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Overturning the Tables as the Society of Jesus Offers Public Prayers for Child Abusers

Overturning the Tables as the Society of Jesus Offers Public Prayers for Child Abusers

As the author of a recently published memoir that explores how to remain Catholic after the Church’s clergy abuse scandal hit way to close home, I had a choice to make in The Book of Timothy: The Devil, My Brother, and Me. I could have painted the Catholic Church as a monolith and as an archaic institution that cared more for power than it ever did for children. That was a story I could tell easily, because I witnessed at a micro level the destruction one evil man and his protectors brought to my brother, my entire family, and my childhood home parish on Chicago’s Northwest Side. There was a reason I did not so, however, and his name was Father Vincent Beuzer, S.J.

My faith in Jesus’s remaining presence in the Catholic Church survived in great part because of this Jesuit priest. At the highlight of his career, Father Beuzer was Chair of Gonzaga University’s Religious Studies Department during the 1970s. After many years of academic life both there and in Rome, he moved to Anchorage, Alaska (my now hometown) to provide spiritual direction to the laity. He did so for nearly twenty-five years. I was blessed to have his guidance for nearly a decade. Father Beuzer, Father B. to his friends and parishioners, was a biblical scholar. Most importantly, his scholarship was tempered with humility, empathy, and the true ability to see God in every person he met. He saw God in me and reminded me of that presence every time we spoke, even when our meetings were tinged with my grief and anger once my brother was able to admit – many years after the priest’s crimes against him – what happened to him as a child.

Father B. retired from active ministry and moved back to Jesuit Retreat House on the Gonzaga University campus in the Spring of 2010. He died just one year later, watching, I was told, his favorite sport of football. His death came just six months before my own travels to Rome to confront my brother’s abuser. That man had been unceremoniously exiled to his religious order’s General Curia headquarters, which offered a breathtaking view of the Colosseum. Not exactly the prison he deserved.

I met the Devil in Rome when I met my brother’s abuser. Of that, I am certain. But, to have the strength to do so, I relied on Father B.’s constant presence, even after his death. Every doubt that filled my brain was met with his recalled response. “If not, you, Joan, than who?” And I wouldn’t be lying were I to testify that while walking up Via Claudia to meet with the child predator, a force hit me in the middle of my back, right where Father B. had constantly told me God resided. They -- both God, that is, and Father B. -- were with me on my most important act to date, which was defending my brother, many years too late, by seeking the truth from a man ultimately incapable of giving it.

The Book of Timothy: The Devil, My Brother, and Me was released this past November. When my book tour took me to Spokane, Washington, I knew that Gonzaga University, in the middle of this town, was a place I had to visit. I did so to walk where Father B. once walked. I hoped to see what might have been his favorite trees or perhaps the actual bench he sat at to watch the birds. Yet, I also went on campus to invite priests to my presentation; an invitation I had extended in every venue on the off chance we could come together and finally heal as a full Catholic community (Is it worth adding? No priest has accepted my invitation).

And so, on the afternoon of Spokane’s first snow, I visited Gonzaga University’s Religious Studies Department, where Father B. was once Chair. After hearing my invitation to that evening’s event, a kind faculty member let me know the building I was in once was the Jesuit Retreat House. I realized at that moment I was standing in the building, and even possibly the corridor outside the room, where Father B. had died. And just like that, the force that was on my back on Via Claudia was there again; pushing, reminding me -- he, both God and Father B. -- were still there. I had not been forgotten. I was never alone.

That force did not diminish after leaving the Religious Studies Department, Instead, it pushed and prodded me to the nearby heavy, but unlocked doors of St. Aloysius Gonzaga Catholic Church on the university campus. Aware of my brother’s story and of my often threatened imminent defection, Father B. used to tell me that I could leave the Catholic Church when Jesus left it. And on that day, in that church, those words “you can leave, when Jesus leaves,” echoed throughout the expansive, but empty nave. Had he left? I hadn’t thought so. Not yet.

