Angels of God
The McDonnell Brothers Get a Sit down with Cardinal Justin Rigali

By Mike Newall
Philadelphia Weekly [Philadelphia PA]
June 6, 2006

The meeting was arranged through an intermediary.

Thursday, 11 a.m. Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul rectory.

His eminence Cardinal Justin Rigali, archbishop of Philadelphia, has agreed to sit down with the three McDonnell brothers, all of whom were molested by the same Catholic priest while growing up in West Philadelphia.

The cardinal promised to meet with victims of clergy abuse when he was appointed archbishop in 2003.

Now it's the McDonnells' turn.

They're looking forward to it.

"It is our chance to be heard by the church that ran us over," says John McDonnell, 62, the middle sibling. "It's part of our healing process."

The guardian angel prayer.

That was the prayer the McDonnells' devoutly Catholic mother would make them recite every morning before they'd rush off to St. Gregory's Parish School.

Angel of God, my guardian dear

To whom God's love commits me


Ever this day be at my side

To light and guard, to rule and guide

Alex, John and Brian, three fair-faced, blue-eyed Irish-American kids praying with their mother for guardian angels to watch over them.

And that was the prayer they'd whisper to themselves as altar boys when Father Gerard Chambers would creep up behind them in the sacristy after Mass.

Father Gerard Chambers, middle-aged, quick tempered, with thin graying hair, a slight hunch in his back and forever smelling of English Oval cigarettes.

Father Gerard Chambers shuffled through 17 different parishes and three separate stints in archdiocesan hospitals where pedophile priests were sent for "treatment" before he was assigned to St. Gregory's.

The boys told other priests about the abuse but were shooed away. One priest even accused Brian of having "tempted" Father Chambers.

To think of that now, accusing a 12-year-old boy of tempting a middle-aged priest.

Cardinal Rigali asks if anyone would mind if he began the meeting with a prayer.

Bowed heads and clasped hands.

... and lead us not into temptation

But deliver us from evil. Amen.

For a moment Alex McDonnell feels like a schoolboy in mother superior's office.

For a moment, anyway.

"Part of the petition is to deliver us from evil," says Alex, immediately after the amen. "The church did not fulfill that promise."

Alex, the oldest of the McDonnells-reserved, tight-jawed, his blue eyes angrier than those of his brothers-has struggled with his faith and with alcohol. For so long he shut himself off to others.

With a placid smile, the cardinal speaks of how even Christ suffered on the cross.

Alex tells the cardinal how disappointed he was with his statements accusing the grand jury-which documented 50 years of sexual abuse and cover-up by the archdiocese-of "anti-Catholicism."

"The district attorney's office was the good Samaritan who helped the injured person at the side of the road," says Alex, recalling a biblical parable. "The church was the person that just kept walking."

The cardinal speaks of forgiveness.

"I understand forgiveness," says Alex. "But I also understand resurrection, and the church is in need of a resurrection or rebirth of some kind."

Alex tells the cardinal he hopes the archdiocese will throw its full support behind efforts in the Pennsylvania Legislature to abolish the criminal statute of limitations in child sex abuse cases.

The cardinal again speaks of Christ's suffering on the cross.

Afterward, while eating a cheesesteak on Ninth Street, John will wish he politely told the cardinal that, "While it was surely God's will that his only begotten son die on a cross for the world's sins, quite frankly,

Cardinal, I don't think it was God's will that we be molested by a pedophile priest."

John also spent years battling depression and alcohol. He's sober and successful now, but there are still too many mornings he wakes up depressed.

It's Brian's turn to speak.

Brian, 61, the youngest of the brothers. Sallow, pale cheeks, thick white disheveled hair, blue eyes glazed from medication, a living ghost. He spent much of his adult life in psychiatric institutions. He has trouble finishing his thoughts.

Brian tells the cardinal what he told Father Chambers after the priest finished sodomizing him. "Why don't you kill me now?" he said. "I can't live with this shame."

Chambers laughed at him.

A suicide attempt nearly ended Brian's life three decades ago.

And he's still filled with shame and suicidal thoughts. And he's still somehow devoutly Catholic.

Here in the cardinal's office, Brian begins to cry.

Lately he's been watching Sunday Mass on TV rather than going in person. He's afraid the priests and other parishioners will be angry with him if they find out what happened to him as a child.

He spends so many hours praying on his rosary beads, reciting his Hail Marys and asking for forgiveness and for strength that he's literally worn his rosaries down to brittle.

The cardinal takes a leather pouch from his pocket, and pulls out a set of rosaries.

"These were given to me and blessed by Pope John Paul himself," says the cardinal, handing them to Brian.

Brian smiles like a kid at Christmas, overwhelmed by the gift.

He prays with them every day now, asking for forgiveness, for strength and for the guardian angel to watch over him.


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