different about the Franciscan spirit. It joined us together in one big family.”
--It Takes A Man, 1959
When I was a boy attending a Franciscan parochial school in San Francisco for a brief period during the fifties and sixties, a popular vocational film made the rounds each spring and was shown to every boy in the fourth through eighth grades by the pastor of our church in the school auditorium. This short, motivational film, “It Takes A Man,” was produced by the Franciscans with the intent of getting boys to think about the priesthood and what it meant to have a vocation for the Franciscan way of life.
a normal, active eighth grade boy begins to question what he wants to do with his life and is inspired by his parish priest, a Franciscan, who devotes his life to serving God and others.
I watched the film when I was in the fourth and fifth grades and I still remember how impressed
I was both times after seeing it.
But the film’s appeal for me was not for any of the reasons the Franciscans had in mind.
One of the principal characters in the film, a Franciscan priest named “Father Paul,” was portrayed by the late Paul Picerni, an actor who, at the time, was also starring in the hit TV series, “The Untouchables,” a crime drama about Prohibition-era agents fighting Italian-type mobsters in Chicago in the 1930s. Picerni’s character was a member of a special team of agents nicknamed The Untouchables who were handpicked for their courage, moral character and incorruptibility.
I immediately identified with Picerni. Like me, he was Italian-American and even looked like he could be one of my uncles. The show aired on Thursday nights right after “My Three Sons,” and if we behaved ourselves, my father would often let his own three sons stay up to watch it. As an impressionable nine year old kid who knew nothing about irony, I found myself rooting each week for the good guy with the Italian-sounding last name who was fighting all the bad guys with the other Italian-sounding last names.
It seems pretty dumb now, but as a kid sitting in that darkened, school auditorium and watching “It Takes A Man,” I couldn't help but envision Picerni’s “Father Paul” to be this
untouchable priest/crime fighter who might, at any minute, produce a Tommy Gun from behind the altar and start blasting away. The film is considered hokey and campy by today’s standards.
In hindsight, it’s even a little creepy considering what we now know about the sexual abuse that occurred at the seminary. But back then the film made perfect sense to many of us. And today it’s mostly regarded with odd amusement. For others, though, the film is a painful reminder of the men that boys were expected to become and never did.
The Rest of Our Stories
A few weeks ago an old friend of mine passed away after a long battle with cancer. Like me, he was a former student of Saint Anthony’s Seminary and a clergy abuse survivor. But unlike me, he found it difficult to admit to himself or his family that what had happened to him at the seminary long ago was not “something you just shook off” as he often claimed. Years piled up like junk heaps before he realized he could never shake off what he had endured no matter how much he tried to diminish it. His denials only seemed to enforce his belief that being a man meant you leaned on no one but yourself.
Chris (not his real name) was a few years older than me. He was a thoughtful and intelligent man with two degrees and a good teaching job at a small college. He was also deeply troubled and suffered most of his life from severe depression. In the mid-eighties he sought professional assistance and began taking medication to help him cope. He used to joke that his meds were slowly driving him crazy. They certainly stabilized some areas of his life. But his emotional resistance to the abuse kept him so isolated that when he made an unexpected decision to walk away from therapy in 1989 his personal life was a complete mess.
That same year, and purely by chance, Chris and I ran into each other at San Damiano, a retreat center in Danville, California, run by the Franciscans who operated the seminary we once attended. I was there that day to have lunch with a friar-friend who was visiting. Chris showed up with his wife (they would later divorce) to inquire about a married couples retreat they were hoping to attend the following month. No one would have ever guessed we hadn’t seen each other in twenty five years. We must have sat for an hour in the retreat’s garden talking about all the good times we remembered about Saint Anthony’s. At some point one of us mentioned “It Takes A Man” and we both laughed. Chris revealed that he was at the seminary when the film was being shot and that he even appeared in some of the scenes. It would take months and years afterwards, as we got to know and trust one another, for the rest of our stories to be told.
Chris and I faithfully stayed in touch, first with letters and then emails and talked occasionally on the phone. Once in awhile we would get together for lunch, but not nearly as often as one might expect for two guys who only lived sixty miles from each other. I always thought I was a private and reserved person until I met Chris. Next to him I was the life of the party. In the beginning it seemed we had little in common. Chris attended church every Sunday and still followed the Catholic faith. I did not. My social and political views were clearly progressive. Chris had a slightly more conservative slant. Other than the fact that we had both gone to the same seminary in the sixties and been molested there by a Franciscan priest, it was tough at times to connect.
