Lately, you can’t pick up a newspaper or click on a website without encountering yet another horrifying story involving a priest, his penis, and a child. Suddenly, inexplicably, we have turned our collective eyes away from terrorists and are now obsessing over men of the cloth. We have stopped asking, But how did little Tabitha get a machine gun in the first place? and are now asking, Is Griffin spending too much time with Father O’Brian?

Well, I’m here to defend our Holy Fathers. The fact remains, Catholic priests have given me some of the best blow jobs of my life.

Do you really think this is okay? I asked Father Bill in Chicago. We were sitting in his black Crown Victoria, parked on Mayrose Street. A street, I might add, that is not altogether unpopulated, especially at ten at night. It’s fine, he told me. We’ll just look like a couple of guys waiting for somebody to come out of a store.

But I wasn’t so sure. People looked at a black Crown Victoria. It was a surveillance vehicle that attracted attention. Maybe we should just pull around, you know, in back of something.

He smiled, and I was struck by how warm and sincere his smile was. Then I remembered, Well of course it is. What else would it be? The pine tree-shaped air freshener that hung from his rearview mirror gave the car a pleasing, artificial scent. Somehow, this aroma suited him. Would you feel more comfortable if we parked in the alley? he asked. I told him I would. Father Bill put the car in gear and drove around the block. That’s the great thing about Chicago: it has alleys.

I was fascinated by Father Bill. He was a ruggedly handsome man in his mid-forties, and when we met in the bar, I would have never pegged him as a Catholic priest. In fact, he looked suspiciously like a software developer I once dated. Are you in software? was my opening line to him, my come-on.

He rested his drink on the bar and turned to me, sliding sideways on the stool. As a matter of fact -¦ he said in a leading tone of voice, -¦ no. But I could be if you want me to be. I smiled at his charming offer to reinvent himself for me. It showed that he had a playful personality. But I told him no, that was okay; he could just be whatever he was. And because I am from New York City and not Chicago, I pressed the issue. So what are you then?

He chuckled to himself and glanced down at his hands. The answer was, it seemed, a private joke between him and his fingers. I looked at his thumb for a clue. He didn’t look like a construction worker or a typist.

I’m a Catholic priest, he said.

I thought he was maybe joking, going for shock value. But after I sat down and had a few more drinks, adding to the fifteen or so already coursing through my veins, it did turn out to be the truth. He was an actual Catholic priest, the kind that knows many old ladies by their first name. When I pressed him, he was even able to quote from the Bible. His memory was astonishing, and I realized that his ability to recall a certain verse from a particular passage within a given chapter of the Bible meant he probably could have sailed through medical school. And he still would get to wear a uniform at the end, only he’d also get to drive a sexier car.

He signalled the bartender and ordered us another round. He was drinking something red, which I teased him about. Is that the blood of Christ?

He smiled at this but politely, letting me know he’d heard that one before. Not quite. Just a Cape Codder.

I leaned in. I thought you guys weren’t supposed to go to gay bars. Or be gay, for that matter. Or drink, but I didn’t say this, because really, anyone’s allowed to be an alcoholic.

Here he laughed wickedly. Oh, we do a lot of things we’re not supposed to do. Trust me.

And who wouldn’t trust him? A priest!

And that’s how I ended up in his car, now parked in neutral behind a restaurant in a scummy alley in Chicago.

I’m sorry, I told him. I said this after my penis refused to become erect. I was upset by my impotence, at twenty-six, but also didn’t want to disappoint Father Bill. He was such a nice guy. I’ve had way too much to drink, I told him.

Here, he pulled his face up from my lap and sat back against the seat. He said, You know, you should really go to rehab.

This was a stunning thing to hear, especially from a man who had, not an hour ago, bought me five drinks. Really? That’s an interesting remark. Do you think so?

I think so, he said, closing his eyes.

