Friday, July 06, 2012

St Maria Goretti, a victim of abuse

Today in the OF is the memoria of St Maria Goretti, she is one of the many child virgins the Church honours. Her mother was the first mother in recorded history to be present at her child's beatification and canonisation, which in the days before JPII is evidence of both the popular devotion and the speed of her process. What touches me most is the story of her murderer and his conversion.

The Church honours virginity in both its male and female saints, it isn't just a matter of "spiritual integrity" but physical integrity too, the two go together. There is a tendency to saccherinise such saints but St Maria had resisted Serenelli previously. She was the victim of child abuse, she resisted, her "no meant no". I cannot help thinking that one of the reasons for her popularity was that there was an undercurrent of sexual abuse within within Italy at the time.
St Jeanne Vianney at various times during the year rails against village dances; times when young people might find themselves alone together. Padre Pio takes the same stance, as do many Irish sermons of the early 20th century. Abuse, we know generally takes place within the family or extended family, I can't help wondering whether devotion to her was a rather discreet way of talking about sexual abuse.
I remember some years ago talking to a woman whose Polish mother had involved all her children in abusive sexual practices, she, a sociologist and counsellor, was convinced that in rural societies, especially isolated ones such practices were "normal". I don't know.

On July 5, 1902, finding eleven-year-old Maria sewing alone, Alessandro Serenelli came in and threatened her with death if she did not do as he said; he was intending to rape her. She would not submit, however, protesting that what he wanted to do was a mortal si and warning Alessandro that he would go to hell . She desperately fought to stop Alessandro, a 19-year-old farmhand, from abusing her. She kept screaming, "No! It is a sin! God does not want it!" Alessandro first choked Maria, but when she insisted she would rather die than submit to him, he stabbed her eleven times. The injured Maria tried to reach for the door, but Alessandro stopped her by stabbing her three more times before running away. Maria's little sister Teresa awoke with the noise and started crying, and when Serenelli's father and Maria's mother came to check on the little girl, they found the bleeding Maria and took her to the nearest hospital in Nettuno. She underwent surgery without anesthesia, but her injuries were beyond the doctors' help. Halfway through the surgery, Maria woke up. She insisted that it stay that way. The pharmacist of the hospital in which she died said to her, "Maria, think of me in Paradise." She looked at the old man: "Well, who knows, which of us is going to be there first?" "You, Maria," he replied. "Then I will gladly think of you," said Maria. The following day, twenty hours after the attack, having expressed forgiveness for her murderer and stating that she wanted to have him in Heaven with her, Maria died of her injuries, while looking at a very beautiful picture of the Blessed Mother, and clutching a cross to her chest.
Alessandro Serenelli was captured shortly after Maria's death. Originally, he was going to be sentenced to life, but since he was a minor at that time the sentence was commuted to 30 years in prison. He remained unrepentant and uncommunicative from the world for three years, until a local bishop, Monsignor Giovanni Blandini, visited him in jail. Serenelli wrote a thank you note to the Bishop asking for his prayers and telling him about a dream, "in which Maria Goretti gave him lilies, which burned immediately in his hands." After his release, Alessandro Serenelli visited Maria's still-living mother, Assunta, and begged her forgiveness. She forgave him, saying that if Maria had forgiven him on her deathbed then she could not do less, and they attended Mass together the next day, receiving Holy Communion side by side. Alessandro reportedly prayed every day to Maria Goretti and referred to her as "my little saint." He attended her canonization in 1950. Serenelli later became a laybrother of the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin, living in a monastery and working as its receptionist and gardener until death peacefully in 1970.


puzzled said...

"Serenelli later became a laybrother of the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin, living in a monastery and working as its receptionist and gardener"

How would he have been treated today?

Sixupman said...

Fr., I recollect with revulsion a BBC religious programme when a laicised priest made a filthy joke about St. Maria.

He was, of course, held to be a media darling relative to all things Catholic. His name evades me for the present.

leicester lad said...

No doubt this story was posted with the best of intentions, but I was horrified to learn that Serenelli was employed by a religious order as receptionist and gardener given his record. While the primitive Italian state of the 1950s-70s may have lacked the world-leading system of checks and balances we Britons enjoy following the introduction of enhanced CRB checks and the Sex Offenders' Register, did it not occur to someone that putting a murderous paedophile on front-of-house duties might lead to his coming into contact with children and vulnerable adults? I am shocked, appalled, and dismayed.

