The Redemptive Wound
Room with a Pew
September 11, 2014
"It is difficult to imagine that individuals and societies governed by the seeking
of pleasure--as much as or more than by the avoidance of pain--can survive at all.”
--Antonio Damasio, from his book Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain
Back in 2004, the mother of a boy who had been abused while a student at Saint Anthony’s Seminary in Santa Barbara in the eighties, contacted me through SafeNet out of concern for her son’s mental health. His condition worsened after he began menacing a local parish priest (unrelated to his abuse) with veiled threats. Upon meeting with the family at their home in Northern California, immediate care for the son was obtained with the help of county health officials and professional evaluations. At the mother’s insistence, the Franciscans were never formally notified of the abuse. But it was the emotional state of another family member, an older cousin who had also attended Saint Anthony’s at the same time, that helped me realize how deeply the wounds of clergy sexual abuse had affected other former students who were secondary survivors.
The son first revealed the details of his abuse through family interventions and later in sessions with his therapist. It was during his freshman year at the seminary that his family learned how a Franciscan friar, who would later be implicated in a number of alleged assaults of minors, had sexually molested him on several occasions in a music room on campus and in the friar’s bedroom. The survivor’s mother, a devout Catholic, immediately began offering up her son’s pain (and her own) with daily intentions for the promise of deliverance.
The older cousin, Raymond (not his real name) had long since rejected the Catholic faith and dismissed any belief in the church’s teaching on suffering and redemption. He no longer felt any connection to the man on the cross who suffered and died for the sins of others. For years he wrestled with guilt and remorse as he watched his younger cousin slip slowly into mental illness. He had been a couple of classes ahead of him at Saint Anthony’s and, while he himself had not been molested during his time at the school, had come to blame himself for what had happened to his cousin.
“I didn’t know any of it was going on,” he told me, “but I should have.” He believed if he had been looking out for him he could have prevented the abuse. He remembered how some things weren’t right with his cousin, like his withdrawal from school activities and his sudden loss of weight. But he thought it was due to the usual homesickness most freshmen experienced during those first few months. “I ignored the obvious,” he said. “I was too wrapped up in myself.”
Years later, after speaking with some of his former classmates, Raymond discovered he wasn’t the only one who felt this way. Others who had not been molested had also experienced confusion, anger and regret after they began taking a closer look at the days they spent at Saint Anthony’s. Some admitted witnessing the strange behavior of certain friars, listening to their inappropriate stories, or hearing the distressed voices of students from behind closed doors.
But no one said anything about it at the time.
“I think a lot of us just skated around the issue, and some even joked about it. It was a defense mechanism,” explained Raymond. “It was something we did to make ourselves feel okay.” He eventually tried therapy and, for a time, volunteered with SafeNet, speaking privately with other secondary survivors who, as former students of Saint Anthony’s, had experienced similar trauma while attending the school. But Raymond found himself in a spiritual quandary, a sort of no-man’s land in search of vanishing mystical borders as he nursed what he called “a wound that wouldn’t heal.”
Just Beneath the Surface
The issue of former seminarians who were not sexually assaulted by the clergy, but who suffered from the effects of the institutional abuse, was briefly touched upon in my column last month, “No Bad Memories Allowed.” This was enough to prompt many alumni from Saint Anthony’s to contact me. In a way, I was not surprised that this singular mention of secondary survivors produced more informed and positive responses in private emails from former students than any other column I’ve written to date. The emotional fallout and collateral damage was like a sleeping giant.
A great many men who attended St. Anthony’s, from the twenties until it closed in the late eighties, and who escaped the actual physical abuse, were, nonetheless, deeply impacted most of their lives by what happened to their schoolmates. Last month’s column served to remind those who’ve been confused and disturbed by the whitewashing of their school’s history, that they, too, had a voice and played an integral part in this complex tale. Their anger with and bitterness toward the Franciscans and the church, combined with feelings of responsibility and regret, was balanced only by their sincere and pointed attempts to examine, understand and heal.
“I can’t shake the feeling that I somehow ignored what was going on around me,” wrote one former student who attended the seminary in the seventies. “I always suspected there was a strange element just beneath the surface of (seminary) life but I think a lot of us accepted that as normal. When you board away from home at a young age you tend to think and act more grown up than you really are.”
