By John Spragens
Gentlemen: It is 4:00 am and I could not sleep because I had another one of those nightmares. I thought I would take the time to share with you why."
That's how David Brown began the six-page letter he wrote to church officials in the early morning hours of June 4 of this year. He wrote it in an attempt to explain himself, to force three men from the Catholic Diocese of Middle Tennessee to understand what he had been going through, in stages, for almost a half-century now: the sleepless nights, the manic temper, the fear of intimacy, the shudder he feels when he remembers stale, smoky breath and scratchy whiskers rubbing against his face. The list goes on.
Reflections: A 15-year-old David Brown and the Father Ryan High School priest who abused him.
Brown didn't think he would send the letterhe never even planned to write it in the first placebut suddenly, it just made sense: dredge up the deepest, most painful memories and force himself, and others, to deal with them. Let a lawyer and two priest administrators know how it feels and smells and sounds to be 15, a lanky, trusting high school sophomore, and to lose your virginityinvoluntarilyto a grown man. One you trusted. He wanted to explain what it's like to deal with the shameful stigma that, left to fester, turns into an angry, hurtful silence and haunts you for a lifetime.
The letter's three recipients, like most people, were probably never sexually assaulted by a Catholic priest. At least they're not saying so if they were. So they probably can't imagine what it would be like to go through such a terrifying experience. Who could?
But unlike most people, these men are used to dealing with this situation. They work for an organization that has employed multiple sex offenders over the past five decades. The Diocese of Middle Tennessee, like many offices of the Catholic Church nationwide, has seen its former priests investigated by law enforcement officials. It is currently fighting a lawsuit from two plaintiffs who claim they were molested by a former clergyman in Nashville who had left the priesthood.
So when David Brown approached the Diocese in 1996, in search of answers and an apology, church leaders knew what to do. They paid him a few thousand dollars and asked him to sign a form releasing the Diocese from all responsibility in his case, promising never to sue and never to discuss the agreement with anyone.
Standard Issue: "Covenant Not to Sue"
In the letter, which Brown mailed last week, he told the story of a young boy who grew up north of town, out Clarksville Highway, wanting someday to become a priest. A devout Catholic from an Irish family, the young Brown was so enthralled by his religion that he read Lives of the Saints, a multivolume set, over and over again. He prayed and said the rosary almost daily. "He wanted so much to please his parents but more than that he wanted to serve his Lord," Brown wrote of his younger self. "He was intent on being the best priest he could be. He was also a virgin."
In 1961, Father Paul Fredrick Haas was the biology and physiology teacher at Father Ryan High School, at the time located on Elliston Place where a Hampton Inn now stands. The sandal-wearing Haas was popular with the younger boys; he used to pin a live bee to his shirtstrangely enoughto get attention, and it worked: he befriended many of his adolescent charges. Though Haas served as pastor of St. Ann's parish on Charlotte Pike, he didn't mind driving his zippy red car across town to the Browns' house, where on more than one occasion he picked up the 15-year-old boy and took him for a drive.
The Browns were thrilled, proud that a priest would take their son under his wing. "After all," the letter asks, "what better role model could he have had than this very poplar [sic] priest?"
One Sunday afternoon in November, after Haas had said mass at St. Ann's, he drove up to the Browns' house and picked up young David. Together, they made the long drive to Camp Marymount, a Catholic youth camp in northwest Williamson County. When a priest offered to take you for a drive, you didn't say no; you said, "Thanks, Father."
By the time they arrived at the vacant camp, the late afternoon sun was giving way to a cool, shadowy dusk, and the priest and boy sat on the steps of a cabin near the lake and talked. Another car sat parked at a nearby cabin. Its owner eventually walked up; he knew Haas, and the two talked for a few minutes. Then the man left.
Haas was overseeing the fledgling wrestling program at Father Ryan, so when he brought up the topic, Brown thought nothing of it. The two talked about the art of wrestlingconversations about sports being a time-honored bonding ritual among malesand when his mentor suggested that the boy come inside so he could show him a few moves, it seemed perfectly normal: coach to wrestler, teacher to student, grownup to adolescent.
