Guest Post: Poem By a Survivor

[The author uses the pen-name B. Phil. He wrote this poem ten years before he began to process the trauma of having been sexually abused as a child, by two priests of our diocese. He is now trying to find a hopeful future… Thank you for sharing this with us, B. Phil.]

Not ask “Why?”

Thoughts of suicide have run in my mind
as long as I can remember, that is what I find.
I have always thought of ways for me to die-
for most of my life I have always wanted, for good, to say “Goodbye”.

I had never realized that daily thoughts of death
were not common for others, until I talked to a nurse named Beth.
The thought of having Peace, of being happy, loved, joyous and free;
I honestly felt I didn’t deserve it, NO, not me.

I have tried to die many times and in many ways;
a few attempts put me in the ICU for numerous days.
Over most of my life, I can’t remember many times of happiness
unless I was on the soccer field or in post-orgasmic bliss.

The first time I ever tried to take my own life,
I wasn’t even a teenager and yet had that much strife.
I was so ashamed of who I was and wanted to die,
I put a 12-gauge to my head but couldn’t reach the trigger…God knows why.

The ineradicable feelings of shame and having no worth or value…
not even my own family ever really had a clue.
Being swept under the rug, bullying and numerous types of abuse
were ingrafted into my life; they nearly destroyed me while trying to seduce.

The next few times were quite feeble attempts,
that is why I don’t count them, they are exempt.
I don’t discount the shame, worthless and hopeless feelings,
for they grew and grew, infiltrating almost all of my dealings.

Next came the times that no one can understand
why I lived through them…I have NO doubt that it was God’s Hand.
I overdosed two times on meds because I didn’t think that I could face
the shame and pain; ideas of the future, I never could embrace.

There is a Divine reason behind why I am still alive
for six attempts at suicide, I should not have survived.
I despised God, for a time, for not letting me die…
From now on, I am going to Love Him and others, do His Will and NOT ask “Why?”

Anniversaries of St. Vincent and the Diocese

Rue du Bac Paris
Rue du Bac in Paris

Three hundred sixty years ago this Sunday, September 27, St. Vincent de Paul died. They keep his heart in a chapel on Rue du Bac in Paris. I had the chance to visit years ago; it is a luminous place to pray. [Spanish]

We would not normally commemorate the anniversary of St. Vincent’s death on a Sunday, since we dedicate every Sunday to remembering the resurrection of our Savior. But through AD 2020, we Catholics in Virginia keep the bicentennial of our diocese. The second bishop of Richmond made St. Vincent de Paul the diocesan patron. So we keep our patron’s feast, even though it falls on a Sunday this year.

At Mass, we will read a special gospel passage, in St. Vincent’s honor. The passage includes these words: “Jesus went around to all the towns and villages, proclaiming the Gospel of the Kingdom.’”

Our diocesan patron, St. Vincent, founded a group of priests called the Congregation of the Mission. The mission. What mission?

Well, the very same. The mission to proclaim the Kingdom of God. The good news that God is with us. Our brother, Jesus of Nazareth, Who died for us, and rose again for us. He reigns over a kingdom in which death and evil have no power at all. The Apostles of Christ undertook the mission, the proclamation of this wonderful news about God and our destiny as human beings.

Now, what’s the news these days? On the 360th anniversary of St. Vincent’s death, and during the 200th anniversary year of the Catholic Diocese of Richmond? Pandemic. Presidential election. Empty Supreme Court seat. Football with empty stadiums and fake crowd noise.

Ok. But the truly new news is the news that every Sunday brings. Jesus is risen. The Son of Mary, the Son of God, Who rose from the dead, so that we could share His undying life.

“Congregation of the Mission.” Our patron’s society has a name so simple and basic that it brings us back to the basics. St. Vincent de Paul had gone into the French countryside, and he found villages full of poor Catholics who knew next to nothing about Christ and their religion. So St. Vincent and some companions decided to do something about that—to preach to, to teach, and to love the people.

Cabrini Shrine Mass.jpg
Holy Mass on Mother Cabrini’s tomb

The Mission continues. It does not get old. We have a two-hundred-year-old diocese, but we are really just getting started here. The pandemic has interfered with the life of our Church and our diocese, damaging normal Catholic practice. The bishop’s dealings with me have totally changed my role in the mission, and I think what he has done has compromised his ministry as well. A diocese where priests have to live in fear of severe and long-term reprisals for speaking our minds—not a healthy environment. But the mission continues, because it does not come from us messed-up human beings. It comes from Jesus Himself.

