As an immigrant son, growing up in the working class Bronx, I was grateful for my Catholic education…first with the Sisters of Charity and the Christian Brothers at St. Raymond’s and later with the Jesuits at Fordham Prep.
Gratitude is not without its limits.
When a Pennsylvania grand jury issued their report on August 14, 2018 charging that over 300 priests (in that state alone) have been credibly accused of sexually abusing over 1,000 child victims, memories returned. Those memories were rooted in the special and unlimited trust our families placed in the consecrated people of God who taught us. In many cases, that trust was well-placed. In some, it was terribly abused.
Here is a story from my 1962 eighth grade class…
On the first day of the school year our new teacher, Brother Bernard introduced himself with these words:
“I have been a Christian Brother for 10 years. I have taught in 10 schools in those 10 years. I left my last school after I broke a student’s eardrum.”
That was the moment I learned that if awful things are said as if they are normal, they become a new normal – especially if the speak holds an embedded authority. Brother Bernard’s words may also have been easier to accept in a school where the principal wore a razor strop on his cassock as a sign of his authority…a cross around his neck, a razor strop at his waist.
As the school year progressed, various students, including me, were invited in groups of three or four with one of the Brothers to various trips into Manhattan. Later in the year, a small group was invited to what they told us was Friday night games at the Brothers House. It seemed to be the same group each week.
One day, Brother Bernard told one of the kids in the game group to come up front for a paddling for some undefined offense. Paddling was not an unusual occurrence in our class. What happened next was.
Brother Bernard put a dress on this student and then had him bend over for the paddling. Even at an age where children can be cruel to each other, no one added to this student’s humiliation.
Time passed and a week later this same student was brought forward for another paddling. This time, Brother Bernard had him drop his pants before making him put on the dress and adding rouge to his face.
After the paddling, smiling, he took this sobbing student by the hand to show him off to the other two eighth grade classes taught by Brothers.
When they came back, Brother Bernard faced us from his desk and said,
“What happened here is a tradition among the Christian Brothers. We are all men here and don’t want to embarrass [this student], so this is a secret among us in this room. It is between us alone.”
I must confess – because of the power of these men through the special connection to God and their role as teachers – we followed Brother’s direction, at least I know I did. It was not until I was I college student that I realized what I had witnessed.
Fast forward to the early 1980’s. I was workin
g at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the seventh largest Church in the world. One day I was having lunch with the Shrine’s Rector. He told me he wouldn’t be around for the next couple of days. When I asked him where he was going, he said:
“Your closest friends in the priesthood are your seminary classmates. One of my classmates died. There won’t be too many at his funeral. He was one who played with the little boys.”
While I liked the Rector, his code language sent a chill down my spine. I started looking for a new job soon after.
Over the years I have worked with many religious, including the Sisters of Providence of St. Mary of the Woods and the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. It has been my privilege to interview and write about so many who I would call heroes…people who truly live their lives for others.
But, where a 2,000-year-old institution abuses the deep trust given to them and places the preservation of reputation over truth and justice for victims, it must be held to account.
This world needs voices of moral authority. For the Catholic Church, returning to that role means that future reports cannot come from grand juries and attorneys general. The church needs to speak openly and honestly for itself. It needs to act through strong and clear leadership.