Bless Me Father, for You Have Sinned

By Tim Placher
Chicago Sun-Times [Joliet IL]
March 5, 2006

The sentence was buried deep within the 247 pages of the recently released deposition given by Joliet Bishop Joseph Imesch as part of a priest-abuse lawsuit pending against him and the Joliet Roman Catholic Diocese.

In the glare of the deposition's sensational revelations about priests hot-tubbing and playing "games" in the nude with young boys, the five simple words on page 201 went unnoticed by nearly everyone.

Everyone but me.

At one point in his deposition, Imesch was asked by the victim's counsel to list the Joliet priests he believed had been credibly accused of sexual abuse. After the bishop rattled off 17 names, the attorney inquired about a priest he hadn't mentioned.

"Ruffalo," he said. "What about Ruffalo?"

"I'm not sure of that," Imesch answered.

"Not sure," Imesch said, despite the fact the Joliet Diocese previously had paid a settlement to a man who claimed he'd been abused by the Rev. Richard Ruffalo when the priest was pastor at St. Mary's Parish in Park Forest in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Perhaps I can clear up Imesch's uncertainty about Father Ruffalo.

Far too attentive

I hadn't wanted to go to Las Vegas with Ruffalo during the summer of 1979. I was 17 years old and had grown increasingly uncomfortable with the priest's advances toward me. He had been far too attentive to me for years, ever since he'd first met me as a fifth-grade choirboy and altar server at the Cathedral of St. Raymond in Joliet.

He was an obese man with dark hair shaved into a crew cut. He said masses at my parish and taught religion in my grade school. He first introduced himself to me after hearing my boy soprano voice belting out a solo from the church choir. Soon after, he started talking to me at length whenever I'd serve at mass.

Within a few months, he began to put his hands on me. He would touch me, rubbing my back and giving me hugs in the sacristy when no one else was around.

He'd invite me to the parish rectory, where he'd take me to his private room and ask me to massage his neck and back. He'd buy me gifts, write me cards and give me money. He'd assign me to prominent roles in the diocesan church services at the cathedral. Later, when he taught my eighth-grade class, he made sure I had the seat right in front of his desk.

He even had a special term of endearment for me: "My Tim."

When I got a little older, he'd take me to fancy Chicago restaurants where waiters would serve me drinks. He'd let me drive his car before I was old enough to have a license, rubbing my leg while I was behind the wheel. He gave me a couple of his credit cards and told me to use them whenever I wanted.

He'd tell me my parents didn't understand me. He, of course, assured me he understood me better than anyone.

There's far more I could tell you, but you get the insidious drift. In retrospect, it all seems so painfully obvious. The man was courting me for sex.

But I was too young to know it.

My entire being would recoil

At 17, I was still naive about sexuality. When that Las Vegas invitation was extended, I couldn't conceptualize the leap from Ruffalo's unwelcome touching to sexual activity. And I was clueless about the existence of homosexuality or pedophilia in the world.

I did know one thing: Ruffalo's attention to me always made me feel a little nervous and uncomfortable. Now that I'd gotten older, that discomfort had greatly intensified. Whenever he put his hands on me in any way, my entire being would recoil. When he called my mom to ask her permission for me to travel with him, I prayed she would say no.

But when the priest told her a couple of other boys my family knew also were going, she decided it would be a good experience for me. My mother trusted priests implicitly.

I tried to work up the nerve to tell her how uncomfortable Ruffalo made me feel, but I never found the words. Priests were respected in my family. I didn't know how to express the tension and turmoil I was feeling. I was embarrassed and confused and, ultimately, said nothing.

So off to Vegas I went. But, I reasoned, at least two friends were going along for the trip. I figured there'd be safety in numbers.

Ruffalo had a vacation house in Las Vegas. Among the Joliet priests and bishops, it was common knowledge he traveled there several times a year, often with boys in his company. I knew several of them. And while I'd heard tales of drinking and parties, no one had ever mentioned any sexual advances.

When we arrived at Ruffalo's house in Las Vegas that June, he was quick to organize the sleeping arrangements. The other two boys would bunk down in the front bedroom. Ruffalo, however, had other plans for me. He took my bags and put them on one of the beds in the back bedroom -- his room.

That first night was filled with lots of drinking. Ruffalo -- a most accommodating host -- made sure his teenage guests had an ample supply of Coors in the refrigerator. Ruffalo, though, had too many drinks and wound up going to bed before the rest of us.

The second night, however, he didn't make the same mistake.

After we boys spent the afternoon at the complex's pool, Ruffalo rounded us up for a night on the town. Early in the evening, the four of us -- three teenagers and a priest in a Roman collar -- arrived at the Las Vegas Hilton. We walked into the casino and sat down at the bar. As underage kids, we had no business being on the casino floor, let alone pulling up a barstool and ordering drinks. But we were with a priest, and nobody seemed to mind.

In fact, everybody on the hotel staff seemed to know Ruffalo from his frequent trips to the city. The concierge called him by name as we walked by. Waitresses said hello. The bartender knew his favorite drink -- Bombay gin -- without asking. The hotel manager came to the lounge to greet us and set us up with a free meal and tickets to that night's floor show.

The liquor flowed freely all evening. Every time my glass was empty, Ruffalo made sure I got a refill. And the more I drank, the more he touched me. He rubbed my back and massaged my neck. He called me "My Tim."

After the show, even though we'd been drinking for several hours already, our group went back to the hotel lounge. A new bartender had come on duty since our earlier visit. He knew Ruffalo, too.

He took one look at me, smiled and said, "Father, he looks just like your young friend John who comes with you sometimes. I remember how John likes to drink boilermakers. Shall we give your new friend the same, Father?"

