Busted Halo
feature: entertainment & lifestyle
October 27th, 2009

Viewing America Through Michael Jackson

A conversation on celebrity, race, pedophilia and the Church sex abuse scandal

by and Tom Gibbons CSP
 
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mj-inside2

TG: Yeah, I think that there were a lot of people who assumed that the charges with Michael were true… and I’m still inclined to think that the charges are true. I still look it as that he got off not because there wasn’t anything that was going on but because he was a celebrity; he was able to buy his way out of it.

But at the same time, when the priest abuse scandal was going on, people were coming out with all of these accusations and the culture was such that there was an assumption of truth no matter what the accusation. If somebody makes an accusation, you have to assume that it’s true… and even if the person is completely exonerated, there’s always that stain. It has to make me re-evaluate how I evaluate people, because now I’m in that status…

MJ: Some people’s instincts are going to be against you now that probably weren’t beforehand.

TG: On some level — and I hate this — but I have to constantly think about how I am relating to different people. If I give a 5-year-old a hug, how is that going to look? Growing up, there was not this kind of paranoia.

MJ: You’re going to have to be on guard now because you know now that people are going to think things.

TG: It’s a weird weight to have to carry around, to constantly ask how I am coming off to other people. Unfortunately that assumption of trust is gone.

Now it’s not unfortunate that we know more about it… because some clergy abused that trust.

MJ: As someone who was raised Catholic and went to Catholic school, I have the same instinct as I have with Michael Jackson, to not assume that every priest was a pedophile. To me, it seemed as though there were people who definitely did the wrong thing in certain parishes, but I definitely still see a priest as someone who is an authority figure who deserves respect and they don’t deserve the first assumption that they are doing something malevolent.

How I feel about the priests is how you probably feel about the cops. You trust them as an authority. They chose to make a sacrifice of their own life and all kinds experiences to be a part of other people’s lives spiritually. For that reason they deserve my respect, at the least.

TG: In some ways it’s harder because there’s more awareness, but I do believe it’s better. Because in the old days, if an altar boy was getting abused, there is no way that he would be believed if he told somebody — “Father So-and-So would never do anything like that.” Now, it’s a good thing that he would be listened to… I do think now people view the argument of racial profiling much more credibly. Has it gone away? No. But if somebody says racial profiling…

MJ: They don’t think that it’s just a joke, or something that the black community came up with.

TG: What I will say though is that [my positive reaction to cops] is my knee-jerk response. But having these kinds of discussions over time has made me more open to the African-American point of view. It still may be my knee-jerk response to believe the cop in a dispute, but if a black suspect cried foul I’d be more open to what he had to say. In the old days, I would think, “Obviously the suspect is not telling the truth.” Now, I would want to hear him out.

In some ways it’s harder because there’s more awareness, but I do believe it’s better. Because in the old days, if an altar boy was getting abused, there is no way that he would be believed if he told somebody — “Father So-and-So would never do anything like that.” Now, it’s a good thing that he would be listened to. At the end of the day the priest might still be believed, as a knee-jerk, but at least at the end of the day the parishioner’s story won’t be dismissed.

I do think now people view the argument of racial profiling much more credibly. Has it gone away? No. But if somebody says racial profiling…

MJ: They don’t think that it’s just a joke, or something that the black community came up with.

But in some ways, it reminds me of the OJ trial. Black people always wonder “Are they [American society] going to acknowledge someone’s merits beyond their race?” With OJ, the question was, “How famous and/or rich can a black person be to beat murder charges?” With Obama, “How intelligent and politically savvy can you be as a black person to become president? How far can you make it?” Pretty far it turns out!

Which is why both cases were pretty good for the black community… it turns out that your race is not the only issue right now.

TG: Yeah, it’s kind of like with OJ, people just felt like “God, it’s so obvious that he did it.” I don’t know if people were conscious of the race thing; a lot of white people were upset that he got off because of race. A lot of white people assumed — and I assumed — that he got off because of his race. But I can’t say that I necessarily asked the question in 1995, if a white football player who had done Hertz commercials would have also gotten off.

MJ: How do you think white America feels about the fact that black people will scream from the rooftops, “This is not right!” I feel like if that isn’t done, nothing will change.

TG: I think that both statements are true. It can be really annoying to many when these protests take place — and I’m just saying that this is the gut reaction — but the immediate reaction can sometimes be, “Oh God, what are you whining about now?”… it’s the kinds of conversations that we’re having and many others are having that really bridge understanding… And it’s equally true that the ball does not move forward unless people scream from the top of their lungs. Nobody likes to be uncomfortable.

MJ: This is a mixture of a statement and a question for you.

TG: Okay.

MJ: This is the statement: the one thing that has not changed — and that I’m so glad it hasn’t — is that in America a lot of minority groups are willing to scream at the top of their lungs and complain. There are other countries like Brazil, and India, where minority groups literally have no say; their social systems stay stagnant for years, decades, and nothing changes.

