I have tried writing this story for the past year.
Part of the reason why I haven’t is because it’s tough to disguise the real life facts enough to keep my real life identity separate from my online one; tough to keep it so no one could pick me out in a lineup and go, Why Lizbeth Marcs! I know you! COME ON DOWN AND GET YOURSELF OUTED!
Oh, I’m not talking about someone who knows me now, but someone who knew me then?
The Internet’s a funny place. You don’t always know who’s on the other side of that screen name. There are some people from the murky past I’d love to get in touch with again. But then, there are some I’d just as soon forget that we ever crossed paths. I’m cool with that. I’m sure there are a few people out there who’d love to forget I ever existed, too.
That’s life for you. I guess.
But see, here’s the thing: Sometimes the past shows up in the most unexpected ways and it eats at you just a little bit. You think, If I knew this then…
Except I did know it then, or I at least guessed at part of the truth, so that’s not really an excuse.
And then you think: I wonder if I can do something about this now…
Except I’m pretty sure there’s nothing I can say that would actually help. Certainly there’s nothing I can say that hasn’t already occurred to the prosecution. I’m almost certain of that.
But sometimes I still think about picking up the phone and saying: I’m sure you already know this, but just in case…
And then I convince myself the prosecution already has a case with what they have.
I really don’t know how to start this. “Once upon a time” isn’t right. The phrase is true in and of itself, but it makes this story sound not true.
I think that was the hardest part. Coming up with a start that made this sound like it’s not a true story or an excuse, except everything I say will sound like it’s a made-up story or an excuse.
So, I might as well tell the truth the only way I know how.
Back in the 1980s, my brother and I saw something — actually, we saw a whole lot of little somethings — and we jumped to the exact wrong conclusion.
We didn’t keep quiet about it. Actually, none of the other students who were jumping to the same wrong conclusions we did kept quiet about it either. Intelligence, information, and rumor were gleefully whispered from student to student in some high school version of forewarned is forearmed.
What I can’t tell you is whether any of our fellow students kept their parents informed. I can tell you that my brother and I did. The rumors were gleefully shared — remember, we were both in high school, so I doubt we gave any thought to what we were actually saying at the time or what it really meant — freely peppered with our own speculations and observations. That our reports had more of an effect than a raised eyebrow, I can’t honestly say.
Sometimes I wonder if on some level my brother and I weren’t laying the groundwork just in case the day came that we did have something more solid to report, like, say, firsthand experience.
Thankfully, we never did.
Which is…still not telling you anything.
And I’m right back to “Once upon a time.”
What the hell. The classics are classics for a reason.
There was a Roman Catholic school located somewhere in Massachusetts which encompassed grades Kindergarten through Grade 12 (the last year before you head off to university for my non-U.S. correspondents who may not know what that means). When I was in high school, the parish associated with this particular school found itself with an embarrassment of riches in the form of three priests.
You have to understand that in this time period the once mighty Roman Catholic Church was starting its long, slow, agonizing circle around the drain. Where once there wasn’t a single family in the area that didn’t have a relative or a friend serving as a monk, nun, or priest, now it was rare thing. In fact, my brother and I were unusual in that we had living relatives that were now or once had served out some form of holy orders.
In short, there was a near-crippling shortage of priests. Parishes throughout the country were having to make do with one priest, or even having to share a priest with a neighboring parish. Yet here was this parish with no less than three priests on the regular rotation.
My parents, especially my mother, were incensed by what they perceived as an injustice. Ethnic politics — or at least some kind of politics — had to be in play.
Okay, to explain what I mean by ethnic politics I have to backtrack a bit. Catholics in large urban areas with ethnic enclaves probably won’t need this explained, but Catholics in just about every other part of the world and non-Catholics of just about every stripe probably will.
U.S. Catholic parishes in urban areas were not created on the basis of the number of Catholics, but on the basis of ethnicity. It’s not at all unusual to see a church on every corner. In fact, in many urban areas you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a Catholic church. And we’re not talking small churches, either. We’re talking freakin’ cathedrals here. In the past, and in many cases even now, each one of those churches had an ethnic identity. They’d specifically cater to the French, Italians, Polish, Lithuanians, Irish, Cambodians, Vietnamese, Puerto Ricans and so on, and never the twain would meet.