I'd never even heard of such a drink. The next thing I knew, a shot glass of Southern Comfort bobbing in a glass of beer was pushed in front of me. I remember downing that drink and two more.

After that, the lights went out.

I remember

I don't remember the next few hours. I don't remember how long we stayed at the bar. I don't remember how we got back to Ruffalo's house. I don't remember getting undressed. I don't remember going to bed.

But at some point during the night, I woke up from my drunken fog. And I remember exactly what happened.

Ruffalo was sitting on the bed next to me. He was stripped down to a T-shirt and a pair of jockey shorts. He was gazing at me and caressing my face. I remember the overpowering smell of his stale cologne.

"I love you, My Tim," he said. Then he reached out and stuck his hand into my underwear and began rubbing my penis.

I remember feeling utter despair. I was 17 years old, 2,000 miles from home, and a fat, smelly priest had his hand down my pants.

I didn't know what to do. I wanted to cry. I wanted to haul off and punch the life out of the pervert's face. But I did nothing.

The truth was out

I didn't want to cause a commotion and wake up the other guys. I was too embarrassed to risk them finding out what he was doing to me. So, I tried to pretend I was asleep. But it didn't work.

His hand wouldn't stop.

But then, I was overcome with sickness. Whether it was due to Ruffalo's probing hand or the parade of boilermakers, I'll never know. But I bolted up and ran to the bathroom, where I emptied my stomach over and over into the toilet. Ruffalo, always the helpful one, was there to "comfort" me by rubbing my back as I wretched.

Finally, he left me alone in the bathroom. I stayed there for what seemed hours. I didn't sleep the rest of the night. I feared closing my eyes on the priest.

In the morning, I confronted him in the kitchen and told him to arrange an immediate flight home for me. He reached out to try to hug me. I backed away. We didn't speak of what he had done during the night, but my message was clear.

At some level, I was relieved. Finally, I knew all the discomfort I had felt was not my imagination. The truth was out: Ruffalo was a disgusting freak who had courted me relentlessly for years, waiting for his big opportunity to try to have sex with me.

When I got home, I didn't tell anyone what had happened. I was too ashamed. I didn't tell my mother. My faith in the church was already shot to hell. I didn't want to ruin her faith, too. Also, I didn't want her to bear the burden of knowing her permission to go on the trip had put me in harm's way. Besides, I had survived the ordeal. And after all, it was only one priest, right? One isolated incident?

I wish I hadn't been so wrong about that.

Over these last few years, I've seen and read about the seemingly endless procession of men who've had experiences like -- and far worse -- than mine. The thing is, in nearly all those cases, the actions of the priests are generically characterized in media reports as "abuse" or "molestation." Seldom are specifics mentioned.

Well, for me that "abuse" isn't nonspecific. It's as plain as this: Some of my first sexual contact in life was at the hands of a priest who courted me for several years, purposely isolated me from my home and family by half a continent, got me blind drunk, and groped my genitals against my will hoping to have relations with me. Is that specific enough?

But the repercussions of that abuse are far more involved than that.

Father Ruffalo carried out a great deal of his manipulation and courtship of me at St. Raymond's.

Many other boys weren't as lucky

St. Ray's is not a mere footnote in my life. It's the parish where my grandmother attended school beginning in 1917. It's the parish where my mother, my sisters, I, and a half-dozen of my best friends in the world went to school. It is the parish where my own son goes to school, the fourth generation of my family to walk its halls.

St. Ray's is the church where my parents were married, where I was confirmed, and where I was handed my grade school and high school diplomas.

It is the church where the caskets of my mother, father and grandmother were wheeled down the center aisle.

Nearly all the major events of my life are connected to St. Ray's in some way. And today, every single time I walk through those church doors and look at the priests and servers on the altar, I am confronted with the memory of Ruffalo's sickening place in my history. That's the reality of priest abuse in my life.

But in the end, I consider myself one of the lucky ones. I was a smart kid. I was strong. I was able to finally extricate myself from Ruffalo's advances and get on with my life. So many other boys were not as lucky.

Ruffalo died in 1997. But he served in active ministry for 18 more years after that Vegas trip. And all that time, I kept my mouth shut, telling no one other than a few very close friends in recent years. And not even they were told the specifics. I remained too embarrassed to tell them the truth.

But when I read Imesch's deposition and learned of his supposed uncertainty about Father Ruffalo, I wasn't embarrassed anymore. I was just mad.

Ruffalo was notorious around the diocese for his Vegas trips. He was also well-known for having "special" friends. In fact, the lawsuit filed by the man from St. Mary's in Park Forest involved stories of Las Vegas trips depressingly similar to mine. For Imesch to claim he's "not sure" about Ruffalo is laughable.

Perhaps the leader of the Joliet diocese is not a bad man, as many angry members of the faithful would like to believe. Maybe, he's just truly that naive. Either way, his handling of Joliet's priest abuse problem has done damage to the local church that might not be healed until the sixth generation of my family is carrying schoolbooks into St. Ray's.

In the meantime, I'm fully aware of the Joliet Diocese's process for reporting claims of abuse. Well, be assured, I won't be partaking in it. I don't want them to offer me counseling. I don't want to file a lawsuit. I don't want their money. I don't want an apology from anyone.

I simply want the guy who's been running the Joliet Diocese for the last 25 years to admit the problems that occurred under his leadership are so extensive, they won't begin to go away until he goes away -- by resignation, revolt, or most likely, retirement.

And until the day you do, Bishop, perhaps you ought to move Father Ruffalo over to the "Yes" column on your list.

Tim Placher is a music teacher and a weekly columnist for the Daily Southtown. This essay first appeared in the Southtown, a member of the Sun-Times News Group.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.