“We are still a small number at this point, still really determining where and how we can be effective. For the moment, I would like my own personal passions to be directed towards supporting victims of sexual abuse by anyone who worked in the Catholic Church; who took their position of trust and power and abused children.”
“The sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church is the result of what police call ‘noble cause corruption,’ the belief that because you are dedicated to doing good, you can do no wrong.”
– Alex Gibney
Though it was never physical, I was still cornered, coerced into kneeling on the casting pew. Made to pray that the directors would have mercy on me and cast me in the leading role. Made to repent for sins that were not my own. And later, made to confess for all that had been done unto me, and unto others, so that they would not be done unto you.
She took me to the side into the closet bursting with chiffon, cotton, and crepe. I didn’t know her well, but she seemed to know me; to have observed me closely. She knew my name and she read my mind; she verbalized my deepest desire to me. I was in awe that this person, the woman who seated herself at the right hand of the Father, who had the power to preserve a station for me on the altar, confided in me that she hoped I could achieve that status reserved for saints. I was too naive and blindsided by her belief in me to wonder how she knew the song of my soul. Why, out of all the more experienced, more prominent, and more pious choices, did she want me? Why, after discussing her son—my peer—with me, did she suddenly take an interest in myself and my prospects? Why was she telling me, after the prospective prima donna left us, “You are my hope for Katherine”? With that one sentence, she had instilled my unwavering faith in her as the Madonna, my personal martyr.
Before I could reach St. Peter’s office to nominate myself for this highly competitive role, I had to first enter purgatory. Tearing down I-95, I raced from my choir concert to auditions, trading my long black flying nun dress for a pair of smart heels and dress that transformed me into the polished pietà Katherine Pulitzer was supposed to be. She caught me on my way in and gave me a smile that said “I’ve got this for you.” I had a Lancer on the inside. All I had to do was fight the battle for what I believed in.
I received an email and my world came crashing down. I lost; she didn’t secure it for me. She apologized, she asked if I was okay. She wanted to know how I was doing basking in the flames of this hellfire. I didn’t blame her, nor did I blame myself—we both did what we could. We would just have to fight more passionately last time for the cause we both believed in—she actually didn’t have any hand in the casting. Her oldest son, the assistant director, did. He asked me about my audition preparation the week before when we crossed paths at the Fall play. He had never paid me any mind before. His mother must have tipped him off, hoping he’d be reverent towards her and fulfill our joint dream. He didn’t.
I still committed to the show, even though I wouldn’t be taking the Pulitzer surname. She was always there, running the show behind the scenes, while her eldest, Giacomo, and her youngest, Ferdinand, continued their empirical rule of the stage. They sat atop their thrones so mighty, not even the ghost of the Scottish Play dared to challenge their sovereignty. The brothers seemed to regard themselves as direct apostles of Christ himself and allowed that to influence their Holy Roman Reign of Terror over us lot of Catholic commoners. Without a gift of an indulgence from one of the Sinclair’s, one could never make it past the gilded gates they gatekept from sinners into the Sinclair’s slice of heaven that was the auditorium stage.
My first reception of a Sinclairian indulgence came in the form of a pair of black character shoes. I was in need of a pair for the show but did not have them. I offered to buy myself a pair until matriarch Gabriella Sinclair offered me her daughter’s old ones. This was the first pomegranate seed I ate.
I was enjoying being a part of the show even though I had no name. I had my black character shoes and my dancing feet to carry the cross I bore through the rest of the season. I had acquired an indulgence that saved me from experiencing further casting-induced purgatory.
My joining drama club class had dwindled annually from the cohort of 35 eager and innocent freshmen who matriculated into the order in 2017. I thought it strange that several female members had left halfway through the rehearsal process this season. It was common practice to wait until ordinary time to leave this community of Catholic comedians.
“WHO HERE HAS A PROBLEM WITH GIACOMO?” Ferdinand screamed from atop his family-made throne of self-righteousness. No one knew what to say. No one knew what was happening. Only those who had left the convent could explain their loss, and provide an explanation for why Giacomo had been excommunicated from the program. The Sisters were sworn to silence by the intimidation of the administration, and by the power held and weld by the Sinclair family institution. I realized I hadn’t seen Mary that day. Caleigh had also been missing for the past few weeks from rehearsal.