Brown, in his letter, recounts what happened next:
He suggested that we take our clothes off down to our underpants so we would not mess them up. He began demonstrating different moves and hold [sic] and our bodies were getting sweaty. He was showing me a hold when suddenly he penetrated me with his finger. He told me it was OK that's what the Greeks did when they wrestled in the Olympics. In fact he told me they wrestled in the nude and to get the true effects we should wrestle nude also. So we did. He told me that they grabbed anything they could get a hold of and not to be ashamed or embarrassed. That if I was going to be a good wrestler I had to learn to get used to that kind of contact. So I went along. Next thing I know he had grabbed my penis and was stroking me. I was shocked and embarrassed but it also felt good at the same time. I was confused. I felt this was wrong but I was with a priest. Father Hass [sic] said my reaction and erection was normal but if I was embarrassed he knew a way he could make it go away. So he began to perform oral sex on me. He then told me he had the same problem and asked that I help him out so we could continue.
After that, the two resumed wrestling. Haas told his young victim to assume a wrestling start positionkneeling with hands on the matand got behind him. "Before I knew it, he was in me and raping me," writes Brown. "There was nothing but pain and horror and lots of tears and blood."
"You know this is a sin," Haas said while raping him. "But God knows my needs, and he'll forgive us."
Brown, crying, could only ask "Why?" over and over and over again.
"Because you're so handsome and good-looking," came the reply. "I love you."
Afterward, Haas drove the young man back across town to his home. On the way he took Brown, who was still a wreck, to Varallo's at the Highway 70/100 split. Perhaps a Coke would calm the boy down.
Haas got out of his red car and went in to get the drink. Nearby, a group of Father Ryan upperclassmen were loitering. They noticed the priest and, in his car, Brown.
"Hey, let's see who Haas' new toy is," one of the older boys called out, approaching the car.
Brown jumped out and ran past them into the restaurant, where he begged his rapist to take him home.
Facing His Demons: Inside the cabin where he was raped, David Brown (right) weeps with a fellow victim. Photo by Eric England
There were other times with him, but I cannot remember," writes Brown, whose mother recalls Haas picking him up at the house on several occasions. But the last encounter is crystal clear. It was a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, and Brown was at school playing basketball with a few other boys. He had decided he wanted the abuse to stop and was trying to avoid his teacher. But Haas showed up and wanted to wrestle in the basement.
Brown followed him down there, but insisted on leaving his underwear on this time. Eventually, as they wrestled, Haas penetrated the boy with his fingers. Brown snapped.
"I exploded," he would later recall. The skinny teenager punched the priest in the face. He kicked him in the crotch. Haas lay in the fetal position on the floor, and Brown kicked him, repeatedly, in the face. He wanted to hurt his abusermaybe, for a moment, even kill him.
Brown left, quickly put on his clothes and walked to his father's downtown office. He felt guilty and scaredafter all, he had beaten up a Catholic priestand afraid that he would go to hell for what he did. When Haas didn't show up at school on Monday, it only made him more nervous.
Eventually, however, the teacher returned to school. "He had this little smirk on his face," Brown recalls, "and he would try to hold it over me. He said, 'This is our little secret.' "
The following week, Haas tried to convince Brown to stay after school. When Haas left the room for a moment, Brown left, this time running all the way downtown to his father's office.
After that day, Haas never bothered him again. Brown says that soon thereafter, the priest was arrested for lewd behavior in Centennial Park. (Metro police couldn't find a record of his arrest but say it's possible.)
Within the next couple of years, the priest was no longer teaching at Father Ryan.
Ironically, in what would become the first of many painful twists in Brown's life as he dealt with what had happened to him, the young student continued to receive holy sacraments from Father Paul Haas right after the abuse occurred. Growing up, Brown learned that if you had committed a mortal sin, the priest could see it on your tongue. So at mass, when it was time to receive what Catholic teachings say is the body and blood of Jesus Christ, Brown chose to face the man who raped him, the man who had violated his body and spilled his blood. It was safer that way; other priests would have figured out his secret.
At confession time, he sat opposite that same man, afraid to bring up the unholy bond they shared. And his rapist would say to him, "You know, David, we have sinned...."
It would be 35 years before David Brown would tell anyone what had happened to him during his sophomore year of high school, and nearly 45 before even his wife would learn the details of his ordeal. They were, at times, difficult years.
