Mea Maxima Culpa
Tuesday, July 3, 2007
Part One: Preface
In my years as a political satirist I've met some rather persistent members of what even I would call the fringe element. From followers of Lyndon Larouche, to members of certain communist cells (that would have even fewer members were it not for all the FBI agents in their ranks), to single-issue conspiracy freaks, to out and out cultists if they were out there, they somehow found their way to my dressing room door.
When I meet an obvious conspiracy theorist, I'm polite and try to find some common ground. I give them a few moments and then move along to the next person. The biggest problem comes when they are persistent. Sometimes they damned near (or flat out) stalk me. They follow me around, force "documents" upon me and follow up with countless calls and e-mails. These exchanges begin with the presumption that their unedited treatises have moved me to dedicate my life and work to their singular focus. Although 'focus' is the wrong word here because the mountains of paper they thrust upon me rarely demonstrate the kind of pithy and irrefutable prose that's essential to open minds to concepts that run from plausible, to borderline loony, to literally alien.
When the most dedicated (OK, obsessive) of these people follow me, confront me and demand my detailed reaction to what are generally disjointed and often circularly reasoned theories, I become less and less friendly towards them. For starters, I'll ask, "Why am I suddenly so crucial to your cause?" This inevitably elicits a look of paranoia followed by a dawning and damning awareness that manifests itself across the theorist's face. They go from "oh no" to "ah-ha!" in a few seconds. On one memorable occasion I was actually accused of being involved in the cover-up of the JFK assassination. Since I was only a lad of ten when the deed was done, I guess my accuser assumed I was whisked off to a mind control camp, trained to become a political satirist, and then planted at a Chinese restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts so I could set up a comedy club -- the perfect front for my nefarious role in the cover-up!
It's not that I don't believe in plots. I just believe there is so much evil being done right in front of our eyes that I have a duty to zero in on those issues. In this ill-informed society what I have to say seems fringy enough. Theres no need to go off willy-nilly, speculating my way to full-blown Henny Penny status. I stick to the facts -- satirized and hyperbolized facts, but facts, nonetheless. As the years have passed, many people have confessed to me they were skeptical when they first saw me perform or got to know me, or both. With the passage of time and as certain truths became more self-evident (tis the season!) many doubters have come to trust me. Therefore I feel an obligation to maintain a standard. If I can't prove it, I don't go with it. If I am speculating, I label it as conjecture. This has led to some discord with those who have questioned my character simply because I refused to leap to their conclusions.
This is not to say that their conclusions were wrong. This is not to say that these people are not sincere and dedicated and, in many cases, brilliant. It is to say that in a society that cannot see mass murder when it's committed before its very eyes, by its very government, convincing people to believe in fantastic plots about deeds committed decades ago (or even just a few years ago), is a very time-consuming and relatively futile use of my limited time and energy.
My biggest problem with the conspiracy crowd is that they willingly cede almost supernatural powers to their enemies. I mean if everything is a plot; if every game is rigged, why play? I am a disciple of Howard Zinn's and as such, continue to do the work I do because of a belief that people can be brought to more enlightened views if they are informed in an accessible, fathomable fashion.
I'm sure that for the sake of doing the most possible of what I do best, I've written off some people who were on the path to remarkable awareness. But such people are like poets; you have to sift through an awful lot of crap before you get to the great stuff. That's why I leave the sorting of poetry to others and then just sneak in and read anthologized versions later. Mea culpa!
Part Two: The Back Story
Mea culpa was a Latin term I learned as an altar boy at St Mary's of the Lake Roman Catholic Church, in my hometown of Skaneateles, NY. It means my fault. I have great need for it today because I am about to tell you about something that just a few years back, would have been scoffed at by most people: the sexual abuse of children by Roman Catholic Clergy. I owe one victim in particular a rather large mea culpa. I hope the following, um, document will explain why.
