Picking up where I left off in my last post…
A friend suggested to me that I would need to include more autobiographical detail in order to write a book about these events. Don’t worry. I never intended simply to take my posts and string them together. There is a lot to fill in the gaps. Also, please take note that, other than McCarrick, I have not mentioned any names. These recollections of mine are a memoir. I don’t intend to write an expose, not do I intend to write a history. I am telling the story of things that happened to me. For now I am simply sharing the most pertinent details of specific events. Can people investigate or draw their own conclusions? Absolutely. But the main point is that for so long faithful Catholics did not know what was really going on in our seminaries nor with our leadership. I hope to shed light on that by sharing my own account.
So, the vocations director and I had become friends. As I mentioned this was odd because the previous two men holding that post really did not know me. The first didn’t even seem to know much about the seminary process at all. When I first met with him he presented to me a picture of seminary life that represented his time in seminary. Things had changed. For instance, he told me that I would have to quit my job in order to enter college seminary. I worked part-time at a shipping company in Hoboken. The truth is that I could have kept that job and had some spending money. His information was roundly incorrect. He was proud of having brought in large numbers because McCarrick was proud of the fact that he ordained more men to the priesthood each year than any other bishop in America. Think about that for a moment in light of what we now know. Was there something strange going on? Well, one year in particular he ordained somewhere around 12 guys yet only one was native to the archdiocese. The rest were from the mission seminary. He started out with large classes in the home seminary but they dwindled over four years time.
So here’s some of the biographical stuff…
Am I Dead?
When I was four years-old my family’s home caught fire in the middle of the night. I was thrown from a second floor porch. I survived. My twin sister and two of my brothers did not. I mention this because when I landed on the icy ground I injured my back. I recovered almost immediately. But it turns out that the injury caused lots of little micro-fractures that weakened the discs in my lumbar spine. It also turns out that as a child’s body grows, such an injury might not manifest itself until the bones stop growing.
I was 21 years old and entering the major seminary when I first noticed sharp, shooting pains in my back. I saw my doctor and went to physical therapy for a few weeks. The pain subsided for a while so I did not seek further treatment.
Then one morning at the start of the second semester of Second Theology I got out of bed to get dressed for mass and promptly fell onto my side. I couldn’t feel my leg. One of the discs had degenerated to where it was bulging like a flat tire and pressing the sciatic nerve. I recovered after a few minutes and went right to the doctor. The diagnosis was to rest at home while we figured this thing out. I started seeing an orthopedic surgeon who sent me for spinal injections and anything else he could think of. All the while I had essentially withdrawn from the seminary as I was not able to attend classes. I remained in touch with the faculty and expressed to them my desire to get this taken care of and catch up to my class. It would have been difficult but not impossible.
In the meantime, McCarrick had just recently been transferred to Washington and made a cardinal. We were left with one of the auxiliary bishops running the show for almost a year. The seminary rector made a show of coming to my parents’ house to visit and see how I was doing but it was obvious to me and my mom and dad that he was only checking up on me. The man had an air about him that would have iced the veins in an Eskimo. I spoke to my spiritual director at the time and he and I laughed about the fact that the rector seemed to distrust my diagnosis. “He’s a doctor?” I said.
Within two months I was being prepped for a lumbar spinal fusion. If you don’t know what that is here’s a breakdown. My spine was disassembled and fused back together with a piece of my hip bone that had been broken off. I woke up in the worst pain imaginable. That might have been due to the fact that my morphine drip was malfunctioning and I was receiving no painkillers. When I came to, I noticed my mother on my left side and the vocations director on my right. He was crying and saying “My friend, what have they done to you?” I asked him if I was dead. It was that bad.
I spent the next week in the hospital – a hospital I had chosen because of its proximity to the seminary. I had reached out to my classmates and told them when I would be there, expressing to them a desire for company while I recovered.
And yet during that week I received visits only twice. One was from the rector and another priest. He never traveled alone. Again, he was checking up on me. I sensed immediately that this was not a “lift your spirits, hope you get better” visit but a “let me see how bad this is” visit. The other was from a classmate with whom I have remained close. In years to come he would officiate at my wedding and baptize my kids.
In the middle of that week I received a letter from the rector informing me in cold terms that it had been decided I was to fall back a year and spend time in a parish. He sent this knowing that it would be waiting for me when I got home; but my dad had brought it to the hospital as soon as it arrived. I had done nothing wrong and was willing and able to do the work involved to catch up. THIS was a punishment.
By the end of the week I spoke by phone with another classmate and asked why he hadn’t come by to see me. His response shocked me. He told me that the rector had instructed them all that I was not to receive visitors.
I went home and began my recovery in earnest. I spent the summer building myself up from immobile to walking 4-5 miles a day at dawn. When you’re 23 the body can rebuild itself remarkably well. During that long summer I also heard some news from a neighbor who worked at the chancery. She had overheard (in her words) a conversation about whether the diocese could cancel my health insurance. She surmised that I had been too great an expense. I almost couldn’t believe what I was hearing. but I had started to put the picture together that a lot of things were possible.
