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Dispirited: How I lost my religion to a pedophiliac priest

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By Tom Lynchnewcitycoverpriest-copy

A couple weeks ago I received a CD at Newcity’s office, out of the blue, a compilation disc of local artists performing covers of Catholic hymns. “Crosswalk,” it’s called, and features bands like Office, The M’s, Canasta and The Scotland Yard Gospel Choir. The idea intrigued me immediately—when I took a closer look at its cover and realized that the purpose of the comp is to benefit victims of priestly sexual abuse, plus has sponsors like Wicker Park institutions Reckless Records, Earwax, The Silver Room and Moonshine, my eyebrows could not have raised any higher.

I grew up on the Northwest Side of Chicago, near O’Hare, a neighborhood technically labeled Dunning, though not many still use the term. Surrounded by Park Ridge and Norridge to the north, River Grove and Elmwood Park to the south and the Des Plaines River to the west, the relatively serene neighborhood has always had an abundance of city employees and their families: policemen, firemen, school teachers. Most Irish, but with a good amount of Italian and Polish. Growing up, there was even another Lynch family  just a  few doors down from us. My father is a Chicago policeman, and now my parents have several policeman neighbors lined up all next to each other down the block, creating what some jokingly call “Copland.”

As kids, we felt safe. Rarely did any element of real danger enter our naïve and, in retrospect, severely innocent worlds, save for once, while I was playing basketball in our alley with a friend and my younger sister when a brief shootout occurred between two cars just feet from us. Still, at 12 years old, that was more exciting than threatening. My mother, lovingly neurotic as she was—and still is—kept my sister and me in close range for our entire childhood, because one can never be too safe, and she had just witnessed a handful of years previous the shock and horror of John Wayne Gacy’s arrest just mere blocks away. Of course, no parents, especially in the late eighties and early nineties, felt their children were at risk at school.

To say religion, especially Catholicism, was important within the neighborhood would be a hefty understatement. Standing in the center of our little community was St. Francis Borgia, the parish and grammar school I would attend, the church that residents of the area flocked to for prayer and worship. Couples were married there, infants were baptized,  loved ones were put to rest. Both my parents, who grew up in the neighborhood and haven’t left, went to Borgia as well; my father’s father, a devout Catholic who passed away before I was born, attended church services weekly. Everyone was friendly with the church’s volunteers—my parents grew up with some of them—not to mention priests and nuns, and many of my friends were altar boys. In Catholic school, the religion was inarguable, and open-minded thought wasn’t necessarily encouraged, though that didn’t cause terrific angst. There wasn’t much religious frustration among sixth graders. We were taught that Catholicism, the teachings of the Holy Bible, the message of Jesus Christ and all the fire and brimstone of the Old Testament were tangible, hardened truth. You go to heaven if you’re a good little boy. If you lie to your parents, you’re burning in hell. If you don’t suffer through mass on Christmas Eve, you don’t deserve your presents. Incredibly, at the time it made a lot of sense. There just wasn’t any other way.

I never had a particularly close relationship with a priest, but we were taught as kids to be respectful of them, and I was personally never treated poorly or inappropriately by a member of the Church. But in March of 1993, when I was 11 years old, the pastor of my grade school and parish, a man in a position that ranked higher than principal, was quickly removed following allegations that he had maintained a sexual relationship with a young boy.

I didn’t know much about Rich Seng, the man behind the “Crosswalk” compilation, before we met up to discuss the project. I knew he organized the occasional freestyle emcee battle Rhyme Spitters, and I had read that he was once in the seminary on track to become a Catholic priest. My immediate thought was that somewhere along the line Seng was disenfranchised by the church and its teachings, turned off by the church’s apparent quest over the years to cover up and hide molestation charges amongst its priests, dropped out of seminary, couldn’t shake the anger and disgust and decided to put together this compilation to raise awareness for survivors. Some of that is true—the awareness part. For the rest, I was wrong.

Seng began his project when he returned to Chicago after dropping out of a seminary affiliated with the diocese of Toledo, Ohio; “Crosswalk” has been in the works since 2003. “Can you take an old hymn and redo it in your own style?” he asked several artists. “I had to frame it in a sense that shamed the Catholic Church in a way, which I’m OK with, because it’s deserved,” Seng says. “Otherwise, the bands wouldn’t be interested in having anything to do with the Catholic Church.”

