Innocence Lost

After decades of repression, a local man speaks out about the priest he says molested him. His actions may force the Archdiocese of Philadelphia to do right by its many alleged victims.

By Mike Newall
Philadelphia Weekly
July 14, 2004

[Note from See also Newall's 9/15/04 update on the McDonnell case and the Philadelphia grand jury's materials on Rev. Gerard W. Chambers, which include a list of Chambers's assignments.]

An early summer sun seeps into the visitors' room at Norristown State Hospital, a sprawling 124-year-old psychiatric institution in Montgomery County. Brian McDonnell and a trio of visitors sit around a long wooden table.

Brian is dressed in jeans and a blue sweatshirt. His thick white hair is disheveled, his blue eyes glazed from medication. Stubble lines his sallow cheeks.

Brian turned 59 in April, but he looks a decade older.

He holds green rosary beads. A Catholic medal hangs from a blue ribbon around his neck.

"My brother Alex said he doesn't know if guardian angels really do their jobs," he says in measured tones. "I still believe in guardian angels, but I believe in them in different ways now, because if my guardian angel had protected me the way he should've, well, then ... "

His voice trails off. His good hand holds his shaky one.

When an awkward silence falls over the room, he tries to inject levity.

"I was a good football player in college," he says through a smile of cracked teeth. "I was versatile, played three positions: guard, tackle and end. I sat on the end of the bench, guarded the water bucket and tackled anyone who came near it."

Brian's older brother John, visiting from California, pats him on the arm and laughs. Only recently has Brian started displaying a sense of humor.

At 60, John McDonnell is barrel-chested with vibrant blue eyes and slicked back white hair, a successful real estate investor who lives by the beach with his second wife. But he too has struggled.

There were years of alcoholism and severe depression, and in 1999 he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder due to sexual abuse he suffered as a child. There are mornings he still wakes up with thoughts of suicide.

"We were both first-team All-Catholic in football at St. Tommy More," he says, trying to keep his brother's spirits high.


Jimmy McGlone, a childhood buddy of Brian's, is a stout, sweet-tempered man who talks in bursts. He visits Brian once a week. The two take trips into town to get something to eat, or to take in a movie. If it's a Sunday visit, they'll go to church and attend Mass. Sometimes Brian will ask to stop by the dollar store in town. He never buys anything, but he likes to stroll down the aisles and look around.

It was in January, after his sister read about the lawsuit in the newspapers, that Jimmy McGlone learned of his friend's situation. He first visited the hospital in February. Brian was a lot worse then. The two just sat in silence.

Brian shares a small room with another man. His days begin at 6:30 a.m., when he gets up to make his bed. After that it's medication, counseling, television--and on good days, a visitor. He'll often play spades to pass the time. He's usually back in bed by 7:30 at night to sleep.

McGlone is planning a picnic in Brian's honor at his own home near Morgantown, not far off the Pennsylvania Turnpike. A lot of guys from the old neighborhood will be there. McGlone has promised his friend that he can man the grill.

Brian is nervous about the party. There'll be a lot of people, and being away from the hospital looms as a challenge.

"I don't like this place," he says about Norristown State. "But I'd rather be here because I'm very suicidal, and I don't want to do that to my family."

Later, when the visit is over, Jimmy McGlone reminisces about the childhood he shared with Brian.

"Nobody ever messed with Brian McDonnell," he says in a hushed voice. "He was a big kid, but the nicest guy ever. An athlete. Good looking. Smart. Funny. He had all the goods."


"The relationship of the three of us as brothers has been ruptured because of this abuse," says John McDonnell over iced tea at a Center City Starbucks two days after the visit to Norristown State Hospital. "We always knew that all of us were being molested by this guy, but we never talked about it among ourselves, and we never really talked about it as a family for the longest time. Then, probably in the late '60s, Alex and I started talking about it. Over the next 15 years we tried to engage Brian, but he would just turn on a dime and walk the other way. Everybody knew he'd been molested too."

