July 24, 2014
Open Letter to My Family and Members of the Church of St. Luke:
In February 2002 I wrote letters to you announcing my plan to take a leave of absence from the Jesuits. This meant that I would no longer be your pastor and would be giving up priestly ministry – two roles I cherished.
I regret that shame, fear and deep pain prevented me from being more forthcoming with the truth. The real reason I left Jesuit priesthood is this: I was sexually abused by a Jesuit superior. The abuse occurred on five occasions over a period of eighteen months. In addition to his role in my life, the man had held numerous roles of authority and remains highly esteemed in the Jesuit province.
In my letters to you I explained that I desired “a life that includes deeper relationships and experiences that are not now an option. An important part of this is a desire for greater stability in relationships and the freedom to have a ‘home’.” Although factually accurate, these were not my real reason for leaving. You deserve to know the truth and this rather lengthy explanation gives you the full story.
My personal journals from those years – long before I came to St. Luke’s – are boxed away in storage. They would give exact timelines and many more specific details. Suffice to say, the fifth and final “time away” with this man was the lowest and most humiliating experience of my life. Devastated is too weak of a descriptor! Resolving this would never happen again, I was determined to reassert moral discipline and tight control over my life. Despite my best efforts, what’s buried alive stays alive!
About a year after the abuse ended I initiated a meeting with the new provincial to “manifest my conscience” (a peculiarly Jesuit term meaning to come clean about what’s really going on). He was quiet and thoughtful. In asking “Do you think he has done this to others?” I got the impression that he understood the gravity of the situation. Soon I received a welcome new ministry assignment in Washington, DC. However, in all future meetings with him as provincial he never once initiated any conversation or inquired about the sexual violation I had brought to him.
In addition to this early overture to the provincial I reached out to no fewer than five others – four men and one woman – who held various positions of leadership in the province during the following years. Every victim of abuse knows what incredible strength it takes to break through the shame, secrecy and intimidation that holds us locked in fear and silence. In a letter dated December 2, 1997 I confronted the man himself – not for the first time but by explicitly naming his behavior as abuse. His response was apologetic but hardly satisfying.
All the while I felt like I was spewing out my guts, emotionally hemorrhaging in front of people who should be in positions to help, struggling to get through the anguish and to regain some vitality for life and spontaneity in ministry. In every case, the person to whom I reached out was empathetic in the moment. But no one followed up with any expression of personal, pastoral or practical assistance. In a conversation shortly before I officially left the Jesuits I was able to ask one with whom I had shared my pain in the context of my annual retreat, “Why didn’t you do something?” He said, “I thought it was only once.”
There was one shining exception, Brad Schaeffer who was superior of the Jesuit community in Washington, DC where I lived immediately prior to being assigned pastor for St. Luke’s. Brad had been provincial of the Jesuits of the Chicago Province. His experience obviously served him – and me – quite well.
Brad cut to the heart of the matter with an explicit question, “What do you need from the Society?” My response was immediate, easy and simple… “All I need is for someone in authority to tell me that I am valuable and valued; that what happened to me was wrong, should never have happened, and in the name of the Society, he is sorry!”
I moved to St Paul on May 1999 knowing that “someone in authority” could only be the Jesuit provincial. How hard could it be? He had already heard the core of my story years earlier! Right!!! If you believe that any of this can be easy you don’t understand the cold, tight grip in which a culture of abuse keeps its victims paralyzed.
The steep learning curve of becoming a pastor and getting to know the community of St. Luke’s provided a welcome distraction from the pain buried just beneath the surface. Winter 2000 turned into Spring 2001. We’d be getting a new provincial in June. I could delay no longer. On May 7 I mustered sufficient courage to phone the provincial to explain what I needed – an explicit apology in the name of the Society that what I had experienced was wrong and should not have happened. In that conversation the provincial said we would meet when I came to Milwaukee for a province assembly at the beginning of June.
Suffice to say what I was led to believe would happen did not. Again at my initiative I had to intercept the provincial between Morning Prayer and breakfast on the second day of the assembly or our conversation would never have occurred. I returned from Milwaukee feeling ignored, used and taken for granted once again. I left for a two-week vacation experiencing the festering wound of abuse as something not simply perpetrated by one who violates sexual and emotional boundaries. Abuse is compounded many times over by others in an abusive system of defensive denial and acts of omission.
Sexual abuse is a “structural sin” imbedded within a culture that either believes denial will make it go away or is hell-bent on protecting the organization’s prestige, privilege or power. This has intensified and prolonged the violation I have felt. A deep pain in this sad scenario is that I still want to believe the Society of Jesus, at its core, is better than all this!
I have concluded that people in these dysfunctional systems are like fish – they don’t have an awareness of, nor can they acknowledge, the water in which they swim. Though far short of acceptance or comprehension, I remain a victim if I cannot compose some explanation for how this could happen. If this is not part of a healing process, talk of forgiveness or any future reconciliation is out of the question.