As my maternal grandfather used to joke, if you were French, you had to go worship the French god and you’d never step foot in an Irish church because that would mean you’d have to worship the Irish god and that was just wrong.
Like all the best jokes, it’s as funny as hell because it’s true.
As a result, Catholicism in the urban U.S. isn’t so much a religion as it was a form of ethnic identity and tribalism. When I grew up, you could tell a lot about someone if you knew what church they went to. The Italian churches were somewhat lax and easy going, and still had that pagan holdover from the Roman Empire which made them cheerfully promiscuous in their worship. The French churches were invariably run by women with Very Strong Opinions, tended to over-focus female saints, and have a big love for St. Joseph (the poor bastard) for being a stand-up kind of guy. For Lithuanians, there was no one but St. Casmir, and, oh yeah, sometimes they talk to this Jesus guy, too. The Polish were all about the icons and the bloody crucifixes, a sort of Catholic version of shock and awe, which you would pry out of their cold dead hands.
And the Irish…well, the Church could do no wrong, even when they were doing wrong, if you get my drift.
You get the picture, right?
As for my brother and I, we may have been taught by Catholics of one particular ethnic enclave, but we weren’t in that particular parish. Our parish was a semi-suburban one with no ethnic identity at all, a sort of bowing to reality that the edges of the ethnic enclaves had begun to blur thanks to intermarriage. It gave us a certain amount of distance. Whatever went on with the parish that owned and ran the school we went to had no bearing on us. Let them have their internecine arguments and knock-down, drag-outs. It was nothing to us. It simply wasn’t our tribe and, frankly, not out concern.
In short: It didn’t affect us. Our school friends, sure. But us? Never.
Wow. Talk about being wrong, hunh?
Where was I? Oh, yeah. The embarrassment of riches in the form of three priests, whom I will now designate as Father C (the pastor), Father J (the cool priest), and Father F (the weirdo and suspected perv).
My French mother with Very Strong Opinions was outraged that one parish had three priests, while other parishes had to go begging just to get one. My Italian father with lax opinions about these matters cheerfully shrugged it off with his usual, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you blow.” (This, by the way, was his standard phrase, even when my brother and I were too young to get that you could blow anything more than a balloon. Thus, Dad imparted the wisdom that properly and publicly performed fellatio could get you far. Not that my brother and I were ever any good at it.)
Now it’s time to meet the three priests:
Father C was the forbidding sort, the kind that believed that from his mouth flowed the words of God. A straight-up, pre-Vatican II type who was pissed that he couldn’t lord it over his parishioners and the school with an iron fist like he could back in the Latin Mass days. This, naturally, brought him into conflict with the nuns, those Uppity Women, who’d fight him tooth and nail every time he tried to turn back the clock to a time when the boys hid behind scrubbed faces and angelic smiles and the girls just shut the hell up and took it. He was kind of the Basil Fawlty of priests: He’d have the perfect Catholic school if it weren’t the teachers and the students.
Father J, on the other hand, was more than just a good lookin’ dude of a priest. He was Modern and Hip. He rode a motorcycle. He listened to rock. He was down with the late Twentieth Century.
Father J arrived in the parish like a rock star during my first year of high school and immediately took an interest in getting involved with the school, that is to say with us. It set him apart from every other pale imitation of a priest associated with that parish, who seemed to view the school as part bother, part cash cow. He’d take a weekly spin in a few of the high school religion classes, and put a modern gloss on the ol’ Baltimore Catechism, which for you non-Catholics is essentially bigger than the Bible when it comes to Catholic religious instruction.
Father J was put in charge of the parish’s altar boys. He organized field trips, and camping trips, and even a few retreats that were all boys-only. We girls were good with the fact Father J spent time with the boys after-hours (so to speak), because, y’know, priest. Last thing a good-lookin’ dude of a priest needed was to be accused of doing something improper with a girl. Besides, it wasn’t like he ignored us. He was just as involved, but on school time and on school grounds.
Ahhh, good ol’ Catholic institutional sexism. I don’t miss you at all.
Then there was Father F. He more or less slunk into the parish under the cover of night within weeks of Father J’s road show pulling into town. One day he wasn’t there, and the next day he was. He was not cool, he didn’t get us at all, and he looked like he’d rather be anywhere else in the world. He never smiled, and on more than one occasion was seen scowling. It was obvious that he had no feel for kids or teenagers of any age and any attempt at interacting with any member of the student body always fell flat. He lacked that easy going, open manner that Father J had. You know the kind, right? The kind of open manner where you think you can tell its possessor anything without being judged.
