Newark We Hardly Knew Ye

On the Irish Waterfront
April 30, 2013

In spring 1998 my wife Kristina Chew was baptized, confirmed, and received into the one Holy, Roman, and Apostolic Catholic Church by a St. Louis child rapist named Gary Wolken. The conversion adventure was wholly K’s doing (looking forward to that testimony in print!) though as the lone congenital Catholic extant in this house, I remain bedeviled by the sordid legacy of a now long-incarcerated pedo-cleric. I do feel guilty of unwittingly if revealingly placing Kristina—and a then-infant Charlie, who Wolken once insisted on holding in his skanky mitts—in harm’s way, thanks to my self-short-selling, ‘here comes everybody’ Catholic localism and fatalist, rank and file mentality, which combined to sentence K. to a lame, seventh-grade-level season of RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) catechesis, served up by an unctuous, sex-criminal parish priest whose heart was clearly not in the gig (would that he even had a ‘soul…’).

Gary Wolken had only recently arrived at Our Lady of Lourdes following a stint in a treatment facility for sex offenders, a lifelong status confirmed during his previous assignment at a parish in Chesterfield, a sprawling exurb in far West St. Louis County best known as a haven for professional hockey players and retired Cardinals (of the diamond not the cloth). Wolken had in fact launched his career in sexual assault at age fifteen; his first victim—like his last and God knows how many more in between—was a five year old boy.

St. Louis may well chart the most insularly Catholic terrain in all God’s creation. Though during seven years in residence I never was asked, “where’d you go to high school” (it was probably obvious to all that wherever it was, it was no place St. Louisans woulda heard of), the Gateway City’s reputation for muted tribalism was as well deserved as it was inscrutable to this Irish Jerseyan. At night the streets of the city run empty, all precincts. It finally took a slightly tipsy N. Jersey Irish-American nun, who’d attended grad school at Saint Louie U., to edify me during a conversation on a street corner in a different city, where we’d crossed paths at a history conference not long into our heartland stint. “The Germans,” Sister Mary knowingly leaned in to confide to me “do their entertaining in the home.”

Including, presumably St. Louis’s German-American priests, whose ranks are legion and who all seem to know one another and each other’s business besides. By the time Kristina walked into her first RCIA session in autumn 1997, virtually everyone in the St. Louis Archdiocese—priests that is not laity who generally stayed grounded in one territorial parish for life—surely knew that Father Gary Wolken meant sex trouble of a most deviant variety.

Wolken was drawn to the priesthood for the golden opportunities it afforded him to ‘befriend’ families with young boys, including the family who was honored to have him ‘babysit’ for their five year old son, the same boy Wolken sodomized throughout all the months Kristina and a handful of others gathered weekly with him at Lourdes in preparation for their new life as Catholics.

K deserved and should have enjoyed an authentic formation experience, given my ready access to some trustworthy and gifted Jesuits with whom I worked at the time. But this is where my own non-existent family/communal history interfered; in that void reverberated the punishing ‘who do you think you are’ mantra rooted in my volatile, often violent, and self-lacerating (and other-lacerated) Catholic upbringing (and those of plenty who came before me). Who did I think I was? Not a theologian, that’s for sure, but on the one occasion I attended an RCIA session with K., no sooner did I mention working at Saint Louis University to Wolken then he quickly averted his eyes, stricken-looking, as though somehow I was on to him, when in fact he had pre-empted my customary “Don’t worry I’m no theologian!” disclaimer.

Five years later, and with the three of us gratefully repatriated to North Central Jersey, when Gary Wolken’s long overdue arrest and conviction was noted amid the tsunami of post-Boston Globe clergy sex abuse accountings, I caustically wisecracked to K: if, at the sacramental moment Wolken mediated her baptism, he was loaded to the gunnels with good old Irish whiskey; or sporting under his cassock a thousand pound vestment of high-grade explosives; or raced to church after raping a five year old, Dr. Chew remained stamped as Catholic for all eternity, since Wolken’s priestly faculties stood intact at the time. By then Kristina had already come to view such way, way too clever-by-half-ness as a feature of somebody else’s religion and strictly their problem, though like me she reveled in her vocation teaching (Greek and Latin no less!) at the most compelling small Jesuit college in North America.

Had it not been for the fallout from the Globe’s expose, Gary Wolken might well be serving today at his tenth, or twelfth, or fifteenth St. Louis parish; where the little boys are. Wolken’s Archbishop, Justin Rigali, laconically oozed an unmatched brand of obsequiousness toward his longtime patron Pope John Paul II. Rigali’s only apparent desire in life was to please the holy father and spare him any unpleasantness, as I had the misfortune to witness firsthand in spring 2001 when the Archbishop summoned the entire Saint Louis University theology faculty for a “Rome has spoken” smack-down prompted by qualms more than a few of us shared over the Pope’s demand that all Catholic theologians apply to Rigali for a license (or ‘mandatum’) stamping us kosher in the eyes of the bosses. The Globe inadvertently spared us further agita on that front; by early 2002 even Justin Rigali was obliged to look like he was doing something about clerical sex abuse, especially having long deduced his only hope of donning the (non-athletic variety) Cardinal’s red cap was via promotion to a sexier locale.