Speaking of saints with whom we have close connections… Many of you know that my brother and his wife began raising their sons on the northern part of Manhattan island in New York City. They lived in an apartment two blocks from the shrine of the great Italian-American saint, Francis Xavier Cabrini. We took a parish pilgrimage to New York in 2014, and we had Mass at Mother Cabrini’s tomb, after my brother got on the bus and gave us a little tour of his old neighborhood.

Last week I visited an old friend who lives in the Pacific Northwest. I stopped to make a visit in the cathedral in Seattle. Turns out there’s a relic of Mother Cabrini in the altar there, too–on the other end of the continent. She herself prayed in that cathedral, in Seattle, many times.

The saint had come to Seattle from New York, by way of Nicaragua and Brazil, to help the Italian immigrants. Mother Cabrini loved atlases from her earliest youth; she considered Seattle to be ‘near the north pole.’ Some of the Italian immigrants there had not seen a church since they left the old country, so Mother Cabrini got a mission parish started for them.

When I first laid eyes on the Seattle skyline, I thought, ‘This looks like mid-town Manhattan.’ Turns out I was not the first to think the cities look alike. Mother Cabrini thought that, too.

My point is: The mission of Jesus’ Church extends everywhere and always. None of us were born Christians. We have our Christian faith, and the heavenly grace that comes with it, because those who went before us handed it on to us. We venerate our spiritual ancestors. We recognize the sacrifices that they made, so that we could know Who Jesus Christ is, and have a relationship with Him.

That relationship is the most-important thing in life. So let’s dedicate ourselves to the mission, too.

Sullivan

Walter Sullivan
Walter Sullivan 1928-2012

Walter Sullivan and I grew up in the same neighborhood, making us homeboys. But he moved away to go to the seminary 24 years before my birth. He became the bishop of Richmond shortly after I turned four.

My mom lived for a couple months last year in a wing of her assisted-living facility named for Walter Sullivan.

Sullivan ordained many of my priest friends. He commissioned the writing of our compendious diocesan history book; the author dedicated his work to Sullivan.

Jennifer Aniston’s former mother-in-law wrote a biography of Sullivan called The Good Bishop.

Students at Virginia Commonwealth University learn about Catholicism from the Walter Sullivan professor of religion. They attend the Walter Sullivan lecture series.

The first-ever Holocaust Memorial in the state of Virginia sits on the property of our cathedral in Richmond; money from the Walter Sullivan Fund provides for its maintenance.

I remember Walter Sullivan both as a “flaming liberal” who presided over the wreck-ovation of numerous historic parish churches and as a kindly gentleman with the voice of Kermit the Frog. He had a profound aversion for violence. And for any trappings of ecclesiastical authority.

Commonwealth Catholicism FogartyHe saw to it that every county in our vast diocese had a Catholic parish–even though he didn’t have anywhere near enough priests, and he made practically no effort to inspire or retain vocations to the sacred priesthood.

One thing for sure: Walter Sullivan, during a three-decade tenure as bishop, made an enormous impact on our Catholic life here.

We used to have a Catholic high school named for Walter Sullivan, in Virginia Beach. That is, until Bishop Knestout removed Walter Sullivan’s name from that institution, this past Thursday.

Why?

Well, we would have the devil of a time figuring that out, if we had only the unintelligible diocesan communiques to inform us.

Bishop instituted a policy against naming buildings after anyone other than Lord Jesus, a canonized saint, or a place. Doesn’t apply to rooms or wings of buildings. Doesn’t appear to apply retroactively, except in the case of Bishop Sullivan High School, which will now be known as Catholic High School (it’s name from 1993-2003).

What gives?

Bishop announced the name change in a letter about sexual abuse. Has someone accused the late Bishop Sullivan of abuse? Doesn’t appear so.

But Bishop Knestout writes: “overcoming the tragedy of abuse is not just about holding accountable those who have committed abuses, it is also about seriously examining the role and complex legacies of individuals who should have done more to address the crisis in real time…It is my hope and prayer that the policy change is another way to continue to assist survivors of abuse in their healing, especially those who have, in any way, experienced the failure of Church leadership to adequately address their needs and concerns.”