Now before you leap to any of your own conclusions understand this: a priest never sexually abused me. A priest, however, emotionally and verbally abused me almost every day for several years. His name was Thomas Neary. And the reason he emotionally and verbally abused me was because he knew he couldn't sexually abuse me. On two occasions, when he started to massage my shoulders, I literally hit him as hard as I could with an elbow and fled. You see at an earlier age I had been sexually abused by a man the babysitter brought over while my parents were gone. (I have told this story before and as a result, learned that my abuser had died in a New York State prison while serving his third term for committing such heinous human rights offenses.) In any case, I had an added-on survival reflex that kicked in as soon as the monstrous Neary put his slimy hands upon me. He persisted a bit and offered me rides in his car, which were refused. I then bolted from the sidewalk and cut through the backyards of Skaneateles -- a village that in those days had a very tolerant attitude about young boys and shortcuts. Thank heaven for small-fry favors.
Most of the children in town soon knew you should never take a ride from "Father Queery." You see, in that dark age people didn't understand the difference between a homosexual and a pedophile. So the gay community was slimed by the shorthand of the day. Sadly, it was the only way to sound the alarm among kids back then. Fortunately, it was generally heeded.
As an altar boy, I was regularly scheduled to serve masses on Sundays as well as one week a month of early morning daily masses. When the weather was bad, which was often in the snow belt of upstate New York, or if a scheduled altar boy got sick, I was the first kid called to fill in. When Neary arrived at the parish, I was already serving as many masses as any other altar boy. Soon there was a rash of cancellations for the weekday masses. Shortly, a lot of kids bolted the ranks altogether. As a result, it wasn't unusual for me to serve mass every day for months on end. This is not an exaggeration. Neary was the assistant to the pastor, Father Robert Casey, a man who sermonized on Sundays why the biggest supporter of American involvement in Vietnam was Jesus Christ. Usually if Casey was up early, it was to play golf and so Neary almost always said the early morning mass.
On a typical winter morning I awoke before 6:00AM, cleaned the snow off my parents' cars and shoveled our walks. Then I headed up to the church, girding myself all the way to prepare for another morning with Rome's emissary of evil. Upon arrival, I'd make sure the church entrances were also clear of snow and then slipped in through the basement door. I would open and close it as quietly as possible. The altar boys cassocks and surplices hung in a room at the far end of the basement. Inexplicably, you could only turn on the lights at the distant entrance to the altar boys staging area. After creeping stealthily through the terrifying darkness, I did all that I could to muffle the sound of the light switch. I'd then carefully remove and don the religious garb in continued silence. This wasn't easy in a room booby-trapped by several generations of wire coat hangers. Just the same, I rarely made a noise because to do so was to alert Neary of my presence. When I did make even the slightest of peeps, he'd come stomping out of the sacristy and down the stairs to let me know that I had personally violated his solitude. He snarled that to have committed such an act was to insult Christ himself! It was a tough way to start the morning.
I'd seen the face of evil when I was abused in my earlier years but I came to know it as well as I knew Washington's picture on the dollar bill in my daily dealings with Thomas Neary. For starters, he was a dead-ringer for Christopher Lee. For those of you unfamiliar with horror flicks of the Sixties and Seventies, Lee was the actor who always played Dracula. When his films showed at the Colonial Theater in Skaneateles, my friends and I would catcall "Neary!" and everyone would laugh. But if Neary and Lee switched roles, the priest wouldn't have had to method act. He wouldn't have to act at all -- he was evil incarnate.
Whatever Neary dished out, save physical contact, I took. I penitently apologized and humbled myself for the crimes I'd committed as a ten year-old who had gotten up on an arctic morning and trudged through snowdrifts to serve mass. Alone. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that the usual detail for mass called for two altar boys, but this was only the norm at the well-attended Sunday services. I almost always served the daily masses solo. This was why Neary hated me so. Morning after morning he knew the pond of potential child sexual victims would be dry. He had done what all child molesters do-- he'd tried to groom me to become a victim and had realized that he couldn't get away with it. And so he HATED me. He hated the sight of me. He hated my devotion to duty as an altar boy because it flummoxed his nefarious intent. He tried to drive me off so that he could have a shot at other potential victims. He failed. In the process I'd like to think I helped spare some other children much worse than he savaged upon me. But I guess thats just a trace element of my Catholicism surfacing. There is a divine purpose for all suffering!
