The Chapel

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Our Sunday morning drives to church took less than ten minutes, past the daily structures of our lives on the Key West naval station—the Marine Corps barracks that Dad commanded, the Officers Pool, the baseball field, the houses and apartments standing in front of the harbor and submarine basin, the fire station, the PX, the movie theatre—down a long one-way between the Gulf of Mexico and two hills covered in thick vegetation that were really berms surrounding ammunition storage sites. When we got to the Fleet Sonar School we turned left and the chapel, a small, generic structure that would’ve been at home in New England with its white clapboard sides and tall steeple over the front doors, was on our immediate left, surrounded by lawn and palm trees, backed by the green man-made hills.

We knew the Mass by heart—we’d switched to English by then—and seldom deviated. A processional hymn, the liturgy of the word, a sermon, the offertory, the consecration, communion, the dismissal, a recessional hymn. Someone must have played the organ, but there was no choir.

Father Condit, the chaplain during our first years in Key West, actually has a glacier in Antarctica named after him. He’d been the first chaplain at McMurdo Station and had scrounged up materials and volunteer Seabees to build a chapel there. I wish I’d known that then, instead of learning it from Google forty years later. I’d read biographies of the polar explorers. I’d have quizzed him about “wintering over,” about the aurora australis, about penguins. But he wasn’t interested in talking to kids. He was a career chaplain, dedicated to serving sailors and Marines, singing “The Navy Hymn” briskly at the end of Mass every Sunday, even on Easter. He also loved to party. I heard his cackling laugh at the Naval Station CO’s patio gatherings across the street from our house.

His replacement, Father Ray, crackled with energy. Young—probably in his early 30s—and outgoing, he made the chapel feel like a parish church. His accessibility was such a refreshing change from the priests I was used to. The chaplain’s quarters, a little bungalow, crouched next to a big apartment building filled with young families. I babysat in the apartments at least once a week. I’d be down in the playground with my charges and Father Ray would be too, pushing kids on the swings, spinning the merry-go-round, talking with the moms and babysitters. At the Officers Pool, after he swam laps, he sat like a giant in the middle of the shallow baby pool. The toddlers loved dumping buckets of water on him. The men I knew didn’t play with kids like that, with such joy.

Father Ray’s enthusiasm for everything was contagious and so, when he asked if I’d help him with a Christmas show for kids, I agreed. And that was probably why I got to go back through the sacristy (in those days, forbidden territory for girls) to an even smaller chapel behind the main one, and discovered that the altar revolved, like something out of the “Batman” or “Wild, Wild West” TV shows, a secret lazy Susan that turned the altar from Catholic to Protestant—crucifix to plain cross—0with the release of some locks and a firm push. That image, of the revolving altar, is what had nagged at me for years and finally compelled me to start writing. I’m never sure of the direction a poem will take, but I thought a poem about the chapel would connect to images of duality I’d been exploring in a sequence set in Key West.

*

I wanted to get everyone’s name right. When Mom was only sure of Condit, I went online, where I learned about his glacier, and where I learned that Father Ray is a pedophile predator with dozens of victims, now serving a life sentence for repeatedly raping a boy over several years.

*

When the Catholic clergy abuse scandal started making the news in the early 2000s, I gave it only cursory attention. I’d become an Episcopalian in 1987; it didn’t seem to be about me. I never read too far beyond headlines and never scoured lists of offenders for priests from my childhood.

When I Googled Father Ray and kept clicking on links, I saw a photo on the New York Clergy Abuse website. I recognized him instantly. His hair had gone gray and he wasn’t smiling widely, as he did in my memories, but his blue eyes were the same, his oversized glasses the same, his forceful jaw the same. I was surprised that my first reaction wasn’t anger or outrage, but disappointment. Once again the world as I knew it was being restructured, revealing a reality that had been hidden from me. Now every memory of my last year in Key West, the year I knew Father Ray, would forever be viewed through this new lens, tainted. And suspect, because if I had been oblivious to something this big, what else had I missed? I read the linked articles—about his criminal trial in 2004, about a 2006 lawsuit filed by someone who’d been abused by him in Key West. My guts twisted with disgust. And fear.

