Commentary: A brother’s innocence, and the church’s transgressions

Times Union [Albany NY]

September 16, 2021

By Michael Wielch

This whole pedophilia scandal the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany is enduring makes me think of my beloved brother Matt.

Matt was an altar boy. My mother thought he’d be a priest. I can still see him up there on the altar shadowing our pastor. The ancient rituals did something important for him.

Irish twins, 9 months and 29 days apart, we were inseparable. When we still wore flannel PJs with the feet attached, when we still needed a nightlight, when Star Trek was not yet in reruns, I remember rising from my bed early in the mornings with mischief on my mind. Matt was still in a crib, and as soon as he saw me enjoying my sweet freedom, he would bang on the slats of his crib like a hardened old con in Sing Sing.

I would grab him and drag him out (he ain’t heavy, he’s my brother) and then put him in my little red wagon and wheel him away. He didn’t walk until he was 17 months old.

My affection for my little brother never waned, but as we got older we drifted off in different directions, as if we each rowed a boat up a river toward an island, and he rowed to the left and me to the right. It was years until we each cleared the island and found ourselves pulling in unison again.

By the time we got to those years where you are no longer a little kid, but still a child — after GI Joe, but before girls, when you don’t believe in Santa Claus anymore, but still cling to hard to the belief Championship Wrestling is real — Matt had become an altar boy.

Every Sunday there he was, handing the priest that oil he flicks out at the congregation. Saying the prayers. Holding the fancy piece of linen under the golden chalice the priest drank the blood of Christ from.

The image of Matt in that cassock that didn’t quite reach his ankles, dungarees and sneakers having replaced the PJs with the feet in them, has haunted me since reading about the pedophilia scandal in the Albany Roman Catholic Diocese. For the first time it seemed like my brother was vulnerable. To life, to everything. Even retroactively, like some predator priest was going to use the church’s limitless power to go back and steal my precious brother’s childhood.

Matt was not harmed, but another altar boy in the parish has charged the pastor with abuse. He was able to do so because of the Child Victims Act.

The pastor seemed innocuous enough to me. But then again, until you encounter that kind of evil, you have no context or frame of reference for it. Father liked to have a lot of the boys from the parish around. Matt was one of those boys. They worked doing things around the yard or inside the rectory. They went fishing. A regular Pat O’Brien tending to a bunch of Angels with Dirty Faces. Walter Matthau with the Bad News Bears. Sure. The whole thing sickens me.

The thing that bothers me most is that it is former Albany Bishop Howard Hubbard who gets to do the talking here, to try his case in the press. What of the victims? When do they get to speak?

I like to think Matt was not abused because there was something about him that protected him from our parish priest. But I know it was just luck that saved him from a priest who preyed on boys and a church that didn’t care, that put reputation and money over the welfare of children.

It is the duty of every one of us to speak truth to this kind of power. My brother was lucky, but we must think of the poor kids who were not.

Michael Welch lives in Albany.