Like many victims of clergy abuse, Alex and John McDonnell felt emboldened to step forward after the pedophile priest scandal broke nationally in 2002.

In February 2002 Alex--who lives in Wynnewood with his wife--fired off an email to the archdiocese after a statement was released saying there had been 35 abusive priests and 50 victims in Philadelphia since 1950.

Alex McDonnell, at 61, the oldest of the McDonnell brothers, is a reserved man, thinner than his siblings, with the same blue eyes. For a long time he questioned his faith. He struggled with alcohol and shut himself off to people.

"If Gerard Chambers' name is not on the list, I request you add it," he wrote, citing the name of the priest who allegedly abused all three brothers. "As a victim of pedophilia from this predator, I know what I'm talking about."

Alex says he received a response confirming Chambers' name was on the list.

In a letter dated March 2003 John and Alex informed the archdiocese's victims' assistance office of their brother Brian's deteriorating physical and mental health. The McDonnell brothers also sent the letter to Monsignor Joseph McFadden, a onetime personal secretary to former Archbishop Cardinal John Joseph Krol, who knew the McDonnell family from high school.

McFadden, who was recently appointed an auxiliary bishop, says he never responded to the letter because he thought the archdiocese was handling the matter. But the archdiocese never did respond to the letter.

In November John flew to Philadelphia from his home in California to meet with two officials from the archdiocese's victims' assistance office. He told the officials about the abuse his family had endured and of Brian's deteriorating condition. He asked if they could cover Brian's future psychiatric, medical and housing costs. "He hasn't been able to work in 25 years," he told them.

He then asked one of the officials, Monsignor William Lynn, for a copy of Chambers' assignments.

"We don't usually give out copies of that," answered Lynn.

"You don't usually get molested at 12 or 13, either," John snapped back. "I want a copy."

Lynn handed over a copy of Chambers' personal files.

In 40 years of ministry (including the 17 years spent on seven different "health leaves"), Chambers was shuffled through 17 different parishes, spending on average just more than a year in each one. (At least five people have alleged that Chambers molested them in his two-year stay at St. Gregory's in West Philadelphia.)

Soon after the meeting, the archdiocese informed John and Alex McDonnell by email that it wouldn't cover their brother's housing costs, but it offered to provide him counseling through Catholic Social Services.

The McDonnell brothers picked up the phone and called a lawyer.

Responding through spokesperson Cathy Rossi, the archdiocese says it has "made a commitment to, as much as humanly possible, protect children from abuse. This includes, among other things, background checks of all religious and lay personnel who have regular contact with children, written standards of ministerial behavior, and a safe-environment program for parishes and schools that provides education and training in recognizing and preventing abuse."


"Brian's life basically flickered out the day he was raped," says John McDonnell.

He says Brian was an outgoing, fun-loving kid, the family jokester. He was handsome with a meat-and-potatoes build and thick dark brown hair.

"He had the Irish kick to him," adds his friend Jimmy McGlone. "He was happy-go-lucky, always with a joke to tell."

Brian's father owned a pub at the corner of 56th and Lansdowne in West Philadelphia, and the family--10 in all--lived in a two-bedroom apartment above the bar. Their mother and father were Irish immigrants and Catholic to the core. They believed priests were Christ's representatives on earth and that missing Mass was a mortal sin, and they made sure the rosary was said every night. Each morning, before going off to school, the kids had to say their guardian angel prayer.

Angel of God, my guardian dear
To whom God's love commits me here
Ever this day be at my side
To light and guard, to rule and guide

John and Alex became altar boys in grade school. Brian, perhaps the most religious of the McDonnell children, eagerly followed in his brothers' footsteps.

Father Gerard Chambers came to St. Gregory's Parish in West Philly in the mid-'50s. He was a slight, middle-aged man with thin, graying hair and pale skin. He was distant, quick-tempered, with a slight hunch in his back. He chain-smoked English Oval cigarettes.