One can only hope that an independent enquiry will be convened to investigate the matter as soon as possible, so that those guilty of criminal negligence at the time - some may still be alive - can be brought to justice.

parepidemos said...

Leicester lad, Presuming that you wrote out of sincerity rather than sarcasm:

Alessandro Serenelli was not employed by the Franciscans; he became a member of the order. It would seem that he repented of his crime/sin to the extent that he attended Maria Goretti's canonisation and sought her intercession daily. I understand that he accompanied Marie's mother to the canonisation, sitting next to her during the ceremony.

Catholicism believes in the grace of repentance and Alessandro Serenelli repented. I am also sure that the good Franciscans were prudent in how he served the order.

As for those guilty of knowingly protecting child abusers, be they ordained or not, they should be prosecuted.

Anonymous said...

I found this confession on the internet by Alessandro Serenelli. Its a kind of sign for our times in a way:

"I'm nearly 80 years old. I'm about to depart.
"Looking back at my past, I can see that in my early youth, I chose a bad path which led me to ruin myself.

"My behavior was influenced by print, mass-media and bad examples which are followed by the majority of young people without even thinking. And I did the same. I was not worried.

"There were a lot of generous and devoted people who surrounded me, but I paid no attention to them because a violent force blinded me and pushed me toward a wrong way of life.

"When I was 20 years-old, I committed a crime of passion. Now, that memory represents something horrible for me. Maria Goretti, now a Saint, was my good Angel, sent to me through Providence to guide and save me. I still have impressed upon my heart her words of rebuke and of pardon. She prayed for me, she interceded for her murderer. Thirty years of prison followed.

"If I had been of age, I would have spent all my life in prison. I accepted to be condemned because it was my own fault.

"Little Maria was really my light, my protectress; with her help, I behaved well during the 27 years of prison and tried to live honestly when I was again accepted among the members of society. The Brothers of St. Francis, Capuchins from Marche, welcomed me with angelic charity into their monastery as a brother, not as a servant. I've been living with their community for 24 years, and now I am serenely waiting to witness the vision of God, to hug my loved ones again, and to be next to my Guardian Angel and her dear mother, Assunta.

"I hope this letter that I wrote can teach others the happy lesson of avoiding evil and of always following the right path, like little children. I feel that religion with its precepts is not something we can live without, but rather it is the real comfort, the real strength in life and the only safe way in every circumstance, even the most painful ones of life."

Signature, Alessandro Serenelli


Omphalomancer said...

The story of Saint Maria Gorretti has so many parallels with current child abuse; it is in many ways a case study. Maria and her family had experienced significant domestic transition into shared accommodation; Maria had only her mother as her father had died (not a judgement but a significant factor in increasing her vulnerability to abuse) she was known to her attacker and had suffered previous abuse at his hands. It also highlights the the commonest scene of abuse is at home or very close to home. These are sadly all factors that will not be changed by a current CRB check. The majority of children today are abused by a family member or someone close to the family. Very few are abused by clerics and though the numbers we now know who were abused by clerics is shocking, this is alas only the tip of the iceberg of children who have been abused of which a far greater number is made up of abuse in familial and domestic settings.
Please pray for all children who have suffered abuse and for the people to care and protect them.

Tomasz said...

I remember some years ago talking to a woman whose Polish mother had involved all her children in abusive sexual practices, she, a sociologist and counsellor, was convinced that in rural societies, especially isolated ones such practices were "normal". I don't know.

Wow, that's feminist Marxist talk about corporal punishment. Father, haven't you read the newest feminist treatises in which corporal punishment is always sexual in nature.

leicester lad said...

Apologies - I was being facetious.

Donna said...

>The Church honours virginity in >both its male and female saints, Then why aren't men who were virgins listed on the calendar as such ?

Anonymous said...

Found this moving for many reasons - thank you Father!

One thing that struck my wife was that St Maria Goretti knew EXACTLY what was being done to her. And by God's grace she had the awareness to counsel her assailant even as she was being violated.

As it happens we are home educators. If today we (and our Catholic schools) could give our children the same knowledge of purity and love of holiness that St Maria had, then that would be a Sex Education worthy of the name!

berenike said...

Village social structures can encourage or shield vice just as they do virtue, panie Tomaszu.

(From a small average Mazovian village.)

gemoftheocean said...

Amen, Donna: Not a SINGLE male on the calendar listed as a 'virgin.' It would be nice if the lip service were backed up by proof.

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