I called my younger brother, who’d served as an altar boy at the chapel. “I’m writing a poem about the base chapel,” I said. “Do you remember the chaplains’ names?”

I was both reassured and disheartened when he asked, “What was the name of that priest who took us to all those fun places?”

He’s safe, I thought, since he’d probably remember the name of any priest who abused him, but I was heartsick again at the corroboration of predator behavior. I asked outright if Father Ray had abused him.

No, but he had tried something with a neighbor boy who was my friend as well as my brother’s, who’d avoided anything further (how? by turning him down? by running away?) but had told my brother about it. They’d both concluded that Father Ray was “weird.”  Neither boy told any parent. We didn’t have the vocabulary back then for those kinds of conversations.  We didn’t live in a culture where adults hurt children. At least, we didn’t know we did.

Did my youngest brother have any contact with Father Ray? I’ll never know, because he died of a heart attack in 2005. He’d been the right age in Key West, 8 to 10. He was a quiet kid, the kind predators like to target. My oldest sister wondered about this too, in her email response to my sharing this information with my family. Bipolar herself, she has diagnosed our brother as “suffering from severe depression during the last years of his life,” listing situational issues remarkably similar to her own, and seems comfortable adding this possibility that can never be verified. But I don’t think so. I don’t remember him spending at lot of time with Father Ray—certainly not attending the pizza parties and movie nights at his quarters mentioned in an article about the 2006 lawsuit. He never seemed troubled or scarred by any childhood trauma.

I think Dad’s reputation as a hard ass protected my brothers. Even though Father Ray had just recently joined the Navy as a chaplain, he’d have known that the Marines—Dad—were in charge of the brig. If Father Ray had been accused of anything involving my brothers, it’s unlikely he’d have survived his first night in custody. He wouldn’t have been murdered. Perhaps a belt would have accidentally been left in the cell and a strong, weight-bearing pipe overhead pointed out.

*

That my father was capable of violence, that it was part of his training and went along with his uniform, was a given. But when Dad was home it felt latent, waiting under his veneer of father. The number of times he struck us can fit on one hand: he spanked me once when I was four and he slapped my oldest sister once in the heat of an argument. At dinner he’d reach down the table and flick our temples with his index finger if we said something really egregious or kept doing something we’d been told to stop. But sometimes we saw his hand start to rise and saw him check it, saw his impulse and his control exist side by side, and knew he was capable of more. When I was an adult Dad told me the story of how my sisters had been playing with some neighbor girls during a weekend visit at our grandmother’s and were discovered by Mom with their panties down in a bachelor neighbor’s garage. She hadn’t told Dad about it until they were back in 29 Palms, 180 miles away, because, she told him, “she knew he’d kill the guy.” That confidence of Dad’s potential reaction was assumed in our house, like dinner at 6 p.m.

Of course, this raises the question: Why didn’t Mom want Dad to kill the guy? I would’ve ripped his throat out with my bare hands if I’d found my kids in his garage with their pants down. I guess I take after Dad.

*

It’s almost impossible to call up the innocence—if that’s the exact word—of our years in Key West. The freewheeling part of the 1960s had just begun, but we still had behavioral holdovers from earlier decades. Adults were not interrupted, seldom questioned openly. In our military family, silent and immediate obedience was the model, and the chain of command reinforced a respect for elders. At Catholic school, we automatically stood when a priest entered the classroom. We were used to trusting priests with our souls, with our sins, with our families in moments of joy, crisis, and loss. We trusted the Church, the umbrella organization that supplied the priests. Sometimes it sent us grumps, or jerks, or incompetents. But we usually suffered in silence until they or we moved on.  In our family, we didn’t use baby talk or euphemisms for our genitalia, but we didn’t talk about them much. We just didn’t talk about our bodies, unless there was something wrong, as in illness. We certainly didn’t talk about “wrong touch” and “right touch,” although years later, before I went to college, Dad spent all of five minutes describing how I could defend myself against a rapist. “Just poke your index finger in the outer corner of his eye and scoop out his eyeball. Or grab the top of his ear and pull down really hard. It’ll tear right off.”

