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By David Bizup
Two years ago, circumstances obligated me to report decades-old sexual abuse to the archdiocese of Washington, D.C., so I did. Thus began a journey through the swampy world of ecclesiastical hierarchs and professional Catholics.
This story does not end with lost faith. I am still a practicing Catholic who works several local ministries. The credit goes to the Holy Spirit and a couple of parish priests, my canonist and a layman. The priests are older, practical men who spend their days dealing with real consequences of sin and grace in people's lives. My canonist helped me understand the law and why the institutional response was so ludicrous. The layman heard my plight and said without hesitation, "We're Catholic, so of course we're going to do the right thing," and then he set about doing it.
In 2016, I entered formation for the permanent diaconate for the archdiocese. The program requires men submit to an evaluation by a diocesan psychologist. When he asked whether I had ever been sexually abused, I told him a teacher at St. Mary's Ryken (SMR) High School in Leonardtown, Maryland made some of us boys strip nude to take our exact weights before letting us participate in sports — a lot of boys, dozens; not once, but over and over again. It was creepy and discomforting.
We dealt with it the way teen boys do: giggling and telling dirty jokes about man-on-boy sexual attraction. We were ogled but not molested, and I honestly did not know that it qualified as abuse. The psychologist did: a gross violation, he called it, and definitely sexual abuse. The archdiocese of Washington's youth protection guidelines seemed to say I was obligated to report it, and I did.
That was February 2017. I reported the abuse to the archdiocese's youth protection director, Courtney Chase, that April. She called to say simply that the archdiocese had no responsibility because the Xaverian Brothers own the school — and that was that. The deacon formation director, Desider Vikor, questioned me at length about the abuse in May, and then in June, he emailed me to say I was out of the program.
Case closed, or so I thought. Then on June 21, 2018, in the wake of McCarrick's sinking ship, Cdl. Wuerl released a statement reading, "We encourage survivors of abuse to come forward. The Archdiocese of Washington and its Office of Child and Youth Protection offer resources and confidential support to any who have suffered from abuse and who seek our help." I took him at his word and tried to report it again.
I wrote Courtney Chase again, as well as an auxiliary bishop. I wrote the Xaverians twice. I hired a canon lawyer to write letters on my behalf to Cdl. Wuerl, Xaverian Superior General Br. Ed Driscoll and SMR's chairman of the board of directors.
Making teen boys strip nude and step on a scale might not seem like a big deal to you, but read Pittsburgh priest Thomas O'Donnell's case in the grand jury report before you decide. In November 1988, a parent:
complained about the showering and nude weigh-in requirements. … From late December, 1988 through mid-March, 2002, parents continued to provide reports to the Diocese that O'Donnell had engaged in inappropriate behavior with children. … In early June, 2000, Bishop Wuerl notified O'Donnell that he was being appointed full time judge to the Diocesan Marriage Tribunal.
The Xaverians never even acknowledged hearing from me. A local man called Br. Driscoll, then told me Br. Driscoll knew who I was and got my reports but did not intend to respond. Cardinal Wuerl never acknowledged my canonist's letter. The auxiliary never wrote back.
Courtney Chase offered none of that refreshing "confidential support" the cardinal promised. Instead, she called Mary Joy Hurlburt, SMR's president, and suggested I do likewise. I met with SMR Principal Rick Wood in June. He said he knew nothing about my reports but would find out what the school knew, search the files for other complaints and get back to me. Two weeks passed with no word, so I emailed. Wood never replied; Hurlburt did.
"I am responding to your questions to Mr. Wood. There are no previous reports. I was contacted by the Archdiocese last year," Hurlburt wrote — three sentences. She had known for a year about my allegations against the SMR teacher, since Chase apparently told her about them back when I had originally made them — no action; no intent to act.
At this point, it is important to note that I knew for a fact that there were indeed previous reports. While a student, I complained to teachers and nothing happened. My parents met with the principal who told them I should just quit the wrestling team if stripping naked bothered me. They told a physics teacher who told them the school knew the teacher was up to no good but would not stop him. They should make sure their boys were never alone with him, the physics teacher said.
And then there was this 2007 Washington Post article in which another student's previous reports of sexual abuse met the same institutional response: "He had been molested [in 1978] … by his biology teacher at a Catholic high school in Leonardtown. When his father told the principal, nothing happened. He told two guidance counselors. Nothing. He tried a physics teacher. The physics teacher described the biology teacher as 'a very weak man!'"
That article quotes Hurlburt and identifies her as SMR's president at the time the student came forward.
It also turned out that Hurlburt's tenure at SMR overlapped the abuser's by several years. They were colleagues. A friend privately approached Hurlburt on my behalf then reported back to me that the school was lawyering up.
Hurlburt intercepted the letter my canonist addressed to SMR's chairman, a letter alleging Hurlburt's inaction and asking for a written apology for it. She wrote my canonist the most bizarre un-apology I ever read: So sorry about my hurt feelings, don't-cha-know, and the school is really safe now, and oh how proud she is that I entered formation!
That would be the deacon formation program I was kicked out of after reporting what happened at her school. In the meantime, the chairman, to whom the letter was addressed, never answered either the letter or my canonist's emails asking whether he received it.
In September, I called other members of the board of directors. They knew nothing of the sexual abuse reports, nor that Hurlburt knew got them a year earlier but kept quiet, nor that lawyers were already involved. Finally, one board member said those magical words, "We're Catholic, so of course we're going to do the right thing."
In September, Hurlburt announced her retirement. In October, the board of directors hired an investigator.
It has been two years. No written apology, no word from the archbishop or the Xaverians. The investigation is ongoing; so is the search for SMR's next president.