I feel like, as annoying as it may be for some people, if it wasn’t for black people literally marching in the streets saying, “You are not going to treat me this way” — and white people joining them in going to the streets — nothing would have changed.

TG: The Catholic Church has a pretty good track record; the Paulists actually have a good track record on most things like that.

In fact, the Paulists were in Memphis during the garbage strike in ’68. St. Patrick’s Parish is about five or six blocks away from where Martin Luther King was killed. We were involved in that movement.

MJ: I did a paper in school on the Paulists in the 1960s and I remember thinking, “Hmmm, they’re not so bad!”

But what I wanted to ask you before is, how do you think white America feels about the fact that black people will scream from the rooftops, “This is not right!” I feel like if that isn’t done, nothing will change.

TG: I think that both statements are true. It can be really annoying to many when these protests take place — and I’m just saying that this is the gut reaction — but the immediate reaction can sometimes be, “Oh God, what are you whining about now?”

I’m not saying that marches are bad; I think that they can bring (and have brought) about change. But I also think that it’s the kinds of conversations that we’re having and many others are having that really bridge understanding. You have your own knee-jerk reactions when you see a situation — I have mine — and if we can put them on the table, we can go most honestly from there.

And it’s equally true that the ball does not move forward unless people scream from the top of their lungs. Nobody likes to be uncomfortable. If you were to come up to me and say, “Tom, I really want to talk to you about something you did that really offended me,” well… that would make me uncomfortable! But that does not mean that those conversations do not need to take place.

Some people love conflict… but a lot of people don’t. Me? I just want us to all hold hands, listen to music, and share a Coke. [Chuckle.]

MJ:Kumbaya … [Laughs.]

TG: Yeah, but I also think race relations is more complex because we’ve come to a more interior place. For example, there’s no law against anyone using the n-word; for me not to use that word has to be an interior choice. I have to want to be racially reconciling; no one can legislate that and make me do it. If I do something to a black person that’s against the law, there’s enough of a system there that something will probably happen to me… hopefully.

Tom Gibbons is a Paulist seminarian who also writes the blog Kicking and Screaming about his adventures in religious life. Mirlande Jeanlouis is the project coordinator of Busted Halo’s breakthrough immigration video blog Busted Borders.

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The Author : Mirlande Jeanlouis
Mirlande Jeanlouis is a freelance writer and the project coordinator for "Busted Borders" BustedHalo.com's immigration video blog. She is a native New Yorker and a recent graduate of Barnard College.
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Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • Mirlande Jeanlouis

    Hi Carolyn,

    I haven’t seen the movie yet. I’m almost scared of the finality of it. = (

    And you have some lucky 7th graders. = )

    Mirlande

  • Carolyn J. Martone

    Dear Mirlande,

    No school today, so I FINALLY had the chance to read this article, and I couldn’t agree with you more about MJ and I enjoyed the conversation about accused priests and MJ’s accusation and trial. Just like the popular culture wiull NEVER write about priests like Fr. Robero (my former pastor) who lives and works with lepers for weeks on end every year in Africa, or the countless other priests around the world who right now are sacrifricing their lives to serve others – so too did the media leave the best of Michael Jackson ignored until his early death. Why wasn’t it highlighted that he was the sole celebrity to give the MOST money to children’s charities, or the fact that he was found innocent of all the charges in his last trial and that his accusers had attempted to get money by scamming other celebrities like Jay Leno, who testified on MJ’s behalf. No-one mentions that respected spiriutal leaders like Deepak Chopra befriended MJ and maintained his life was indeed complicated, but also misunderstood.

    Anyway, I will remember MJ for the happiness he brought me when I was a kid in the 80′s whose very first album was ‘Thriller,’ I loved it so much that I didn’t care that I was made fun of in 1984 for showing up to Catholic girls school every day with one white glove on. Also, I continue to use the sentence “I’m starting WITH the man in the mirror” to teach prepositions to seventh graders :)
    Thank you, Mirlande, for writing such a thought-provoking, insightful piece.
    CJM
    P.S. Did you see the movie yet?

  • Mike Carlon

    I really enjoyed this piece. After he died, I wrote the following for my local paper. I hope you enjoy it. link

  • Vito Martinez, OFM Cap

    A wonderful article! I think both Mirlande and Tom touch on some very personal points for me as a Latino religious male.

    In my Capuchin community, there are people unfamiliar with the experience of living as a minority in this country. Concepts of racism can be fuzzy because white friars don’t understand the experience of living with the “institutional and systematic” racism that has occured in this country for years. I give credit to Tom for entering into dialouge about the topic.

    Second, addressing the “heightened awareness” around children can be hard to deal with. My ultimate fear is that as a future priest, I may become cold and wary of youth – out of fear of what others might say.

    You guys are tackling touchy yet very necessary topics for us as future leaders of the faith. Keep it up.

    Peace,
    -Vito

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