Needless to say we the students caught on pretty quick about Father F’s deal: he sure as shit didn’t wanna be there. Yet, for all that, Father F was always around. He slunk up and down the school corridors and in and out of empty classrooms like he was afraid he was going to be caught. He planted himself at a very specific spot on the balcony overlooking the gymnasium whenever there was gym class — boys and girls — and never moved from that spot. Whenever Father J would be kicking it back with the students on school grounds and during school hours, there’d Father F be, with his sour face and his awkward attempts at interaction, while he watched everything with his beady little eyes.
What’s more, Father F shouldered his way into Father J’s extracurricular activities. Camping trip with the altar boys? Father F was there, trying to be cool and failing miserably. Retreat? Wouldn’t you know it, Father F along for the ride. Field trip? Outing of any kind? Father F’s sour face would put a damper on the good time.
Father F’s just jealous of Father J, was pretty much the unspoken and unanimous decision of the student body. Dork, thought the boys. Skeevy, thought the girls. Thus judgment was passed in a way that only high schoolers with exactly zero life experience can pull off.
Even better, our bias turned out to have some basis in fact.
One of my classmates was part of the parish’s inner circle. Her grandparents (or possibly great-grandparents, I was never clear) joined the parish almost the second they got off the boat, and so had a loooooong history within the tribe. As a result, this classmate and her family had an in with Father C. She knew shit that just about no one else knew, not even her fellow clansmen within the ethnic enclave.
“You know,” she informed us over lunch one day not long after the arrival of Father J and Father F, “Father C never wanted Father F here, but he’s got friends in the diocesan office. Powerful friends. He can’t move up the ladder until he gets his own parish. We’re just a stepping stone. They made Father C take him, even though he didn’t really want to. Father C thinks he’s a very strange guy. He doesn’t like him at all.”
All of us nodded along, happy and maybe even relieved that our jumps to conclusions had a firm landing.
What was left unsaid, but was clearly understood, was that Father F was not part of the tribe. His ethnicity may have matched his new parish, but he himself was an outsider in some way that was hard for me to grasp. Internecine bullshit, I thought. So not my problem. It was interesting as a piece of gossip (which, along with Father F’s weirdness and Father J’s coolness was dutifully and gleefully reported to the parents), but really nothing more than that.
The reaction from the parents was about what you’d expect. My French mother with Very Strong Opinions threw up her hands at this piece of news and muttered darkly about how she knew politics were involved somewhere. My Italian father shrugged and said, “So now we know. It’s definitely a ‘who you blow’ situation, just not involving the priest we thought.”
And that, as they say, was that.
I’m not entirely sure when the rumors about Father F being a perv surfaced, nor am I entirely sure of the source. Maybe we all reached the same conclusion because Father F never stopped acting squirrelly, never stopped watching everything with those beady eyes of his. Maybe it was because he was always slinking around the school, looking guilty as all hell. Maybe it was because he was watching gym class more often than not.
And, of course, there were stories. Nothing incriminating, understand, but things that Just Didn’t Look Right. Like the time a classmate of mine was running late after gym class and was in the middle of changing into her school clothes when Father F walked in on her and immediately fled the scene when she let out a holler. Or the time another one of my school friends was pulling on her gym shirt as she walked onto the gym floor and saw Father F looking down from his customary perch at her. Or the way he was seen constantly going in and out of the school bathrooms — both boys and girls — that were set aside for the students. The way he always hung around the edges of wherever students gathered and Father J was holding court.
It’s hard to explain the weirdness of it all using words. Believe me, I know because I’ve been working at it for a year in an effort to explain. It isn’t a case of one or two small incidents, but a whole host small things that Just Didn’t Add Up, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year.
I want you to think about that last time unit. Year after year. As in years. Multiple.
Through all that time, the whispers circulated among the girls. Father F is a perv. Make sure you’re not alone in the room with him. Watch your back. And if something happens, for God’s sake, say something because we’ll all back you. The boys nodded along and flexed their not entirely developed muscles and dreamed up heroic fantasies where they’d rescue a sister or girlfriend from the nefarious clutches of Father F, Pervy Priest.