After the abuse, his grades dropped, as studying became a low priority. The priesthood was out: he kept an open mind about it into his senior year but couldn't force himself to go through with what he had known was his life's calling ever since eighth grade. "There was nothing I had wanted to do but be a priest," he says, "but by then I just didn't want any part of it. My father took me to talk about it with our family pastor, but I couldn't give them an explanation. I wouldn't give them an explanation. I just didn't want to go."
He didn't tell his parents about the abuse, he says, because he was embarrassed and ashamed. His father would have killed the guy, but no one else would have believed him. "Who would have believed the word of a little boy against the word of a Catholic priest?" he asks.
Instead, Brown blocked the experience from his memory. He went through a failed marriage and an aborted college career. He got married again and had children. In 1985, he divorced, and David spent a few years depressed, disquieted and alone, with no one to turn toand no willingness to confront the causes of his self-destruction.
Then he met Elizabeth, age 39 to his 44. They were married in 1990, and things between them seemed reasonably good. But Elizabeth eventually learned how volatile Brown's temper could be, how manic his moods. She never figured out why, and he never told hernor did he admit it to himself.
Until one Sunday night in 1996, as the couple sat on the couch watching a newsmagazine show, perhaps 60 Minutes, on television. One of the segments that night happened to focus on a man who had been abused as a boy by a Catholic priest. It detailed the emotional damage he had lived with his whole life: his irascibility, his fear of intimacy. For Elizabeth, it all seemed strangely familiar.
She turned to her husband and touched his arm. "David, is that what happened to you?" she asked.
The floodgates opened. David broke down in tears, unable to control himself, sobbing. "Oh my God, did it all come back!" he would later write in his letter. "I could not believe it. I started crying and told her most everything," He left out explicit details. The explanation was long overdue.
Seated in the living room of their suburban Memphis home one Sunday afternoon in June, David and Elizabeth tell me what it's been like to live with an abuse victim and not know itor to be one and not admit it to yourself, as the case may be. "I blocked it out of my mind until age 50," says David, now a paralegal and a Southern Baptist, a man who, in retrospect, seems to understand a lot more about his own adult behavior. "As victims, we'll let people get close to us, but only so close. Every time someone would tell me I was handsome or good-looking, I would just head for the hills, because that's what that priest told me."
He could never date a woman who smoked, he says, because it reminded him of the stale, smoky breath of Paul Haas over his shoulder. And there wereare stillnightmares. Waking up in the middle of the night, smelling the breath and feeling the scratch of whiskers on his cheek. He would jolt awake, short of breath, and his wife would ask him what was wrong.
Sinuses, he would say.
Elizabeth nods familiarly. He would be very affectionate toward her and then suddenly very belittling. She describes his personality as very controlling; blame must always be assigned. Rather than be emotionally and romantically intimate, and thus vulnerable, with her, David would rather be in charge. "It's no fun to live with that," she says. "At least now there's a reason for it."
It's a pretty big secret to keep from your wife, David acknowledges, and it took them some time to work through that breach of trust. "You're so afraid that if you tell her, you're going to look like less of a man," he says. "But the hell I put that woman through is unimaginable." Tears well in his eyes. "She has been very supportive. If it weren't for her, I probably would have shot myself. Why the hell would you want to come forward and talk about this?"
But when he finally began talking about his experience, it raised more questions than it answered. In early 1996, on the Monday after he broke down with Elizabeth, he called the Diocese of Nashville to ask those questions. The person who answered told him that Haas was transferred to Kentucky around 1967 "for treatment," although anecdotal information provided by victims' advocates suggests Haas may have made stops in Memphis and Chattanooga first. He left the priesthood and died of cancer in 1979, living alone in Hartford, a small town in Kentucky. Wanting to know more, David requested a meeting with Bishop Edward Kmiec.
He drove to Nashville to meet with Kmiec sometime in the first part of 1996, Brown says. It was an intimidating experience. "I had just come out of not talking, thinking, speaking about this for 35 years, and I walk into this cavernous office," he recalls. "He's sitting behind this desk. It was so overpowering." In that meeting, Brown says he asked the bishop to do the right thing and reach out to other victimsessentially to make a public apology and ask others to come forwardbut the bishop said others have dealt with their abuse differently and it was best not to stir them up again. "Yours is an isolated case," Brown recalls Kmiec saying. "We don't know of any others."
