When the Church did something right: A social worker’s story

Stephen Frears’s ‘Philomena’ (2nd comment)

3 minute read
Judi Dench, Steve Coogan in 'Philomena': Another country, another pregnancy.
Judi Dench, Steve Coogan in 'Philomena': Another country, another pregnancy.

The American Catholic Church has lately experienced deserved outrage for the horrors committed by its priests against the young and the innocent. Philomena carries a parallel outrage to Ireland, where we are introduced to the true story of Philomena Lee, a devout but forgiving woman who was forced to endure horrific punishment for her pregnancy as a 14-year-old girl. In addition, Philomena’s three-year-old son was taken from her by cruel, sadistic nuns and put up for adoption by a prosperous American family, with no opportunity for a final hug or words of love and comfort to a child she loved deeply and delighted in.

Philomena deservedly paints the Church in its most deceptive and manipulative light. But my experience with the U.S. Catholic Church in the 1960s was a very different story.

In 1963 I was a graduate student in social work at the National Catholic School of Social Service at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., where I studied on full scholarship and a modest living stipend. As part of our training, we students spent two days a week at a social work agency. I was assigned to the District of Columbia’s Department of Welfare, under the strict supervision of my deeply religious supervisor, Grace Llewellyn. I had been raised in an Orthodox Jewish home and was one of a very few non-Catholics in my class. I was not expected to pray before each class with my classmates, and my views on birth control were treated with respect.

Pregnant and terrified

One of my clients was a young French woman in her 20s who was pregnant with twins. The father was married, with no intention of divorcing his wife, the mother of his children. Yet, he refused to abandon the vulnerable and terrified young woman he had impregnated.

With the compassionate support and counsel of my supervisor, Grace Llewellyn, I met with the father. In time, he mustered the courage to share the truth of his affair with his wife. Then I met with the husband and wife as a couple. In the process, they bravely faced the difficulties in their intimate relationship that had led to his affair. At the same time, I met with my client, who from the first moment she realized she was pregnant had promised herself that somehow she would find a way to keep her babies.

Return to Paris

Without support in the U.S., my client could not provide adequate care for them. So she decided to return to Paris. The French Embassy helped us to locate her parents, who had been searching for her and were delighted to find her. They offered my client and her twin babies a warm welcome.

My class included many nuns and priests. All expressed compassion for my client. No one, including the priest who taught the class where the case was presented, castigated or blamed my client, or expressed one iota of contempt. Like Philomena Lee— and unlike the Irish nuns who traumatized her— they represented the Catholic values of compassion and forgiveness at their best.

To read another review of Philomena by Dan Rottenberg, click here.

What, When, Where

Philomena. A film directed by Stephen Frears, based on The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, by Martin Sixsmith. At Ritz 5, 220 Walnut St., Philadelphia, and other locations. For Philadelphia area show times, click here.

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