Enter Timothy Dolan; yes, that Timothy Dolan, a native St. Louisan who had returned from a prestigious post in Rome in 2001 as a newly minted auxiliary bishop. Dolan moved into a home at Our Lady of Sorrows parish in South St. Louis, which he shared with Father Michael Campbell, a very close friend from seminary days and Dolan’s personal confessor. The domestic arrangement was rounded out with the arrival of another priest, that peripatetic young go-getter, Gary Wolken, decamped from Our Lady of Lourdes to yet another unsuspecting parish community.

In the immediate aftermath of the Boston revelations in winter 2002, Justin Rigali delegated Tim Dolan to manage the local response to a rapidly conflagrating sex abuse crisis. And lo, a sliver of light would finally flicker, at least for a moment, when Dolan opted to hand Gary Wolken over to the civil authorities, reportedly after being contacted in March 2002 by the young victim’s distraught parents.

From there the story grows more complicated, in ways characteristic of Dolan’s ambiguous M.O. and persona, as an enormously ambitious figure but one who, unlike his erstwhile capo Justin Rigali, blends authentic pastoral gifts with exquisitely tuned political instincts. Dolan also demonstrated great loyalty and compassion for his troubled ordained friends, as evidenced in an appearance he made at Our Lady of Sorrows—again in March 2002—to inform the stunned congregation that Michael Campbell had been removed as pastor after confessing to a single count of sexual assault dating back thirteen years (Campbell was widely described in other accounts as a ‘sexual predator’).

Virtually simultaneously, Dolan’s two housemates saw their priestly careers disintegrate; by the end of that year Gary Wolken would proffer a guilty plea resulting in a fifteen-year prison sentence. Yet at the time of Michael Campbell’s suspension, Dolan asserted that he continued to place his trust in Campbell as his confessor. When Wolken later made his first bid for parole after three years in jail, Dolan pleaded for his early release, even in the face of gut-wrenching testimony from his victim, who recounted a childhood filled with mockery, abuse, and torments from those aware of what Wolken had done to him.

The most salient open issue for Cardinal Dolan concerns why–given his knowledge of Gary Wolken’s history and his own leadership role in handling sex abuse cases—this serial and dangerous pedophile was permitted to remain in active ministry for fully five years—with most of the final year spent under Dolan’s watchful eye– given his first stint in treatment and subsequent reassignment to Our Lady of Lourdes, then to Our Lady of Sorrows, leaving an as yet un-fully documented trail of human wreckage and misery in his wake. In the context of Dolan’s resume and meteoric ascent up the hierarchy (in June 2002 he was named Archbishop of Milwaukee), his interlude at Our Lady of Sorrows represents an anomalous career chapter, in which he was essentially assigned to supervise two priestly bad actors whose downfalls coincidentally occurred at a time when the U.S. bishops were desperately scrambling to preserve a semblance of moral credibility.

Dolan’s record on sex abuse during his tenure in Milwaukee was similarly ambiguous, but by 2012, only a decade removed from a highly awkward domestic situation in a run down South St. Louis neighborhood, Dolan had ascended to that most rarefied stature of papabili, American style.

Justin Rigali, meanwhile, finally made Cardinal and proceeded to achieve the near-impossible feat of handling Philadelphia’s cataclysmic sex abuse crisis well-nigh as disgracefully as had his predecessor, who conveniently died in time to avoid indictment and a likely final taxi to the state penitentiary. When Philadelphia’s DA released a scathing if non-actionable grand jury report on sex abuse in 2005, Rigali essentially banned Philly Catholics from reading it, as even a cursory glance will show why. Rigali then dissembled endlessly while offering empty promises to remove all sex offenders from active ministry.

Which brings us to today’s Star-Ledger headline, which in turn prompted this post. John Myers is reported to come from Peoria, Illinois, but that’s a cruel provocation against the fine people of that city, home of the great Richard Pryor. John Myers’ Peoria must be located in some parallel galaxy, a place where a whole religious culture retreated, then learned to forget what it once knew as true and to fear everything as yet unknown.

Narrative integrity is the goal for the likes of me and it is very, very difficult to achieve given my manifold defects. I’m pretty sure I don’t especially care who is the Archbishop of Newark, but I also fear the loss of ‘plausible connections’ with folks who did or do care; it’s all in the communitarian spirit of the faith tradition. I’ve found myself instead reacting petulantly to happenings within a tradition I know at least a bit about, but can’t seem to link anymore to its vital animating spirit, what some indeed would call the Holy Spirit but I like to call the underground river.

The hours and days of our lives are consumed in what we’ve dubbed autismland: that experience of showing up for life each challenging day has provided the best, really only opportunity of a lifetime to bear witness together as part of a family, with a flesh and blood loved one at its heart. I have absolutely no idea how that experience might be related to the communitarian tradition that lent my initial vocation, connected albeit loosely to this Catholic thing of ours.

The late, great Michael Harrington liked to call himself “a fellow traveler of moderate Catholicism who has been out of the church for twenty years.” If evidence was ever needed to confirm that history means change over time, just consider that Harrington’s “moderate” Catholics are undeniably today’s progressives and prophetics. All one might hope for is a chance to fellow travel with these folks along that underground river, cognitive difference—or any and all manner of differences in how God makes us–no bar to the journey.








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