Sunday, April 4, 2010

Coming Clean

I think it will come as little surprise to those who have read my postings carefully that I am a survivor of priest sexual abuse. The incident occurred in 1962, when I was an altar boy at Saint Carthage parish in West Philadelphia. The priest in question was Father Francis P. Rogers, who, ironically, was a high school classmate of my father. I will not go into the details, which remain indistinct in my memory to this day, since I suppressed any recollection of the event for over forty years. How it emerged is as follows...

When the priest sexual abuse scandal first broke into the press, I found myself unduly fascinated by it. I read everything that appeared and followed developments closely. Finally, I began to hunt for the confessions of priests in my parish, and then, about five years ago, I found that of Rogers, who described how he had molested an altar boy at his family's home in Sea Isle City, New Jersey. As I read the confession, I gradually realized, to my horror, that the altar boy was me. When I finished reading, I vomited.

Rogers' house in Sea Isle was where he took the best of the altar boys for a reward every summer. That summer of 1962, he took me and some of my friends. How many of us he molested there I do not know, and as I have said, I would not even admit what had happened to me for over forty years. Nor could I recall it in any detail. Though I had had a visceral sense that something had happened, I could not or would not allow myself to remember what had happened. Then, as I prepared for my heart surgery, which occurred January a year ago, I began to have flashbacks - brief, searing re-enactments which were like needles jabbed into my brain. As the surgery drew closer, the flashbacks became more vivid and prolonged, and for the fist time in four decades, I saw again the beach house, the screened porch, the priest, and heard his voice telling me that this was a Godly thing, and that it was for my own good.

Finally, when I was recovering from the surgery, I lay in my hospital bed fitfully unable to sleep. The night nurse came to check on me and found me nearly delirious.

"Do you know where you are?" she asked, as they are trained to do.

"Yes," I replied. "I'm in New Jersey."

"Do you know what year it is?"

"It's 1962."

"No, you're in Los Angeles in 2009," she gently insisted.

I growled at her, "No... I'm in Sea Isle City, New Jersey, and it's 1962." She asked what was happening. "I'm with a priest," I answered in a voice I scarcely recognized. She asked what he was doing. "He's raping me."

Alone in the darkness of that hospital room I was back - back there in that time and place, though I knew perfectly well where I really was. But my current reality was being overwhelmed by my childhood one - the present was utterly irrelevant; only the past was real. I could no longer hold the dam against it - it flooded over me. I was back there.

After my recollection, I went through the usual experience of shock, self-revulsion, bitter recrimination, guilt, and finally, of the desperate effort to convince myself that I was not to blame. I am still going through that phase.

Rogers was a monster, a criminal of the worst sort, preying on the children entrusted to his care. But equally criminal were the pastors and the bishop who knew of his crimes and covered them up, moving him from parish to parish so that he could avoid exposure and prosecution, and so that they could avoid scandal. And in this way Rogers' path crossed mine - a twelve-year-old child. The bishop who facilitated his crimes was Cardinal John Krol, widely regarded as a prince in Philadelphia, and by some, even as a saint. But he was as filthy and vile a creature as Rogers himself, making it possible for the so-called priest to sate his vicious and disgusting appetite on the innocent children of Krol's archdiocese. I do not believe in hell, but Krol did, and I am certain that, if he was right and I am wrong, he is luxuriating in its fires as I write.

Krol made it possible for Rogers to molest me, and, I am quite sure, to molest other altar boys at Saint Carthage and other parishes in that house of horror in New Jersey. If any of those boys read this post, I earnestly hope that they will get in touch with me so that we may help one another to sort out what was done to us at that most vulnerable moment in our lives.

Among the many ironies of this story is the fact that when Cardinal Krol came to our parish to administer confirmation, I was chosen to bear his miter, the gilded shepherd's crook which is a symbol of the bishop's office. At one point, while I was clutching it, my hands wrapped in a golden shawl as I was not considered worthy to touch it with my bare hands, Krol approached me and said, "You are a very serious boy." Perhaps he knew, or did not care, that I was so serious because I had been raped by a priest whose crimes he had enabled and was even then in the process of covering up.

