The Hope of Justice Heals Old, Still Raw Wounds
July 18, 2019
Last year, we used this page to call for passage of the Child Victims Act, and we were glad when this year — with two Democratic houses — the legislature finally passed the act, extending the statute of limitations for civil suits alleging sexual abuse up to the age of 55 with a look-back year so suits, for one year, could be filed regardless of a victim’s age.
But even we weren’t prepared for the emotions unleashed when we published a front-page story last week on a priest who had served in our community — in Altamont and in the Hilltowns — being accused of raping boys in his care.
In our April 2018 editorial, we had referenced a podcast we’d produced, interviewing Richard Tollner of Rensselaerville who told us how, when he was at the tender age of 15 and 16, he was sexually molested by a priest he had trusted at the seminary he attended.
“It affected who I was; it affected my confidence; it affected my opinion of people. It affected my sexuality. I wasn’t sure — was this my problem?” he told us.
When Tollner was 17, his father died in a car crash. He realized then that he had to take care of himself, he said, and soon after reported the abuse three times — to another priest, to a teacher, to the head of the seminary. Nothing happened.
It was the mid-1970s, before The Boston Globe’s 2002 expose on priests abusing children, before such matters were openly discussed.
Tollner says he came to realize, “I’m not the bad guy. I never was the bad guy.” But that journey for him was long and painful.
Here’s how Tollner described it: “With children, it’s not like an attack. It’s more like grooming that child for a relationship so they do not realize due to the immaturity and the trust in the person.” Many sexually abused children feel guilty and even complicit.
“A lot of victims don’t even realize it was criminal until years, decades later when they realize, ‘Oh, my gosh, that was not only wrong but it was criminal,’” said Tollner.
At age 8 or 12 or 16, noted Tollner, “They haven’t developed their own sexuality.” And, as modern scientific research with scans has shown, adolescent brains aren’t fully developed either.
As a society, we’ve now been awakened to horrors that formerly seemed unthinkable. Our Hilltown reporter, H. Rose Schneider, last week reported on the accusations two now-middle-aged men have made in a suit against Gerald Miller, with the La Salette order, who, from 1979 to 1987, served as a parish priest for St. Lucy’s Church in Altamont and St. Bernadette’s Church in Berne and also ran a group home for troubled teens, where these two men had lived.
We did not print the graphic descriptions of the sexual assaults the court papers say these boys endured. We realize Miller is entitled to his day in court and has not been proven guilty, but the details of these accusations ring true, and sicken us. The suit alleges the priest drugged the boys before raping them and also describes assaults, involving both Miller and another priest, as being carried out “in a brutal gang rape manner.”
Looking back at Enterprise archives, we wondered how we, as a newspaper, could not have questioned the sudden departure of Miller in 1987. Miller said that he met with La Salette superiors in the spring who told him he was reaching the end of his seven-year tenure in Altamont, and offered him a position in a parish in Marietta, Georgia, starting in August of that year. Miller told The Enterprise that he accepted the offer.
“It’s really been a struggle,” he said. “I didn’t realize how much of a struggle until the last of the kids left and I realized how exhausted I was.” Why didn’t we look further into the closing of a group home that was purportedly successful?
“He was so good-looking and charming, I think everyone fell for him,” a longtime resident told us this week.
But we couldn’t get anyone to talk to us on the record about the priest that they had once worked with or by whom they had once been ministered to. We found a picture of Miller from 1983 that had been printed on our front page; he was in the background watching a first-aid demonstration. Last week, when we talked to the couple performing the demonstration about our current story, they did not want to be pictured with Miller; we cropped them out.
We were gratified, though, to talk to a man who was thrilled to see our story. He believes now, after 35 years, justice may finally be done.
This man, who insisted we use his name, James T. Golden Sr., raised his three sons in Altamont. He himself was raised in a devout Catholic family; his uncle was a priest.