But it was this very aspect of our relationship that helped us develop a deeper understanding of each other’s needs. Our link to the seminary gave Chris his first opportunity to listen to what had happened to another schoolmate and to share his own experiences with someone, like himself, who had actually been there. For the first time in his life he was talking about feelings he thought he had no words for. He resisted getting back into therapy until 2012, but once he made his mind up he stayed with it right up until he passed away. He never spoke about his sessions with me, but I got the impression he was finally getting some of what he needed.
On the day I heard the news of Chris’ death I grabbed my coat and hiked alone on a ridge twelve hundred feet above the Pacific Ocean that overlooked the San Francisco Bay. It was a particularly cold and windy morning and I welcomed hiking in the fog, barely able to see a few feet in front of me. I felt I knew every bush and wildflower along this seven-mile trail and, if I had to, could have walked it blind. I did a lot of thinking that day, mostly about Chris and how difficult it had been for him to accept his sorrow and his grief. How betrayed he felt by the Franciscans. How abandoned he felt by his own seminary brothers. And how much he blamed himself for everything bad that happened. But I also needed to remind myself that Chris’ circumstances were not unique.
I knew many other former students who had reasoned away their pain and suffering so convincingly that any mention of sexual abuse seemed contrary and absurd in their minds. I thought about what constituted abusive acts and the standards by which certain mistreatment had been measured, from hernia exams to spankings to outright rape. And then there were all those other stories; the grey and murky tales of confused young boys in the throes of hormonal change, uncomfortable in their own bodies; the ones subjected to inappropriate remarks, off-color jokes and sexual innuendoes--not by their fellow students but by their Franciscan teachers, mentors and spiritual advisors. Part of the problem was perception. Some have come to accept sexual abuse and harassment, particularly their own, as a male rite of passage meant to be “sucked up.” Like Chris, they spend a good deal of their lives searching for their own true north while moving in the opposite direction.
As I rested in a grove of eucalyptus trees before hiking back down to the trailhead,
I recalled how meticulous and calculating the abuse had been for so many of us at an institution like Saint Anthony’s Seminary. Even now, a growing disregard for the truth and the horrors of the past were being conveniently revised by a certain number of friars and former students emboldened only by their own ignorance and conceit. The actual numbers may be small in comparison to those who do “get it.” But as the old saying goes, “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”
Many of us are familiar with the public stories about this horrible crisis. We’ve read the news accounts in the papers and on the internet or seen the media reports on TV. It’s the private stories, like Chris’ and others, that very few of us hear. About 93% of the approximately 300 survivors I’ve worked with and listened to over the past thirty years have chosen to remain anonymous and not reveal their identity. Of these, more than half have never disclosed their abuse to a family member. But those who do manage to talk with someone, whether it’s a spouse, a trusted friend, or even a stranger like myself, often find validation to be liberating. The idea of exploring psychotherapy then becomes a little less daunting and most of them begin to think of healing as a daily practice.
The Irony of Our Experiences
In 2005, I had the unexpected privilege of meeting with and listening to, privately and separately, two clergy abuse survivors who were both in their eighties and living in Santa Barbara. They were the oldest survivors I was aware of at that time. I’m often reminded of their courage whenever I hear a misinformed member of the clergy talk about this crisis in the past tense. These soft-spoken men told of being sexually molested more than seventy years prior and were just now beginning to speak openly about it. I remember how bright and warm the day was as we sat outdoors in a quiet garden on the grounds of Mission Santa Barbara.
Their decision to come forward after all those years was due, in part, to a number of ideal factions that came together: a safe and welcoming environment at the Mission that the Franciscans helped create, a pastoral approach from their Independent Response Team (whose ombudsperson would later coordinate their Office of Pastoral Outreach), and the presence of SafeNet which had been founded two years earlier and was slowly building trust among survivors, the friars and the community. There was still a great deal of rawness and volatility. But people were talking to one another privately and in public forums.
Both these elderly survivors were once young students at St. Anthony’s Seminary in the mid-thirties. Neither had known the other, but their stories were nearly identical. The two men had been abused at different times by the same friar in the same manner and in the same
room on the school grounds. I would later come to learn that the room in question was the same room used by five other friars at different times who allegedly abused boys during the
fifties, sixties, seventies and eighties. It was, in fact, the very same room where Chris and I were molested.
