He made it—just barely—out of Sobibor. So, it was no surprise that any time a former Nazi was found, or a new revelation about the regime and the Holocaust emerged, he took notice.
Louis is gone now. Though I can’t imagine what he endured, in the camp or in his nightmares and flashbacks, I feel I’ve become like him, in a way. As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse at the hands of a priest, I can’t help but to notice when some clerical predator is exposed.
Or what he and his brethren left in their wake.
Since “coming out” about my abuse two years ago, I have met others who had to endure similar horrors, whether from priests, professors, professional colleagues, parents or others in positions of authority. I have also learned about lives, families, communities and institutions that were destroyed as a result.
Some of the institutions will be missed. Others, however, deserved, like Hitler’s regime and its agencies, to be swept into the dustbin of history.
Perhaps the Roman Catholic Dioceses of Rockville Centre and Camden won’t disappear any time soon. There can be little doubt, however, that they’ve lost their powers, including their abilities to harbor and enable priests who preyed on people’s trust.
Last week, within the space of a couple of days, they declared bankruptcy, citing the financial strain of lawsuits from sex-abuse litigation. They are, of course, not the first dioceses to take such action. But their going into receivership is significant because of their relative prominence. Camden, in New Jersey, is directly across the Delaware River from Philadelphia which, in 2015, was tied with Chicago as the second-most Catholic city in the US. (Boston, New York and Pittsburgh were tied for first.) Rockville Centre, comprising the Long Island counties of Nassau and Suffolk, is one of the largest dioceses (by population) in the nation—and the largest, to date, to declare bankruptcy. It’s also directly east of the Diocese of Brooklyn, of which it was a part until 1957.
Camden’s and Rockville Centre’s proximity to two of the largest and most Catholic American cities is reason enough to take notice of them. Equally important, though, is another characteristic they share, and I know all too well.
The parish in which I, as an altar boy, was abused by a priest, is in the heart of the Diocese of Brooklyn. In other posts, I’ve talked about the church’s centrality in my old neighborhood: Nearly everyone attended it, and I, like many of my peers, were pupils in its school. Many kids were encouraged, or even forced, to become altar boys or participate in other church activities; I, and some other kids, volunteered for such things because our families or other people in our community didn’t have the time, or didn’t know how to give us the kinds of non-material support we needed. (For some kids, that support was material.) Our parents worked long and hard (our fathers at paid jobs, our mothers at uncompensated tasks) but, because they married and birthed us when they were very young (or for other reasons), didn’t know how to deal with anything besides fawning obedience. They did not know how to respond to the kinds of tiredness, sadness, or bewilderment children experience, sometimes because for no other reason than they don’t have the language or other means of expressing it.
What I didn’t know, of course, was that at the time I was growing up, we were part of a way of life that was dying: The cops, the firefighters, the factory workers were moving their families to Rockville Centre and other places on Long Island.
And to New Jersey, where I moved with my family when I was twelve. Our new church was part of the Diocese of Trenton, the northern neighbor of Camden diocese. The city of Camden, once home to RCA and Campbell’s soup, was in steep decline. But the surrounding communities in its diocese flourished as bedroom communities to Philadelphia, from which cops, firefighters and factory workers moved.
There, and in the Rockville Centre enclaves, their parents worked even harder to pay and keep up their houses and car payments. That meant kids were, perhaps, even more isolated and alienated than they would have been in South Philly or South Brooklyn — and, in those pre-Internet days, with fewer ways of reaching others who felt the way they did.
A lonely or alienated kid is to a sexual predator—whether a priest or some other authority figure — like tinder to a forest fire. So, if a kid feels isolated in an urban enclave, imagine what it must be like in a suburban town, with the family’s breadwinner(s) commuting for several hours a day in addition to the time he/she/they work.
Fortunately for me, I did not get involved with our new church, beyond attending mass, after my family moved to New Jersey: I become more involved with Scouting (which I joined before our move) and school-related activities. But other kids who weren’t drawn to such things (literary magazines, photography clubs, sports teams and the like) were probably even more stranded than their peers in the neighborhood my family left. So, some of them might have been even easier prey for predacious priests than I was.
Although I have never met them, I thought about those young people when I heard that the Dioceses of Camden and Rockville Centre declared bankruptcy — just as I imagine my late friend Louis thought about inmates at Bergen-Belsen, Dachau and Auschwitz whenever a former Nazi was found in Cleveland or Argentina or some other place far from where they committed their horrible crimes.