I’m not fully there yet. Yes, telling my story out loud and in public still frightens me. The first of two superiors of the Jesuit community in Washington where I lived immediately prior to coming to St. Luke’s – the one before Brad Schaeffer – faced allegations of sexual harassment from a young Jesuit under his supervision. The story broke on CBS 60 Minutes in 1999. The Society of Jesus fought hard in Federal court to stifle litigation. After a successful appeal to have his case heard in open court, the evidence was never presented. The Jesuits settled with the claimant out of court for an undisclosed sum.
Jesuits speak of being Companions in the Lord. “Companionship” is the heart of Jesuit identity and is strong, real and rich. It also has its “shadow” side. I remember the “circling of the wagons” among Jesuits immediately after the 60 Minutes expose. I have never met our superior’s accuser but I heard plenty of nasty character assassination and charges of being a “gold-digger.” Some who knew the young Jesuit said he was a willing accomplice and even basked in the erotic attention. The culture of abuse was very much in evidence – blame the victim!
I simply don’t know – I never met the man and evidence was never aired in court. Yet, he was shunned, shamed and called a liar by people who had no knowledge of the case. Jesuits are called “the Pope’s Marines” for a reason – you can count on them to rally to the defense of any perceived attack from outside their tight brotherhood. Most often this is a blessing. In this case of alleged harassment, I silently sided with the claimant and witnessed a bludgeoning. Who wouldn’t feel intimidated?
In the spirit of transparency I should say that I do know the difference between sexual activity between consenting adults and sexual abuse. After many years of “living the letter” of my vow of celibate chastity, I became involved in a sexual relationship with a Jesuit peer and colleague in ministry. I sought counsel and help from the man who would later violate my trust. I went to him because of his roles in my life, his position of leadership and reputation for spiritual wisdom. Rather than offering assistance I have concluded that he interpreted my overture for help as an indication of availability.
Fast forward again to June 2001… I returned from vacation after the Milwaukee assembly clear in my determination to seek a leave of absence. I called the newly installed provincial early in July to inform him of my disposition. Through all the months leading up to my leaving St. Luke’s and the Jesuit community on March 1, 2002, I never had a face-to-face meeting with the provincial or anyone on the province staff. It seemed strange – then and now – that something so significant would be handled with a few phone calls and a series of emails. Was I not more valued, more valuable? I have concluded that, yet again, they did not take me seriously or believe what I was saying.
My hope that the pain and reality of sexual abuse would be left behind with a leave of absence was soon dashed. Archbishop Rembert Weakland, OSB of Milwaukee had long been my hero and icon of the great churchman. I eagerly attended his 8 a.m. Sunday liturgies at the Cathedral whenever I was in town. His leadership with the US Conference of Catholic Bishops in drafting their pastoral statement on the US economy epitomizes episcopal leadership and the church’s social teaching at their best. I was honored to have been ordained priest by Archbishop Weakland in 1988.
Imagine my heartache upon hearing the report on national news in May 2002 that Weakland had resigned after it was revealed he had secretly used $450,000 of diocesan funds years earlier to prevent a lawsuit for sexual assault. The payment had been made to hide his relationship with a 30-year-old male graduate student. Does the pain and reality of sexual abuse ever go away?
On January 6, 2004 an email arrived that flashed me back into exasperation and initial disbelief. The province was looking for a new pastor for St. Luke’s and the name of the Jesuit who had abused me was frequently surfacing as one for consideration. The insidious nature of abuse is that it continues to resurface and poke its ugly head into one’s face again and again. At first, the email message sent a stab of pain and the price of loss washed over me again.
That evening I consulted with two members of St. Luke’s with whom I had worked closely and in whom I had confided the “whole story” when I was deciding to take a leave of absence. After sleeping on the matter I chose to focus on the positive and interpret the fact of being asked my opinion to be made in good faith and showed growing sensitivity, comprehension and respect. Nevertheless, I clearly expressed to the province the two parishioners’ thoughts – as well as mine – about the prospect of having this man as pastor of St. Luke’s. To say they and I would have a serious issue with such an appointment would be a gross understatement!
My reply quoted letters from March and May 2003 to the provincial which stated that my “experience of sexual abuse has so eroded my trust in Jesuit superiors and the Society’s ‘cura personalis’ [care of the person] that I no longer choose to be a Jesuit.” Still, this was a huge step forward. Now, a member of the province staff expressed “a deep down hesitation” about an appointment they had the authority to make.
The email asked whether “given [my] history and experience, should a position of leadership, especially in the same city, even be considered?” It went on to say they “want to be respectful of [my] experiences.” Though my first response had been that of a victim whose pain is again flashed before him, my current perspective chooses to focus on good intentions, growing comprehension and the sincerity of the gesture.