On an average day, when I'd literally been as quiet as a church mouse, I'd only allow my cloaks to rustle a bit toward the top of the stairs. It was a rather tepid calling card. I'd reach the main floor of the church, take a deep breath and trod around a slight corner and into the sacristy. Inevitably Neary would be sitting in a chair off to the side of the priests' dressing area. He would fix a malevolent stare upon me. I do not use the word 'malevolent' lightly. It perfectly describes his monstrously evil expression and demeanor. The scowling and very scary priest would immediately castigate me for being tardy, even though I was there in plenty of time to prepare the altar for the service. I just never got there early because leaving time to spare meant sitting in grisly silence in a small area with a monster- - an often hung-over monster, nipping at the altar wine or other spirits he'd down to steady himself before saying the mass.
While preparing the altar, with a door between Neary and me, I felt safe. The nuns in the front pew, when not deeply engrossed in prayer rattling wire hangers couldn't disract, nodded to me with solemn kindness. Other communicants smiled at me. I showed no expression because I had a duty to be reverent. I went about my tasks with precision, placing the cruets for the water and wine just so next to the cloth used to dry the priest's hands. I made sure everything else on the altar was in its place -- because God help me if Neary had actual call for criticism. I then screwed up my courage to go backstage and wait for Neary to arise so that we could go out and get the show on the road.
He couldn't hide his hatred for me, even during mass. Especially during mass. As I did the work meant for two, he'd sigh loudly and even sarcastically glance at his watch to show me up for failing to complete a task quickly enough. It's bad enough when an entertainer directs from the stage to belittle the support staff for real or imagined infractions but this guy was a priest and I was an innocent child.
I can remember very little of what he said to me, except that it was always critical and cruel. The majority of the time he harangued me in front of a small gathering of the faithful that had arisen early to go to mass. Often his insults were screamed. I can only remember two of them verbatim. The first came when it was my job to pour an ounce or so of water over his child-molesting hands. He'd bellow, "Are you trying to drown me?" I guess I should have known vampires breathe through their fingernails.
When it came time to ring the bell, the man without a qualm about yelling at a child on an altar would say "No need to wake up the whole town!"
This of course set me up for a complaint the next time that was roughly, "I believe a bell is supposed to ring at this point."
This guy was out to destroy my standing among the congregants but it never worked. My parents, with children to raise and jobs to do, didn't often make early mass. They always heard from others what a good job I did as an altar boy. And when my folks were at a mass I served for Neary, the phony bastard's demeanor did a 180. So they had no hint of my predicament. Since I was a kid, I never considered mentioning my problems with the rabid cleric to them. I just figured it was somehow my fault and I wasn't about to turn myself in.
It was a sort of blessing that I was able to shut down and take his abuse in a much more manly fashion than my tormentor could ever hope to replicate. The other odd blessing I received was a form of spirituality that had nothing to do with the Catholic Church. I was scared shitless and asked for help from above (or wherever) to get through my daily trials. I swear I felt strangely protected. I think Neary felt it, too, which only intensified his perpetual teeth gnashing at me.
After mass I'd emerge from the church with my head hanging as I trudged downtown to pick up the New York papers for my father at Riddler's newsstand. On a few sensationally awful morns, a lone nun would make a great effort to "coincidentally" intercept me and invite me to the convent that was kitty-corner from the church. In the pathetically patriarchal world of Catholicism, the nuns took the bold step of bringing me into their kitchen to give me hot chocolate and some toast or a muffin. They would praise me for being such a fine altar boy. They were right -- I was a tremendous altar boy. I could assist a priest in anything from serving mass to a special benediction, to Confirmations or First Communions, to a visit from the bishop. My mastery of my tasks allowed me to develop a primitive version of Muhammad Ali's rope-a-dope tactic. Round after round I let Neary hit me with everything he had. Slowly but surely my passive response underscored his viciousness. If there had been a referee, the bout would have been stopped and I'd have been awarded the victory because of his persistent combinations of rabbit punches and low blows. But Catholicism has never maintained the high standards of boxing and so the onslaught went on for days, months and years. Any chance of my remaining a member of the Catholic Church when I got older dissipated with each new attack. But I had faith-- faith that no just God would punish anyone for leaving the scene of repeated humiliation, unfairness and intimidation.