This, naturally, was all related to the parents by my brother and myself in gleeful, gossipy tones. Oh my God, we’d say, can you believe what I heard about Father F today?
My parents, my brother, and I look back on this time with a sense of surprise for a number of reasons. A big one: Why the hell did my parents accept all this intelligence from my brother and I with such calm?
They certainly believed what we were saying. In fact, years after the fact when The Boston Globe broke pedophile priest scandals, which then washed across the whole of the U.S. in a tide of disgraced roman collars, my mother and I jokingly speculated when we would read about Father F would getting hauled into court.
Yet, never once did my parents panic, or even seem concerned. In fact, they didn’t even seem all that surprised. I guess we as family were rather jaded when it came to priests, nuns, and monks. Generations of my family on both sides had dealt intimately with them in one form or another and it seemed less-than-perfect priests with possibly felonious tendencies were taken in stride.
Or maybe they were just relieved that my brother and I (as well as our schoolmates) were smart enough to know that priests were not perfection and that the nuns had instilled in us the gift of very big mouths not afraid of calling bullshit.
Here’s another big one that leaves us shaking our heads: Why the fuck didn’t we say something to someone somewhere?
Here’s where it sounds like I’m giving excuses, but if the excuses are rooted in fact are they really excuses? That’s a really tough question to answer and I’m not entirely sure there is any answer to give.
I want to say it was the times, but we’re talking about the 1980s. Abuse of power by people in positions of authority, pedophilia, pervy priests, all of it, was not an unknown thing in that day in age, although it was never talked about publicly (although it was freely shared in whispers from one family to the next). We were all of that generation of kids told to not take candy from strangers, and to be on the lookout for adults we did know who wanted to get “too friendly” with us.
But here’s what reality was in the 1980s: the Roman Catholic Church in the U.S. may have started its slow slide downward, but it was still big enough, and powerful enough, to keep people silent. Everyone knew that ratting a priest out for anything (even for real crimes) would get you nowhere fast. No one was going to believe you. Not the diocese, not the police, maybe not even your family, not anyone. Priests were untouchable in that way, somehow beyond the reach of the rules that bound everyone else.
And then, of course, there is always the source to consider.
I think it’s safe to say that my family was not exactly what you’d call impeccable.
Let me explain what my family was like vis a vis the Catholic church.
On paper, you’ve got a family who looks like they’re the poster family for generational Catholicism. Parents raised Catholic and went to Catholic schools. Kids, likewise. Family active in their local parish. Mom and Dad volunteer for different church activities, son is an altar boy, girl reads the scriptures for the Mass. Regular contributions in the offering basket. The whole nine yards.
Yet, there’s something just not right about this family. They talk a good game, maybe even walk a good game and yet…
There’s something insolent about them, the way they look at priests like they know half the shit that comes out of their mouths is a damned lie and the other half of the shit needs to be seriously fact-checked. The way they roll their eyes in unison or start stifling giggles whenever the priest gets on his “Thou shalt conduct your family like so” schtick or launches into some kind of right-wing, John Bircher, jingoistic, anti-communist rant. The way they’ll sometimes eyefuck the priest’s inner circle sycophants, especially when news comes down that the church coffers are mysteriously empty again.
This is the family where one of the parents have something shady in the background (a divorce, perhaps), and the other parent calls the priest a raving lunatic in public. The one where the priest is nervous around the altar boy son because he just knows said altar boy son is gonna do something to mess him up during Mass (like maybe putting the microphone down on a seat where the priest will sit on it and then try to sneak a fart while his butt is still mic’ed). The one where the priest wishes the daughter who reads the scriptures for Mass would stop arguing with him whenever he gets down with his not-so-inner male chauvinist pig (to both the horror and delight of her parents).
You know that family, regardless of the congregation or religion.
And yeah, we were that family. The locals didn’t call us the Addams Family for nothing, dude.
Have I mentioned that most nuns loved my family to death? They most surely did. It’s like they knew that we were in on the joke.
There’s a price to pay for that kind of ‘tude, though. The big one? You’re not likely to be believed when you see questionable crap coming down from someone wearing a roman collar. That’s a hard fact, we had to live with I’m afraid. (Remember what I said about mysteriously empty coffers? Not so mysterious when it turns out the priest in question is lining his own nest, no?)