Everyone knew except me. They all hid it. Ferdinand asked me to prom in front of them all, their reactions similar to the ones they reserved when receiving the Eucharist at Mass. I don’t know why nobody was surprised; it was as if this was supposed to happen. I couldn’t understand why it seemed routine; an expected step in God’s Plan. Gabriella immediately cornered me and gave me a congratulating hug. It was reminiscent of the kind of embrace a girl might get from her mother-in-law-to-be after accepting her son’s proposal. I did just accept a proposal of sorts from her son. Not the kind that warrants Pre-Cana counseling and a certificate of sacrament completion from the archdiocese though.
“All the moms call you ‘the pretty Jillian,’” I was told mid-quick change, partially exposed like the statue of Venus. I didn’t know how to reply. Gabriella made telling eyes towards me as if to say: “Us Sinclairs are lucky to have converted her into our community circle.”
I didn’t know what to say. Surely it was a compliment. It was more than that, it was a second indulgence being given to me; the second pomegranate seed I had consumed. Still, it felt like I was being prepared for something much more divine than the reception of indulgences. It was as if the end that I was working towards was not a chance at a principal role next year, but something more concrete and personal—something Gabriella could actually provision for me.
The show went on without Giacomo’s tyranny. He still came to support his brother, the interim pope, in the show. I could tell this was a trying time for him. No former general wants to support his ex-battalion after being dishonorably discharged, but he had to follow through on his duty and see for himself if Ferdinand was maintaining the strength of the Sinclair legacy of stardom. The institution was scouting a new second-in-command to replace his station at the program.
After the show, I was immediately cornered by the Sinclair’s and their close confidantes. They instantly baptized me with compliments and accolades regarding my “brilliant” performance. They compared me to famous Golden Age actresses and speculated what role I might receive next year—as if they had anything to do with it. I had never spoken to most of these people before. I couldn’t even distinguish who each Sinclair was on their family tree. I didn’t know them, but they certainly knew me inexplicably well—better than I knew myself, it seemed. It was as if they had been studying me religiously for the past year. Only much later would I learn that both of those assumptions were unfortunately correct.
The messages and love continued to pour through virtually from the Sinclair’s during the sudden lockdown after the show. I became familiar with the walls of their home and the values they held. I thought they were satisfied with the place they held in my life. I was too naive to realize they would not be satisfied until they had complete control over me. With each pomegranate seed I accepted and ate, they became closer to completing that quest. With each interaction Ferdinand and I continued to have, he posited himself as more entitled to control over my life, my thoughts, and my attention. Once I began to regain my independence and stand my ground, Ferdinand resumed his outspoken presence online, anonymously, and in personal conversations alike. He used rhetoric that perpetuated victim-blaming: he called strong women “feminazi’s” and he shamed women for their freedom of choice and for being victims of adulterous acts—clearly, to him, they asked for it; they were too cowardly to commit the acts out of true yearning, so they had found an innocent man to seduce and brought him down with their sins. Lucifer was actually Lilith, and Eve stole more than Adam’s rib—she robbed him of his pure divinity.
I had to escape Hades. I had to jump from the safety of having a seat at the Sinclair’s council of cardinals; I had to return the invisible ring that bound me to them—to him—without the agreement of an “I do.” I stood my ground and made my decision known to the Sinclair’s and the drama club administration, who listened until I had officially gone back to the world above and they no longer needed to investigate and appease my Title IX claims. The people there who once stood in solidarity with me remained complacent there, and I learned that Gabriella had already found her new daughter-in-law hopeful. I was betrayed by tens of Peters who would remain in denial for as long as they believed the sale of an indulgence from a corrupt, nepotistic institution would secure their spot in heaven.
“Jillian Hetherman to the Dean’s office, Jillian Hetherman to the Dean’s office, please.” I walked through rows of my classmates, all gawking at me through their masks. Their widened eyes reflected the magnitude of the situation, as well as the Sinclair’s grasp over the dramatic society I had recently resigned from.