I tried to size him up. I decided that perhaps he was being passive-aggressive, sort of punishing me in some clever priest way for being too drunk to get hard, thus spoiling his free evening. Catholics were the world’s foremost experts at applying guilt in subtle but damaging ways. So why do you think I should go to rehab?

He turned toward me on the seat, which was an awkward position for him because the steering wheel was in the way. It struck me as a pose he used often in his work, one of accessibility and compassion. Body language that says, Here I am, open to you. Father Bill continued, Well, now that I get a better look at you outside the bar, there’s something in your eyes that makes me think this is not a one-time event, like you told me at the bar? When you apologised for being -˜loaded’. I think that’s the word you used. Because you had a lousy day at work? Anyway, now something -“ call it instinct -“ is telling me you do this a lot. Like every night.

He was right, of course. My drinking was quite out of hand. And the fact that he was now able to see this impressed me. Well, I said. And then we sat silent in the car, and I noticed he didn’t have air-conditioning or a CD player, and this humble fact made me feel tender toward him. I felt strangely connected to him at that moment and became instantly aroused.

He noticed. And this is when I got one of the best blow jobs of my life. Along with, at the end, a piece of paper with the name of a rehab hospital scribbled on it. It’s in Minnesota. It’s the best. Lots of celebrities go there.

He seemed to think that this would be something that might impress me, and he was sadly correct. The possibility of seeing Elizabeth Taylor or Robert Downey, Jr., in withdrawal would be enough to make me want to go to rehab whether I was a drunk or not.

I left him then, parked there in the alley. He offered to drive me home, but I told him my apartment was only a few blocks away.

Of course, I never saw him again. I left Chicago and moved back to New York City and went on with my life and my drinking until my drinking was my life. Then one day I opened an old date book and came across Father Bill’s scribbled note. I’d apparently tucked it away for later, forgetting. And then later came. And I called the number on the paper and checked myself into rehab, which, in fact, did save my life.

So you could say he was a scumbag priest who drank, went to gay bars, and picked up guys to have sex with in cars. On the other hand, he did save a life. True, only the life of a gay, alcoholic, ad guy, but a life nonetheless.

So while I’m sure there are many priests out there who have helped many people, I wonder what percentage of them can actually claim to have saved a life. Surely God is going to look at his checklist and say, Okay, we’ve got this series of blow jobs here, which is gay. Which, you know, I technically can’t allow. On the other hand, you did save a life. So, clap of the hands, get into the bus, you’re going up.

The other memorable Catholic-priest blow job occurred when I was much younger, just fourteen. I suppose this would be the height of fashion now, to receive a blow job from a priest when you are a teenager. This is now, of course, all the rage.

His name was Father Christopher, and he was a priest at the local Catholic Church in western Massachusetts, where I grew up. My mother wasn’t Catholic; my family wasn’t particularly religious. But my mother loved Catholic symbolism, and she enjoyed the services. She was a poet and a painter, so perhaps the rituals appealed to her dramatic side.

Father Christopher was the associate of a priest my mother knew, and I sort of had a crush on him because he was young and almost hunky. He looked like he should be out on a grassy field in a pair of shorts kicking a soccer ball and not indoors in the dark, dressed in a black smock dress lighting candles.

My mother attended church most Sundays, and sometimes, out of boredom, I would go with her. I seldom attended the actual service, instead preferring to walk around the hallways, exploring the vacant offices that extended from the church itself. I got to look up close at the naked Jesus attached to the cinder-block walls with eight-inch bolts, the inspirational posters that were so corny they made me laugh, and the various implements and accoutrements of the Catholic religion, all of which I found strange and fascinating. I especially loved the brass tithing tray with the long black broom handle on the other end. I wanted, desperately, to steal it and hang it in my room above my bed.

Often on my explorations, I would pass by Father Christopher, and we would exchange a nod and a glance. The first few times, I thought his glance meant, I’m watching you so don’t steal anything. But then I began to detect something else in his eyes. Something that reminded me of my dog, Brutus. It was hunger that I saw. And being a hungry, attention-starved teenager myself, I gave him back the same look he gave me.