Holding on to my Catholicism the way a person might cling to a window’s ledge before falling, I knew that the only way I could find solace in this church was if it were devoid of people. Those directly impacted by clergy abuse often feel unwelcome among the remaining Catholic laity; we felt like the stain they tried to cover over with a nice carpet. Thankfully, the church was empty. I walked to an oaken pew, half way up the nave, and sat down, taking in the glory of the alabaster ivory altar, the rotunda that reached high into the sky, and the caressing walls garnered with the Stations of the Cross. Although physically alone, I did not feel alone spiritually. He was there. Of that I was again certain, but it was not Father Beuzer or the Father; it was the Son.

My favorite Jesus as of late has been the angry Jesus; that is, the Jesus who drove the merchants out of the temple by overthrowing their tables and yelling at them for making a mockery of his Father’s home. He was the Jesus that kept me going, most days, when my efforts to bring attention to the Church’s wrongdoings exhausted me and left me bare. Knowing this is perhaps why He gave me this pew that became my rest. He was also there in the echo of my foot fall as I walked to the altar and bowed. He told me, his angry sister, that He knew I had traveled far, and that I was welcome. Welcome in front of His crucifix; welcome before the statue of Saint Joseph, foster father to us all; and welcome in this castle of the Holy Spirit. “You can leave when Jesus leaves,” the echo continued. For a moment there was a continued hope I could indeed stay. Yet, as a person of faith, I must believe that what happened next happened for a reason, and that the only reason I rested beforehand was because Jesus knew I needed the fleeting moment of peace before I overturned the tables.

There was a sculpture just to the left of the altar. The sign next to it read, “[t]his bronze bust of the Virgin Mary was created from a master mold of Michelangelo’s original ‘Pieta’ under the supervision of the Vatican Treasury Collection.” Mary’s face was sorrowful, perhaps purposefully, for next to the bust was an open book placed on a waist-high pedestal. Its opened pages faced me. In gilded font, a script read, “Shelter them under the shadow of your wings forever and let their souls be bound in the bond of Eternal life.” After quick research, even then, it was easy to determine this was book of remembrance for the dead. This excerpted quote came from an ancient Hebrew prayer for the sick and dying. In full, the prayer read:

I acknowledge to you, Adonai my God and God of my ancestors, that my life and recovery depend on you. May it be your will to heal me. Yet, if you have decreed that I shall die of this affliction, may my death atone for all my sins and transgressions which I have committed before you! Shelter me under the shadow of Your wings! Grant me a share in the world to come…Into your hands I commit my soul into the bond of Eternal life!

Next to those excerpted words, on the open page just opposite to it, were two long columns of handwritten names. Noting the S.J. abbreviation, short for the Society of Jesus, repeated many times, most of the names were those of Jesuit priests. Excitedly and expecting Father B.’s name among them, I read the list of over and over to ensure I hadn’t missed it. His name was not there. I take that as a blessing.

By its own report, the Jesuits unleashed 31 sexual predators onto the shores of my home state’s Bering and Beaufort Seas and into villages and homes of the First Nation Inupiaq and Yupik people. Their missions were not to spread the word of God, but to find their next victims. It took my sighting of just one odious name in this book of prayers to know the Jesuits and the laity of Saint Aloysius Catholic Church on Gonzaga’s campus were praying for the souls of child predators. Let their deaths atone for all their sins and transgressions?

James Poole, S.J. was assigned to the Alaska communities of Nome, Barrow, Holy Cross, Pilot Station, Marshall, Stebbins, St. Mary’s, and Mountain Village over his forty-year reign of terror. According to the Jesuits own report of credibly accused clerics, Poole sexually assaulted at least seven children from 1948 to 1953, 1956 to 1957, 1959 to 1963, 1967 to 1968, 1970, 1975 to 1977, and from 1979 to 1980. He picked his favorites out of the girls’ dormitory at St. Mary’s Mission Boarding School and brought them to his bedroom. In other venues, he used the confessional to commit his crimes. His youngest victim was six when he raped her. In yet another case, after raping and impregnating a fourteen year old girl, he told her to blame her father for the pregnancy and abort the child. Her father died in prison before she could clear his name. In deposition testimony in one of the many civil cases against him, Poole called himself “the greatest lover in the world.” Even his own attorneys needed martinis after his testimony concluded. May it be His will to heal him?

There were lesser known names of sexual deviants in this book of remembrance. A review of Bishop Accountability’s website, which tracks all child abusers within the Catholic Church, still enabled me to link them to their hideous crimes.

