Friday, January 3, 2003

Here’s a story for you. A true story.

Many years ago – about ten, come to think of it, which I don’t like to, because it just points out how relentless Time is – all those years ago, I worked in a parish as a Director of Religious Education. It was a fairly large parish with a medium-sized staff, including a youth minister. It was the early spring, and I was in my last few weeks in this job, having made the decision to move a couple of hours south and take up the glamorous job of high school teaching again.

So, my mind was occupied – with moving myself and three children and all that involves. With getting scores of children and older kids through First Reconciliation, First Eucharist, Confirmation, and all that involves.

In the midst of all this, one morning, I got a message. We were all to report to the pastor’s office, pronto.

When we got there, we found not only the pastor but a lawyer from the diocese. It appears that a teenaged boy (around 15 years old) of the parish had accused a male volunteer in the youth ministry program of sexual molestation. As I recall, the boy had started a sudden, inexplicable decline in mood and spirit, and the parents had finally got it out of him: Kevin (the volunteer – a college kid), had drawn him into sexual activity. At least one of the incidents had occurred on a church-sponsored trip. The parents had gone to the law, and the law had gotten Kevin.

My most pressing memory from that first meeting was of the pastor, nervous as always, taking a second or two to express remorse for the situation, and then taking much more time to tell us that our first priority was to make sure that the parents didn’t think ill of the church – and by “church” he meant parish and diocese, and the point clearly was to do everything in our power to convince them in any way we could, not to sue. The diocesan lawyer elaborated, confirmed, and assured.

I moved before the case came to trial or whatever it did, but I do know there was a conviction, and I do know that there was a lawsuit filed by the parents a couple of years later – I was deposed for it, which was an interesting experience in itself. The questions were all about my impressions of the supervision levels in the youth ministry program – I wasn’t in charge of it, because we had a paid youth minister, but I was around, so I got the questions. I think the lawsuit was either dropped or lost by the plaintiffs, but that wasn’t the end of the trouble for Kevin, evidently, for the document (which I was able to retrieve via the county online Public Records) indicated a copy would be sent to Kevin – and gave his address as the Mecklenburg County Jail in North Carolina. Obviously, Florida wasn’t the end of his troubles.

But that’s not the point. The point involves two other incidents related to this situation that horrified me and have played an important role in determining the stance I take towards this kind of thing. You’ve noticed, of course, that the abuser in this case was a lay person. But here’s the part where the priest comes in.

I wish I could relate these two incidents in reverse chronological order, because the earlier one sort of puts a period on the whole business in a most emphatic way. But I’ll just stick to chronology.

Spring rolled around, and with it Holy Week. I was given the responsibility of getting people to have their feet washed for the Holy Thursday service, which I did. I showed up a half hour before Mass, to find that the associate pastor had added a name to the list. Kevin – the accused, arrested, charged and bailed out seducer of youth stood in the circle with the others, laughing with the associate pastor.

Now jump forward a couple of weeks to the celebration of the sacrament of Confirmation. The victim’s sister was to be confirmed and, as is customary in events like these, qualified siblings were called upon to fill appropriate ministries during the liturgy. This boy had been a server for a long time, so of course, his name was put on the list to serve. The associate pastor – who had brought in the abuser to have his feet washed – removed the victim’s name. It wouldn’t be appropriate for him to serve, he explained. It might cause problems.

Soon after that, I moved, but not before I had a chance to see the bishop and tell him about these incidents. I don’t remember what he said, and I doubt it matters.

Perhaps this little incident will help some understand why victims have to fight so hard to get even simple compassion from church personnel, and why the fight can so easily embitter them. It certainly embittered me, and I was only an observer.

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