His eldest son, who was baptized in the Catholic Church, had a happy boyhood, hunting deer and rabbits with his Grandpa, hitting home runs in Little League and later playing catcher on the Guilderland High School baseball team. He was a tall teenager, over six feet, and would stick up for underlings, his father said, including an elderly resident of the Altamont House, a home for people with disabilities.
As a teenager, his son started “hanging out” as did many Altamont kids, both male and female, Golden said, at the group home that “Father Gerry” ran. “He used to go up there all the time,” his father said. One day, when his son was a Guilderland senior, not yet 18, the father was called into school. “They said, ‘Come and get your son. He’s gotten nutty,’” Golden recalled. “He was traumatized. He clammed up.”
He got his son psychiatric help. “He was doing OK,” his father said. “The last time I saw him, he said, ‘It’s a nice day.’”
His son killed himself just before his 18th birthday. Golden asked Miller to preside over his son’s wake. Miller never showed, he said. When Golden called, Miller’s secretary said he was scheduled to be in Massachusetts and must have forgotten, Golden said. He ran into Miller later at Stewart’s and Miller bolted. “He panicked when he saw me, left his stuff on the cooler,” Golden said.
After the State Police questioned Golden about Miller, and after his calls to the bishop at the time went unanswered, Golden said, “I felt like killing the guy … I had to hold myself back ... But you don’t do that; I had two sons to raise; I’d be in jail yet … I know he did it, but I had no evidence … This guy was a con artist but I couldn’t prove a thing.”
As the years have gone by, the anger and hurt have been the father’s constant companions. He is now 72. His two younger sons are close to each other — “tight as a drum” — and work with their father in the family business. They’ve grown up outside the Catholic church. “They’re the nicest people in the world and fair with everyone,” Golden said.
Until now, the only glimmer of satisfaction the father had with his son’s death was the donation of his kidneys to help two other people along. Golden recalled the discussion at Albany Medical Center as their son lay brain-dead: “His mother said, ‘You can take what you want, but not his eyes.’”
The father has saved the front-page story from the New York Daily News — “A life lost, 2 saved” — reporting on the organ donations and he recalls, with a chuckle, one of the recipients of his son’s kidney telling him from his hospital bed three days after the transplant, “This is the first time I’ve peed on my own in ages.”
But, last week, when he saw the front-page story in The Enterprise, “Suit alleges: ‘Father Gerry’ raped boys in his care,” something shifted. “I never expected to see this,” he said. “Thank God, they are finally zeroing in on him … I can’t believe these guys came forward,” he said of the two middle-aged men who filed the suit.
He also said, “I don’t want anything financial.” He just wants to see justice done.
We admire Golden’s courage in telling his son’s story and using his own name. Victims of sexual assault should not feel shame; the shame belongs with the perpetrator. Golden said he wanted us to use his name so his son’s friends would know who it was.
Golden concluded, “You hear all the time about closure. Now I know what it means. His name is in your paper, and his picture … Just being accused is somewhat closure for me.”
We can’t bring back to life a young man who took his own. But we can, and should, be vigilant for wrongdoing, just as this young man was when he stuck up for an elderly group-home resident.
And we can repeat the advice we heard from Tollner, which has new teeth since older victims in New York State can now press charges as these two men have against Miller.
“If you know someone this happened to, or it’s yourself, tell someone you trust.,” he said. “Tell a family member, tell a teacher, tell a parent, tell a policeman, tell someone because you’re not the only one … There are so many people out there that think, ‘This couldn’t be happening to anybody else.’”
But it is. In New York State alone, 40,000 children are sexually abused each year, and it’s a crime that is woefully underreported. According to the National Center for Victims of Crimes, one in five girls and one in 20 boys is a victim of child sexual abuse.
“Sex abuse is soul murder,” Tollner said. “It’s who we are, our essence, our personality, our character, our strength. Someone tried to take that from you. Take it back.”