And so the gossip and speculation about Father F remained confidential, because who could we tell? And if we did give voice to suspicions, who’d even try to believe us? In the end, everything was said at the dinner table, and there it remained.
Meanwhile Father F kept prowling the halls under the watchful and suspicious eyes of the students.
As for Father J…
Here’s where my big mouth maybe should have been bigger. Maybe.
Every first Friday of the month, we the students were frog marched into church to make our monthly confession. Now, confession (for you non-Catholics out there) is a humiliating sacrament where you go to a priest and tell him all about every low-down, dirty, mean, nasty thing you did. You can do this behind the screen of anonymity, or face to face. (Screen of anonymity for one, padre!)
The problem was that my brain would always go blank just as I’d walk into the confessional booth, so I’d make shit up.
Bless me father, for I have sinned. It’s been one month since my last confession. I, unh, took the name of the Lord’s name in vain. Lots. I, unh, called my brother a jerk. A few times. I talked back to my mom. Twice. Plus, I lied. Once. Oh, and I killed three people using a baseball bat.
One Our Father and three Hail Marys and I was good to go.
The thing is, I never liked pulling the coolest of the cool, Father J, for confession. Can’t rightly say why I didn’t. Something about him made me feel uncomfortable as I made up stories about how I robbed banks or ran over annoying people with a car I couldn’t legally drive or was running a videotape porn business from the comfort of my bedroom in a desperate attempt to fulfill my sin quota for the month.
I didn’t have a crush on him, so that wasn’t it. I didn’t have my customary distrust of priests when it came to him, so that wasn’t it either. And it wasn’t the traditional feeling of humiliation that tended to accompany these monthly forays into the confessional booth. It was above and beyond that. Hell, I didn’t feel this uncomfortable confessing fictional sins to that known perv, Father F.
All I can say is that confession with Father J gave me a bad gut feeling, and I didn’t have a single solid thing to hang it on.
Which…sounds like an excuse, except it’s kind of not. I seemed to be the only one who was less than thrilled with Father J as a confessor, so I thought at the time that maybe it was something having to do with me.
Live and learn.
I would have just avoided the fabulous Father J if I could, but the problem was you didn’t get to choose your priest. It was all blind chance on who you’d draw to hear your confession since all three priests did it, and they all took different confessional booths every month.
In the end, I just refused to go. In my senior year, I was one of the group of my classmates who staged a “confession strike” and simply refused to go for the entire year. It wasn’t anything planned, it just kind of sprung up out of nowhere. About a dozen of us seniors seemed to decide that enough was enough, and we weren’t going to perp walk our way to church on the first Friday of the month any more. There were some disapproving glares, and maybe a few sarcastic comments from the nuns, but other than that…
They left us pretty much alone and let us skip out on the confession deal.
Y’know, now that I think about it none of us ever talked about why we all suddenly decided that we weren’t going to do it. We just kind of…did it.
Sometimes I wonder if they had the same bad gut feeling I did. Sometimes I wonder if maybe I should’ve asked.
Senior year (3-and-some-odd years after the arrival of Father J and Father F) was when a lot of us began to clue in that Father J was kind of nuts.
No. Not kind of nuts. A full-blown loony with bouts of paranoia who read too many conspiracy theories.
See, that was the year we drew Father J for his once-a-week talk in religion class.
Things I learned from Father J:
Satan is a real, physical human being and he’s always hiding in your closet/under the bed/in your bed/around the corner/under your desk/in your car/in every room you can possibly walk into/down every corridor you can possibly walk down. He’s waiting with taloned claws to snatch you away and make you do his bidding, leaving you utterly helpless before his whims. And what’s more, you’ll like it, love it even. You’ll want more. You’ll beg for more. Then one day you wake up dead and it’s too late…you’re burning up in the pits of hell.
People, Father J was not talking figuratively here. He was not making any kind of pretty (and not so pretty) literary allusions. He was talking for reals. As in Satan was a real person who’d snatch you up into some kind of weird white slavery and force-feed you all kinds of sins until you were begging to bend over and take it without lube. That Satan was even more real than the person sitting next to you, more real than even you. More real, more powerful, and more all-knowing than God.
