Personally, I never thought I would be able to write this story down, and you might want to skip it if it is abuse flashback triggery. I've also kind of cut the full story in half, so you can just read the least personal parts about my tale and stop midway. Feel free to share with others if you think it would help.
I received a letter this evening, with a link to the above website, and realized that the real horrorshow that is the "Christian Brothers" is on the brink of imminent collapse. Praise, and AMEN. I am one of the lucky ones: instead of one of my classmates, it could have been me. I am seeing the many stories of my fellow classmates at Bergen Catholic and feel that I too must stand up and tell my story. I am a witness to many abuses, though, and feel ashamed that I, for how much social work I have tried to do, have not stood up and done something about this before now.
http://www.bergencatholicabuse.com/ (warning, much disturbing content in this link)
$74m in assets. $7m in secured debt. Liability claims: unknown. The lawyers are circling to take down an institution that was started by a deeply religious man, Edmund Ignatius Rice, whose life was struck by tragedy when his wife died in a carriage accident. He devoted his life to the education and the service to the poor. He understood that the boundary between success and tragedy in this world is a fine line we all walk.
My story is unlike, and yet like, many of the abused victims: for me, ironic as it may seem, Bergen Catholic was the better of two evils, even though better for me doesn't make something less evil. I was a very skinny kid, too smart for my own good, effeminate and with few social skills. I say skinny, but think about this- other parents used to bully my parents for raising an "ethiopian kid" (the butt of a common, cruel joke at the time due to the famine), I was that skinny. Little kids half my age used to come up unprompted to me at the Jersey shore and call me "Ichabod Crane", due to my resemblance to the nerdy victim of Sleepy Hollow in a popular cartoon of the era. To this day, to hear those words makes my stomach turn no matter how good looking Johnny Depp was playing him, but that was my nickname- "Icky", in school. I've never repeated that name before to another soul beside my wife, and it's kind of scary to out this, so please respect that I don't talk about Ichabod, ever, with anyone.
Public schools in my neighborhood were run by bullies, both teachers and students. My sixth grade english teacher physically and mentally abused me to the point where I would come home in tears every day, often with a beating from the local bullies to boot. If I struck back or sounded off in any way, I would be punished mercilessly. I remember being singled out to sit separate from the rest of the class along with the dumbest kid in the class, and was often mocked and told to keep my mouth shut. They knew what they did was wrong: on parents day, suddenly I'm seated among the other kids in class.
In order to give me enough respite to survive my childhood, my parents pulled their meager finances together and sent me to catholic school for 7th grade. Small classes, no bullies; that single event the summer of '85 (and the fact that my parents did not keep guns) is probably the only thing that kept me from having my name mentioned in the same breath as places like Columbine. To this day, I still struggle with the anger, the depression, and the legacy of bullying. Don't pity me, though- I'm doing really well. I'm a white man, after all, and ashamed that that's the truth- that I could endure what I endured, and it's still better than what happens to many poor people, female people, and people of color every day in this world.
One day, at the town pool, one of the smaller-sized bullies was giving me the ususal attitude and I took a long pole and struck him on the side of the leg. He wound up with a nice welt, ran off and told on me to his parents. My family was told that unless I apologized, they would all be thrown out of the pool "for life". I refused. The pool superintendant knew I was going to catholic school and church and tried to manipulate me, say I should "turn the other cheek"- but when you turn your cheek every day to the taunts, eventually you get tired. At the behest of my mother, I finally relented and apologized. I told my mother, "I'm doing it for you, and so that you don't get punished for what I did, not because it was wrong".
The older me? Realizes hitting people is always wrong. Realizes war and violence are never, never, never the answer. Violence and abuse, though, take many forms.
I'm lucky. My parents love me more than their own comfort. After a few years in a nurturing catholic grammar school got me emotionally on my feet (despite its own occasional lapse into fucked up), I applied to a couple of the local catholic high schools, and was proud that I not only won admission, but a $500 (extremely partial) scholarship to the "best of the best", Bergen Catholic.
I was used to the abuse of my peers, and thought nothing of the conditions that awaited me as I walked through those doors. Kids continued to pick on me, but it didn't kill me, and the environment, so i'm told, saved me from adding the confusion of "girls" into that mix, if that means anything in retrospect.
In those days, parents used corporal punishment to keep their kids in line. I am not going to sugar coat it: raising children is a tough job, and children will bring you closer to the brink of your patience than mere mortals ever will. I wasn't a bad kid: but I was incessantly curious about the world and occasionally would roam into situations that would be potentially hazardous to me. Given the choice of remembering a slap on the wrist versus being struck by a car (having experience both as a kid, very minorly, in my time) I'll take the former.