This upset Brown, who wondered how there could be others if his was an isolated case. Frustrated, he asked the bishop to give him $100,000. A letter from Brown dated May 6, 1996, provided to the Scene by the Diocese confirms that Brown indeed suggested a settlement of $100,000. (Ten days later, Brown suggested in another letter a settlement of $35,000 in exchange for signing a release.) And, in fact, Brown threatened a lawsuit in the second letter, writing on letterhead from the Memphis law firm where he works, "One part of me says file a lawsuit and go forward. I'm not afraid of the SOL [statute of limitations] or any other legal hurdle.... The other part of me says settle this thing and get on with my life." Kmiec declined, citing canon law, but offered to have the church provide therapy. Brown said he was seeking his own therapy but would be happy to send the Diocese the bill. The bishop agreed and said the lawyer would work out the details.
But there were strings attached. First of all, the Diocese insists, even to this day, on overseeing victims' therapy and reserves the right to monitor a patient's progress. Brown said no thanks, that he would take his money in a lump sum. ("I didn't want to have anything to do with them," he explains. "They had already done enough.") The church's lawyer requested an estimate from his therapist, which Brown provided, and the Diocese agreed to pay him a onetime sum of $5,720.
That's when the two-page legal document arrived, which Brown knew was part of the deal. "RELEASE AND COVENANT NOT TO SUE," the all-caps form is titled. Underneath, in four paragraphs of dense legalese, it releases the church from any legal responsibility for claims that may arise from "all known or unknown, foreseen and unforeseen, emotional, personal and bodily injury, and any and all consequential injuries or damages, which have resulted or may result from instances of mistreatment and abuse in high school." "The undersigned" and all his agents and heirs agree never to sue the Diocese or its "agents, servants, employees, successors" et cetera. "The undersigned" agrees never to discuss or disclose the terms of the settlement. And finally, "It is understood that the payment of the aforesaid sum...is not to be construed as an admission of liability," which, for the record, is "expressly denied." Brown was told to sign the document if he wanted the money, so on July 3, 1996, before God and man and a notary public, he did.
"This is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you," Jesus said at his last supper, as recounted in the Gospel of Luke. Several centuries later, the Catholic Church would proffer an even newer covenant, one also borne out of blood and human suffering, but for some reason no one is allowed to talk about that covenant. No one even knows how many are out there.
In recent years, as scandal after scandal spread like poison through the bloodstream of the American Catholic Church, the Diocese of Nashville released victims from their confidentiality agreementsor as Diocesan attorney Gino Marchetti wrote to Brown in May 2005, from the "confidentiality aspects of any such agreements." It was the careful wording of a lawyer, designed to maintain the Diocese's indemnity from lawsuits even as it seemed to respond to the human pain of a hurting victim.
In the case of Brown, Diocese officials say their response was heavy on legal caution because Brown wanted a settlement. "He came seeking money," Diocesan spokesman Rick Musacchio says, noting that the onerous release form was really just a standard template they asked him to sign because he seemed to have a cash motivation. The Diocese wants to help victims, Musacchio explains. "We want to be sure that they're going to somebody who has experience in the area of treating people who have been through sexual abuse. That's a real specialty." Additionally, the Diocese, which received 30 allegations of abuse by seven priests between 1950 and 2002, added a victim assistance coordinator to its payroll in 2002.
It all makes David Brown sick. "It's not about the money but the victims," he wrote in his 4 a.m. letter a few weeks ago. "It never has been about the money. But the Church is only worried about protecting the Church and its priests." Brown says the church knew it had a problem with Haasafter all, the students seemed to knowand that the Diocese owes him, and other victims, a deep and sincere apology. Instead, he gets friendly "How are things?" phone calls from Marchetti, the Diocese's attorney. "I appreciate that, but he's soaping me," Brown says. "I don't trust him. I'm not his friend. He's not done anything for me. Making me sign that document for me to get therapy? I don't think that's a friend. That's blackmail.
"It's not the loving, caring church that cares about their wounded souls. Not when they make me sign that."