In short, the bankruptcies of the Camden and Rockville Centre dioceses were personal for me — just as the capture of John Demjanjuk was for Louis, my late friend.
Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.
For the past month, I’ve been recovering from a bike crash.
After getting stitched up in a local hospital, I was transferred to a larger facility with a trauma unit. Just after I arrived, a doctor asked me a series of questions about my health: No, I’ve never smoked. Yes, I drink: one or two glasses of wine or beer with supper, and spirits on rare occasions. No serious or chronic illnesses. Two surgeries: the first, twenty-five years ago, for a deviated septum; the second, fifteen years later, to align my genitals with my gender identity.
Thankfully, no one raised an eyebrow over my last answer. I think he, and the nurses in the room, realized that I was speaking slowly because I was tired and in pain, but that I was coherent. Ironically, that may have been exactly what raised that doctor’s alarm when I unequivocally answered one of the mental-health questions: Yes, I have attempted suicide. But, I explained, not recently: I tried to kill and caused other kinds of harm to myself because of some experiences—including sexual abuse—in my childhood.
The doctor called in someone else —a psychiatrist, I believe. They asked, several times, whether my accident was not an accident. I insisted that my mishap was just that: an unfortunate circumstance. One of the nurses, a native of a Caribbean island, looked into my eyes. She interjected: “No, she wasn’t trying to kill herself. And she’s not going to try anything like that now.”
The other nurse in the room—also from the Caribbean—nodded. The doctor and psychiatrist stopped their conversation and note-taking. The psychiatrist glanced toward them, then at me. “I don’t think she needs to be under watch,” he declared. The doctor scribbled something, which I took as agreement.
Then he asked whether I wanted a chaplain. No, I’m not religious, I explained. I didn’t mention my atheism because I didn’t want to risk a debate for which, at that moment, I didn’t have the energy. I glanced back at the nurse who advocated for my sanity. She looked at me, knowingly.
Two days later, I went home. The nurse and I have stayed in touch. “It was a priest, wasn’t it?”
She didn’t have to pose it as a question. She knows; I think she knew it that night we met in the trauma center.
I’d like to know how she knew. Or do I already know?
Sixteen months ago, I posted the first story in the Black Collar Crime Series. Yesterday, I posted the six-hundredth post in the series. Focused primarily on clergy sexual misconduct, the sheer level of reports puts to rest the notion that such crimes are committed by a “few bad apples.” Numerous times a day, I receive notices from Google Alerts, notifying me that a new report of alleged clergy crime has been posted to the Internet. I look at every notification, choosing to only publish the stories that are publicly reported by reputable news sites. I am often contacted by victims who are looking to expose their abusers. I do what I can to help them, but if there’s no public news reports or other information that can corroborate their stories, I am unable to do anything for them. Believe me, I WANT to help them, but it would be legally reckless of me to post a story without sufficient evidence. I generally also only publish reports about clerics from the United States — mostly Protestant, Evangelical, Southern Baptist, and Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB). While I post stories featuring Catholic priests from time to time, I usually leave such reporting to others. The same could be said of widespread clergy sexual misconduct in Africa. The point I am trying to make here is this: 600 published reports is just the tip of the iceberg. As of today, I am also sitting on over 300 clergy sexual misconduct stories I have not published due to a lack of sufficient evidence or a shortage of time to do so.
Not only are there more than just a “few bad apples” preying on church members, when you add to the total the number of pastors and other religious leaders who have consensual sexual relations with congregants, it is clear for all to see that so-called “men of God” are hardly the pillars of moral virtue they claim to be. In 2015, I wrote a post titled, Is Clergy Infidelity Rare? Here’s an excerpt from the post:
In October 2013, Doug Phillips, president of the now-defunct Vision Forum Ministries confessed to church leaders that he had an inappropriate sexual relationship with a woman who is not his wife. Defenders of Phillips took to their blogs, websites, Twitter, and Facebook to do damage control on the behalf of Phillips and the patriarchal movement. One such defender is Independent Baptist pastor Voddie Baucham, a man who is widely viewed as the African-American version of Doug Phillips.
Dennis, You ask, “How many times do we see this in Christian leadership?” The answer may surprise you, but it is actually quite rare. There are hundreds of thousands of churches in America. We hear of these types of things on a national basis when they happen to high profile people. However, considering the number of people in Christian leadership, the numbers are quite small. As to your other point, most men who go through something like this never recover. Of course, there are exceptions. Moreover, there are some circles wherein things like this, and much worse, are merely swept under the rug. However, in circles where leadership is taken seriously, it is very difficult for a man to come back from things like this. People have long memories, and tend to be rather unforgiving. (emphasis mine)
Baucham repeats the oft-told lie that clergy sexual misconduct is quite rare. I have heard this line more times than I can count. It is an attempt to prop up the notion that clergy are more moral and ethical than most people; that they are pillars of virtue and morality. Such claims are patently false.