It happened when I went into the men’s room. I’d passed him in the hallway and then turned left and gone into the bathroom with the sole purpose of peeing. But a moment later, the door opened, and in walked Father Christopher. My first thought was, he thinks I’m going to smoke in here. And while I did, from time to time, steal cigarettes and smoke, that wasn’t what was on my mind. But instead of scolding me, he simply walked up to the urinal next to mine and peered over the metal divider.

It was such an unexpected thing. Truly, you really can’t say what you’d do in such a situation until you’re suddenly there.

I pretended not to notice, and then, when I was finished peeing, I looked at him and said, Hi.

His eyes were glazed over with some sort of mad glue, and he could not stop staring at my crotch. He was clenching his jaw -“ I could tell by watching the muscles twitch. And he was sweating, which was odd since the building was always freezing, like a meat locker. His hands were in his pants, and I saw then that he was playing with himself.

Okay, twist my arm. I was fourteen, bored, angry, horny, lonely, and for various reasons my threshold for strangeness was very high, so I simply dropped my pants and stepped away from the urinal, facing him.

And this turned out to be my first excellent blow job from a Catholic priest.

He sobbed after I came, and I felt terrible. I didn’t feel terrible for me. I mean, it wasn’t like he was somebody I trusted who molested or betrayed me. He was a hunky young guy in the wrong career who got my rocks off. For a straight guy, it would be like being fourteen and having one of the centrefolds from Playboy step out of the magazine and hand you a bottle of mineral oil. Like you’d complain? Like you’d go, oh my God, you’ve damaged me! On the other hand, I was unusual. I was an unsupervised youth, old for my age, not a virgin. I wasn’t a good Catholic boy.

But standing there watching, I felt terrible for Father Christopher. He sobbed, and shook and appeared, there on his knees, like he was about to divide into pieces, which in a way I suppose was exactly what was happening. He, the priest, was vulnerable and ruined for that moment. And I, the fourteen-year-old, felt kind of thrilled and kind of like, What do you expect? You worship a naked man; this shit’s bound to happen. There seemed to be nothing to do but step around him and leave, and when I tried to do this, he reached up and grabbed my arm. Please, he said.

It’s okay, I told him. You’re going to be fine. Nothing terrible happened.

When I moved back to Manhattan after my brief stint in Chicago, I thought my priest days were behind me. For somebody who was not a member of the church, it seemed to me that to receive two blow jobs from two different Catholic priests was an extraordinarily rare, nearly miraculous coincidence.

So imagine my shock when it happened a third time.

Only this time, there could have been no way for me to know.

I was in a cab on my way back from JFK I’d been out in LA for three weeks shooting a commercial for UPS. As always, I got loaded in the bar at the airport before boarding the plane and then had more drinks on the plane itself. By the time I landed in New York, I was completely wasted.

The cab driver turned out to be really cute. He did not, for once, smell like a farm animal or wear a filthy turban. He was Irish and in his late thirties, and although I don’t remember what we talked about, I do remember that we kept checking each other out in his rearview mirror. Funny how even a cab can turn into a gay bar when two gay guys are in it. Anyway, by the time we were in Queens, it seemed inevitable that something was going to happen, and I could finally add cab driver to my list of sexual partners.

In fact, he pulled into a deserted area in Long Island City and climbed into the backseat. After we were finished, he got back in the driver’s seat, turned on the meter, and continued driving me home.

You’re a funny cab driver, I told him. A lot friskier than any other cab driver I’ve ever had. Plus, you speak English.

He laughed. Well, I wasn’t always a cab driver, so that’s why.

Oh, don’t tell me. An actor.

Actually, I was a Catholic priest.

Magical Thinking by Augusten Burroughs, published by Hodder Headline, is available at The Bookshop Darlinghurst, RRP $29.95. The author will be a guest of the 2005 Sydney Writers’ Festival, 23-29 May.

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