Inside the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s Sex-Abuse Scandal

Can the Catholic Church as we know it survive?

It was a little less than a month ago, on a warm weekday evening, that Joe spoke to fellow parishioners at his church—St. Mary of the Assumption Parish in Manayunk. The leader of Joe’s men’s group and a victims advocate for the archdiocese set up the meeting. Perhaps 30 people came. Joe discovered something, after he spoke, that shocked him. It was that other people saw him as a hero.

About 45 years ago, when Joe was a ninth grader at Roman Catholic High School, Father Schmeer, a guidance counselor, would call boys down to his office from English class. One day it was Joe’s turn. He knew what it was about, because other boys had been there. Or he didn’t know exactly what it was about, but he was now going to find out. When Joe got to Father Schmeer’s office, the priest told Father Durante, in the next office, to watch his door. Father Schmeer brought Joe into his office and stood behind him. He reached into Joe’s pants and tried to masturbate him. That was the first time. A month later, Joe was called down to Father Schmeer’s office once again. Father Durante watched the door. This time, Father Schmeer pressed against Joe from behind. His fingers dug into Joe’s shoulders. He pulled down Joe’s pants, and underwear, and raped Joe.

Father Schmeer told Joe not to tell anyone. Joe did not, for four decades. We know all about the local Church’s cover-up now. It has come out in story after story, in two grand jury reports.

We know less about people like Joe.

He is now 59 years old. Joe told his story to me in a corner of a diner in Roxborough a few months ago. He says he is searching for his soul, and in the diner, he held his hands cupped next to him, as if that soul—the size of a small child—might be waiting next to him in the booth.

But a miraculous thing happened, on that warm night about a month ago, after Joe told fellow parishioners what was done to him in Father Schmeer’s office, after he said he still felt ashamed about it. Tim, a member of Joe’s men’s group, got up and said that Joe was one of the bravest men he had ever met. That what he was doing, going public with his story after living with it, alone, for so long—after not even being able to consciously grasp for himself, for four decades, what had happened to him in Father Schmeer’s office—was changing lives.

As Tim told Joe that he was brave, and an example of a real man, Joe broke down. He started crying, uncontrollably for a moment. He seemed shocked by this possibility, that what he was doing, sitting on a low podium telling his truth to fellow parishioners, was brave. Through his tears, Joe gave Tim a thumbs up, thanking him and, more to the point, telling him that he heard. He heard what Tim was saying.

It is hard to understand how an institution built on love and truth can hide behind those very ideals, to make abusive priests untouchable. We do know why men like Joe have spent most of their lives living alone with their pain. It is very difficult to challenge those at the top of the Church, who are direct messengers from God. This insulation—the power it bestows—proved useful. But no longer. Joe—and others—are taking the risk of telling the truth. The shame is moving on. On to men who would hide the truth, and put children at risk for being raped, in order to protect their idea of their sacred Church, and to protect, in turn, themselves.

Read more about the Joe, the abuse scandal, and the men inside the Archdiocese of Philadelphia—Cardinal Justin Rigali, Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, and Monsignor William Lynn—in Robert Huber’s July Philadelphia magazine feature, “Power, Sex and Secrets.”