Of the one thousand fifty (1,050 or 100%) pastors we surveyed, every one of them had a close associate or seminary buddy who had left the ministry because of burnout, conflict in their church, or from a moral failure.
Three hundred ninety-nine (399 or 38%) of pastors said they were divorced or currently in a divorce process.
Three hundred fifteen (315 or 30%) said they had either been in an ongoing affair or a one-time sexual encounter with a parishioner.
So much for clergy sexual infidelity being rare.
Numerous studies have been conducted concerning sexual infidelity among married people. The percentage varies widely, but it is safe to say that between ten and twenty percent of married people have been sexually unfaithful to their spouse. The percentage is higher for men than it is women.
We know that men of the cloth are not morally or ethically superior. In the United States and Canada, there are approximately 600,000 clergy. According to the Hartford Institute for Religion and Research, this total includes active clergy and “retired clergy, chaplains in hospitals, prisons and the military, denominational executives, and ordained faculty at divinity schools and seminaries.” This number does not include clergy who are affiliated with independent churches. If between ten and twenty percent of married people commit adultery, and clergy are no different morally from non-clergy, then this means that between 60,000 and 120,000 clergy have committed adultery. Again, so much for clergy sexual infidelity being rare.
Keep in mind, this is only the number of CONSENSUAL sexual relationships.
Most people in the United States profess to be Christians. Taught to think that their churches are safe havens and their pastors have only their best interests at heart, many of them have a hard time believing and accepting that bad things happen, and far too often the perpetrators are pastors, deacons, elders, youth leaders, worship leaders, Sunday school teachers, church janitors, evangelists, missionaries, bus drivers, Christian school teachers, and principals. Wherever Christians have authority over others, you will find sexual misconduct — both legal and criminal.
What makes churches and clergy so dangerous is that congregants are trusting. It’s the world they need to worry about, or so church leaders tell them anyway. Led to believe that Christians — thanks to salvation and the Holy Ghost — are above the fray and oh-so-humbly morally superior, church members naively trust those who have “God-given” authority over them. Even after their pastors and other church leaders have been exposed as the predators, many congregants refuse to believe that the men and women they looked up to abused others. You who read the Black Collar Crime Series regularly know that it is not uncommon to have congregants comment, defending their pastor or suggesting that the police or district attorney are out to get their preacher.
Sadly, it is not uncommon for church members to blame victims instead of putting the blame where it belongs: on their ministers, youth pastors, and other church leaders. Even after church leaders are found guilty in criminal court, congregants will often line up to testify at sentencing hearings; letting courts know that their pastors are good men who made a momentary mistake (never mind the fact that most pastors convicted of sex crimes are repeat or habitual offenders). Worse yet, on way too many occasions, once incarcerated clerics are released from prison, they find their way back to churches looking for pastorates or they start new churches — hiding from their new congregations their decadent past. One of the reasons I continue to publish Black Collar Crime stories is that this blog becomes a database of sorts for people doing their due diligence before accepting as fact the “testimony” of prospective pastors.
And to churches who hire registered sex offenders, knowing what they did at their last churches, don’t be surprised when your new God-fearing pastor treats your church as a hunting ground. Get your head out of your ass and protect the children, teens, and vulnerable adults in your churches. “But, Bruce, as Christians, we are supposed to “forgive and forget.” It’s forgetting I have a problem with. Forgetting what clergy have done in the past invites and encourages new abuse and harm. Just yesterday, a family member who is a Fundamentalist pastor, mentioned in a positive light the “ministry” David Hyles has devoted to “fallen” preachers. (Please see Disgraced IFB Preacher David Hyles Helping Fallen Pastors Get Back on Their Horses and Is All Forgiven for David Hyles? and David Hyles Says My Bad, Jesus and UPDATED: Serial Adulterer David Hyles Has Been Restored) I thought, ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME! But, when you believe in 1 John 1:9 Christianity (If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness), it is easy to dismiss past bad behavior as being “under the blood” and “buried in the depths of the sea of God’s forgetfulness.” No matter what Christians do — including rape, murder, and fraud — wiping their slates clean is but a prayer away. (Note: I later talked to the family member. He genuinely didn’t know about David Hyles’ past. He was a child in the 1980s when the Biblical Evangelist published its expose on Jack and David Hyles. I guess I am officially an old man.)
