After Decades of Silent Pain, a Victim Resolves to Stop Running from 'It'
By Dan Rodricks
March 6, 2005
I Count at least three epiphanies - sudden and stunning realities he had ignored, denied or just missed for nearly three decades - that Bob Russell experienced as he moved firmly into middle age and finally faced the old demon named Brett.
The first came in June 2001, when Russell, now a force in the Baltimore chapter of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), heard a news report of a schoolteacher who had received a heavy jail sentence for sexually abusing a student, in either Maryland or Pennsylvania. Russell does not recall why this case, among the ugly many that stream in and out of public consciousness, made him decide to unlock his own secret.
But it did.
"That," Russell says, "was when I decided, 'OK, enough. What happened to [me] has happened to others, and it has got to stop. Enough. It was not [my] fault. Stop running from it. It is not [my] shame. It is the shame of the Roman Catholic Church.'"
For years, Russell had kept his secret "locked in a steel box with chains around it."
He never told anyone - not his parents, not classmates, not the woman who became his wife - what had happened in 1973, when he was a 15-year-old sophomore at Calvert Hall College, the all-boys Catholic high school in Towson.
Twice, Russell says, a priest named Laurence Brett molested him.
Brett, assigned to chaplaincy and a teaching position at Calvert Hall in 1969, has been linked in the national press to numerous allegations of child sexual abuse spanning three decades, from Connecticut to California, from New Mexico to Maryland. He has never been convicted of crimes nor even appeared in court as a defendant in civil suits because Brett has eluded authorities for years. He was last seen on St. Maarten Island by one of two Hartford Courant reporters who for their newspaper in 2002 documented allegations against Brett and profiled him as a serial abuser of boys. He has since disappeared from his island hideaway.
The Baltimore Archdiocese included Brett in a list released in 2002 of priests accused of misconduct, saying numerous individuals alleged he sexually abused them in the late 1960s and mid-1970s. Stephen Kearney, a spokesman for the archdiocese, was quoted by the Courant as saying, "Larry Brett is a criminal. He's an evil guy."
Of course, none of this was known to Bob Russell when he had his first epiphany.
He hadn't seen or heard from Brett since 1973, when the priest suddenly left Calvert Hall, ostensibly to either care for a sick aunt or be treated for hepatitis, depending on what story you heard at the time.
The priest, described in the Courant as "a predator blessed with charm," frequently invited underclassmen into his office to "rap," Russell says. Brett was regarded as more relaxed, culturally savvy and irreverent than the Christian Brothers who ran Calvert Hall, so boys gravitated toward him. He was considered cool, and getting invited to Larry Brett's office made sophomores and freshmen feel special.
The problem, Russell realized too late, was this special relationship carried a price he and other students would pay the rest of their lives. Russell says guilt and shame do not begin to describe the "it" that he kept locked inside, after his two sexual encounters with Brett.
Twenty-eight years later, once he made the decision to stop running from "it" - to tell his wife, to seek legal counsel, to seek therapy - Russell desired advice from one of his favorite Calvert Hall teachers, now a college professor.
When Russell described what had happened to him, the professor snapped, "Was it Larry Brett?"
I count that as Bob Russell's second epiphany - the realization that others knew about Brett's sexual appetite for boys. There were at least two other victims, the former Calvert Hall teacher told him. "And here I was," Russell says, "living my whole life as if I had been the only one."
Once the Calvert Hall teacher reported his suspicions to administrators in 1973, the school gave Brett the boot. But nothing further happened. The school did not investigate the matter until the 1990s, after other men, alleged victims of Brett, came forward. Since then, the school has apologized for not having done more at the time. It says 14 Calvert Hall alumni have identified themselves as Brett victims.
Russell's third epiphany occurred in the fall of 2002, in a hall at Fordham University in New York. He attended a meeting of Voice of the Faithful (VOTF), a group formed by Catholic laity in the wake of the abuse scandal that has rocked the church. In a room set aside for "survivors" of sexual abuse, Russell fully realized the extent of the pain caused over the decades by clergy who had used their special station to exploit children. Photographs of between 30 and 40 men and women, all victims of abuse, covered a wall at the meeting, Russell said. All had committed suicide.
"That's when this whole thing became, for me, bigger than Larry Brett," Russell says. "My own experience suddenly was dwarfed by the larger issues."
It became apparent that the hierarchy of his church had engaged in a coverup of predation; it had shuffled priests like Larry Brett from parish to parish, even state to state, instead of acting to end the abuse. "And what hit me," says Russell, "was that I could not turn to my faith for help and support because it was my faith that was the culprit."
Finally, by getting involved with SNAP and VOTF in Baltimore, Russell started to get what he wanted. He got a meeting with Cardinal William H. Keeler, a public apology from Calvert Hall and an effort - though he believes it has been halfhearted - to locate more Brett victims.
Now, as he steps with this, his first newspaper interview, fully into the public eye, there is another thing Russell hopes for: more general awareness of the prevalence of child molestation. "It is time," he says, "that this dirty staple of our society become more open as a topic of discussion and that predators feel the definite fear of severe repercussions once caught, both criminally and civilly. It is time to put a stop to it. That's what I'm after now."
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