Chambers had been a priest in the Philadelphia Archdiocese for just more than 20 years. Before coming to St. Gregory's, he'd been stationed in 13 different parishes, most of them in small working-class towns upstate. He'd already spent three years in a Downingtown hospital where pedophile priests were often sent for "treatment." Immediately before arriving at St. Gregory's, he was a chaplain in an all-male orphanage in Orwigsburg, Pa., an assignment that lasted just six months.

At St. Gregory's, Chambers quickly became involved in overseeing the altar boys. He would come up behind them as they hung their vestments in the sacristy closet.

"I remember just trying to get dressed and out of there before he decided to molest me," recalls Brian McDonnell. "I was overwhelmed with fear."

The McDonnells say Chambers took to fondling all three of them--John, Brian and Alex--in the sacristy. Eventually he began taking them on trips to the Jersey shore and to an orphanage upstate.

"He'd smile as he was touching you," says John.

The boys never spoke to each other about what was happening.

The brothers say that while Chambers limited himself to just touching Alex and John, he took things further with the younger Brian.

One day he led Brian to his big black Chrysler and drove him to a house at the Jersey shore, where Brian says he was anally raped.

"I remember when he got done," says Brian. "I was crying, and I said to him, 'Why don't you kill me now? I can't live with this shame.' And he just looked at me and smiled. And laughed."


The McDonnell suit is one of 23 that have been filed against the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and former Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua since December. All of the lawsuits allege the archdiocese systematically covered up abuse allegations and allowed known pedophile priests continued access to children. The suits represent the first wave of civil litigation against the Philadelphia Catholic Church since the scandal first broke in 2002. Dozens more suits are expected to be filed in the upcoming months.

John Salveson, head of the Philadelphia Chapter of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), says the McDonnell brothers' experience dealing with the archdiocese--lengthy or no response to correspondences, denied requests for information or financial assistance, seemingly little concern for the pastoral or spiritual needs of the victims--is pretty much par for the course. He says the archdiocese has brought these lawsuits on itself.

"The biggest tragedy to me is that this all could have been so easily avoided," says Salveson. "First, if the archdiocese initially removed sexual predators from ministry, and second, if they treated victims with any shred of Christian charity."

"Forget about priestly compassion," says John McDonnell. "How about common human decency?"


Soon after the attack, Brian McDonnell says he went to another priest at St. Gregory's and informed him of the abuse. He says the priest chased him away, telling him to keep quiet. He even accused the boy of having tempted Chambers.

After high school Brian attended Villanova, where he started drinking. He became detached and depressed. He says he started feeling shame, confusion, paranoia and anxiety.

He struggled to reconcile Chambers' actions with his faith. He worried that all who met him knew of his secret.

After college he found himself performing poorly in job interviews--he's been on just two his whole life--and lacked the confidence to hold down the jobs he landed through friends and family.

Over the years depression and paranoia took a stronger hold on him. There was a failed marriage--he has four children--and eventually shock treatments.

By 1983 he was back living with his parents. One night he went missing after cleaning out the pills from his now elderly parents' medicine cabinet. He walked down to the Schuylkill River near a spot in Fairmount Park where his father used to take him and his brothers to play ball. He took a razor to his wrist and throat. He cut his left wrist and forearm nearly to the bone. He tried to pluck the jugular vein from his throat.

In the early dawn hours after his suicide attempt, Brian somehow made the five-block walk back to his parents' home. His mother opened the front door to find her son covered in congealed blood. Brian collapsed into his mother's arms.

"It's a miracle he didn't die," says John. "But he has had to live the last 20 years in a very, very dark place."

Brian has been in and out of Norristown State and other psychiatric hospitals since the suicide attempt.

When he's off his medication, he suffers delusions.

At one point he believed that Chambers must have been an Anglican priest implanted by the Queen of England to destroy the Catholic Church.