And let’s not get into his regular conspiracy talk. There were secret societies like the Illuminati and the Trilateral Commission and the Freemasons and the Shriners and the Benevolent Order of Elks and the U.S. Post Office and God knows what else that all were somehow interconnected and ruled the world. They’d communicate with each other using pop culture or whatever was the latest craze. Rainbows. Unicorns. Cabbage patch dolls. He-Man Master of the Universe. Hell, even posters of big-eyed puppies weren’t safe.
And, of course, there were thought-control rays to used by these various and sundry secret societies to control not just our actions, but our very hopes and dreams. I’m not sure what the source of thought-control rays were. It might’ve been television, it could’ve been the newspaper. I remain unclear.
Seriously, the only thing missing from the rogues gallery of secret societies beaming mind-control messages into our brains via the latest Cute Kitties Gone Bonkers calendar was the Knights of Columbus (natch) and the World Jewish Conspiracy (which was a shocker).
Needless to say, the nuns spent the following week doing damage control. Then Father J would come back and we’d all lather, rinse, and repeat.
Wonder of wonders, there was an awful lot of discussion about critical thinking and critical reading in religion class that senior year.
Not that the nuns had much to worry about. We hooted and laughed and made up stories about how Satan was a-comin’ to git us all in our beds. We also agreed that whenever a rainbow zings across the sky, an Illuminati gets his bat wings. We had also voted that the Knights of Columbus were definitely in on it — whatever the hell it was — and that it was pretty damn suspicious that Father J left them off the “evil” list.
Clearly we were not hip to whatever Father J was saying.
Yet, despite that, we held on to the idea that crazy-ass Father J was somehow cool. Y’know. Motorcycle. Rock music. The whole package. Sure, he was a nut, but he wasn’t a dangerous nut. If he was dangerous, there was no way they’d let him near impressionable young minds like ours.
Have I said live and learn already? If I have, I feel it bears repeating because this is definitely a live and learn situation.
Anyway, I should feel it’s important to note that Father J’s crazed rants were reported to great hilarity at the dinner table. We all rolled our eyes and figured, Par for the course. A loony priest? Definitely to be expected. After all, the pastor of our parish was an utter nutbag. It was decided among the four of us that celibacy was definitely to blame for the sad mental decline of many priests as they got older.
At any rate, high school life pretty much went on with its ups and downs. There were days it was hell on earth, and days it wasn’t. There were battles fought that don’t seem so important now, and there were battles that maybe should’ve been fought but I didn’t think it was important at the time.
And always there in that damn school was Father J and his weird little shadow, Father F.
So, I graduated high school. Happiest day of my life, with a bonus lack-of-apocalypse on that day. As for my brother, he was stuck there for another few years, so despite being gone I wasn’t entirely out of the loop. Gossip of a sort continued, taking into account that boys are notoriously bad at sharing the good stuff, and naturally Father J and Father F made their regular guest appearances.
Then, one day in the middle of my brother’s senior year, Father J disappeared. Poof. Puff of smoke. Gone.
No explanation given.
Father F blew the popsicle stand a few weeks later and dropped off the radar like he was never there.
All that was left behind was a big ol’ mystery. Even my brother was moved to try to sniff out the dirt. Nada. There was no dirt to be had.
Happily (and I say this with great irony), this mystery was soon solved in the form of a former classmate. You might remember her. She was the one near the beginning of this story who had an in with Father C. I ran into her at one of the very, very rare events that happened where several of my high school classmates happened to be invited. I’m not sure if it was a wedding, a baby shower, a wedding shower, or a baptism. Something like that, anyway.
This former classmate with the in with Father C gleefully told a few of us about “the real story” behind Father J’s disappearance.
“See, Father F was jealous of Father J,” she said. “He was working all along to get Father J removed from the parish because he didn’t like that he was so popular with the altar boys and the students. So he was looking for dirt. Anyway, he totally didn’t find anything, but Father F has very powerful friends in the diocese, so Father C was afraid that Father J would get his reputation ruined. He had to tell Father J that he had to go before Father F found a way to hurt him.”
And we all nodded and agreed that this made total sense.
There is nothing in the story that this former classmate told me that makes any sense whatsoever. I look at it and look at it and look at it. I keep playing it over my mind like it’s on a repeat loop. In hindsight, it’s a nonsensical story. Yet, at the time, everyone believed it.
Think about this: it was well known that there was a chronic shortage of priests in the region, so it wouldn’t have been at all surprising if the story was that the diocese told Father C that three priests was more than his share. The story could’ve just as easily been that Father J, being the popular if crazy dude that he was, was sent to an out-town church within the diocese because another priest suddenly took ill. No one would’ve even thought twice about it.