Harry Hergreaves, S.J. was assigned to Hooper Bay, Keyaluvik, Kashunuk, Chevak, Fairbanks, Scammon Bay, Stebbins, Unalakleet, Hamilton, Chaneliak, Nulato, Kotlik, Emmanok, Marshall, Russian Mission and Bethel over his fifty-plus years in Alaska. Again by the Jesuit’s own report, he was credibly accused of sexually assaulting Alaska Native boys from 1958 to 1964, 1965 to 1966, 1967 to 1969, 1974, 1985, and 1990 to 1992. He raped a five-year-old child. Hergreaves also “supervised” many of the child predators stationed across Western and Northern Alaska. When asked what he knew of charges parishioners brought against Poole, Hergreaves remarked that if none of them saw it directly, it was nothing but gossip. As for him, the Jesuits maintained their own personnel records against Hergreaves that even they called the “hell file.” Grant him a share of Adonai’s world to come?

James Jacobson, S.J. was ordained in 1959. He lived, worked, and molested children in the remote Alaska villages of Chefornak, Nightmute, Tununak, Toksook Bay, St. Michaels, Stebbins, Unalakleet, Hooper Bay, Scammon Bay, and Chevak. The Jesuits found him credibly accused of sexual assault of a minor from 1968 to 1970 and from 1969 to 1971, including the rape of a sixteen-year-old girl. In addition, Jacobsen impregnated two married women living in his parishes and refused support for their children once they were born. Jacobsen later admitted to fathering four children in Alaska and to regularly visiting prostitutes when he was in Anchorage or Fairbanks. Into His hands they commend his spirit?

More names of Jesuits who decimated the people of Alaska are on this pray list. I counted at least two:

Segundo Llorente, S.J.

Rene Astruc, S.J.

So too were the monsters unleashed against children at the Colville Indian Reservation in central Washington and the Saint Ignatius Mission School in central Montana:

Joseph Obersinner, S.J.

Joseph Balfe, S.J.

Gordon Keys, S.J.

John Coughlin, S.J.

So too were church leaders that transferred and protected them:

Archbishop Raymond G. Hunthausen, S.J.

Shelter them under the shadow of your wings forever

On its Gonzaga University affiliated webpage, accessible even today, the Jesuits describe their newfound respect for survivors of clergy sexual assault. They use the magic, but meaningless words. Magic and meaningless words like:

reconciliation is only made possible with the establishment of justice, which requires actively seeking to dismantle systems of domination, abuse, and harm and building up new systems in their place.

Magic and meaningless words like:

Those who have been sexually abused and the broader communities harmed by such abuse are among those whose dignity has been violated. And walking with those whose dignity has been violated requires action

Magical and meaningless words, advertised in italics, even while these magical and meaningless Jesuits pray that the deaths of all these criminals – I am certain there were more -- were sufficient punishment for their crimes so they could enjoy God’s glory forever.

And let their souls be bound in the bond of eternal life

I am grateful for one thing, which is that it was me -- not the hundreds of survivors of Poole, Hergreaves, Jacobsen, Llorente, Astruc, Obersinner, Balfe, Keys, Coughlin, or Hunthausen -- that discovered these written remembrances for child and sexual predators. I am also grateful that it is me that has been called to testify to it. You see, I’ve already met with the Devil himself. I’m rested and ready to give voice again.

You can leave the Catholic Church, when Jesus leaves it.

Only after adding the words “child predator” following Poole’s name, did I leave Saint Aloysius. This time, Jesus left with me.

As stated, I had a choice to make in The Book of Timothy: The Devil, My Brother, and Me, but it is a choice I make no more. I’m done clinging to the ledge. If something so simple as not praying for the souls of sexual predators cannot be achieved on a universal level, well then, the Catholic Church indeed is a monolith and archaic institution due no nuanced support.

Last, as for the names of those criminals on this church’s remembrance list? I’ll take guidance directly from angry Jesus himself, when he said of those who would harm children:

it would be better for him to have a great millstone hung around his neck and to drowned in the depths of the sea.

As such, I am certain he will answer my prayer:

Shelter them, Lord, under the shadow of Satan’s wings and let their decrepit souls be bound in Eternal life to him Forever.

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