I believe the women – John Samuel Tieman

Axar [Baku City, Azerbaijan]

March 13, 2023

By John Samuel Tieman

There are documented cases of clergy sexual abuse as far back as the Middle Ages. Such abuse has gained increased media attention in the last two decades. Some have seen, for example, the Academy Award-winning movie, “Spotlight”. This docudrama is about “The Boston Globe”. In 2002, they ran a series on the Catholic Church’s systemic cover-up of abuse. For that series, “The Globe” won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. John Jay College did a wide-ranging study for the United States Conference Of Catholic Bishops. The study found that, between 1950 and 2002, about 4% of priests were accused of sexual abuse. That’s just the ones accused. I used to think this had nothing to do with me.

Readers have perhaps seen my essays about being Catholic. A few have read my poetry on the subject. At a time when my family was chaotic, my Catholic parish and its elementary school offered a stability that seemed eternal. I attended Christ The King Grade School in St. Louis, Class Of 1964. The Sisters Of Mercy ran the school. I was looking forward to the reunion.

Late last year, I went to a planning session for the class reunion. That was when I first heard about Father McCarthy and the girls. Then I went to the reunion a few Fridays ago. Most of my classmates I hadn’t seen since 1964. It was delightful. Well, most of it was delightful. Our memories were many and varied. Nuns in long habits. Praying in Latin. Childish pranks. The games we played. The neighborhood. But a particular darkness gathered when the girls, now 73-year-old women, remembered Father Robert McCarthy. They said he molested them. I served Mass for Father McCarthy. Had you asked my opinion of him in 2020, I would have spoken of a holy man. Robert L. McCarthy was an associate pastor at Christ The King. When the girls needed new athletic uniforms, short sleeved shirts and shorts, he did the fittings. That’s when he felt them up.

I believe the women. I believe them for two simple reasons. First, their stories are consistent and unvarying. Couple that with the fact that some of these women haven’t seen each other in six decades. Second, there’s no self-interest or gain in telling all that.

Father McCarthy went on to become Monsignor McCarthy. He was several more times an associate pastor, a chaplain to a convent, and later a pastor. He eventually was the administrator of Catholic cemeteries, not a small job in an archdiocese the size of St. Louis. In an email from David Clohessy, the former executive director of the Survivors Network Of Those Abused by Priests, SNAP, he notes that “over the years and across the country, priests who had engaged in sexual misdeeds were often assigned to cemeteries”.

I have no idea what Msgr. McCarthy’s side of this story is. He died in 2020. Nor do I know why the nuns allowed an unsupervised man to fit the girls for their athletic uniforms. I only know what my classmates tell me. I believe them. I believe the women. Of the ten or so women to whom I spoke on two occasions, about half spoke of his abuse. I was never the one who brought the subject up.

Lydia sat next to me for part of the evening. We had a lot of laughs. We, at one point, recalled the various priests. When we spoke of Fr. McCarthy, she spoke of the fittings. I asked, “You know about that?” I was shocked. My question was more of an exclamation. The scope of the abuse was starting to dawn on me. Lydia nodded, said softly, “Yes”, then looked away. Sixty years and the sorrow remains. The most compelling measure of truth that evening was in her eyes, those sad eyes that turned from me.

As I prepared this column for publication, I asked my classmates to verify my recollections of their stories. They did. In fact, they went much further. Here are just a few things I was told. One classmate said this was not the only time Robert McCarthy molested her. Two others suspect that he molested girls in other classes. Allison told of how in high school she went to Confession with Fr. McCarthy. She confessed to some “artless teenage petting”, but her confession “wasn’t sexual enough for Fr. McCarthy”. He wanted something lurid. “I was being pressed to describe an experience that I had not had,” she said. “[H]is interest was prurient.… That was the last time I went to confession. I left the Catholic Church very soon after.” She was not alone in speaking of this priest’s prurient questions and intrusions in the confessional.

I like writing. Right now, however, this essay – I’ve been angry – I’ve cried – I’ve wanted to tear up this essay. I love that little parish, Christ The King. But I also love the candor and courage of these women, my classmates. So this story must be published. Why? Because this is the truth. This is what happened. Parents entrusted their children to the Church, and the Church didn’t protect the children. The Church didn’t protect the children.