"Mom, can you and Dad pick up Paul and me?” Our 12-year-old Sean sounded strained and rushed during that surprise Saturday afternoon phone call 17 years ago. “Father Ron’s been acting strange. He wanted to wrestle with Paul and Paul said no, but he tried to do it anyway. And he tried to touch Paul down below before he got away. We went to the beach and found a family we saw yesterday and asked if we could call you from their place. That’s where we are now.”
“We’re on our way,” I said. “It’ll be O.K. Just stay with that family and put one of them on so I can get their address.” Swooping up Paul’s parents, we took off on a two-hour drive full of dread and shock.
Just the week before, Father Ron, a well-known order priest who traveled the country presenting renewals, had conducted a powerful mission at our large suburban parish. He told the parents of the altar boys that a family who were longtime friends had a large summer place on one of Long Island’s beautiful south shore ocean beaches. “They’ve invited me to join them for the coming weekend and said I was welcome to bring along any altar boys who might like time at the shore, too.” Sean and Paul set off with Father Ron on Friday morning full of anticipation. As we learned later, there were no friends with a house, only a single rented room with one bed, which the boys declined to share that night with Father Ron, sleeping instead on the floor.
As soon as we returned home with our sons, we called our pastor to lodge a complaint against Father Ron. When both sets of parents met with the pastor the following morning, we repeated our charges. To our surprise, he wondered if perhaps the boys were exaggerating. Maybe we were reading too much into the situation. When we persisted, he finally said with obvious reluctance that he would take care of the complaints and notify the diocese and the priest’s order. We left the meeting at peace, convinced we had done our part and the matter would be taken care of by those in authority. Some heart-to-heart conversations with Sean and Paul seemed to be all that was necessary to bring closure to the experience for them.
Over the years, we occasionally saw an article by Father Ron in mainstream Catholic publications. A few times we saw an announcement for a parish mission he was giving. Naïvely, we presumed he had undergone successfully some form of therapy and everything had been taken care of.
Years passed. We moved. When the John Jay Report was issued, I saw facts and figures for our former diocese. Something nudged me to call their dedicated phone line for sexual abuse reports. “I just want to check to make sure our report has been included in the totals,” I explained to the understanding priest who answered my call. He said he would look into it. To my amazement, when he called back later that day, I discovered that our complaint had been stonewalled at the parish level. It had never been reported to either the diocese or the priest’s religious order. Furthermore, when the priest had contacted Father Ron’s superior, he learned that Father Ron had finally been suspended in 1999 because of other similar charges of sexual abuse of minors and is now in a secure, monitored environment.
Years of opportunity had been given to this sexual predator simply because someone at the lowest level of the reporting process had decided not to pass our complaint on through appropriate channels. Anger, frustration and sorrow were my immediate responses. It is small comfort to know such a complaint would certainly be handled differently today. I wonder how many other long-ago complaints also vanished because the trust of people like ourselves was betrayed at the local level.
Even as estimates in the John Jay study give an important overview of clergy sex abuse, it underreports the extent of the crisis for a variety of reasons. Some bishops are not cooperating. There is poor record-keeping in certain dioceses. Others are in court fighting the release of information. In addition, research has shown that only 6 percent of victims report their sexual abuse. Their reasons are many, and I honor and respect the decisions of those individuals.
But if you did report an abuse experience in the past, I urge you to call your appropriate diocesan office. Check to see if your complaint has been counted. Assume nothing. The more accurate and truthful the figures are, the clearer the reality of the situation will be for all of us as church and the more honest will be our movement toward healing and reconciliation. Don’t hesitate because you think your case is minor in the grand scheme of things. It isn’t. Ultimately every bit of truth added to this painful situation offers hope for new life as it honors the one who says, “I am the truth,” and who is the source of all justice.