Actor Andrew Rannells misses an opportunity to seriously address clergy sex abuse in new book

(COMMENTARY) Roman Catholicism reached a crossroads last summer when decades-old allegations of sexual abuse by priests surfaced, plunging the church into crisis once again. For those who grew up in the church — and still attend regularly — this is a wound they have to grapple with. How cardinals and bishops handled some of these past cases, and allegations of a string of coverups leading right up to the Vatican, remains a very big controversy.  

In his new book, actor Andrew Rannells reveals that a Catholic priest sexually assaulted him during confession and later at his home following a graduation party. The 272-page book — Too Much is Not Enough: A Memoir of Fumbling Toward Adulthood — is where Rannells goes into some detail about his childhood experiences at a Jesuit high school in Nebraska. Part of that experience includes being sexually assaulted by a priest. The actor goes into some detail about having to deal with his own homosexuality and unwarranted sexual advances from a man he’d put his trust in.

When a priest does this to a child or young adult, he steals them of their faith. While the events detailed in this book are not my experience (or that of many Catholics), it is important to understand past allegations of abuse in order to prevent future ones. This book, however, falls short of this. It’s not clear that Rannells’ bad experiences with the Catholic clergy are what left him disappointed with religion. This book, spends too much time mocking faith and thrives on predictable stereotypes and anti-Catholic tropes that have become all too familiar these days. In a nutshell, he reduces the clerical sex abuse into a TV teen drama and misses an opportunity to seriously address an issue that is of great concern to Catholics and society as a whole.

Before making it big on TV and Broadway, Rannells was a regular kid from Omaha with big dreams. But Rannells, in attempting to dramatize his past, goes into some bad theology — or at least misunderstanding — when it comes to Catholic faith. He writes about being an altar boy as having to be “chosen.” He confuses his love for the theater with serving during Mass, even going so far as calling the position “glamorous.”

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As someone who served as an altar boy (another notable server includes mobster Al Capone, which tells you something about the enduring effects of such a task as a child), I can tell you there isn’t anything glamorous about it. They are long moments where nothing happens. For some, the whole benefit of volunteering to be an altar boy included a year-end trip to a local amusement park or free swigs of wine in the sacristy.  

“Catholic mass seemed to be sort of similar to theater,” Rannells wrote. “There were lights, music, singing, costumes, special effects, drama, a big magic show at the end and then more singing to close it out.”

Of course, no coming-of-age memoir with a Catholic twist would be complete without a mean nun. In this book, Rannells goes into some detail regarding Sister Idalia, his first grade teacher. One of her biggest problems was telling Rannells that he shouldn’t — gasp! — play with dolls or hopscotch. It turns out that Sister Idalia was in charge of the altar servers, meaning Rannells would have to spend some time with her.

If that isn’t enough, “The Book of Mormon” star reduces centuries-old traditions and the Mass itself into a joke, calling the white cossack altar boys wear as a “Catholic mass costume.”

The Tony-nominated Rannells also writes that he was told never to put on the white hood because “we would have looked like members of the KKK.” These phrases may get a chuckle out of secular readers, but does nothing to endear even moderately devout Catholic ones to want to flip to the next page.

Rannells spends equal time praising the Jesuits who taught at his high school, calling them the “cool kids of the Catholic Church.” He admits to having a crush on one teacher named Father Tom and admits to “having reeked of hormonal tension and vulnerability” while in his presence.

“To his credit, Father Tom never acknowledged my desperation, but other priests did,” he writes.

The entire time, Rannells admits at age 16 to having a sexual relationship with a 40-year-old man. He goes on to list two priests who Rannells claims had an interest in him — one of them he calls “Father Dominic” for having assaulted him. He writes: “If I had to kiss a priest at my graduation party, why couldn’t it have been a priest I wanted to kiss? More important, why did I have to kiss anyone?”  

Whether he intended it or not, the book wades into a controversial — and ongoing debate between liberals and conservatives within Catholicism — subject regarding the clerical sex-abuse crisis. Is this a problem regarding pedophile priests, who prey on young children, or homosexuality among clergy? If Rannells’ account counts for anything, it appears to confirm what conservative Catholics have argued: that allegations of abuse, like in the case of last summer’s Pennsylvania grand jury report spanning decades, involved victims who were mostly teen males.

Rannells, and his love for the theater and acting, shines through in this book. His hard work in trying to make it in New York is admirable, but his embrace of that world — and shunning Catholicism altogether — appears misguided. He writes: “It was time to leave high school, it was time to leave the Catholic Church, it was time to leave Omaha, and it was time to leave this idea that I had to go along with whatever older men was calling the shots, behind.” Instead, Rannells embraces acting. Guess he’s never heard of the #MeToo movement.

This is a book with few good guys. Rannells had to clearly overcome a lot to become a theater star. The book’s tone, both jokey and sarcastic, make the chapter where he writes about abuse appear trivial. Maybe it’s a coping mechanism; maybe it’s meant to appear funny to his fans. Unwanted sexual advances from anyone are a very serious issue — one that’s tackled poorly in this book — and Rannells doesn’t come off as sympathetic as he should. Instead, he seems to want to use it as an excuse to leave the church.

If Rannells felt anxiety and even depression, why don’t we get that? Unlike other celebrity memoirs, there isn’t a heavy dose of drama here when there can be. While Rannells’ ability to use his talents to make it as an actor in New York City should be the central focus, Catholic bashing seems easier.

As a result, we get a distorted view of Catholicism that does nothing for those who didn’t have the same experiences with religion. In the end, even those who were abused find little comfort from this poorly executed book.