"A Catholic priest would never do things he did," he would explain.


In a July 8 hearing, lawyers for the archdiocese argued that all the suits charging sex abuse by priests, including the one filed by the McDonnells, should be dismissed because the statutes of limitations had long expired.

In court, lawyers for the archdiocese called the suits "stale cases."

There's never been a successful civil case alleging sexual abuse brought against the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, largely due to Pennsylvania's extremely stringent statute of limitations guidelines. Until 2002 a victim had only two years after their 18th birthday to file charges. (After the clergy abuse scandal broke, the statutes were extended to a victim's 30th birthday.)

One of the first cases brought against the archdiocese was in 1993, when a 27-year-old man alleged abuse while he was a student at Archbishop Ryan High School in the Northeast. The priest was a close friend of the man's family. The archdiocese countersued the victim's parents, claiming they were negligent for having trusted the priest with their child. The whole affair was settled out of court.

Lawyers for the victims viewed the move as a scare tactic to keep others from coming forward.

At the July 8 hearing, Jay Abramowitch, an attorney representing the McDonnells and 12 other plaintiffs, argued that the clock on the statute of limitations should start when the victims first learned that the Church had been covering up allegations and protecting known pedophiles--which, in most cases, is only a few years back.

"That's when they learned there was a second defendant responsible for the crimes committed against them," argues Abramowitch.

Courts in Lehigh and Westmoreland counties recently upheld the argument and allowed the victims' cases to move forward.

Common Pleas Court Judge Arnold New is expected to rule on the Philadelphia cases in the upcoming weeks.

A decision to allow the cases to proceed, says victim lawyer Jeff Anderson, "would allow survivors in Pennsylvania, now denied justice and healing, the opportunity to hold the Church hierarchy accountable for their deception and complicity in protecting predatory priests."


It's a humid Thursday evening in July. Brian McDonnell, his brother Alex and their friend Jimmy McGlone sit in a small wooden gazebo on the grounds of Norristown State Hospital. Jimmy and Brian have just returned from a trip into town to see Spider-Man 2.

Brian is quiet. He stares at the ground and keeps running his hands through his hair.

Other patients returning from break file past the gazebo. One thin man, babbling incoherently, approaches and offers a handful of cigarette butts. Brian doesn't look up.

Alex suspects Brian is anxious about his decision to come forward and talk about the abuse. Brian was afraid the Church would shun him because of the lawsuit. But he decided to speak out anyway. "To help the Church," he says.

"The Church has to own up to its responsibility for Chambers being at St. Gregory's and then being moved around afterward," he says. "What he was doing to us? I don't know how they do it in legal terms, but his collar should have been taken off."


It's only been a few months since Brian first opened up about the abuse. He says it felt good to talk about it, and he's been talking about it more since then.

But progress is slow.

I've been feeling shame over this since 1955," he says. "Not much has changed in the last six months."

Thoughts of suicide still creep into his mind. He struggles to find purpose in his life.

"I run away from my suicide thoughts by saying Hail Marys," he says. "I say, 'Hail Mary, forgive me' to make them go away."

He says he's forgiven Chambers.

"Anger is a bitter pill to swallow," he says.

A few months ago he met with a priest who told him that whenever he gets angry over what happened to him, he must pray for Chambers' soul.

Brian prays for Chambers every day, though he's sure the priest--who died 30 years ago--is not in heaven yet.

"That's impossible," he says.


The grand jury has been digging into the cases against the archdiocese for more than two years.

Scores of victims, Church officials, lawyers and clergy abuse experts have been questioned about how the archdiocese handled abuse complaints.

So far the grand jury has handed down one indictment to a priest who allegedly abused a teenage Philadelphia boy in the '70s. (The statute of limitations did not apply because the priest was transferred out of Pennsylvania in 1980.)

Former Archbishop Bevilacqua has been called to testify at least a half-dozen times. Current Archbishop Justin Rigali has also been called to testify.