Seng is still a highly devout Catholic, and admits that this record has taken so long to come out because he was conflicted about its purpose. His devotion to the Church, his staunch belief in the Bible’s teachings and the contradictions he faces on a daily basis still plague him, he says, plus he still has friends in the young-adult Catholic world in which “there is a lot of resistance on [their] part to acknowledge the breadth and scope of the sexual-abuse problem, which was allowed to build up for so long.”

At one point, Seng resisted as well. “When I was a seminarian and it wasn’t yet in the news, I felt like I was under attack by the surrounding society,” he says. “When you take on that siege mentality, you’re always really defensive to criticism that’s thrown at your faith.”

“Crosswalk” will be available this week, for free, at several different locations, including the places listed earlier, plus Penelope’s, City Soles, Niche, Sultan’s Market and more. Oddly, for me, an avid music appreciator quick to hear anything locally produced, the actual content of the disc is an afterthought; I listened to it once and didn’t go back. There are larger issues here, especially when Seng explains one of his principal reasons for putting the mix together in the first place.

“I wanted to make the compilation to remove the obstacle of belief from many people, from the many people who would never become Catholic,” he says. “I wanted to say to them, ‘Listen, I’m a devout Catholic who understands your criticism, who understands this injustice, and I fully believe in the fullness of this injustice.’ Let’s knock that obstacle down so more people can experience God’s love.”

Seng seems sincere, and when he speaks his intensity and direct eye contact make for captivating conversation. I’m relieved when he says his closest friend from his seminary days is another dropout who’s homosexual and living in Florida, but my stomach turns when he tells me he feels abortion is wrong.

But I won’t argue with him. I gave up on God’s love back in that March of 1993.

One day, after school, my parents sat my sister and me down in the living room and told us that Father Strand had been removed from Borgia.

Why?

He was accused of molesting a boy.

OK.

How does a parent explain something like that to an 11-year-old boy and an 8-year-old girl? It wasn’t as if I was totally oblivious that such a thing was possible—somehow, for reasons I can’t pinpoint, I was already aware of a stigma that priests carried around, so much so that when I was told what happened I was shocked but not necessarily surprised. That a pre-teen boy could already be so distrustful of an authority figure, let alone a priest, still alarms me.

My father’s first concern, he tells me now, was that I was in any way “involved” with this priest. Of course I was not—I had limited one-on-one time with him. “My first thought,” my mother says, “was that I was glad you decided to not be an altar boy and run for student council instead.”

Within days of Strand’s removal, rumors had leaked from the school about the situation and letters were sent home to parents explaining the circumstances, however not venturing too far into detail. A family friend, who also had young children at the school, wasn’t aware of the allegations and learned as she drove up to attend a Girl Scout meeting, flanked by news cameras and TV journalists who, vulture-like, were trying to ask the second-graders their opinion of the fallen pastor. Parents, outraged, quickly stepped in, and the cameras backed off.

A meeting was called at the school for the parents. Of course they were outraged, not only by the vague allegations, but because so few details were revealed. Representatives from the archdiocese—a “tribunal,” it was called—sat on a stage and delivered a prepared statement to a packed house, not disclosing any specifics on the matter, simply stating that the priest was removed and would not be coming back. At one point, the crowd, furious at the lack of information offered, was told to quiet down, as if they were a group of amped-up schoolchildren who needed to be put in place.

Slowly, details began to emerge as the case progressed and the daily newspapers continued coverage, but even now they are sadly scarce. Strand allegedly had begun molesting a 15-year-old boy in 1990, while the priest was associate pastor of St. Mary Catholic Church in Des Plaines, and the assaults continued after he was assigned to Borgia. Two months after his exiting the school he was officially charged; in 1995 he pleaded guilty to one count of criminal sexual assault for engaging in sex acts with a minor and was sentenced to four years in prison.

My parents, who were never overly religious but still held the basic beliefs any good Chicago Catholic would, felt betrayed. Not only because of the crime itself, but also because of the compounded problem of the Church’s defensiveness, the lack of information presented to parents and parishioners who, above all else, were only looking for answers.

