Friday 29 March 2019

The Huggy Priest

It's been a long time since I had an "Auntie Seraphic" letter, but this one was so brilliant and touches upon a problem is probably experienced by many that I thought I would share the outlines.

In short, a single woman active in her parish hates being hugged by her priest. The priest hugs everyone, and she wonders if any of them also dislike it. This priest hugs her at the Sign of Peace, and she's too embarrassed to stop him. She tries to avoid him, but when she can't, he at least squeezes her arm. He also says the equivalent of "You are the sunshine of all our lives" (I won't repeat the original in case it would identify him and her) which she finds odd.

My advice was for her to tell him, to his face or by phone or by email, that she doesn't like being hugged or squeezed by him and she wants him to stop. If he hugs or squeezes her again after that, she should remind him that she asked him not to. But if he does it again, she should go to the Safeguarding Officer at either the parish or the diocese.

I'm a three-strikes-he's-out kind of Auntie. Personally I'm uncomfortable with a man who wields (whether he likes it or not) as much spiritual and psychological power as a priest hugging people who are not his personal friends and relations. I also wonder who and what these hugs are really for. Does the priest, living alone as I assume he does, long for human touch?

But that said, I don't think it is necessary for your fellow reader to go to the Safeguarding Officer unless the priest proves that he does not respect her boundaries. My reader is over 24. If my reader were under 24, I would have suggested she consult the Safeguarding Officer sooner because I believe the under-24 set needs more help in asserting their rights before authority.

I wasn't born in a huggy culture, but my high school, which teemed with the daughters of Italian immigrants, was huggy. Now that I live in Scotland, which is not at all huggy, I have to judge which of my friends is huggy and which is not, and sometimes I get them mixed up, just like I mix up who gets one air kiss (old-school Britons I've known for years), who gets two (Britons who like France), and who gets three (close Polish friends).  Therefore I am giving the huggy priest the benefit of the doubt--either he comes from a huggy culture in which the good spiritual daddy gives all his spiritual children hugs, or he thinks he is now in one.

Still, no-one should have to submit to any kind of embrace he or she doesn't want. Sadly, social codes meant to protect people from unwanted physical contact have fallen into disuse.  For example, a man  could only shake a woman's hand if she offered it to him first, and she didn't have to take her glove off. Another useful custom that has fallen into disuse is showing marked reverence for the hands of a priest. (I am suddenly entranced by the thought of a devout-but-desperate Catholic burglar hitting a priest on the head but being very careful not to touch his hands.)

However, the social codes have fallen apart, and so it is up to men and women to swallow our embarrassment and to tell each other what we do or do not welcome. The sooner, the better, too, so it does not come out in an agonised "STOP HUGGING ME THIS IS SCOTLAND NOT YOUR ITALIAN-CANADIAN HIGH SCHOOL." Worse, it could turn into a whispering campaign against an innocent, if clueless, person.

Meanwhile, it never ceases to amaze me that some priests still risk violating the boundaries of their parishioners. Once again I am so grateful to my mother for training me in the priests-are-men school of thought. When, at the tender age of 14, I told her that Fr X had used bad language at me over the phone, she told me that I should have hung up on him.

"But he's a priest," said I with awe.

I wish I could remember her exact words. However, they were along the lines of "A priest is a man and don't have anything to do with men who swear at 14-year-old girls on the phone." That said, decades later, I have been yelled at by three intemperate and vulgar priests over the phone, and in the words of Sophie Scholl, I'm proud of it.

1 comment:

  1. Hmm - for some reason, I kept thinking you should send in RCMP Straight McCool ('Fugged About It' TV series, TeleToon Canada - do you know it?; quite NSFW) to tell off the Huggy Priest. Just something about that Mounty voice hectoring a bemused priest...

    Canadian comedy fan.