Years ago, a former colleague of mine in the ministry, told me that at his church they believed in forgiveness, and that’s why they didn’t run criminal background checks on church workers. “Bruce,” this pastor said, “when a person gets saved, their past ‘sins’ are forgiven and remembered no more. If God doesn’t remember their sins, neither should we.” In his naive, Bible-sotted mind, once a person is really, really, really “saved,” — one really each for the Father, Son and Holy Ghost — there’s no reason to not “trust” them, even if, in the past, he or she was a murderer, rapist, serial adulterer, or child molester. “Either our sins are under the blood, or they are not, Brother,” this preacher told me. Many years ago, I warned him that one of his daughters was in a sexual relationship with a teen boy in my church. He told me, “oh, they would never do that!” Right, two horny kids, all alone on a back-country road? What are they doing, studying the Bible and praying? A month or so later, he came home early from his church’s midweek prayer meeting, only to find his daughter and her boyfriend naked and having sex on the living room floor. Sadly, in far too many churches, trusted church leaders are assaulting and abusing congregants, and everyone around them is saying, “oh, they would never do that.” As the Black Collar Crime series makes clear, such thinking is not only naive, it’s dangerous. Throw in pastors who psychologically manipulate congregants and use those who trust them as a means to an end, and I can safely say that churches are some of the most dangerous places in the United States; that parents who “trust” church leaders with their children and teenagers risk their charges being misused, abused, and assaulted.
No, I am not saying all church leaders are bad people, but I am saying a large enough percentage of them are — more than a few bad apples, to be sure — that wisdom and prudence demands keeping children right by your side when attending houses of worship. Better safe than sorry, I say. (Dear Evangelical Church Leaders: It’s Time to Get Rid of Your Youth Pastors and Youth Departments) Suppose you went to the local grocery with your children to buy some groceries. Suppose there were 200 shoppers in the store, and ten of them were child molesters or registered sex offenders. Knowing this, would you let your children wander through the store unattended? Of course not. Why, then, should churches and preachers be treated any differently?
Let me leave you with one poignant thought: countless Christians have prayed for God to deliver them from the hands of their abusers, and without exception, God ignored their prayers. If left up to “God,” predator church leaders will, with impunity, cause untold harm. It is up to us to put a stop to clergy sexual misconduct. All I can do is write about the subject. But if you are a church-going Christian, you have the responsibility and duty to make sure the children, teens, and vulnerable adults are safe when attending church, school, or church events. Doing nothing is no longer an option.
About Bruce Gerencser
Bruce Gerencser, 62, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 41 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.
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In my previous article, I mentioned that in 2015, Ireland became the first nation to legalize same-sex marriage by a popular vote. In another ballot last year, the Irish approved a bill that struck down the country’s near-total ban on abortion. The procedure had been allowed only if the mother’s life was at risk. That, in what was one of the world’s most devoutly Catholic countries just a generation ago.
Now the State of Alabama has, in essence, the sort of law Ireland just got rid of. The other day, Governor Kay Ivey signed a bill into a law that allows abortions only “to avoid a serious health risk to the unborn child’s mother,” for ectopic pregnancy, and if “the unborn child has a lethal abnormality.”
She was allowed to undergo an abortion in her own country, but the same right wasn’t granted to other girls and women. Instead, an amendment to the Irish constitution was passed, guaranteeing the right to travel to another country (usually England) for the procedure. That was fine for those who could afford to make the trip, as I’m sure Alabamans who can get to other states won’t be hampered by the new law in their own.
But in one area Alabama does old Ireland one better (or worse): Doctors who perform abortions can be punished with life in prison. Even televangelist Pat Robertson howled: “I think Alabama has gone too far,” he said during an episode of The 700 Club.
Ireland is starting to look really, really good right about now, even though I am not, and have never been, at any risk of getting pregnant. And hearing what’s transpired in Alabama and Georgia, and what may well come to pass in other states — not to mention thinking about the possibility of striking down Roe v Wade altogether — gives me the chills.