I don’t know the technical definition of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I do know that depression and anxiety can arise seemingly from nowhere. Events in the news have and continue to send me into a tailspin. Such was the case in Spring 2010 when stories of abuse being reported in the media sent me back into therapy. This time I decided to write the Jesuit provincial to inform him of my lingering pain and the recurring struggle with which I live. His response, hand-written on Jesuit community stationery, said in part:
Thank you for letting me know about your return to therapy to address the ongoing consequences of your experience of sexual abuse that led to your departure from the Society. I also appreciate your helping me to have a better understanding of the effects of such abuse. I will keep you in my prayer both that what you hope and wish for me and others sharing your experience will be increasingly realized and that your recovery and healing will be realized as well.
Though an expression of gratitude and assurance of prayer falls short of what I have wanted and needed from Jesuit leadership, the fact he made the effort to respond at all and to name my experience “abuse” was deeply appreciated. Especially from the perspective of today, the note tells me a new generation of leadership is beginning to “get it.”
So, why now? Why am I telling my story at such length? Why not now? Essentially, within the past eighteen months I have felt an emotional loosening, an ability to breathe, and a gentle impulse to let-go, to let down my defenses, a resolve to smile more authentically. A growing sense of strength and freedom cannot help but express itself out loud!
Yes, my physician tells me that I will likely need to be on my anti-depressant for the rest of my life. And, I now keep six Klonopin on hand to forestall another 2 a.m. trip to the ER for panic attack. But without knowing the day or the occasion, I have moved from feeling like a victim to that of being a survivor. That difference need not be fully in place for me to recognize the change as dramatic.
My pain has mutated over the years through grief and deep sadness into something approaching acceptance. News in February 2012 that Scottish Cardinal Keith O’Brien resigned after initially denying accusations by four priests of sexual exploitation seemed like “old news” and all too familiar. The fact that he was dis-invited from participating in the conclave that elected Pope Francis and was forced to resign carried a refreshing element of vindication!
Parenthetically, Pope Francis is not an anomaly. He is one expression of many really fine Jesuits who are very much the norm rather than the exception. Neither is the story I tell here to be interpreted as an indictment of all Jesuits or a distraction from the tremendous good the Society of Jesus does globally and through the Wisconsin Province. Ignatius wanted “a few abnegated men.” I believe he would be proud of what he’s got today. I choose to believe the abdication of responsibility and complicity in abuse described here is the real anomaly to the Jesuit norm, especially today.
Yes, I still get angry hearing stories such as Oprah Winfrey’s July 17 interview of Jerry Sandusky’s son. Matt Sandusky tells of his father grooming of his victims and his subtle forms of manipulation. Matt’s story is his story – but I recognize its truth and fully appreciate the years it took him to tell it. Something I also understand is his father’s continuing protestations of innocence. I have no doubt that Jerry Sandusky truly believes he did nothing wrong and was simply engaging in good-natured child’s play with his son and his other victims. That’s part of the tragic pattern of abuse.
One important lesson in all of this is about consequences. I still hold Rembert Weakland in high esteem and admire his leadership as international leader for all Benedictine’s in the world and then as Archbishop. His ground breaking work on behalf of economic justice endures. I truly grieve that he has lived the past twelve years alone in an apartment in Milwaukee and was informed last month that he is not welcome to return to his home abbey in Pennsylvania. Behavior has consequences. I concede he did not set out to hurt anyone. But behavior, the kind we call misbehavior, has tragic consequences for oneself – and others. Believe me, I know!
Again, what prompts my disclosure now? An important prompt was the self-disclosure by Washington Post writer Steven Petrow in his April 28 column. A friend had slipped a novel by Carrie Brown into his mailbox. The novel tells the story of Ruth, now in her “twilight . . . look[ing] back on a harrowing childhood and on the unaccountable love and happiness that emerged from it.” Petrow hung on a single line from near the end of the book: “If I can’t ever tell anyone the true story . . . then no one will ever know me.”
Petrow had been writing an essay about his life and the self-blame he’d long carried about having had cancer. But he stopped his writing, snagged in that very same way as when he had come upon Ruth’s admonition. Would he include a certain seven words: “I had been molested as a child.”? He went on to explain his experience of being sexually molested by his paternal grandfather. I have been hanging on Petrow’s disclosure since April. Like him, I do not believe in coincidences. There is a reason his story crossed my path at this time in my life. “If I can’t ever tell anyone the true story . . . then no one will ever know me.”