By the end of the summer I went up to the seminary to meet with the rector. While there I bumped into the old priest who had once advised me to pass out when confronted with an unpleasant situation. He, being head of the formation faculty, was unaware that I was being held back. I’ll never forget the look of shock on his face. “Is this what you want?” he asked. “No,” I replied. “I want to continue on and be ordained with my classmates.” “Then tell him [the rector] that.” Then he quickly determined that probably wouldn’t get me anywhere.
The rector told me how I was to be assigned to a parish in a very wealthy enclave within the diocese. Money seemed to matter with this guy. “I don’t care where I’m assigned,” I said. “It’s not really what I wanted anyway but I suppose I’ll make the most of it.” And we left it at that.
Early that September I showed up at my new parish. Within hours I realized that I had been set up. Here’s what I learned. The pastor, who was not to be my direct supervisor, gave me a lecture on smoking telling me I’d have to walk off the grounds to light up. Then he passed me off to the vicar. I was given a tour of the rectory. I had a small room with no bathroom. “You can use the one down the hall,” he told me. The only problem is that the building had been converted for use. It was a former convent that now housed parish offices. In other words I’d be showering in a room with no lock in a unisex office bathroom. Then I was asked to go on a hospital visit. I thought it odd that the vicar asked me to drive.
I got back to the rectory and made some calls. One was to a friend who had previously been assigned this parish over the summer. He informed me that the vicar was a friend of the rector and that he had his license revoked by the state. He alluded to a reason about a drunk driving incident but didn’t say more. “They didn’t tell you? You’re there to be his driver,” he told me. The other call was to the vocations director. I called him as a friend and asked his advice. He shared with me a story of a parish assignment he had when he was in seminary. “The pastor was a drunk,” he said. “One night I walked past the dining room of the rectory to find the guy passed out and completely naked. I complained about it but was told to just move on.” Then he gave me his advice. “Get out of there.” We agreed that it would not be in the interest of my safety or sanity to remain in this parish. At the very least I should be able to request a different assignment. The only problem was that neither of us could reach the rector. I was told he had gone to his beach house for the weekend and was unavailable.
Who knew they all had beach houses?
I asked a few other priests for advice. To a man they all said: “Don’t stay in a dangerous situation. Go with your gut. Get out. Turn in the key and request a meeting with the rector when he returns.”
And that’s what I did.
The following Tuesday was 9/11. Yes, that one.
On September 12th I received a call that the rector would have that meeting with me the next morning.
On Thursday September 13, 2001, with smoke still rising in the near distance, I walked into the rector’s office and was told to sit.
“We want you to resign as a seminarian,” he said.
I started to quip “I didn’t know I was working for you.” To this I was immediately cut off.
“Do not speak,” he said.
He told me that I had refused an assignment and been disobedient. “If you ever hope to be a priest anywhere else you’d better write a nice letter of resignation. You’ll never be one here,” he said.
I tried once again to interject. “You need to know that I acted on solid advice and…”
Once more I was silenced.
I can still remember that it took all of five minutes. I stood up and walked out, not shaking his hand, and left. Oh, and I had been told to leave right away, not to gather any of my things. “We’ll pack them and call you when they’re ready.” On my way past the front desk a fellow seminarian told me that a group of them had been using my room as a drinking spot in my absence.
“Keep using it,” I said as I walked out the door.
That was it. It was over. Five years of my life, of my youth. I wasn’t allowed to mount a defense. All I had wanted was to request a different assignment. I really wanted answers about why I was sent to that parish in the first place. Instead I got mafia treatment. “Don’t speak or else.”
I called the vocations director and told him what had happened.
“I kind of figured that might,” he said. “Really? And you didn’t warn me?” I asked him where we could go from here. He actually suggested I write to McCarrick. “He’ll take anyone.” But he signaled that he was powerless against this rector and with no bishop in place I had no options. I expressed to him my disgust at how everything turned out and he agreed that I had been wronged.. Then he offered up some BS solution that “this is just how things are…” And I didn’t hear from him again until years later when one of my nephews bumped into him. He was now chaplain of a local Catholic college. Perhaps I was no longer of use to him. Perhaps he was too afraid of the system.
But at that point I had had enough. Who wants to be part of a system like that? For five years I had been surrounded by strange men, people working through neuroses and sexual dysfunction, priests with no parish experience, and a wall of silence I only know realized I had slammed into for daring to ask a reasonable question.
In time I would come to forgive. It still hurts to think about that day. I never would have expected to encounter that treatment from priests. But I had to let go or would destroy me.
I did write that resignation letter. And I did NOT write it “nicely”. The bridge had been burned but not by me. I was just going to clear the rubble.
I never received a reply.
To my friends who were part of this system… You know the men involved. You know how he acted and you know the rumors that surrounded him. Thank you for your private messages which have served to reassure me that other people saw these things too.