It would have given me the chills even when I was still living as a man. For me, the right to choose whether or not to carry a pregnancy to term has never been an abstraction. On one level, it is also about sovereignty over one’s body and life. Now, I’m not a constitutional lawyer or scholar. But, for what it’s worth, I have to wonder whether a government which can tell a woman or girl that she has to carry her father’s or brother’s or some stranger’s baby can also give itself the right to tell people such as I that we can’t take the hormones, have the surgeries or do whatever else we need to do in order to live at peace with ourselves. Also, would such a government imprison a doctor who prescribed the hormones or did the procedure—or even a psychiatrist who diagnosed a transgender, or a social worker who showed that transgendered person how to navigate a gender transition?
For all that I worry about such possibilities, I am affected in a more fundamental, even visceral, way by attacks on the right to a legal, safe abortion. As a child—an altar boy—I was sexually abused by a priest. That was half a century ago. I talked about it for the first time less than two years ago. By then, he was long dead, so I never had the opportunity to confront him. On the other hand, I never had to face him every day, directly or through the child I might have been forced to carry had I been, say, a 13-year-old girl instead of a 9-year-old boy. The state in which I was abused (New York) hadn’t yet legalized abortion, and Roe v Wade wouldn’t be decided for several more years. In the community in which I lived—almost entirely Catholic—young women were disowned or worse for having abortions. Even if abortion were legal, it would have been as unavailable to me as it was to most Irish women and girls—and will be for many in Alabama.
I am thinking of those women and girls. I could have been one of them. That is why I am so appalled at the law Alabama just passed. More importantly, though, I realize that for all I suffered as a result of my abuse and sexual assault, things could have been even worse for me. Unfortunately, in Alabama, they will be for many girls and young women.
It is difficult to confront the past: victims are made to relive their pain; victimizers are forced to face the truth. That, of course, is the reason why histories, whether writ large or in one’s own life, are too often unresolved: the victim’s suffering may just be too much to bear, and the victimizer’s guilt causes him or her to lie, evade, or flee.
The unfinished business, if you will, doesn’t go away. It is carried across generations, through history, and among families and cultures. As an example, many of the difficulties faced by African-Americans today are direct consequences of their countries’ inability or unwillingness to deal honestly with slavery and its aftermath, as well as other aspects of their nation’s history.
There comes a day, however, when there is no choice but to deal with the crimes committed by individuals and institutions that had, and sometimes still have, power. Those crimes are like bubbles that could have been submerged only for so long: eventually, they must rise from the depths to the light of day.
Just as those bubbles rise, whether they are in oceans or puddles, abuses must find expression by the individuals who experienced them or the societies in which they occur. Such expression might be in works of art, organizing communities, or simply in telling one’s story and someone else listening to it, without an agenda. Otherwise, those bubbles explode, and the people, their communities and cultures do not survive—or, at least, are tainted.
I am one of the people who could have been blown apart, if you will. Less than two years ago, I named the abuse I experience and my abuser—a priest who, half a century earlier, took advantage of my availability and vulnerability. I have, on a number of occasions, come close to destroying myself: whether consciously, through what people readily identify as “suicide attempts,” or unconsciously, through addictive and reckless behavior.
What seems odd to me now is that some might see recounting my abuse and remembering my abuser as the most difficult thing I’ve done, just as some people thought my “coming out” as a transgender woman was a “big step” for me. Yes, it took a lot of emotional and mental work to be able to take the reins away from the abuser and to stop the emotional blackmail he generated. But I realize now that the difficulty, the pain, of “coming out” as an abuse survivor is temporal, if not momentary. At least I know that, whether or not that pain has an end, it is at least something that I can use to forge new paths in my life and, possibly, help someone else do something similar.
As difficult as confronting that part of my past was, and is, having to live through, and with, the abuse and the shame I felt for so many years was far more difficult and caused much greater damage. Whatever is ruptured by breaking my silence—including that shame and the self-loathing that it too often became—didn’t deserve to survive intact.
Some might accuse me of “projecting,” but it’s hard for me not to think that, in some way, so many cases of sex abuse by clerics and others connected with organized religion is a greater, wider example of what I experienced in my own life. The “scandal” or “crisis” in religious institutions isn’t that the stories of abuse and exploitation are coming to light, by the thousands. The “crisis” has been going on for centuries, and the “scandal” is that its perpetrators kept their victims silent for so long.
In short, the “crisis” or “scandal” in the Roman Catholic Church (and other religious organizations and communities) is nothing more than an institution and its leaders being forced to confront its past—and present—because we, the victims, have had to deal with our pain, for ourselves and those who couldn’t. And those of us who are living could not keep silent any longer, or else we would explode like the Langston Hughes’ “dream deferred.”