In the early 1960s, President Kennedy's call to service echoed throughout a country still caught up in 1950s optimism. Spoken by a man priests had exhorted their parishioners to vote for from the pulpit at Sunday mass, the call had particular resonance for young Catholics. In Cleveland, Ohio, Father Jack, a charismatic young parish priest, gathered a group of girls who wanted to serve God and met with them weekly to study the spiritual life. He recruited them by talking to their teachers, by observing who went to weekday mass, and by attending parish social events for young people like Girl Scout troop meetings.
Helen joined Father Jack's group when she was thirteen, shortly after the death of her father. She hoped to be a teaching nun and believed he would lead her to God.
The group grew, and Father Jack convinced a Canadian lay institute for women, the Oblate Missionaries of Mary Immaculate, to make his group their first American chapter. Like nuns, the Oblates took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, but they wore no religious habits, relying on their good works to show that they were witnesses for Christ. With the backing of the Cleveland diocese, Father Jack bought a Tudor mansion on Cleveland's Gold Coast for the Oblates’ communal home. Defying her mother, Helen left home after her high school graduation and moved into the communal house.
In spite of the weekly meetings in which Father Jack taught his group about the way to God through the writings of the great mystics and theologians of the Catholic Church, the Cleveland Oblates made slower spiritual progress than he expected. Father Jack embarked on a study of psychology and determined that they were blocked by repressed childhood traumas. He introduced them to the four temperaments and assigned a temperament to each of them. They learned about the theories of Freud, Jung, Adler, Maslow, Fromm, and Karen Horney. He encouraged them to ferret out their repressions, particularly memories of sexual abuse; record them in their journals; and describe them in weekly counseling sessions. He forced them to break with their families. Betraying their trust, he also undertook special “treatment” to free them from their repressions: secret sexual therapy.
During this time, the group grew to almost forty members and a second communal house was established with the help of the Cleveland diocese, who had an old convent moved to diocesan land and renovated.
For eight years Helen submitted to Father Jack's direction in all matters and followed him with blind trust and cult-like devotion. She and her fellow Oblates lived seemingly normal lives. They pursued college and graduate degrees, taught in Catholic elementary schools, and served the poor and disadvantaged, particularly children, in Cleveland's inner city. But Father Jack controlled every aspect of their lives from the people they saw, to what they read, to what professions they would pursue. He set up group therapy sessions requiring the Oblates to call each other to task for their various failings. These sessions damaged the bonds they had with one another and kept them under his sway.
Eventually, Helen and several Oblates sisters confided in each other about the sexual abuse. In one of the most difficult events of her life, Helen confronted Father Jack and fled the communal house with two other young women. They had no money and only their personal possessions. Several months later, they took their case to the bishop. The Church offered them no help, but their story was investigated and Father Jack was defrocked. The American chapter of the Oblates was disbanded.
Though she was free of Father Jack's control, Helen was riddled with shame and self-doubt from her years in the Oblates. She lost the faith of her childhood and grappled with the lasting effects of the events that had taken place under the umbrella of the Catholic Church. She spent her twenties attempting to piece together a life and a purpose and to restore damaged family ties. In her thirties, she appeared successful, a writer and mother building a happy second marriage. But she struggled with acute depression and thoughts of self-harm and suicide. Only through intensive counseling did she finally emerge from her depression. Although she never regained her Catholic faith, she eventually built a fulfilling life at work and at home.
Thursday's Child turns the spotlight on the abuse of women within the Catholic Church and reveals the betrayals and loss faced by women who have been sexually assaulted by priests. It also reveals how a charismatic personality can induce others to abandon their ordinary lives and their freedom to follow a cult leader.