Exactly who and what does bishop mean here? A reporter asked that question. The answer, provided by our diocesan press agent, Ms. Deborah Cox:

“The bishop is aware of the concerns survivors and advocates who have detailed the detrimental effect of continued recognition of those who may have been in a position to intervene and better protect them. This policy is not designed to punish or tarnish legacies; this action is intended to remove what survivors might feel are barriers to healing.”

The same reporter had asked Ms. Cox in late May about having Sullivan’s name on the high school. Cox had said then that “the diocese is not investigating whether Sullivan mishandled allegations, nor is there a plan to rename any diocese buildings.”

Mumbo jumbo and zig-zagging naturally beg more questions. The reporter asked. From last week’s article:

sacredheartcathedralrichmond“Cox did not respond to The Virginian-Pilot‘s questions about whether the diocese investigated claims about Sullivan or whether Lee influenced the decision.”

Lee?

Mr. Tom Lee. Sexually abused by Father John Leonard. At St. John Vianney diocesan high-school, in 1969, 1970, and 1972.

Lee, Mr. Bruce Jeter, Mr. James Kronzer, Mr. Bill Bryant, and Mr. Thor Gormley all reported to the diocese that Fathers John Leonard, Julian Goodman, and Randy Rule had abused them sexually during their high-school years at St. John Vianney–a small high-school the diocese had established to help young men discern vocations to the priesthood. (The school closed over forty years ago.)

All the accusations reached Sullivan during his tenure as bishop.

Father Goodman admitted his crimes. Bishop Sullivan did not terminate Father Goodman’s ministry.

In fact, Bishop Sullivan declared in 2002 (the last time American bishops pretended to care about sex-abuse victims) that the diocese of Richmond had no abusers in active ministry. (While all three St.-John-Vianney abusers were still in ministry.)

In 2002, Father Leonard denied wrongdoing. Claimed it was all a big misunderstanding. Sullivan ordered an investigation. (Sullivan admitted that he never personally spoke with Leonard.) One of the investigators sat on the diocesan review board.

Sullivan exonerated Leonard after the investigation, without consulting the review board. The investigator who sat on the board, along with other members, resigned.

Less than two years later, Leonard was found guilty of misdemeanor sex abuse in Henrico County court. Sullivan claimed then that he had acted under pressure in earlier exonerating Leonard.

The most charitable interpretation of Sullivan’s actions:

[PG-13] Sullivan studiously refused to recognize that doing things like: giving minors drugs and alcohol, asking minors to remove their clothes, initiating sexual conversations with minors, fondling minors’ genitalia–that while these things may not rise to the criminal threshold of forcible sodomy, they all count either as acts of sexual abuse, or as acts intended to groom someone for sexual abuse. Sexual predators do things like this.

Sullivan did not want to see that. He wanted to draw a line at actual penetration, and call everything short of that line “horseplay” or “boundary violation.”

That’s the most charitable interpretation possible for Sullivan’s dithering. Less charitable interpretations certainly stand to reason also.

I think that, for these failures, we rightly decline to honor the memory of Walter Sullivan. For all his vaunted sensitivities, he betrayed the trust of these sexual-abuse victims. (And other victims, too–I intend to try to write more about this when I can.) I think we can agree with Mr. Tom Lee that Sullivan’s name does not belong on our Catholic High School in Virginia Beach.

But: Is it too much to ask that our diocese be clear about all this? At least as clear as I am trying to be right now? After all, the diocesan files contain more information–more than what I have been able to unearth, with just a part-time research assistant and Google.

Is it too much to ask that the diocese recognize two facts? 1. Acknowledging the truth about Bishop Sullivan’s profound failure causes pain to the many people who remember him very fondly. But 2. We have to cause that pain, because truth and justice require it.

Sullivan managed to hurt, endanger, and disedify pretty much everyone involved in the sordid history of the abuse at St. John Vianney. How? By failing to think and communicate clearly about it. That was his fundamental crime. Lack of honest clarity.

Clarity about the high-school name change? From Bishop Barry Knestout and his entourage? Hardly.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.