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Do You Ever Remember Feeling Innocent?

“I am grateful for the light in you that continues to light something in me,” she wrote on the winter solstice, 2018.

Matthew writes "Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket; it is set on a lampstand, where it gives light to all in the house. Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father." (5:15-16)

A friend asks me – no, a brother asks – “Do you ever remember feeling innocent?” I’m standing in Home Depot when he texts me this. I well up into tears and my body shakes. I don’t really remember that feeling, but I have photos in which I appear innocent. In which I look beautiful. My friend and our brothers all look beautiful too (for survivors of child abuse, this can be a problem).

One photo of me appears on a huge painting/collage I made last year, in the throes of processing losses during and after (and before more) cancer. On it I wrote, “It all seemed so possible when we were young and we lifted our arms to the sun.” Light all around, bathed in light we were.

It’s not an easy painting. But we have to remember to come back to the light if we are to survive longer.

At Saint David’s, we would sit down for lunch at long folding tables in the gym with a teacher at either end and twenty boys between them. “Bless us O Lord, and these thy gifts, from thy bounty, through Christ our Lord, Amen,” we recited and then dug in. Fish sticks on Fridays; red quivering globs of jello for dessert. One teacher always bounced his knee up and down as he ate.

The last day of first grade, an early June day in 1969, the summer when the astronauts first landed on the moon, we lined up down the gray curving staircase from the second floor, where the chapel was, to the ground floor. Miss Scavullo (who became Mrs. Warwick – a fearsome name) stood at the bottom of the stairs, wishing each of us, individually, a nice summer. She kissed each boy on the cheek. We stepped down, one step at a time, and when I was at the bottom, facing this beautiful woman on whom I had a massive crush, she asked, “Would you like a kiss goodbye?” I answered, “No, thank you,” and wished later that I had. Years later, now, today, I wonder how much trouble a teacher would have gotten into had she done that, say, last year.

Two grown men told me this week – I mean, since last Saturday – about having been sexually abused by a teacher in that school, whose office was somewhere along that spiral staircase.

One of these men, who I have never met, said, “I’ve never told anyone besides my fiancé.” He’s my age, a surgeon at a major medical center. Like me – like my brothers – a nice guy, a sweet guy, in some ways still innocent of the ways of the world.

Some of us still believe that well-heeled institutions like Saint David’s have the best interests of their alumni in mind. I thought so, until last January, when I realized that in reaching out to the “Saint David’s community” the school was making note of possible threats. It was not reaching out in order to support or investigate or to make amends. "Who might come after us with the Child Victims Act in hand, which allows civil suits to be made against people (or the institutions that sheltered them) for sex crimes perpetrated in the 1970s?"

That’s what Saint David’s was thinking. Never, I noted, did they use the word “alumni” in their communications. That was, bluntly put, stupid.

I have written to my school on behalf of the other men who were abused there. I have carried the stories now of three men who never in their lives have spoken of being abused before coming to me. I have offered suggestions and options and a listening ear. And because it is so hard to NOT feel connected to them, I have woken several days this week in tears.

Connection - community - sangha is always listed as the most important thing in any spiritual tradition.

Because sex crimes were committed on small boys who thought it was all possible, once. Not everyone loses that sight. But far too many of us feel the effects into our immediate and later lives. The all-too-typical symptoms of post-trauma stress, virtually the same symptoms as returning combat veterans: heightened alertness, addiction, suicidal ideation or actual suicide, crime, a need for an adrenaline boost, lost relationships (me: two marriages, and two other significant relationships), difficulty concentrating, difficulty holding a job. In men there’s a greater chance of developing prostate cancer (in raped girls, it’s breast cancer).

And those on the sidelines, the bystanders, the brothers, we feel it too. It’s like watching a family member get hit by a car. You feel that too. It’s called “vicarious” trauma, as equally devastating as the trauma of being hit by that car. Something is pulled out of you. Or, an equally good metaphor, some kind of poison is injected into you which is hard to remove.

Saint David’s has had its options. Other schools where abuse has occurred have taken different stances towards victims than Saint David’s, which has been adversarial, “blame the victim,” “just get over it,” and “boys will be boys.” For some reason, many people feel that the sexual abuse of boys (one in six boys will be raped, is the statistic) is not as offensive as that of girls, probably because we have this stereotype that men must be tough and forget their feelings.

But trauma does not discriminate based on gender. Trauma seats itself in the brain and directs operations from there, and if it operates long enough, you can get very fucked up.

Other schools have been very generous in their responses to abused alumni. One, for example, has set no limitations or parameters on paying for a survivor’s psychotherapy.

(“At Saint David’s we look for ways to walk in the shoes of others, to try and perceive the world through others’ eyes - and have that ability to develop a sense of empathy and connection.” O'Halloran quoted from Saint David's Facebook page)

At St. Paul’s, a prep school in New England where similar abuse occurred, Kathy Giles, the head of the school, said in an interview that the school did not dispute alumna Lacy Crawford’s account of being assaulted: “If there’s anything we’ve learned, it’s that we have to receive the stories and respect the experience and then take what steps we need to address the hurt and pain.”

Andover, another New England prep school that has investigated five teachers in the 1970s and 1980s accused of raping students, wrote this to its community: “We extend our deepest apologies to the individuals who suffered mistreatment in these cases, and to all others who have been affected by any form of sexual misconduct at Andover.”

What’s so hard about that?

For some schools, it’s a perception that the school can’t afford to help survivors (which is probably a cover for the school’s prejudice against rape victims; Saint David’s is a Catholic school; the Catholic Church spent millions of dollars lobbying AGAINST the Child Victims Act in NY – so connect the dots).

But Saint David’s has an endowment of $70 million. Its current parents include football star Tom Brady.

When Penn State paid victims of its ex-coach Jerry Sandusky (45 counts of child molestation, serving 30 to 60 years in jail in Pennsylvania), it spent 3% of its endowment to compensate them, amounting to about $2.8 million each, which included unspecified processing costs. So each victim received over $2 million.

No amount of money can compensate anyone for losing a childhood.

But it can help someone who was silenced to finally feel heard.

Ludlow took [4thgrade boy’s] hand and placed it down his (Ludlow’s) pants. He then had [boy] stroke (or masturbate) his penis. After Ludlow was sexually satisfied, he forcefully unzipped [boy’s] pants and proceeded to engage in sexual contact with [boy’s] penis. Once finished, Ludlow told [boy] that if he ever told anyone about what had happened, he would kill [boy’s]parents and his brother (who also attended Saint David’s at the time).

(from civil complaint filed against Saint David’s May, 2020)

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