It is a warm Saturday in mid-June, and David Brown is on his way to Camp Marymount. He wants to visit the cabin where he was first raped. He's asked the Diocese to burn it down, not just for him but for others he's heard were molested and raped there, too. You see, Brown's become active in a support group for people who were abused by Catholic priests. He knows people in Memphis and Knoxville and Nashville and Chattanooga, and all of them have stories that sound achingly similar to his own.
One such person, Mike Coode, is with him today. Like Brown, Coode went to Father Ryan, only a few years earlier. And like Brown, Coode was molested by a priest his parents trusted. Today he has come along for support, as has David's adult son Jeff, who has never really talked with his father about his ordeal. We make the long drive out Highway 100 to Fairview, to a site of unparalleled and unwanted importance in David's life. To a cabin that defines part of his identity.
At a small sign that says "Camp Marymount," we turn right onto a gravel road that leads into a lush green campsite. A female jogger approaches; we wave politely and drive on. Wooden buildings and gravel paths ring a center circle of benches where towels, abandoned by their youthful owners, are draped to dry in the warm sun. Signs of life surround us, yet there is no life here. It is as if everyone has been abducted. We creep along toward what is for David a foreignbut painfully familiardestination. It is his very own heart of darkness.
At a fork in the road, our caravan goes left. This rocky path, descending down a ridge and toward a tributary of Brush Creek, is basically a dry creek bed. We ford a small stream. And then we are there, at a clearing, with stables on the right and two old wooden cabins to the left. David gets out of his silver Jetta, sizes up the cabin in front of him and notes that a young tree wasn't there in his memory.
David and Mike holler to see if anyone is inside. Then up some stairs and David enters the ancient, graffiti-covered structure with Mike right behind him. The cabin is clearly occupied. Young girls' camp belongings are strewn about the room like confetti. Dirt has been swept into a pile. Inside, the adolescent vandals, artists, have been even busier than outside.
But David only stares at one spot to the right of the screen door, which hums a low, solitary moan as it closes slowly behind us. Breathing deeply, he points to the floor and says, "Right there." Tears fill his eyes, and Mike reaches to put an arm around his shoulder and squeeze. Outside, trees rustle in the breeze.
It soon becomes clear that David is ready to go. He has done what he came to do. But first he walks toward that spot in the floor and stomps it, hard, with his sandaled foot. See update/correction.
Outside, he bangs his head against a column on the front porch. The jogger, evidently a camp counselor, approaches to ask politely what we are doing unsupervised in a room full of children's belongings. David says he just has some memories here and that we'll all be leaving, no trouble intended. "When were you here?" the woman asks cordially?
"1961. November," David replies, staring off into the sun-drenched distance. "It was a Sunday night."
Afterward, we gather on the porch at the Loveless Café to eat pie and talk. The two men, survivors of a common battle, rattle off names of priests that molested young boys. They gossip. Mike says that cabin at Marymount has quite a reputation. David says that just the other day, he called his ex-wife and apologized for everything he put her through. Mike laughs, having lived through a dysfunctional marriage himself, and moments later he curses the church's leadership with the verve and vernacular of a sailor. They are comrades, these two. Together they laugh, side-by-side they cry.
Two "isolated cases"at least that's what they were toldwho managed to find each other in the big sea of Tennessee Catholicism. There are more, they assure me. They know them through support groups and through SNAPthe nationwide Survivors' Network of those Abused by Priests (www.rememberthesurvivors.com is the Tennessee chapter's website, or call Ann Brentwood at (865) 607-6119)and this is just the tip of the iceberg. They want nothing more than a sincere apology from a church that for too long looked the other way, a church that to this day protects itself at the expense of those it was charged with protecting. And they want the church to reach out to victims publicly so that hurting people might find healing. Oh, and David wants the Diocese to burn down that goddamned cabin. See update/correction.
In an age of litigation and covenants not to sue, though, they're not optimistic that the apology is coming anytime soon. The Diocese has offered to hold a mass of healing and reconciliation, but David says it'll be a hollow gesture without genuine contrition.
In the meantime, for all their troubles, guys like David and Mike have built deeper bonds with other human beings, particularly men, than they ever thought they could as victims of crime by men. "It's funny, I've never had any close male friends," says David, who in recent weeks has grown closer with his own son. "Well, I'm about to have a bunch. It's just a bad fraternity to be in."