For some critics of the Franciscans this was proof that a conspiracy existed. They believed it was impossible now for any friar who ever taught at St. Anthony’s Seminary to
deny knowing what had been going on around them, thus making everyone complicit. Others theorized that a small but secret sect of pedophile priests possessed all the keys to all the closets where all the skeletons were hidden and had passed them on to other pedophile priests. Then there were those who simply believed the Franciscans allowed such behavior to exist when they neglected to care for the physical and emotional well being of every young boy who ever entered their minor seminaries. They argued that the friars had failed everyone, including the offenders. Others determined that an undeniable culture of abuse existed that was built into the system. They pointed to statistics showing that 85% of known, alleged Franciscan offenders were also former students of St. Anthony’s seminary, some entering the school as young as age eleven.
And of these, 53% were clergy abuse survivors themselves.
The very next year, in 2006, a third elderly survivor also living in Santa Barbara came forward. He and I had been friends for many years and during one of our frequent walks around the seminary grounds he spoke of being abused during the same 1930s time period and by the same Franciscan who had abused the others. He was 86 years old now, and like the two schoolmates before him he never suspected there were others who had suffered as he had. Like them, he also kept his abuse secret for decades. But unlike the others, he eventually went on to become a Franciscan priest himself. Friar Theo (not his real name) was a much-admired and beloved friar in the province. The shame, guilt and inadequacy that he felt and carried with him all his life prevented him from ever seeking help. As a thirteen year old student he had been told by his offender that God only wished to love him more. He grew up ashamed of his body and without any healthy understanding of his normal sexual desires.
Friar Theo’s story took a strange turn toward the end of his life. Two years before he passed away he found himself entangled in a Kafkaesque investigation for allegedly abusing a young boy in the mid-sixties at a parish school where he was pastor. Knowing that I was committed to working with all sides, he came to me once again for help, this time as an alleged offender. In a calm and reflective voice he surprised me when he said he didn’t doubt that the person who accused him had been sexually abused. In fact, he seemed certain that he had. “I know this boy,” he explained. “He would never lie about what happened to him.” Friar Theo maintained that someone had abused this man when he was a boy, but it wasn’t him. His unusual and compassionate explanation was unlike any I had ever heard before from an alleged offender. His recollection of his own abuse, coupled with his reluctance to speak about it for years, convinced me to try and dig up the truth.
I would eventually travel to northern California and spend time investigating his claim, visiting his former parish, reviewing boxes of archival material, talking with parishioners and even speaking with the family of the survivor. Then, in a strange turn of events, I discovered a couple of photographs and letters that turned out to be a smoking gun. It was later determined that another Franciscan priest had borne an uncanny resemblance to the accused, right down to his bushy eyebrows and horn-rimmed glasses. Moreover, he was of the same ethnicity, served briefly as Friar Theo’s assistant pastor during the alleged time of abuse, and, oddly enough, actually shared the same first name. When a photo of this (second) alleged offender was shown to the survivor along with four other photos of different friars—including one of Friar Theo—the survivor confirmed that the priest who abused him was, indeed, this doppelganger Franciscan who had died some years before.
Friar Theo would ultimately pass away without this dark shadow hanging over him. Several months after he did, a person previously unknown to me and living in the East Bay contacted SafeNet about a related matter. During the course of an hour-long conversation, he disclosed in a somewhat detached manner that he had been sexually abused by a Franciscan while he was a student in the mid-sixties at the very same parish and school in northern California that I had visited. When I asked who the abuser was, he identified by name the (second) alleged offender. Then, almost as an afterthought, remembered how he and other boys would often confuse him with the pastor, Friar Theo.
There’s one final twist to this unusual story. It’s fair and helpful to explain that Friar Theo was my childhood pastor. The former parish and elementary school I visited to investigate his case were my own. And it was he who introduced all those spring screenings of “It Takes A Man” to me and other boys all those many years ago. If I didn't quite have the capacity when I was young to understand and respect the irony of my experiences, I certainly do now.
A vast and complex community of clergy abuse survivors exists. You may hear very little from or about them but they are there, nonetheless. Like everyone else we shake when we are scared and we soften when we are held. Some of us shout openly of our struggles while others whisper privately. And many more choose silence not because they have no voice but because silence is their voice. It’s never easy for anyone to admit they were sexually molested as a child, let alone by a trusted member of the clergy. But any desire to be whole begins as a spiritual challenge. It starts when denial is confronted and continues when pain is accepted and endured as a means to end suffering. How we choose to accomplish this task is left to us in the end. By acknowledging the abuse but not allowing it to define them as men, survivors like Chris and Friar Theo ultimately came to understand what this meant: that healing a shared wound is both a personal and sacred act that can bind us to one another without separating us from ourselves or our god.