Bergen Catholic teachers were proud of corporal punishment. I remember it being a selling point to parents: public schools can't do this to your kids, we do. Many of the brothers wielded rulers. (rereading this, I'm struck by the (coincidence?) that none of the lay teachers, only the brothers, wielded rulers) One, Br Staniecki, had a piece of plexiglass he called "Susie". To me, this didn't seem strange. Really, I didn't reach full sexual maturity until age 20 and was completely unaware of "sadomasochism" or any sex. I had "funny urges" but they were completely unconnected to either gender- but seeing nothing but straight role models, I did what every boy did- went to dances and stood on the sidelines most nights, completely mystified on how to approach, talk to, the "other sex".
If I were (still) christian, I might be thankful that Jesus watched over me and protected me from the worst of these creeps. As it is, I can only feel shame that Jesus may have wached over me, but did not watch over my classmate my junior year when Brother Ferro abused the sophomore class president and was "sent to florida to reconsider his vocation". One day he's my english teacher, next day he's not. I remember the boy as a friend who rode my bus with me in the morning, and we traded geek boy programs for our Commodore 64s. We weren't close, but he didn't deserve what happened during and after that. Everybody labeled him as a "fag" for having attracted the attentions of a brother. I really didn't even know what that meant, really, I was just kind of glad they didn't call me that.
Brother Ferro was a serial abuser. Note well: he wasn't sent to "florida", he was (as best I can discover) sent to Paramus (the next town over!) and then to Boston, where he did it again according to the affidavit above. He was "sent" many places between 1970 and 2002 but always put back in charge of kids. I'm sure at the time, the officials in the Order never thought there would be an Internet, a database or discussion area where the collective experiences of up to 500 kids a year per school could reconstruct all of the millions of lies they were told. I don't know what was shared with the parents, if they knew what went on. Sometimes I hope that if they actually knew, they'd have burned it to the ground with the brothers still inside, honestly.
I'm sure if you've read this until now, you are feeling quite squeamish. I can only apologize if the material I've linked and written about upsets you, but really, this is the place where I write what happens down, and where I can write what happened down in my own name. If you've read this far and want to stop, now's a good time, we're at the halfway point. Thank you for listening. And, if you are a member of any organization that you know that tolerates any amount of bullying or sexual abuse, voice your objection. Don't be a bully, and don't let others be a bully. If you were abused, I encourage you to stand up and tell your story.
I had a protector. His name was Mr Irwin, and he "protected" the kids who weren't star athletes on the football team. He protected kids like me, and being on the bowling team was a nice, "nerdy" way to gain the protection of a PE teacher. (What kind of fucked up world do we live in that "protection"- like the Mafia gives, or like strong armed peers, is a good thing?) If other students harassed you, they might find themselves hurled up against a locker in the strong, six foot six, 200 pound grasp of Mr Irwin.
What I never realized until a year or two ago was that Mr Irwin was the somewhat grumpy but affable "good twin" of his "evil twin" (biological, not "really" twin, fyi) brother, Br. Irwin, who served at Bergen Catholic in the sixties. The websites I have linked to above document his "exploits" with kids. I don't know what Mr. Irwin thinks about those events, how well he sleeps at night, but he protected me, never laid a hand on me, and for that I am grateful. (Was he a former brother?) I guess becase I pursued a sport, any sport, no matter how "nerdy", you got protected, cause it made you "a man", and while that may seem absurd if you've never peeked beyond the curtain of white male privilege in this society, I think it's a reasonbable observation.
I had few friends at Bergen. I think, because most kids were much richer than my family. I remember one kid (bragging?)/complaining that he took a ride in his brand new Porsche with four linebacker friends and blew out the tires from the weight. Wealth brought drugs, lots of hard drugs, and girls. I rolled my eyes, and hung out with the "poor kids", the geeks, the stoners, the rebels, and the "artsy fairies", while the jocks "roided" and tore the house up with impunity. I was fairly religious because to be religious was just another outlet to study, debate, think, rather than pursue violence. It was with a little schadenfreude, though, when one of my bully classmates, Justin Latona, drove off the road (drunk?) and died shortly after graduation. They memorialized him with a big pot of money- what about the other victims?
This was a bad environment for boys. Another one of my classmates, someone in my "freak" social circle, in fact, was (is?) the son of nototious "Iceman" Mob murderer and serial killer Richard Kuklinski. Violence and abuse permeated that society, the neighborhood, the area. Bergen Catholic was not so exceptional for its abuses, as much as their religious calling never elevated anyone out of it.
I feel bad for the kids discovering they were gay, queer (as I identify), in this environment. Fortunately, when I later came out identifying as bisexual, it had nothing whatsoever to do with what happened in high school, and was in a supportive and respectful environment. I learned that I was turned on by other smart, articulate people, and it didn't matter what their gender was. I learned that love is love, and not to let other people dictate what love is to you. You have to walk your own path. Men? I actually have very little preference for men because I grew up around so many hideous examples of the species outside of my family home. I was rarely bullied by girls. I'm happily married to a woman who respects me and understands my story for what it is.
