SO. WHAT HAPPENED was, I got a call from my mom — the first and still the only time she ever called me at work.
As soon as I answered, she burst into tears and started raving incoherently. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong until she finally calmed down enough to tell me it was something she’d seen on TV just before she called. She’d been half-listening to the usual news, politics, national stuff — until they suddenly got her full attention when they started reporting on priests sexually abusing students in a Catholic seminary.
Old news by now, I know, but this was the first of these stories of ongoing widespread abuse in the church to come out. Some kid had gone to the police in 1992 and told them what happened to him in his seminary, and when the story broke a year later — the story my mom was watching on TV — it turned out to be a legitimate shocker: Since the 1960s, nine Franciscan priests and brothers had abused hundreds of boys in their charge. And for all those years, not one of the abusers had been exposed, much less punished. Their awful deeds had remained secret, were even actively suppressed by other priests.
But that wasn’t the worst of it, as far as Mom was concerned. What sent her over the edge was the name of this seminary: St. Anthony’s, in Santa Barbara. I’d been a seminarian in that place, back in the late 1960s, when the first known abuser was happily at work there.
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Good old Father Mario Cimmarrusti. Blessings be upon him.
IT DIDN’T HELP that Mom had such vivid memories of the state I was in when I came home from St. Anthony’s in 1967, during my senior year. She was a juvenile probation officer then and knew how to recognize the signs of sexual abuse in kids: withdrawal, depression, low self-esteem, etc. — a list that matched up nicely with the symptoms I brought home. It wasn’t even imaginable in those days, sexual abuse of children by priests, so she didn’t have any suspicions about it at the time. But now, living in a different world, watching this story come out, she put two and two together and called me in tears, screaming, “Were you one of the victims? Were you one of the victims?”
I felt terrible for her. She’d sent me, her oldest child, off to a distant seminary when I was only 14, and it wasn’t until I became a parent myself that I could begin to understand how agonizing that had to have been for her. And now this nightmare.
“It’s OK, Mom . . . I wasn’t. Nothing like that ever happened to me — honest.”
I got her calmed down, but I had a feeling she’d be calling again. God only knew what they were going to uncover once they got started on this story. It would be one dismal revelation after another.
WHEN YOU LIVE with a secret, the power of that secret has some direct correlation to the worth of the life you have: the more loved ones around you, the more emotional equity, the more you have to lose by being found out.
On the other hand, the truth about that place, and about me being in it, is as indescribable now as it was unlivable then. How do you talk to mentally healthy people about it? You can tell from the look they get on their faces as soon as you mention having been in a seminary that they think the whole topic is icky — and that’s before they even hear any specifics.
Like about how once when I was 16, when our spiritual director found me sitting outside in the middle of the night, depressed, invited me into his office to talk, served me my first-ever alcoholic drink — kahlua — then took me down to the monastery to say a private Mass on the main altar, during which he whispered in my ear at the Kiss of Peace, “I love you, you fool.”
So all I could think about at first was how it would be impossible for reporters now to get any idea at all what it was like back then in those places. You could already tell that was the case by how baffled they were that no one ever reported this abuse. To the reporters, it just didn’t make any sense that priests raping and otherwise sexually abusing boys in a Catholic seminary would go completely undetected. But to me, it made perfect sense, that prodigious, uniquely Catholic capacity for repression. And as the story started coming out, all these strange memories I had from back then — memories of indecipherable, mysteriously disturbing events — started to make perfect sense as well.
ALL OF US in the seminary came from essentially the same place: a deliberately isolated Catholic community with its own school. We were as separate in our way from the rest of the world as the Amish are now. And within that separate community were supremely religious kids like me, yet another degree removed from the outside world.
It was a two-hour drive from our Bellingham home to the King Street Station, where I was to board my train to Oakland and the seminary. It was early September, 1963. I was excited to finally be meeting my own kind. I was to rendezvous with four other new seminarians, then the train would gradually take on more newcomers and upperclassmen as we made our way south.
By the time we got to Oakland, we filled an entire car.
I still have a picture my mom took of the five of us in that first group, standing beside the train. It’s a tangible reminder of the beginning of my disillusionment, for it was clear at the outset that the four others weren’t so much fellow religious adepts as fellow losers.
Once aboard, I shrunk down in my seat and tried to tune out the lamentable spectacle unfolding in our car. We were like a shipment of flawed children sent off by our embarrassed parents to be put safely out of sight.
By the time we left Portland for the overnight leg to Oakland, the upperclassmen were smoking cigarettes and getting down to the business of getting drunk.
I NOTICED how certain students would start being singled out because they were pretty. They’d usually be smaller than everybody else, with blond hair and fair skin. Bigger seminarians were always pawing them. Like this one classmate, who was the most aggressive offender. He would wrap a big, meaty arm around one of these helpless little seminarians, hug him tightly, then stroke his hair and cheek over and over again, saying in this dreamy voice, “So soft and fine . . . so soft and fine.”
It was a little hard not to feel uncomfortable about this at the time, but it was just another of those many disquieting feelings you’d get without really understanding why. Which was pretty much a staple of that whole first year in the seminary, that unease.
