how much easier and more comforting to assume that, since we have the true faith, any criticism of what we think or how we live is criticism of the truth. Ultimately, in the words of Thomas Merton, “what we pretend to be defending as the ‘truth’ is really our own self-esteem.”
Despite punishing decades of scandal over clerical sex abuse and cover-ups — and the development and implementation of policies and programs aimed at preventing abuse, including efforts to teach children to confide in a safe adult if anyone makes them feel unsafe — the culture of secrecy and silence remains very much in place in the Church.
In the wake of the appalling revelations about former Cardinal McCarrick’s long history of sexual abuse a few years ago, the same clergyman who preached that homily about Maria Goretti stunned a mutual friend by casually remarking that, among the clergy, “everyone knew, of course.”
That’s hyperbole, of course. Even among the clergy, not everyone knew — and exactly what was known (or rumored or guessed) varied from person to person.
Still, a lot of people knew something … and were silent.
Photo credits: St John Paul II praying at St Maria Goretti’s shrine ((mariagoretti.com); statue of the saint from St Martin’s Church in Vise Belgium (Norbert Schnitzler); sculpture of the saint and her murderer from the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception (Lawrence OP); her mother at her canonization (mariagoretti.com).
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