Many other men are cruel, are bullies, in my experience. I'm thankful that out of that experience of the environment so heavily criticized by feminism, I learned to be a bit more socially ept. I'm still growing and learning at forty something. I have to watch myself every day to treat others with respect. I'm also human, and i have erred on occasion. That's why it's hard for me not to try to forgive the people who I grew up with, those peers and teachers who enforced a male-dominated, strength-is-power attitude, "if I overpower you I can make you do anything" society. Some like Brs. Ferro and Irwin, were probably abused themselves, and if whatever kept them in their lonely cycle of mental illness propelled them to their worst, I cannot but forgive, (even if I do not forget) them for whatever terrible acts they committed.
What I can abhor is the institution that keeps them trapped in this cycle. Brothers take a vow of poverty, which means if they want to eat, they have to do what their told. They have to "serve". And where the brothers serve, is in schools, and in parishes, and in orphanages, where people who are less worldly, maybe a little naive, and not quite under the best situation go into their care.
It's weird to see this list on the bankruptcy site, like a perp walk of many of my former teachers.
It's not easy to live in this world. I've always thought it's kind of a good thing not to worry about the basics and the rat race and marriage and kids, and just go and do the "care for others" thing. In fact, I was "called".
My senior year, I declared my interest in possibly becoming a brother, or to follow my calling into religious life. Br Staniecki drove me up to NY over a weekend, to Iona College to spend time with some other christian brothers, learn about the life and pray and consider next steps for me.
I remember very little about the weekend, because really, there's not much to say. Being poor, posessionless, and servile just isn't that fun, no matter how many guitar kumbayas you spice it up with. But something happened there, which among more "liberal" friends I recount jokingly, but also haunts me a bit in light of the events over the past two years.
I've only ever had one wet dream (nocturnal emission) in my life, and it happened on that retreat. Typically, I recount this very snarkily, saying that God gave me a sign not to be celibate and to enjoy sex as much as I do, and if I stand before the pearly gates one day, that's going to be my defense.
Now, some litigious minded psychologists might try to hypnotize me into revealing some darker truth, that in fact I was abused on that trip and due to the trauma don't remember how I wound up with a load of come in my undies. If I remember that as one of the most erotic dreams I ever had, and I've had plenty, I'm not sorry at all for that fact, as it was a dream with an amazingly beautiful woman. If they did something untoward to me that weekend, I'm not regretting or harmed by it one bit. In fact, I was trying to be "good", and not masturbate like I (and every teenage boy and girl) do on a very regular basis at that time of my life, which explains the unusual occurrence. I've had to learn from others that that instinct for sex, for orgasm, is healthy and natural, and that associating that with unpleasantness is just one of the many ways that individuals in so-called religious institutions maintain their power, their hegemony, over this world.
It is leaders like that that commit the unconscionable acts of testimony such as we heard before congress a week or so ago; and who excoriate people who speak out, as "sluts". It is institutions that hide the truth that cause the greatest harm. It's rewarding the "home team" in high school ball without balance while "freaks" are marginalized, that might well be a "first world problem" compared to the greater institutional harms such as inequality for women in the workplace, to say nothing of poverty and slavery of non-whites or any "outsider" or "foreigner". But, it is a harm I know well.
As a Jew, I know that these problems are not just in the Catholic Church either. But Judaism teaches that those who heal the world (tikkun olam) receive their own reward in this life (not in the hereafter), the satisfaction of the just; and that evil does not last long. Br Irwin is described as a nicotine-stained, grumpy (dirty) old man who was a child predator. Br Ferro was a mirthless grump, as far as I experienced, and nosed around the "fags" in extracurricular Drama Club, something I was never drawn to. Most Jews believe in the resurrection of the dead for all people (all people are sinners, there is no "hell"), and if such a time comes to pass however it may tarry, I hope that whatever happened to make them so sick can be healed.
Most people are good, despite their sins. Some get trapped in a world, in a life, in an institution where they think hurting others is acceptable, even righteous. If I prayed, I would pray for them, and if you pray, I hope you pray for them too. If you're Catholic, beseech this of Blessed Edmund Ignatius Rice: end the institution who has brought suffering, pain, and irreparable harm to so many, and bring those criminals who the Church and the Order hide and protect to this day to some justice and get them the help they need to heal. This is the Miracle I ask, and may the paltry wordly assets, the gold crosses, the crystal chalices, the stained glass, all of it: may it go to truly help the poor and those who suffer.
I'm lucky. I have parents who love me, a loving wife, a great career. I don't need to sue the church to make my way in the world. But if anything I can write down, or share, helps in any way, may it heal the world.
Matthew E Harbowy
March 9th, 2012
Bergen Catholic Class of '87