Many years later, Rogers confessed to the Philadelphia District Attorney. He was never prosecuted nor even punished. Instead, he was allowed to retire. And where did he retire? To his family's home in Sea Isle City, the very site of his crimes, where he died several years ago. He abused me, stripped me of my innocence, and died, so far as I know, peacefully in bed.

Do I blame the Church? Yes. Do I blame its hierarchy? Yes. As I read today the statements by Catholics who declare that they will not abandon their Church even in face of these mounting scandals, I cannot help but feel that they would do exactly as Krol and the other bishops did: They would sacrifice the innocence of children rather than admit that their religion is a lie and their faith is a fraud. Such is the evil of which the true believer is capable.

I will have more to say about my experience, now that I am coming clean. For, most of my life, I have felt dirty, defiled, a leper among my fellow men. When I worked in the Congo as a volunteer after college, I served a time in a leper colony. Among those Biblical sufferers I felt a kind of peace, a kind of release. They bore on their flesh the same scars as I bore on my soul, and for that I found them pathetic and beautiful. I had no qualm about handling them, even closely, since I was, myself, a lifelong leper, and in their company I experienced a kind of kindred. I was a brother to them in a way I have never been to my own brother. Those lepers and I were brothers in spirit.

I cannot write much more on this subject now, since it is for me a catharsis even to admit it. I cannot help but feel stigmatized, and ashamed. But I have tried to speak of it to others, without much success, and though it occurred over forty years ago, it is still very much a part of the fabric of my mind. Indeed, since I admitted the possibility to myself only five years ago, it remains an open wound, with which I have to deal. I am trying to deal with it now, tonight, this evening, and this admission is part of that process.

Let me say only that the experience of having been abused as a child by a man whom I was taught to believe was a representative of God on Earth was devastating to me, as it must be to all my fellow survivors. Since that time, when I had my childhood innocence torn violently away, I have been subject to chronic depression and thoughts of suicide, which have dogged me my entire adult life. I have found it difficult, indeed, almost impossible to form a bond of trust with any adult, I have always despised and mistrusted authority figures, I have had dozens of failed and destructive relationships with women, including failed marriages, I have felt alienated, isolated, alone and sad, as if I were a creature from another planet exiled in a strange land, as if I did not deserve the company or solicitude or understanding of anyone on Earth.

Happiness has been an ongoing crisis for me. I have never been happy in my life, except in the company of my children, who alone can give me happiness. Indeed, the only people I have ever been able to trust are children, over whom I exercise a doting care which some have called over-protectiveness. But I know what kinds of predators lurk out there, and what heights of authority protect them, and so, of course, I am protective of my children. I would not wish on them or any innocent the bestial abuse to which I, a child, an altar boy, a tender, trusting acolyte of God was subjected. And so I have labored ever since I gained the sacred state of fatherhood to protect my children from harm with a solicitude driven by the darkest form of human experience. I love my children dearly, and I do not want them to come to harm, as I came to harm at the filthy fingers of a consecrated priest of God.

The molestation to which I was subjected changed my life forever, as it cannot help but change the life of anyone who falls its victim, especially since the molester, a priest, is held out to us as an example of virtue, a paragon of trust, a repository of God's intent for us on Earth. And when this creature proves to be a monster, a hellish, heartless fiend, how are we to reassemble the ruined fragments of our violated lives?

I have done the best I could. I have created a career, I have raised four extraordinary children, I have tried my best, within the shattered mirror of my consciousness, to do good and live a purposeful life. I have striven to help those in need who came to my attention; I have been as charitable as I could. But through it all, happiness was closed to me as a possibility, and true intimacy became an alien thing. I could never get close to other adults, since I always felt, deep in my soul, that they were holding something behind their backs, some hideous secret, that they would suddenly spring on me to the annihilation of my soul. This is how survivors of priest sexual abuse feel: That at any moment our souls may be annihilated by those whom we should trust. Such is the legacy of priest sexual abuse: Our innocence was corrupted into bitter mistrust.

This is the first time I have spoken of my experience in a public way. I do so for two reasons: First, because the scandal has finally come to light for what it is - the revelation that the Catholic Church is a vast conspiracy directed against the innocence of children. And second, because my few faltering attempts to confide my truth in others have met with scant response. I simply cannot live with this truth in silence any longer. I must come clean. And in that effort I dearly hope that cleanliness may yet ensue for me - if not for my flesh, then finally, for my soul.