When I was 14, I was thrown out of the first high school I attended.
It was a public school with plenty of great teachers and opportunities to learn. But it was also a large school with thousands of students in a rough neighborhood that had bigger problems to solve than to make sure some harmless freshmen who kept to himself went to class.
So I didn’t.
And when my first report card came, with mostly D’s and F’s and below the minimum attendance required to continue on to the second semester, that was it. My mother, a single mom with one kid in college and one screaming full speed in the wrong direction, called in a favor. We had a family connection with one of the priests at the local Catholic High School. He pulled some strings that allowed me to enroll immediately.
There were two catches.
The first was that I would have to pay the tuition out of the money I earned as an ocean lifeguard in the summer. The second was that I would have to stay after school every day with that priest doing my homework in his office.
For six months, that’s what I did. My grades turned around and soon he let me join the crew team. And then the football team. Eventually, I graduated with honors and six varsity letters and was on my way to Annapolis to attend the United States Naval Academy. I have no idea where I would have ended up without the intervention of that priest and that Catholic school that gave him the platform to help me.
During countless hours alone with him in his office, nothing remarkable ever happened to me. He had many similar arrangements with other boys. He had none with girls.
Yesterday the Camden Diocese in New Jersey released a list of 57 clergy members accused of child sex abuse. The priest, the one that took me under his care and gave me an opportunity to turn my life around, was on the list.
In 2005, ten years after I graduated, he was permanently removed from the ministry for credible accusations that he sexually abused a boy in 1964. The boy was about the age I was when I was introduced to him.
The list that the Diocese released is something out of a nightmare.
There are other priests from my high school on it. One was the principal when my father went there. The principal that followed him was on the list too. There are priests from the Catholic grade school I attended. The head priest of the church I was baptized in is on the list. A priest from the church my son was baptized in is on the list. A half dozen from the Catholic elementary school my father attended are on it too.
Over and over the pattern is the same. Men born in the 30’s and 40’s, ordained in the 50’s and 60’s, moved from parish to parish and then died. Of the 57, 47 were in the county I grew up in. Of the 47, 12 were eventually removed from the ministry.
The rest are dead.
I come from a small town where it seemed like everyone was Catholic. The church was woven into our culture. Today, 25 years after I left home, I read a list of names in an article shared on Facebook that told me it was also riddled with sexual predators.
The response from the local community has been a justified mix of outrage and disgust. There’s some shame mixed in there too. There will be plenty more to come. But that’s not why I’m writing this tonight, in my hotel room on a business trip after midnight thousands of miles away from anyone who has heard of places like Absecon or Ventnor.
I’m writing this because of the feeling I had discussing the article via text with a friend from my hometown earlier today. The feeling that won’t allow me to include the priest’s name when it’s a mere Google search of “priest, Camden, abuse” away for anyone to see.
It’s the feeling that I shouldn’t say anything at all.
Because after all, Lord knows where I’d be without the opportunity that priest and that church provided me. And in saying something, I can’t help but feel like an ingrate.
The reality is, the Camden Diocese ran an organization in which they provided unabated access for sexual predators to children. I was one of them. That I wasn’t a victim of abuse seems more remarkable than if I were. That they had no idea they were putting us at risk when instances of abuse were clearly happening on such a broad scale is insulting.
But that’s not how I feel. Not completely. I still feel like maybe I should just be quiet. After all, where would I be if not for them.
This feeling, this broken, misguided feeling is the feeling that silenced countless mothers and fathers when their children came to them with the stories of what happened in the trusted care of men of God. It’s the feeling that kept children from saying anything at all to them in the first place. This is the power dynamics of a church that abuses its parishioners. This is the unforgivable evil that lived, and still lives, within the Catholic Church.
As I type this, I’m imagining the people I’ll be letting down that will read what I just wrote. They’ll tell me that the accusations are exaggerations. Or that the church found out about it after the priests were dead. Or that they’re doing all they can. They’ll tell me that I’m just an ingrate piling on an institution that has been at the center of our community’s faith for generations.
After all they’ve done for me. How could I say anything at all?
I can say something because the Camden Diocese and the Catholic Church at large harbored sexual predators for decades and gave them unquestioned access to children. And they hid behind God to do it.
And by their own beliefs, they’re in for much worse than a critical blog post.