Published online by Cambridge University Press: 27 May 2021
It was the culmination of a months-long legislative fight, not to mention some eighty years of swirling allegations about Catholic sexual deviance, when the local sheriff and health commissioner arrived at St. Joseph Academy in remote Mena, Arkansas, where Catholics represented a tiny minority of the population. The county officials entered the school under authority bestowed by the state’s new Convent Inspection Act of 1915, designed to end the rumored practice of Catholic institutions harboring girls for the sexual gratification, as one enraged Arkansan put it, of a “lecherous bunch” of priests.1 Discovering no evidence of crime or malfeasance among the several Sisters of Mercy and the small number of female students at the school, the sheriff, evidently impressed by his hosts, apologized to them and promised to return for a social visit with his wife. Meanwhile, elected officials in Georgia successfully installed a similar law aimed at routing out Catholic perversion, and legislators in seven other states – from Iowa to Oregon to Minnesota – debated their own versions of a convent inspection bill. Together, these largely forgotten efforts at policing sexual activity in Catholic institutions hint at how significant and controversial Catholicism has been in the history of gender and sexuality in the United States.
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