Another former schoolmate sent me pages from his personal journal written during his last two years at Saint Anthony’s in the early sixties. His recorded thoughts are an informative mix of school boy observations and disquieting concerns. In his senior year he was a self-described “know-it-all” who prided himself on matching the names and faces of every boy in the school. Years later, after he learned that friar Martin McKeon had allegedly abused seminarians in his role as teacher and prefect of discipline, certain things started to fall into place. “I can still see the agony on one boy’s face after he left (McKeon’s) room one afternoon,” he related. “I’ll never know the true circumstances but it disturbs me to this day.”
The comments of other former seminarians, all secondary survivors who attended Saint Anthony’s at different times and in different decades, echoed much of these same sentiments:
“It troubles me even more today because I know now that the small suspicions I had were not small at all. They were looming large and I did nothing.” – a student of the sixties
“I have good memories of the seminary like everyone else. But I have also a sickening feeling about what happened when I was there. I was naive (but) that’s no excuse.” – a student of the seventies
“I’m angry with everyone who taught there.” – a student of the fifties
“If I sound bitter, I am. But worse, I regret so much the many precious days I spent socially isolated in those cloistered halls, at such a young age.” – a student of the sixties
“I personally witnessed (alleged offender) Father Mario (Cimmarrusti) beating a student with his bare fists and dragging him into the photo lab.” – a student of the sixties
“It wasn’t right. But back then we regarded them (medical exams conducted by friars)
as a ‘man’ thing.” – a student of the forties
“I heard things I didn’t want to hear.” – a student of the eighties
“I’m ashamed for staying quiet even now.” – a student of the fifties
“I wasn’t a kid. I was eighteen years old and I didn’t say anything.” – a student of the sixties
“I recall standing with friends and two (Franciscan) teachers, and one of the friars made a sexual joke about a certain freshman’s (body part), and we all laughed as the kid turned beet red. I’ve always felt bad about that.” – a student of the eighties
One response from a former student who attended the school in the sixties was especially reflective. In his email, the writer raised not just the question of those who had or hadn't been abused, but also of those who had vanished mysteriously without a word. “When a student left the seminary, or worse, was expelled, it was seen as a sign of failure,” he wrote. “There was no time to say goodbye or good luck to one who was kicked out; no attempt at understanding or reconciling the sudden disappearance of one who may have been a long-time friend.” This type of emotional and psychological wounding left many seminarians feeling anxious and insecure. Most, myself included, felt the sting of these inexplicable losses as we tried to make sense of the sight of a stripped bed or an empty desk.
As painful and difficult as it was for these men to write about feelings long buried in their past, every one of their responses contained more than a hint of hope. Despite the anger and the bitterness, the shame and the guilt, each, in his own way, had set himself squarely on a path to recovery with all its unknown and infinite possibilities.
At the forefront of this recovery is Fred Moody, a former student of Saint Anthony’s, whose memoir, “Unpeakable Joy,” published in 2013, is a remarkable and moving account of a secondary survivor’s seminary years. Moody was one of twenty-five Redemptorist transfer students from Oakland’s Holy Redeemer Seminary who joined the Franciscan student body of Saint Anthony’s in September, 1966, after Holy Redeemer closed its doors.
I was at the seminary that year as a returning sophomore when Moody arrived to join the senior class. It didn’t take long for most of us to realize how different he was, in the best possible sense, as he quickly distinguished himself as a likeable character with a fiercely independent nature. I recall only two seniors that year who stood out in my mind as being the coolest guys at the seminary as well as the so-called rebels.
One was a guy who wore his hair down, defiantly, over one side of his face and dared to risk expulsion by smoking cigarettes in forbidden areas on campus. The other was Fred Moody, who wore a Sinatra-type hat almost everywhere he went on school grounds and who seemed to question any rule no matter what it was.
Although he was not sexually molested by a member of the clergy, Moody’s initial pursuit of the priesthood at a young age, coupled with his tireless search for meaning, had dogged him ever since he left the school in 1967. In trying to piece together the circumstances that dropped him in the middle of one of the most notorious sex abuse scandals in the history of the Catholic Church, his story has exposed, sometimes in painfully direct language, a time when boys like Moody and others believed the priesthood was preparing them for a life of honest service, social justice and spiritual enlightenment. Their disappointment in a system that failed them was reinforced by their disillusionment with the Franciscans and the very teachings of the Catholic Church.