On the special mornings, the nuns told me God would reward my humble service. They patted me on the head and said I was a good boy - a very good boy. I did not feel provoked to throw any elbows. However, their kindness was very tough for me to handle because I was inevitably on the verge of tears. And why not? I needed to be made of Pyrex to survive the rapid transition from the frigid hatred of Thomas Neary to the warm love of the convent's kitchen. They only performed their muffin therapy a few times but I'm thankful that they had the courage to behave like true Christians and soothe the afflicted. I washed down my feelings with the cocoa and expressed gratitude for their generosity, encouragement and kindness. On their part, the most they could do was praise me but I sort of understood their laud was meant as an indictment of the human jackal who was by now back in his quarters sleeping off the balance of his hangover. After all, hadn't he just indicted me with them sitting in the jury box? Their cocoa proclaimed, "not guilty!" on all counts.
Eventually, a truly devout Catholic layman spoke up on my behalf. William Talbot owned Talbot's 5&10 -- a dreamland of toys, gadgets and especially baseball cards -- for the kids of Skaneateles. An enterprising youth, I was often hired by Mr. Talbot to do odd jobs around his store. Even in those more innocent days, shoplifting was a problem. Nevertheless, Bill Talbot trusted me alone in his stockroom. I never did and never would steal from him and he knew it. He went out of his way to lavish praise upon me in front of my parents. He was an immeasurably older than I could imagine at that point (probably about the age I am now-- mid-fifties) but he was a friend. His decency towards me was a cornerstone of my childhood.
One day, after one of Neary's absolutely cruelest verbal assaults on me. Bill Talbot, a regular sunrise communicant, pulled his wood-paneled station wagon around to the basement door of the church. As I exited, he stuck his head out the driver-side window and said, "Get in, Barry. I'll give you a ride home."
I attempted to politely decline because I wasn't going right home. I had to get Dad's papers. He said. "No problem. I'll take you downtown and then I'll bring you back up to your house."
I agreed, but insisted downtown would be plenty since I could cut through the municipal parking lot and be home in maybe 90 seconds. Mr. Talbot said, "No. I'll bring you home. I want to talk to your parents."
I must have gone pale because I assumed this meant I was in some sort of trouble. And then the kindly merchant uttered the most amazing thing. He said, " I am so sorry, Barry. You are one of the finest boys I have ever known in this community and yet day after day for years now I have said nothing as that Neary has cruelly bullied you on the altar of Jesus Christ."
I was shocked. Bill Talbot was an extremely serious Catholic and I had never heard him refer to any priest by just his last name. The rest of the previous quote is approximate but the term "that Neary" is precise.
I stammered a bit and then he said that he had failed to do his duty to me by allowing Neary to mistreat me in such an unjust and public fashion. Mr. Talbot had seen the truth and he was going to tell it!
We soon reached Riddler's and I ran in for Dads dailies. I was usually friendly with Jimmy Muldoon behind the counter but I knew if I tried to speak, a dam of tears would destroy the early editions of several papers. I just plunked down the correct change and hustled back to Mr. Talbot's car. I was awash in feelings inexplicable to all but those who have been suddenly liberated after being unjustly imprisoned for years, during which time they had so completely abandoned hope that they weren't even aware they'd been serving a sentence. It was a lot to handle.
After a couple of quick turns we were at my parents house. Mr. Talbot asked me to go in and tell them he'd like to speak with them. I did and they immediately went to the door and waved him in.