The sad news of Fr. Pat Malone’s death arrived yesterday as I was finalizing this “open letter.” I was soon reminded of a post Pat made on his Caring Bridge site during Holy Week 2010. He reflected on the sex abuse scandal roiling the church he loved with his decades long battle with cancer. Pat expressed outrage at clergy abuse of minors but I am encouraged and consoled by his wisdom:
What has most rattled the world, believers and non-believers, is not that an organization has criminals and disturbed individuals within its ranks, but that those who could put the individuals out of harm’s way did not always do so, sometimes until a public outcry demanded it. The way forward was to conceal. There is a place for discretion, especially when it helps the wounded find a new normal, but secrecy too often feeds on itself: it makes it easier to stay clandestine the next time, and the next time. When we do not speak of the corruption, we do not stop it. Secrets keep us ill. They perpetuate shame… Worst of all, secrets convince us that we either do not need redemption, or its beyond our reach.
Pat was a superb Jesuit, of which there are many. He was a beloved associate pastor for St. Luke’s. I trust that he would endorse this truth-telling.
Unquestionably, another powerful motivation has been the decades-long cover-up of clergy sex abuse in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. Minnesota Public Radio broke open the horrendous story more than a year ago. It now finds expression in at least forty law suits against the Archdiocese working their way through the courts. MPR aptly titles its July 14 webcast, “Betrayed by Silence.” This 59-minute radio documentary meticulously recounts the efforts of three successive archbishops to hide clergy sex abuse, failures to comply with protocols enacted by the US bishops in 2002, and stone-walling investigations by law enforcement. Tragically, the “structural sin” of systemic abuse is very much in evidence.
The most immediate and by far the most powerful impetus for my disclosure is a story first broke on July 1 by Commonweal magazine. Since the end of 2013 Archbishop John Nienstedt of St. Paul and Minneapolis has been under investigation for “multiple allegations” of inappropriate sexual conduct with seminarians, priests, and other adult men. Upon receiving complaints last year the Archdiocese has hired a law firm to conduct a full and independent investigation. In the past this would have sent me into a tailspin of depression, perhaps back into therapy. Today I choose the opposite of burying my feelings – rather, I choose to use a newly empowered voice to tell my story out loud and in public.
Regular readers of Kneading Bread know that I have frequently reiterated what rank-and-file Catholics know all too well… the root cause of our sex abuse crisis in the church is the culture of clericalism, hierarchical arrogance and preoccupation with protecting power and privilege. Now you know from where the passion and forcefulness of my conviction is coming. You now better understand the personal price and outrage beneath my words!
On July 7 – still outraged by the story about Archbishop Nienstedt’s alleged misconduct – I wrote on this blog: It’s long past time for more than a little honesty in our church. We are in urgent need of changing the sieve that keeps secret the tragic truth poisoning our church family. Honest confessions are long overdue. Telling my story is holding myself accountable to what I truly believe.
Actually, we need far more than “a little” honesty. I have become exhausted by holding my secret. More and more I am finding my voice – shame simultaneously dissipates. Confession is long overdue! Only now do I feel strong enough to add mine to the long roster of public confessions that still need to be heard in the light of day.
Finally, my family and faithful friends from St. Luke’s deserve yet another expression of gratitude. Your ongoing affection and practical support continue to nurture and inspire me. Over the last few months our paths have crossed at graduation celebrations, retirement parties, birthday recitals and other family get-togethers. We have shared losses and expressed grief as well as joy and achievement. Again without effort or awareness on your part, you remain a tremendous gift. When we have hugged and reminisced I have increasingly left with this conviction: You have a right to know!
Clergy sex abuse is perpetrated by a culture that holds its victims hostage within silence and secrecy. You have been victimized by this culture of abuse as well. As our paths have crossed this summer, especially in light of the scandals currently being exposed in this Archdiocese, it has seemed an injustice to you not to disclose the truth of my departure. Paraphrasing actress Ellen Page’s coming-out statement, “I am simply tired of lying to you by omission.”
You need not be a careful reader to see that I have deliberately not named names. Some in whom I have confided believe I should. But my purpose is not to seek revenge or retaliation. Yes, an undercurrent of anger, pain and grief flows through these pages. I have tried for too long to bury or disguise it. What’s buried alive stays alive. No more! I can achieve what contributes to my healing without saying more than I need to say.
One thing anger has taught is that it can be used to hurt or to heal. I sincerely want the hurt to stop – disclosing names just feels hurtful and stopping short of naming names feels right. I seek healing, for me and for all victims – not naming names seems like an appropriate way to express my strength and direct my anger toward that goal.
A composition of this length warrants a crescendo close. The only one that comes to mind is the quote from the Greek poet Aeschylus made famous by Robert Kennedy when I was seventeen and too young to fully comprehend its import. RFK concluded his remarks on the day Martin Luther King was assassinated:
“Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”
But this composition is not history nor mythology – it’s my story, my life! Truly, it has become a story we share. It is our story! I am incapable of crafting a fitting conclusion alone. No longer do I presume to carry the responsibility of crafting that conclusion by myself.
Healing comes when we are open and honest, when the fullness of our lives is given as gift for others.