Moody found it troubling to believe that a relentless truth-seeker and rule-breaker like himself could be deaf and dumb to the horrors of clergy abuse that seemed to lurk behind every sandstone wall. But his perception of unseemliness was closer to the truth than he realized.
In one memorable passage, Moody described a feeling of helplessness during his time at Saint Anthony’s after he discovered one of his classmates from Holy Redeemer slowly retreating into despair:
“Not that I didn’t understand—I mean, it wasn’t exactly a mystery. Anyone in his right mind would have been depressed by this place. I was pretty sure he was basically suffering the same thing I was: shock, depression, the hopeless feeling that his dream was dying and he had nowhere else to go.”
In an understated but convincing manner, Moody makes the case that the terrible wound inflicted on those who were sexually assaulted is one that he shares with them, not because of any false or separate sense of atonement for his or anyone else’s sins. He knows that mortification of the mind and body are distorted notions of unity with the divine. Rather, and as one who fears he let himself and his schoolmates down, Moody’s writings disclose a deep desire to connect on the most human level and to feel the wound, not as an ugly scar that disfigures and imprisons, but as a jailer’s key that unlocks and liberates. In one respect, it's significant to note that the moral compass which pointed him toward freedom and fairness at an early age would eventually be re-set during his formative years at a Catholic seminary in the Redemptorist tradition.
Some who attended Saint Anthony’s may take exception to Moody’s frank and revealing story which he relates with dignity and humor. They might misunderstand his use of narrative non-fiction to tell parts of his tale. They may even misjudge his skill in enticing the reader to follow him down the rabbit hole. But Moody’s literary style, a smart blend of fact and fiction to explain his pain and confusion, has much to do with the power and allure of his memoir. As an honest wordsmith, it’s clear from the beginning that his journey to explore how he felt back then, more than forty five years ago, is an attempt to understand how he feels today. As fearlessness springs from vulnerability, Moody demonstrates how one’s wound can often make a person part of the truth he seeks. In an intimately human way, the concept of the redeeming nature of suffering, far beyond the realm of church theology, begins to make sense in the personal quest for a spiritual life.
Moody’s subtle insights are relevant to how I perceive and feel my own wound. Over the years, it’s proven to be a peculiar source of strength, acceptance and release. The struggle that ultimately freed me was in the throes of suffering, while the triumph of a much saner world rebounded from the wound that became my guide. A good part of this pain enabled me to pursue and practice ideals that served others, something I learned as a student in the very school where I was harmed. But not blindly and not without inner knowledge. For me, it has never been about the wound that won’t heal or even the wound that’s been re-opened. One paradox of making ourselves well is in the very sore we bind, pick at, cleanse and redress. It’s the redemptive wound that often redefines our personal beliefs about what we need to heal and how those needs make us whole.
Part of the Cure
Some months ago I re-connected with Raymond, the older cousin of the survivor I helped obtain treatment for in 2004. He reported that his cousin went through some tough years after his initial clinical assessment. But further therapy and the correct medication eventually helped stabilize his younger cousin’s condition, giving him the opportunity to work and live on his own, which he’s managed to do since 2009.
When I asked Raymond how he, himself, was doing, he responded in an email:
“I was mostly in the dark all those years. I wasn’t a slacker or a deadbeat. Every morning I got up, went to work, paid the bills, made sure the needs of my family were met. But I was avoiding myself. When my youngest daughter almost drowned in a boating accident in 2008, I immediately blamed myself for an incident that was completely beyond my control. As she lay there in a hospital bed, sedated, but out of danger, I wept for hours and couldn’t stop. It was like waking up and leaving myself behind. I kept sensing how alive it felt to experience my own pain. It was the strangest thing. My daughter had almost died, and there I was, sitting at her bedside embracing my own suffering. I knew exactly where all this was coming from. It just took this long to realize I would be all right.”
The crime of clergy sexual abuse is hideous and shocking. But the wound it inflicts, in stark contrast to its dark shadow, can often be brilliant and illuminating. We know that the church is, and has been, part of this terrible sickness. What we need to acknowledge and affirm is that everyone who survives the illness is part of the cure.