September 6, 2016

Memories of an Abusive Catholic Childhood


This week, I am very pleased to introduce you to Charles Sutherland. Charles and I connected on Facebook and I knew I wanted to share his story with you. An author, a businessman, and a survivor of abuse. I hope you will learn much from his series this month!

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This is a narrative of a physically and mentally abused child, and is drawn from my recent book. Abuse is an occurrence which still happens regularly on our planet. Hopefully, this will provide some insights to people today.

In my case, my very first childhood memory is when I was three or four years old. I was sitting on the floor of our kitchen in Omaha, Nebraska, and my father was shouting at my mother.

When I asked him why he was shouting at her, and I said, “That’s not nice,” he grabbed me, starting shouting at me, and then spanked me hard on the butt.  Then he shoved me into the little room in the back of the house.

When he grabbed me, I was afraid and I knew it was going to hurt.  So he must have spanked me hard before.  I just don’t remember.  (I should mention that since I was very young, I never called him ‘dad.’ Later I referred to him as my male parent.)

One of my next memories is when I tried to burn the house down, by taking my father’s cigarette matches and setting the curtain on fire.

My grandmother, my mother’s mother, was taking care of us because my mother was in a sanitarium for what in those days they called ‘a nervous breakdown.’  She was there because my father always hurt her and she became sick.

As the curtain was burning, my grandmother came into the room, pulled down the curtains, and threw them outside.  Then she got a pan of water and put out the fire.  When she came back into the house, she took the matches away from me.  

My grandmother asked me why I had set the fire, and I told her it was the only way I knew how to kill myself so that I would not be beaten again.  With my mother gone, there was no one there at night to tell him to stop hitting me.

She told me I had done a very bad thing, and she would have to call my father and tell him because he would see the burned curtains anyway when he got home.  So she called him where he worked. He told her he would come right away.  So, I was scared again.

When he came home, the first thing he did was slap me.  Then he took off his belt, pulled down my pants, and began hitting me on the butt.  I cried, without making any noise, because I couldn’t help it; but I didn’t want him to see me cry.  So, as soon as he stopped, I wiped my eyes and went outside.

He hit me for years, throughout my childhood.  When he hit me, he would often say he is doing it because I was a “bad boy” and that if I stayed that way I would go to hell forever.  I didn’t think I was bad, and I didn’t even know what hell was, but it could not be worse than home.

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I began school when I was only four years old.  That’s because my sister, Charline, was a year older and began first grade.  So my mother asked the priest if I could start at the same time.  That way she would not have to take care of me.  The priest asked me some questions to see if I was smart, and then he agreed.

Oh, I should mention that the reason my sister Charline spells her name that way, and not ‘Charlene,’ is because my father’s nickname is ‘Charlie.’  After she was born he didn’t want any more children; so he named her after himself.  My parents later told me that I was an ‘accident’ because Jesus wanted them to have children.

At school one of the first things we learned is that Lucifer was always watching us, and if we were not good we could go to hell and burn there forever.  When I asked the “sisters” who were teaching us how they knew that, they said the Church says so.  When I asked them how the Church knows, they said that Jesus told the Church.  When I asked them when Jesus told the Church, they said he told them before he died for us.

Of course, I had to ask them why Jesus died for us, and they told me because two people called Adam and Eve sinned.  When I asked them when they lived, they did not know… but it was a long time ago.  When I asked how Adam and Eve sinned, they said a snake called ‘Lucifer’ tempted them by telling them that if they ate the apple from the tree of knowledge, they could be like God.  So they ate the apple.  I could not imagine why anyone would believe a snake in the first place, because we always see snakes and run away from them. Anyway, I didn’t even believe the story.  

When I asked if it was a green apple or a red apple, since we have both kinds in Nebraska, they didn’t know.  When I asked them why it was sinful to eat an apple to become smart instead of studying, they did not know how to answer.  So, I asked them if it was sinful to study, and to get knowledge.  They said I asked too many questions, but I would understand when I grew up.

Since I could go to hell forever because of two people, I thought they should at least know when Adam and Eve lived, what kind of apple it was, and why it was wrong to get knowledge.  Because they didn’t know, that was my first doubt about religion.  From then on, I questioned everything they told me.  By the time I was in eighth grade, I didn’t believe any of it.

My father beat me and told me I had to believe.  He also made the whole family kneel and say the rosary every day, and made us go to confession every week. Because I was a good boy I didn’t think I was sinful, so I made up sins to confess. I would add the sin of lying, since I had just done it!  That was just to be safe… in case.  My sister Charline always took confession seriously, but I thought it was nonsense. After high school she became a Catholic nun, although she eventually left the convent.  Because my father tried to beat goodness into me, I developed an animosity toward his Catholic religion.  But, I was never able to tell anyone that until I was in high school.       

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Today the abuse inflicted upon me would be criminal.  In those days it was regarded as ‘strict religious upbringing.’ The constant quote was, “Spare the rod, and spoil the child.”  Actually, Proverbs 13:24 is even worse.  It says, “Whoever spares the rod hates their children…”

Having religion forced upon me compelled me to think about these ideas, and ultimately to study philosophy and religion in college, both in the U.S. and Europe (before switching to Economics).  The study of philosophy, particularly logic and epistemology (the study of knowledge and sources of knowledge), sharpened my mind for all aspects of life.

This background also taught me the value of justice, as opposed to tyrannical authority.  It also taught me that asking for forgiveness was a self-indulgent exercise.  I had watched people ask God for forgiveness every Saturday night at Confession, in preparation for Sunday Mass.  But the next week, they committed the same sins— particularly my father.  So, to me, people should be held accountable for their behavior, not forgiven.

As I said, by the time I left Catholic grammar schools, I no longer believed any of these stories.  Then I went to a Jesuit Catholic high school.  It was a whole new awakening – but one you would not expect.  That comes next… 


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Charles Sutherland was educated at schools and universities in the United States and Europe, including the University of Vienna and the London School of Economics and Political Science. As a student and international businessman for over 40 years, he has lived, studied, worked in, or traveled to over 60 countries. He has sat on numerous Boards of Directors and has launched a wide variety of business ventures and philanthropic organizations in the United States, Latin America, Europe (including the former Soviet Union), Asia, and the Middle East. He has also been Director of Development of The Washington Times, and author of numerous articles and several books, including Disciples of Destruction: The Religious Origins of War and Terrorism; Character for Champions; Red Tape: Adventure Capitalism in the New Russia (co-author); Clash of the Gods (co-author); The Poison Planters, and GMO Food Poison Handbook. He has two sons and lives in the Washington, DC area.

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