*

I’m still trying to sort out my feelings about Father Ray. After talking with my brother, I emailed the rest of the family, stating what I learned and giving them the link to the Bishop Accountability website in case they wanted more details. I thought they should know, and I wanted them to all get the same information at the same time, not through the often-garbled phone tree we usually use. Their responses didn’t surprise me. Mom, who prefers to be distracted from negative news, forwarded one of the silly jokes she gets by the hundreds from her listserv-addicted friends, commenting, “After your bombshell email, we could use cheering up.” The next day, after she’d lived with the news a bit, she emailed that justice was thirty years late. I agree and I, too, hope Father Ray is never released from prison. My other older sister responded with some false logic, even though she barely remembered Father Ray: “No wonder I stopped taking Communion and going to Confession in Key West. The Church is so hypocritical.” She’s right about the Church. It seems more interested in protecting its precious, dwindling supply of priests than in protecting children and families. Father Ray’s assignment record shows that he had been moved from parish to parish in the Brooklyn Diocese whenever allegations arose instead of being handed over to authorities, or ordered into treatment, or—at the very least-kept away from children. He was dishonorably discharged from the Navy after his only assignment, Key West, and returned to parish duties—in the Rockville Centre, St. Louis, Metuchen, and Brooklyn dioceses-with the same results. The Church’s turning a blind eye to even one offense, much less habitual offenses, is unconscionable. The Church enabled Father Ray by placing him again and again where he could come into contact with children. The Church is responsible. And liable.

At his trial, Father Ray said he knew he was a pedophile five years before he was ordained. And while I wonder why he stayed in the seminary or why the Church wasn’t on the lookout for men like him (because pedophile priests are not only a recent phenomena), I also understand the power of denial, and the magical thinking of let’s-make-a-deal prayer. It’s easy to imagine a young Father Ray offering his life’s service to God in exchange for help in controlling what he considered “an illness.” A psycho-sexual disorder is not a choice, but it’s also not an excuse to commit immoral, criminal acts. Even though Father Ray began a treatment program in 1989 and claimed to have stopped abusing boys, he is still responsible, and should be punished for the irreparable damage he has done.

My brother and I agree: Father Ray is sick. But I don’t feel sorry for him. Nor do I think he’s evil with a capital E. And I’m not incandescently furious, even when I recognize him as a calculating predator. When I read the self-serving, psycho-babble rationalizations he offered at his trial, that “molesting young boys was a way to ‘reattract’ his physically abusive, alcoholic father to him,” I get angry, but it doesn’t burn for long. I’m insulated, in a way, because he didn’t hurt my family, even though it’s likely I knew, if only by sight, one of his Key West victims.

*

Was the boy who grew up to file the 2006 lawsuit in the base theatre the afternoon of the Christmas show? The house lights were up and I could see kids of all ages bouncing in their seats all the way back to the banked rows of the officers section. Father Ray got them even more excited, asking questions and encouraging their shouted answers.  What are the names of Santa’s reindeer? Where does Santa live?  Have you been good? Then he thrust the microphone in my hand, telling me to lead them in a few songs, and walked out. That had never been part of the plan. But I quashed my fear and, as Father Ray must have known I would, began singing, a capella, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” then “Frosty the Snowman.” In the middle of “Deck the Halls,” just when I was starting to panic about what to sing next, Santa ran down the aisle and took the mic back.

*

I’m not angry. I’m not shocked.  I’m not sympathetic. I’m not afraid. I’m sad. That Father Ray became a priest, that he hurt so many people, that he wasn’t stopped, that he didn’t stop himself. Because his crimes coexist with my positive memories of him, like the two sides of that revolving altar in the chapel, I’m trying to adopt this Quaker rule for dealing with conflict:  Muster within thee all love, tenderness, and concern for the other. It’s not easy, loving the other. Hating the sin but not the sinner. But that’s what I’m trying to do.  I’m trying to recognize the flawed human being behind the monster of the headlines. Because I’m an “other” too, a sinner, more times than I care to admit.

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