Yet, here was this primo dirt. Jealous, vindictive priest going after a colleague simply because he didn’t like him and wanted everything he had.
What does that say that no one questioned this lurid bit gossip? What does it say that we believed it?
Needless to say, said intelligence was gleefully passed on to the parents. Oh, that Father F, we agreed, he’ll most certainly get his.
Fast forward a few years later. The pedophile priest scandal breaks over Boston. Tales of how priests would betray the trust of their charges and rather than being disciplined in some way, they are merely transferred to another parish, another diocese, another state, and given yet another fresh start. Then those same priests blow their fresh start over, and over, and over again. Yet still the Roman Catholic Church moves them across the chessboard of churches one step ahead of trouble, but long after they’ve caused no end of grief.
My family begins to speculate when Father F’s name would appear so we could all kick back and say, I knew it.
Then, back in 2002, I get the call I’d been expecting probably since Father J and Father F disappeared within weeks of each other.
Guess what I read today? A certain priest has been charged with pedophilia, my mother told me.
Ah, the law finally caught up with Father F, hunh? I asked.
Not Father F. My mother dramatically paused before adding, It’s Father J.
And that’s when the whole ugly business came to light.
The facts of the case are these:
Father J had a history of pedophilia with adolescent boys, one that resulted in his sudden transfers from parish to parish, from diocese to diocese, from state to state since the 1970s . This history was known not just by my home diocese, but to Father C himself.
After his latest debacle that was resulting in yet another transfer, Father C agreed to take Father J in.
Remember what I said about ethnic politics within the Catholic church? They most definitely come into play here and bite everyone in the ass. See, Father J was part of the tribe, and thus had to be given yet one more chance, just like every chance that he shouldn’t have gotten after the first incident back in the early 70s.
Jesus, Father C might as well have invited a carnivore to an all-you-can-eat buffet of antelope on the hoof.
Father C fought to bring Father J in from the cold. The diocese okayed this disaster-in-the-making.
I mean, think about it. A known pedophile was allowed to serve in a parish attached to a school that just happened to include adolescent boys, Father J’s favored victim type. More than that, Father C put him in charge of the altar boys.
There was a catch, though. If Father C wanted Father J, he’d also have to take Father F to make sure that Father J didn’t stray from the straight and narrow. This insistence that Father F tag along as Father J’s probation officer in a roman collar was a very weak spasm of good sense in a situation where there was precious little shown.
Here’s where it gets really good (and by good, I mean infuriating): Father C fought against Father F coming into his parish. He resented it. Hated it.
And speaking from personal experience, it’s pretty apparent that Father C did his damnedest to get rid of Father F after he showed up to the point where he threw dirt on the guy just for doing his job.
And people wonder why I’m cynical bitch about some things.
As to the “sudden disappearance” of Father J followed by Father F?
Father J had been defrocked. Kicked out. Tossed out on his ear. Do not pass go, do not collect $200. In short, he’d been caught again doing bad things to adolescent boys and he was finally all out of second chances. This time, there were two boys. Not students, but altar boys who didn’t go to our school. One of those boys was victimized on a regular basis during my senior year of high school, but the second one that finally put the nail in Father J‘s coffin happened that year he disappered.
I think back on Father J’s paranoid ravings about Satan, secret societies, and mind-controlling brainwaves in my senior year religion class and I have got to wonder if he was looking for something to blame, or if he was trying to hand us an excuse. God knows what’s the truth there, and maybe that truth should stay with God because I’m not sure I wanna know.
Once Father J was gone from the priesthood, there was no need for Father F to stick around. Ten-to-one there was some serious shaking of the dust from his shoes going down when Father F left without even a look back. Who can blame him? Heaven knows that Father C continued to kick the corpse (so to speak) once it was clear even to the likes of him that he was at best criminally negligent of the altar boys and students under his pastorship.
So, my brother and I put our heads together and, in light of this new information, a lot of Father F’s weirdness suddenly made a whole lot of sense.
Slinking around the hidden corners of the school like a guilty school boy? Gliding in and out of student bathrooms? Sneaking into the changing rooms around the gym? Suddenly it looks like a priest desperately looking for something he just as desperately is praying that he won’t find.