I WAS WALKING from the study hall to the dorm one afternoon when I came upon a group of seminarians standing outside, under Father Mario’s open office window on the second floor.
Everyone was freaked out. And I could hear horrible screams coming from that window. We all stood there looking at each other, wondering what was going on. Incredibly confused. There just wasn’t anything normal about those sounds. We couldn’t figure out how much we should be troubled, whether what we were hearing was weird, bad, whether we should be telling somebody about it.
We all knew that Father Mario had a special interest in the boy whose screams we recognized, and that the two of them were close. Which made this all the more upsetting. None of us knew what to do. It occurred to me that we could get in trouble if we were caught eavesdropping like this.
It made me think later about how trapped we were, how isolated. And how we could be stuck in here with a murderer and never be able to get anyone on the outside to believe it. Catholic priests were revered figures. I couldn’t imagine getting either of my parents to believe anything bad about anyone in the clergy. To give voice to the kind of unease I felt around Father Mario would be to invite opprobrium, even punishment, from my parents.
That’s the way it was for all of us. Even if we wanted to tell the truth about the fathers, we couldn’t.
I KEPT MY mind closed to my past for as long as I could. It took 17 years from when the scandal broke — 44 years from the day I left — for me to work up the will to properly revisit my seminary days. It didn’t take much searching to find detailed reporting on the abuse scandal, and particularly on Father Mario and his protectors. And even though I can claim not to have known at the time — can say that it simply wasn’t possible in that uniquely Catholic climate of repression to imagine the unimaginable — I still have to confess that I wasn’t at all surprised by the revelations in court documents filed in the lawsuit against Cimmarrusti and eight other Franciscans:
“Victim #15 also was sexually assaulted and beaten by Cimmarrusti so badly he bruised like Victim #12 and also bled from his wounds. Victim #15 recalls Fr. Cimmarrusti requiring him to strip completely naked during one of the beatings, and then proceeding to strike Victim #15 33 times, ‘once for each year of our Lord’s life.’ . . . After the beatings, Cimmarrusti had the sobbing victims drop to their knees; caressed, stroked and blessed them while pulling their heads into his crotch; and frequently threatened them with eternal damnation if they told anyone.”
“Victim #9 went to St. Anthony’s rector, Xavier Harris, and reported the attempted rape by Cimmarrusti. Fr. Harris responded promptly by questioning Victim #9’s ‘vocation’ and expelling him from St. Anthony’s. Meanwhile, Fr. Cimmarrusti’s abuse of St. Anthony’s students continued. Approximately one year later in 1966, Victim #22 also reported to Fr. Harris the weekly beatings and sexual abuse he was receiving from Fr. Cimmarrusti, and told Harris he could not take it any more and wanted to leave St. Anthony’s. Fr. Harris first told Victim #22 he had imagined the abuse. When Victim #22 insisted the abuse had happened and that he wished to drop out of school, Fr. Harris offered to make him, among other things, class president and captain of the football team if Victim #22 agreed to stay. When Victim #22 still refused, Fr. Harris threatened to report this to Victim #22’s very traditional Catholic family . . .”
It’s hard to know what was worse for me now: taking in the sheer scope of the abuse that had been going on while I was there, or recognizing fellow seminarians, some of them friends, among the victims in these reports. Realizing that they were being assaulted and I did nothing, and that they didn’t think they could come to me for help.
Even now, well after the word got out, too many defenders persist in pretending that the molesters never existed. Along with the material I dredged up in the reports, I found a celebratory website for St. Anthony’s alums. Consider this prose on its history page, written by someone who was there with me and Father Mario:
“From it’s (sic) roots at Old Mission Santa Barbara in 1896, until it’s (sic) final senior graduation in 1987, about 4,000 young men passed through the halls of Saint Anthony’s! Some stayed for only a few months while others stayed until they graduated; but all experienced the life and the love of Saint Francis of Assisi.”
BORN AGAIN, in adulthood, I felt bracingly sane. Grateful every day for my undeserved good fortune.
But it was a complicated sanity — a normal married life, with an astonishing wife and astonishing children, and this secret dark little gnome gnawing away at my heart.
Other people have an inner child; I got stuck with an inner monster.
THIS IS WHAT I can’t get over: The shame over my complicity in that series of monstrous crimes. There’s no other word for it but “complicity,” my means of navigating through it with my blinders firmly in place. I had to have been able to see what was going on — but I refused to acknowledge it, even to imagine it. We all did — hundreds of us, seminarians and priests alike. It wasn’t just the friars who were concealing the threat posed by Father Mario. We were there, too, all of us, watching it unfold, standing in the parking lot under that window . . . and we allowed ourselves to do nothing, to understand nothing. Our sin left Father Mario’s crimes undiscovered until after their statute of limitations had expired, allowing him to live out his days in comfortable retreat houses, denying ’til his dying day.
And more to the point: Our sin allowed the molestation to continue for decades, not only in Santa Barbara but throughout the Catholic Church. Thousands of victims through the second half of the 20th century, each one of whom might have been spared if only we’d spoken out.
Fred Moody is the author of “Unspeakable Joy” and “Seattle and the Demons of Ambition: A Love Story,” among other books. He lives and works on Bainbridge Island.