There have been other damning developments in recent weeks.

Last month Arthur Baselice, a 25-year-old South Jersey man, sued the archdiocese and the Franciscan order for abuse alleged to have occurred in the mid-'90s at the hands of the then-principal of Archbishop Ryan High School. The suit also alleges that a Franciscan official offered Baselice $50,000 to drop all charges against the order and the archdiocese. (The archdiocese denies involvement in any such arrangement, claiming the Franciscans operated without its approval or knowledge.)

Baselice's suit falls within the statute of limitations.

Local media reported last month that the district attorney's office and the archdiocese had entered into plea negotiations, a worrisome development for those who want to see the Church held accountable for its crimes.

Approached for comment, the archdiocese says it won't discuss pending litigation.

"We've seen this same pattern in civil and criminal cases involving the Church," says David Clohessy, the national executive director of SNAP. "The minute a high church official is deposed or put on the witness stand, the Church desperately seeks a settlement.

"Victims have largely been disappointed by grand jury investigations into clergy abuse," he continues. "Prosecutors come right up to the edge of doing what needs to be done and then suddenly pull back."

No American bishop or high-ranking member of the hierarchy has ever been indicted for covering up the sexual crimes of their charges.

What's needed to sustain real change, says Clohessy, is for members of the Church hierarchy who are guilty to be held accountable.

"Pedophiles are compulsively driven by virtually uncontrollable sexual impulses. But the ones in the hierarchy, the ones who don't molest but cover up for molesters, are by and large rational men. The threat of punishment can change their behavior.


Jimmy McGlone and his wife and daughter have been cooking all morning. It's a brilliant Saturday afternoon, and the sun is shining.

"This is a special, special day," says Jimmy while putting some more chicken on the grill.

Tables and chairs have been set up in Jimmy's sprawling backyard in anticipation of the guests.

Jimmy has been looking forward to this day for weeks. All the old guys will be coming.

It will be great for Brian, he says, knowing that all these people are here to support him.

Before Jimmy walked into that hospital in February, he hadn't seen Brian in more than 40 years. "He was as fragile as a 2-year-old," he recalls.

Since then the two have become best of friends again. Jimmy's joking presence seems to have a calming effect on Brian.

"He's an exceptional human being," says Jimmy. "He's so innocent."

"There has been such progress," he continues. "But he needs more things like this. He needs to have his sense of humor brought out again. He can't do that in that hospital."

Jimmy and John have looked into an assisted living home up near Jimmy's place for Brian to move to as soon as he's well enough to leave the hospital. Jimmy has even floated the idea of letting Brian come to live with him.


Brian is one of the first guests to arrive. It's been a whirlwind week for him. His son Brian is visiting with his wife and young son.

Brian, 25, is in the Army, stationed at Fort Stewart, Ga. He'll return to Iraq in December. He changed his plans so he could make the barbecue. The visit's clearly lifted his father's spirits.

The younger Brian is the image of the father he never got to know. He grew up with his mother in Virginia. His father left when he was 2. The son remembers his father sitting him on his knee and telling him he'd have to go away. But he doesn't remember him saying why.

The two would occasionally speak over the phone but fell out of touch six years ago when young Brian entered the Army and his father's mental health deteriorated.

He never knew the details of his father's childhood until last night when he stayed up till 2 in the morning talking with Uncle John.

He could hardly sleep last night, and has been full of tears and anger all morning.

"I lost a father," says the son. "I never got to know him."

The day before, Brian took his father out to lunch. Jimmy McGlone and Alex came along as well. Over sandwiches, Brian listened as his father spoke of his concern about coming forward with his story.

"Dad," he said, putting his hand on his father's. "What you're doing is courageous."

Afterward, during the ride through the old neighborhood, past the old apartment, the school and even St. Gregory's, Brian seemed relaxed. He was even smiling.

Mike Newall ( writes frequently about child sexual abuse by priests in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.


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