Always hanging around whenever the students gather around Father J and sourly watching the good times roll? Someone who knows the truth and can’t say a damn thing, even assuming he would be believed.
Always pushing his way into Father J-led camping trips, field trips, outings, and retreats? A man trying to protect the chickens from the fox.
Oh, and that very particular spot in the gym’s balcony where Father F always stood while the gym classes came and went? It occurred to my brother and I that it was the only spot in the whole of the gym where Father F could see every single entry and exit not just into the gym, but to the changing rooms as well. Someone has to stand sentry, I suppose, just in case.
Son of a bitch, we said to each other. How the hell did we miss that part of it?
One thing is pretty clear, however. Father F was not fond of kids or teens. He didn’t hate us, I don’t think (although it wouldn’t shock me if a little hate didn’t creep in toward the end), but it was clear he wasn’t all that comfortable either. Kids were so not his thing. He was clueless about how to talk to kids or befriend them or even just to be an available adult.
But damn, that man did try. He failed. He failed repeatedly. But damn if he didn’t try.
And with all that slinking around when he thought no one was watching him…it’s no wonder he ran afoul of suspicious students who lacked the background necessary to make a clear judgment of what we were seeing. A background, I might add, that we should have been told.
To this day, I can’t tell you with any certainty that the nuns didn’t know about Father J. Most likely not, since they were uppity women after all, and I suspect they would have torn Father J and Father C to pieces with their bare hands if they knew. But I don’t know that beyond the shadow of a doubt, and that bothers me maybe more than it should.
I can still see Father F and his beady eyes watching everything, sweeping over everything, as he’d slink down the corridors and peer into shadowed corners. He must’ve known on some level that none of us liked him all that much, let alone trusted him. He must’ve known the pastor of his parish hated his guts and that rumors about him were being whispered.
He must’ve hated every single second he spent over the course of six years in that parish, in that school, and with those two other priests.
Yet he did it, and never once complained where he could’ve been heard. There must’ve been days when he bit his tongue so hard that he could taste blood in an effort to keep his silence.
And for all that he endured he still failed. Father J got two altar boys in the end, despite Father F’s best efforts. Maybe he takes some comfort that it could’ve been more if he wasn’t around keeping an eye on things. I kind of hope he does, for his sake.
I know what some of you are thinking. You’re thinking, If Father F knew, why the hell didn’t he speak up? Why the hell didn’t he try to warn people?
The answer is simple, and yet it isn’t. He could have spoken up. He couldn’t have spoken up. He was free to talk, but his hands were tied.
And the story itself is so unbelievable, who’d believe him? It’d be his word against Father C, who’d spent decades as a priest in this particular parish, and overseeing this particular school. Who in the hell would believe that Father C, for all his faults, would willingly allow a pedophile priest to step foot on parish property or school grounds? No one, that’s who.
I mean, I know it’s true, and yet I still can’t believe it.
I’ve even dug up every bit of information I could find about Father J’s nefarious career both before and after he existed at the edges of my life. The crimes that came before and were hushed up, as well as his crazy trajectory of playing priest for some weird cult-like Catholic organization long after he’d been stripped of his collar. I’ve read as he’s won continuance after continuance for his case by piling lie upon lie, crazy upon crazy, until his very case has become a local punch line. I’ve read with fascination as furious past victims and their family members got frustrated enough to hire a private detective to catch Father J out in those very same lies and then had to fight to show the truth they captured.
There is some good news in this. Father J is out of time, and his lies aren’t working any more. He’ll be standing trial soon enough.
But as to the others, his co-conspirators in a way, like Father C and the diocesan powers that thought putting a pedophile with a history in with adolescents, there’s no satisfaction there. Dead, retired, or otherwise out of reach. They’ll never be called to account for what they’ve done, at least not directly.
As for Father F…gone. Disappeared. Of him there’s no trace and no sign. Not even gossip, not even the whisper of gossip.
I hope that wherever he is, he’s at least gotten the happiness that equals the misery he had to put up with.
So, here’s to you Father F, wherever you may be. I’m not sure if your hands are entirely clean, but you were one of the good guys in a mess that has damned few. You did your best with the bad hand you were dealt, and that’s all any of us can ask.
And before I forget, let me say on behalf of an ungrateful student body, “Thank you.”
Because God knows that someone should.