My hero came in and again prefaced his remarks with praise for my character and the dignity with which I withstood years of wholly unprovoked cruelty. I was still far too shocked to say much. My father, another devout Catholic, stepped outside with his friend and I distinctly heard him say "that son of a bitch!" I was pretty sure he didn't mean me. My mother tried to feed me something but I was too overwrought to eat anything. She quickly understood that this wasn't an act of petulance and asked me if I was ready for school. I was.
As much as I thought Skaneateles Central was endlessly boring, it served as an escape that morning. I gathered my things and made my way out the front door to go up and blend in with hundreds of other kids. As I headed up the street I could hear Bill Talbot and Phil Crimmins still discussing the issue and then I heard my mother come out the side door to join them on the driveway. I hustled out of earshot.
I wasn't an altar boy for much longer after that. I sort of gained emeritus status, serving 11 AM Sunday mass with Casey and midnight mass at Christmas and so on. From the day Bill Talbot broke the silence about Neary's screaming I probably only served a few dozen more masses for Thomas Neary. And it was easy because Neary, although none-too friendly in private, began treating me with respect on the altar. Like any bully, he was a coward and when confronted, he folded fast. It meant nothing to me. I despised the piece of shit. Still do, only much more. Because, you see, all of the above only sets the stage for my mea culpa.
Part Three: The Point
A few years back my dear childhood friend, John Considine, called me to ask if I had seen that morning's Syracuse Post Standard. I hadn't. He said. "Well go online and check it out. There's a story about Neary in there."
I KNEW what the story would be. I knew that one or some of his victims had come forward to blow the whistle on him.
One had --a courageous man named Charles L. Bailey Jr. disclosed that he'd suffered unspeakable abuse at the hands of Thomas Neary. Simple math told me that the satanic maggot had victimized Charles just before he had been assigned to Skaneateles. I immediately called the Post-Standard writer to tell her that although I had never been sexually abused by Neary, I'd dealt with him for years as a child and had absolutely no doubt concerning the veracity of Charles' story. She said there was no need for that-- several other victims had already called in. I gave her my contact info and asked that it be passed along to Mr. Bailey.
He called me that day and told me details that were shocking even to me, a true believer in the depravity of Thomas Neary. I had wildly underestimated the evil he had committed for years before the Catholic Church decided to stow him away in Skaneateles. We spoke by phone a number of times and I promised to help "in any way I could."
Time passed and I was caught in a whirlwind of work writing for Air America, writing print pieces and performing around the country. One day I received a phone call from the Post Standard. They wanted to do a cover story on me for their Sunday entertainment supplement, Stars Magazine. Thomas Wolfe's maxim about home is never truer than to a performer. I didn't want publicity at home and almost always ducked performing nearby. But this writer was sincere, had done his homework and left me no choice but to cooperate. I figured I'd make the best of a bad situation and called the Syracuse Peace Council to offer to do a benefit for it so that we could put the publicity I was about to receive to work for a good cause. The story came out and the writer did a fine and generous job.
It was a hot mid-summer Sunday night when I came to perform in an non-air-conditioned hall of a Unitarian Church. There were two loud electric fans whirring. They created more of a stir than my act. After a very mediocre show, I had to talk to about a million people. I'm pretty shy and also deathly afraid of injuring nice people's feelings. I always get caught up in situations where I'm talking to four people at once and don't know anyone's name. I should be introducing everyone but instead an uncomfortable situation develops.
Just as this very nightmare was unfolding after the Syracuse show, a man approached and introduced himself and his wife. As is my custom I immediately missed his name but when he said " I brought a manuscript for you to read, I assumed he was one of my conspiracy freak followers.
He continued, "You said you'd do whatever you could to help. Well I need help getting this published."
I thought to myself, "This one's brassy." Jerk that I was, I didn't even glance at the manuscript. I just gave Charles and his lovely wife a few moments and then drifted back to my previously unwrapping social nightmare. I threw his work in with a larger than usual pile of memorabilia and propaganda that I'd accumulated that night. Normally I'd have sifted through it within a few days and I'd have spotted Mr. Baileys manuscript. This would have been followed with an immediate call to apologize. I'd have explained that he had approached me, completely out of context, when I was in a state of shock. Had I not been an absolute buffoon, I'd have had Charles on the guest list that night and I'd have discussed his and our issue on the stage. Mea culpa!