My uniformed body slowly lowered into the tufted cushions of her office couch. It was funny to me how plush and rosy this exposé was approached by my school, versus the dismal and plastic attitude taken by the mother superiors at the boys’ school.
“There has been an ongoing onslaught of sexual harassment taking place within the drama club for the past two years. Specifically, every girl in my grade has had at least one incident with one of the boys there.”
“We were talking one night about favoritism in casting and how it seemed like we just couldn’t win. Suddenly, we pieced it together that Gabriella—Mrs. Sinclair—who assistant directs our musicals here with Mrs. Murphy, has been secretly telling each girl in her son’s grade that they are her “hope” for the female lead, and that she sees so much potential in them and could almost guarantee them a role if they just put in a bit more effort—and perhaps if they did so by rehearsing and befriending her son.”
“Nothing physical. It was merely mental. Manipulation, you could call it? The whole family was involved….with me, at least. It was as though they had cast their votes and the smoke ran white. I had been chosen. I had been given Sinclair’s blessing. It was only a matter of time until Mrs. Sinclair replaced the Pinocchio string ring around my finger with the family one. But it wasn’t as bad as what the other girls went through.”
“After the night we discovered what was going on behind the altar, we compiled a shared document full of all the racial and sexual harassment inflicted upon us by members in the drama program. It totaled 22 pages long, with Monica and Amelia contributing the majority of the encounters.”
“Yes. There were still several girls after I had quit. The reason I stayed is that I held an officer position as our school’s liaison. I was supposed to recruit our students to join. But I didn’t. I actively turned girls away with excuses of the program’s disorganization and subpar production quality. I didn’t want to scare anyone by telling them the truth. And I didn’t tell anyone what was going on because I didn’t have proof. I couldn’t prove the harm people were causing me without clear marks or bruises or eyewitness accounts. And I know it’s the truth because I spoke out there, and no one did anything. The all-female production team of teachers moderators assured me that they’d take care of it. I was dismissed. They did nothing. I left.”
“He’s going to prompose to me here,” my best friend Beth anxiously told me as we walked through campus.
“Doesn’t he know you’re my best friend? Doesn’t he realize I don’t ever want to see him again?”
“He doesn’t even have his license, so Gabriella will be the one driving him here after school.”
I stopped dead in my tracks. I went into something resembling an exorcism and cried on Beth’s shoulder the rest of the afternoon. I couldn’t fathom, couldn’t wrap my mind around the fact that I had done everything I could to finally free myself from the Vatican-sized walls these people—this family—imprisoned me in, yet it was still not enough. They would somehow find a way to keep returning, to keep creeping, to keep controlling the thoughts I had in my mind. Was it really real, or did I just make it up out of some sort of egotistical teenage desire for attention? Maybe it was the latter; maybe I did blow it all out of proportion. I better go to confession—
No, Jillian, do not do that. You did nothing wrong, you are free from their judgment and control. They have no power over you. They are only in your mind because you are allowing them to take over your thoughts, just as they wanted. Be strong. You are out of there. You are free.
You are not Christ the Savior, because you made it out alive. You saved yourself and you prevented other girls from being added to the document, added to the family will, or added to the council of cardinals on Vatican III.
This was the monologue I told myself every day after I had gotten out of there. My mind was a minefield of crusaders and lancers duking it out to see if my mind would falter back into the shadows of what the altar boy feels at night, and what the priest inflicting it upon him assures him is alright.
It has been one hundred weeks since that monologue had begun fermenting in my mind. One hundred weeks since the last time I stood for their abuse. One hundred weeks since time ran out and I was free to return to Earth after serving my sentence for all the pomegranate seeds I naively took from them.
I am okay now. I am safe. The other girls are safe.
I no longer am entombed by the black veil of Vatican III’s reign over me.
I no longer need to convince myself it wasn’t fake. What happened, happened. And that is the truth: The Word of our Document, thanks be to God.
This is my Pietà.