For the children, school progressed as usual, the teachers not even so much as acknowledging the controversy and upheaval in the classroom. No counseling was offered. There was no discussion. School carried on as if it didn’t happen. The children—at least me and my classmates, and I can only assume the older kids—knew everything their parents knew and, although this was a man many kids had direct, close contact with, conversation on the topic was not only discouraged, it was as if it wasn’t even an option. I’m not exactly sure how, but it was quickly and confidently surmised that no Borgia kid was treated inappropriately by the pastor; but the lack of explanation, especially for the children, who the school ignorantly felt could not properly process the situation, was devastating.

I no longer trusted priests, of course, but I also no longer trusted nuns, teachers, altar boys or anyone even remotely religious. At 11 years old, my disdain for organized religion, especially Catholicism, bubbled over. What was once a natural and ingrained belief—in many ways, a comfort—was now an emotional disaster zone, a place of confused chaos, made worse by not having a forum to discuss thoughts or feelings. Sure, I could talk to my parents, but they were more angry and wronged than I was. Their children were not as safe as promised, and they weren’t even offered the decency of an explanation.

I recently contacted—through Facebook, where else?—some of the kids I went to school with at that time to collect some other memories of the event. Strangers now, I haven’t seen these people in more than a decade. I was nervous about reaching out, explaining the story I was writing and asking them to dig up bad memories likely dead and buried; some didn’t respond, and I wasn’t surprised. A few did, though, but asked to remain anonymous.

One woman remembers the initial shock and confusion, being as young as we all were, and having our school on the TV news. Local parents were interviewed on camera. Just a week earlier, Strand had performed her grandfather’s wake service.

I went to a now-shuttered all-male Catholic high school in River Grove, which certainly stunted my social skills, though my parents had their reasons for sending me there. My distrust of religion, multiplied by the years following Strand’s imprisonment, elevated in high school when added to the typical teenage hate-the-world angst the pimply and awkward often endure. I stayed in my room. Grew my hair long. Learned to play guitar.

I joined a teen community-service group my sophomore year, which involved being a part of random events across the city. Let’s be honest—I signed up to meet girls, no question about it, and was not deterred when I learned the group was co-run by a Catholic priest. Religion was ignorable—I certainly dismissed all my high-school religious classes and daydreamed my way through the church services the school required us to attend.

By all accounts, the priest who handled the group was a caring, nice man, who instantly made everyone comfortable and was more leveled than any priest I had ever met. He treated you as a person, not as a creation who should feel lucky to be in his presence. Still, after a camping trip in which he and I slept in the same tent, my parents were initially suspicious.

“And you were OK with that?” they asked, after I told them about the sleeping arrangments. And that mentality, the everlasting suspicion of religious figures, the immediate worrisome response, is perhaps the greatest tragedy of all.

I didn’t know the boy who was abused, and I often feel incredible guilt because, as terrible as the situation was for the students at Borgia, obviously it’s nothing compared to his suffering, and as if the school’s refusal to acknowledge the incident was also a judgment that we, as children, weren’t allowed to feel betrayed as well.

Now, years later, I’m so ambivalent and removed from religion that I’m unable to subscribe to any doctrine. My uncertainty is so severe I can’t even consider myself agnostic, which is, essentially, a belief that questions God’s existence. I’m uncertain about my uncertainty. It’s not so much that I don’t believe in God that burns me—it’s that I can’t. I don’t want to. My desire for it was robbed from me. I break my mother’s heart every time I tell her I don’t believe in God, as she wants so desperately to believe that her parents, my grandparents, look after us from above.

After serving his prison sentence, Strand was moved to a seminary in Mundelein that housed a collection of priests who were removed from parishes after allegations of sexual abuse. A 2006 Chicago Tribune article reported that a nearby Catholic high school was ordered to redraw the route for its annual walkathon because it traditionally traveled through the seminary grounds. The article also pointed out that, out of the thirteen priests accused of sexual misconduct living there at the time, only one, Ralph Strand, was registered as a convicted sex offender.

A few weeks ago during a visit home my mom pulled out a large tub from storage filled with pictures of my sister and me as children—birthday parties, baby pictures, etc.—and I came across a fifth-grade classroom photo, Strand presiding authoritatively, smiling over the students. I hadn’t forgotten how he looked—a large puffy face, his bright, white hair—but I was shocked at just how young he actually was. At the time, to an 11-year-old boy, it seemed as if he was ancient, full of wisdom, a man of faith.

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