by Michael Cormier

(post date: May 15, 2016)

Recently, the Boston Globe Spotlight team headlined its Sunday edition with a story titled “Schooled in Shame.” The focus was sexual abuse at private schools in New England, and though pedophilia has become a mainstream subject these days, the story was another cold slap to the face.

After years of silence, former students of some of the most prestigious college preparatory schools in New England have been speaking out to the Spotlight team, hoping their stories will encourage others to do the same. On local television, at least two particular individuals – now middle-aged – described how their own abuse led to a lifetime of nightmares and pain that still haunt them today.

As I watched the television news segments and read the Globe story, I found myself shaking my head in wonder. It was like I had sat down to talk with Gerry Brewster all over again. For those of you who don’t know, Gerry Brewster is the gentleman with whom I recently co-authored a book on this same subject (Why, Brother, Why; Tate Publishing; 2016). Gerry suffered sexual abuse at the hands of priests at a local boarding school back in the sixties, and he had asked me to help him tell his story.

During our interviews, Gerry kept telling me about his own nightmares and how vivid they still were after half a century. A pretty tough customer in his younger years, Gerry would wake up screaming and crying – even while in prison, where he landed more than once thanks to opiate addiction. To this day, Gerry told me, the same dreams still haunt him.

After interviewing Gerry, I admit I was left with a little skepticism. I kept asking myself how this could be true, how after all these years this man could still carry around the same fear embedded deep in his subconscious like a primal response. All it took was a little research on the topic, however, to realize that these longterm effects are actually common. Men and women who suffered sexual abuse as children can relive the horror long into adulthood. There’s also a tendency to develop trust and intimacy issues that may stay with them the rest of their lives. The luckier ones get help through therapy. Others never talk about it, carrying the burden all alone.

Gerry talked about it. To his credit, he went even further than that. After his mother died a few years back, he began writing in a notebook about his own experience and how it affected his life. When he asked me to help him write his book, I hesitated. It’s a subject so gut wrenching that the tendency is to distance ourselves whenever we can. Even reporters don’t usually recount the lurid details.

But I knew I had to do that if I was ever going to make the reader understand. So I asked Gerry. To my surprise, he was perfectly willing to describe in living color what had happened. And I discovered to my shock that his memories hadn’t faded a bit after half a century. Gerry recalled the minutest of details all the way down to the scent of the aftershave his perpetrator wore. The emotional imprint Gerry described was even stronger. And he’d had to relive this horror over and over again for decades.

That, to me, is the biggest heartbreak. Each act of sexual abuse isn’t just a one-time thing causing temporary hurt and focused mistrust. That would be bad enough. It’s more like a constant torture, repeated over and over in the victim’s mind. It might repeat every day, or once in a while. Either way it’s always there, the monster under the bed. It may not spring tonight, or even tomorrow night. But it’s there, waiting for the most opportune moment.

I can’t imagine going through life like that. But Gerry did. He still does. In the past he dulled the pain with heroin, but even drugs couldn’t stop the pain. The only thing that seems to have helped is sharing his story, knowing it might help other victims. I like to think it will.

Similarly, I like to think the latest Spotlight expose is yet another step toward understanding and dealing with this blight. The Spotlight team’s investigation some years ago into the Catholic Archdiocese’s coverup of child abuse was an even bigger step, but only because it highlighted institutional secrecy surrounding the problem. It took years for us to first digest the fact that men of the cloth could do such a thing, then to accept that it could be so widespread. Nowadays, pedophile priests are old news; you know this is true when standup comics joke about them.

67 private schools in New England have faced accusations of child abuse since 1991.

90 lawsuits or other legal claims have been filed on behalf of alleged victims.

37 or more school employees have been fired as a result of allegations.

Source: Boston Globe

Now we’re learning that the problem is widespread within New England private schools – another venue once thought to offer a safe environment for our children. It shouldn’t come as a surprise: like all predators, pedophiles go where the available stock is most prevalent. Yet many people will still find it shocking. After all, private schools are supposed to attract only the finest, most serious educators, right? Maybe. But pedophilia is democratic: it knows no race, age, education or economic boundaries.

Which is why the Spotlight story is so important. We need to keep talking about this problem. We need to drag the monster out from under the bed into the light of day and examine it in all its revolting, putrid glory. It’s an ugly exercise, but there’s no other way. Only when we come to understand the illness of pedophilia – and not just the crime – will we stand a chance of winning the battle against it.

It won’t be easy. And it won’t be soon. If the war on drugs has taught us anything it’s that an illness that begins with an overwhelming urge is not easily conquerable. It’s not enough to just hate on these perpetrators, vilify them, threaten to lock them up forever, or even line them up and shoot them as some would prefer. Oh sure, it might stop that particular person from doing it again. But it won’t solve the overall problem.

Turning up the light dimmer and pointing the beam is not the solution, either. But it’s increased our vigilance regarding yet another venue. Hopefully, it’s increased our vigilance a bit more in general.

Either way, it’s a good start.