Hard lessons of a Catholic-school education

Here he comes again, another man of God: the collar, the piety, the Church on his side. Here it is repeated: the hierarchy, the code of silence, the 14-year-old with his pants around his ankles. There they are once more, the dutiful parents sending their child off to school, the right school, the proper school.

The pathos comes eerily wafting back with the appearance of two news stories last week. The first one, local, a St. Paul high school targeted in a lawsuit for allegedly allowing a known sexually abusive Christian Brother to teach there. The second, a harrowing report out of Ireland concluding that the abuse of thousands of children by priests and nuns was covered up for years in that country's Roman Catholic institutions.

It's now an old story to many, but not old enough to some. It's one that trickles in intermittently, greeted by weary eyes in the neighborhood parishes where I grew up.

When the story broke of the sex-abuse allegations against Brother Raimond Rose, who taught at Cretin High School from 1968 to 1972, you could have walked into many a neighborhood bar in my old stamping grounds and heard a familiar murmur. It was not a murmur of shock or surprise, but one that comes with a knowing nod and the sad half-smile of men who knew this world all too well.

I grew up a Catholic boy in a Catholic parish in a Catholic town. Part of growing up Catholic in St. Paul was knowing the stories, hearing the whispers, talking privately with friends, in alleys, about certain teachers, clergyman, or coaches. The cigarettes smoked behind garages came with tales—some embellished, some not—tales of grown men who seemed anything but deserving of our respect. During my time at Cretin in '77 and '78 I was told of instructors I should watch out for. I couldn't tell what was true and what wasn't, but I witnessed physical abuse from adults, smelled alcohol on the breath of teachers, and wondered how much of a leap it was to believe that in this den of testosterone, power, and lax oversight, worse things could be occurring.

Paradoxically, it was a wonderful world for the bonding of boys. If you could avoid the greatest pitfalls, it was a breeding ground for lifelong friendships. But it was a strange place to try to learn. What an odd amalgamation: the Catholic Church, the U.S. Army, and adolescent boyhood. The truth, that few with clear hindsight can deny, is that we weren't offered the best of the Army nor the best of the Church.

Some of these men were incompetent; many didn't seem mentally healthy. I knew the stories of Brother Raimond before I ever arrived at Cretin. He had moved on by then, but it wasn't long before some other teacher took his place, in hallway chatter, as the one to watch out for. Being hit in the head and knocked to the ground was nothing compared to the fear of being around an adult male who liked locker rooms more than he should. Having a military man inspect and judge you first thing Monday morning, when he was inebriated, was comical in comparison to believing a robed man was staring at you even vaguely sexually.

Today Cretin-Derham Hall has nothing in common with the school of old, outside of that six-letter name. The military influence has waned, women have arrived to temper the testosterone, and enlightened leaders have taken charge. One would be delighted to send a son or daughter there now, if one were fortunate enough to get him or her accepted. But I would have loved to have seen the school offer something akin to a Truth Commission somewhere along the line, where all that went wrong in the past could have been publicly acknowledged and, at the very least, regretted.

A friend who graduated in 1980 received a fundraising call a few years back from a Cretin alumnus. My friend balked, saying an argument could be made that the school still owed him. The response from the school official was revealing: "Yeah, we get a lot of that from your era." 

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