This was the summer of 2005 and within 48 hours of doing that show, I found myself on a plane bound for Crawford, Texas, where I was to spend the next three + weeks reporting from Camp Casey for Air America. It was a remarkable experience. I arrived home with a few more long tons of various information and mementos and it ended up on top of all the stuff from the Syracuse gig. Six hours after I landed in Buffalo from Texas, Katrina made landfall in New Orleans. I was swept even further away in the then riptide of current events. And to my shame, although I often thought of Charles Bailey and had even told elements of his story around the campfires in Crawford, I hadn't ever realized we had met until a few weeks ago when I finally got around to divesting myself of a mountain of stuff that I never should have brought into my office in the first place. As soon as I saw Charles L. Baileys manuscript, the night in Syracuse came back to me. Brassy, indeed! I looked for his number but couldn't find it. I put his book somewhere safe to read as soon as possible. A minor emergency arose that required my attention. Just as I surfaced from it, another old pal, Jim Huxford, told me that there was a new story about Neary in the paper. He said, "One of his victim's wrote a book about him. Of course no one wanted to touch it so he went ahead and published it at his own expense."
You know that cartoon device employed when a character realizes he's a complete oaf? The one in which the character shrinks from regular size to miniscule proportion in a few seconds? Well I shrunk like Fred Flintstone realizing Barney hadn't stolen his bowling ball, but just taken it to determine its size so that he could buy Fred the new one he'd had his eye on. I was one of the people that wouldn't touch Charles book. I was maybe his best hope to get it in front of a real publisher. And I had cast him aside as if he were e.e. cummings and it was 1922. Mea maxima culpa!
So I owe Charles L. Bailey Jr. an apology. I need to stand up like Bill Talbot and tell him that he didn't do anything wrong. I need to tell him that I understand that he had done all he could to get his book to me and to tell the truth to everyone. I need to apologize for letting him down. And I need to do it in front of the entire congregation.
And now I have one more admission to make: that safe place I put his book? Damned if I know where it is. So I ordered a copy. And I hope you do, too. Because although it's impossible to sort out certain deeds committed decades ago, the only time most abused children can tell their stories is after they have grown up and relived them. Years from now we'll be reading first-hand accounts of how the children of today were ignored as they suffered incredible deprivation (for instance in the new mega-slums that are such an important element of the blessings of conscience -free trade).
As an act of common decency, I ask you to please order and read Charles' book In the Shadow of the Cross. And I ask that you ask your friends and families to do the same. It won't make up for what was done to him as a child but at least it will help lower the levy for his telling the God's honest truth as an adult. And please buy it directly from his publisher so that he can recover as much money as possible, as soon as possible. Its available at Amazon and elsewhere but I assume if you go directly to the first link on his site, he will receive a larger dividend. You will, too. I know Charles' story. I promise you that it will be riveting reading.
As far as Thomas Neary is concerned, I have nothing but contempt for him. Unfortunately he died, holed up on Catholic dry ice, a few years before Charles story became public. The arch-criminal escaped the earthly humiliation and punishment he so richly deserved. God only knows how many people the church bought off and pressured into silence to protect him and the Roman Catholic Church. I know that Mr. Bailey's brave testimony brought other victims of Thomas Neary forward. It has taken me a long time to realize I was one of them -- because compared to Charles and so many other Neary victims stories, mine is like a postcard from a sunny clime. I don't have forgiveness for a man who preyed rather than prayed.
I've not attended mass since I was in high school. According to the Catholic Church, this means I'm going to hell. The idea that the spirit that came and protected me, that the personal spirituality that came to me and made me a human rights activist rather than a human rights offender, could come up with a concept as barbaric as hell is hard for me to believe. But if it exists and if I end up there, the first lost soul I'm looking up is Thomas Neary.