Thursday, February 17, 2011
I grew up on the South Side of Chicago in a neighborhood so Catholic that I don’t recall knowing anyone who wasn’t until I was well into my teens. My neighbors were Polish-Catholic, Irish-Catholic, Lithuanian-Catholic, Italian (the Catholic is implied there)… always an ethnicity attached, because we each had our own saints and feast days, but always the same religion. I knew about The Troubles before I knew about the Holocaust, and I believed WASPs were a stinging insect, not the exotic blond inhabitants of the Ivy League. Catholicism informed nearly every aspect of our daily lives: where we went to school, what we ate on Fridays, where you could find us on Sunday mornings, the markings on our foreheads one Wednesday a year.
It changed for me when I was 17.
I was working my regular fast food restaurant job on a Sunday night. Two guys not much older than me came in, drunk and funny, making fun of other customers, making fun of their surroundings. I took their order, laughed at their bad jokes, served their food and that was that.
Until I walked out into the parking lot to throw out the trash and one stood by while the other attacked me.
“C’mon baby, I just want to have some fun,” he said.
Fortunately, he was drunk and I grew up in a neighborhood where there was as much fighting as there was summer night games of kick-the-can. I was on the ground and kicked at him until he backed off. I ran back into the restaurant and my boss called the police.
And the police found the two men sitting inside the restaurant, finishing their meals.
As hysterical as I was, that’s when the real hysteria kicked in. The guy with the hands and “C’mon baby” started sobbing, “Please don’t arrest me, please don’t arrest me. We’re leaving for seminary in the morning.”
My parents had arrived by that point and we tried to figure out what to do. I wanted to forget about it. I remember the Chicago police sergeant putting his hand on my father’s arm and saying, “I wouldn’t let him get away with this if I were you.”
Since I refused to press charges, my mother sought the advice of our priest, who much to his credit told her, “I wouldn’t let him get away with this if I were you. You should report it to the seminary.”
We did. And that’s when the monsignor in charge of the Chicago area’s most prestigious training ground for future priests told me that despite the fact I had been wearing a brown polyester uniform, despite the fact the two men were complete strangers to me, I must have asked for it and enticed them to the parking lot because I laughed at their jokes. I smiled at them.
I moved on, stopped going to mass and really didn’t think about it again until a few years ago when my brother called me and said, “You need to read the [Chicago] Sun-Times today. Your guy is in there and he’s a parish priest and he’s talking about sex abuse in the church.”
I had to be reminded about what guy that was, exactly.
But it’s in my mind again this week. The allegations surrounding Rev. Edward Fitz-Henry have put it there. Rev. Fitz-Henry, by all accounts, is widely adored by his parishioners and the area’s larger Catholic community. He’s given shelter to people when they needed it, he’s consoled them in their darkest hours and he’s celebrated alongside them at their weddings, anniversaries, First Communions and catechisms. I know this, because some of you started calling me on Sunday night, devastated at the news you were handed in church: Fr. Ed’s being accused of child molestation.
At this point, nobody can claim to know the truth about what did or did not happen. The police are investigating one case, the Diocese of Monterey says they couldn’t substantiate that allegation, but found reason to believe another incident with another alleged victim took place 20 years ago.
The alleged victim in the first case filed a “John Doe” lawsuit on Feb. 15, and Fr. Ed has been removed by the Diocese of Monterey from all official duties. He’s also been asked to move from his home at the Old Mission San Juan Bautista rectory, and he’s hired a criminal defense attorney to defend him against the charges that may be coming his way.
The abuse claims as laid out by the alleged victim’s attorney are horrendous, but right now, that’s all they are – allegations.
But it has me thinking, about a local congregaton in deep pain, and the past as well. I’m wondering if what happened in that parking lot was an aberration, or if I helped unleash a monster on an unsuspecting parish that’s part of a system not known for believing victims.
MARY DUAN is editor of the Weekly. Reach her at email@example.com.