Guest Blog: “Upon being a Witness”

I am trying something new here.  I have been corresponding with a woman who’s sister was sexually abused by a Catholic Priest in the Diocese of Scranton.  The priest has enjoyed staying under the radar all these years and the Diocese has not publicly acknowledged that he was/is a problem.    Without further ado, I give you Rachel’s guest blog post:

Rachel Lawhon Powers

Upon being a Witness

I find myself visiting scenes of my childhood to reckon with the sense that I’m going through the motions Sunday after Sunday in a church I no longer fully trust or respect. I attempt to reconcile two versions of a parish priest from my childhood. Writing this narrative gives voice to not only my sister’s experience of abuse but my own experience of spiritual doubt and uncertainty – a Lent where I have needed to articulate this past.

I mostly remember Father Houston’s large build, his reddish hair in the light and his hands holding up the host during the consecration. St. Paul’s church and rectory still stand on Penn Avenue, expansive and empty. The nuns across the street are more etched into my memory. Etched also is the image of our monsignor when we greeted him in unison or my humiliation as he pointed out my grades on my report card. We, the grandchildren of immigrant mill workers and miners, were indoctrinated to respect and obey without question. This was Scranton, Pennsylvania in the 1960’s and 1970’s. It remains an Irish Catholic enclave to this day.

In 2002 my sister Gretchen broke her silence and emailed each sibling what she described as her freedom letter. Only later would she disclose the truth to our parents. She was releasing herself from a burden that was not hers to carry. This is what she wrote – “Regardless of my willingness and involvement in the relationship it comes down to one very simple and straightforward fact: you were a 32-35 year old adult man who was a Catholic priest and I was a 14-17 year old adolescent girl. This relationship that I hold you responsible and accountable for was absolutely wrong.”

In the wake of the Boston scandal and while raising an adolescent son, Gretchen realized that she could no longer remain silent. Our associate pastor, 18 years her senior, abused her from the time she was 14 until she was 17. After my sister’s report was found to be credible, the priest, Joseph Houston, was formally dismissed in accordance to the Dallas Charter. However, The Bishop of Scranton, Bishop Timlin(now Bishop Emeritus Timlin) allowed Houston to serve one more month to support him in presenting a facade that he was retiring and taking a previously scheduled sabbatical. In a similar tactic to avoid media attention, Timlin refused to release the names of the eight other priests dismissed from the diocese despite media pressure. The opportunity for more victims to come forward and begin the healing process was lost.

What I remember of Houston is linked with my sister. Houston took my sister under his wing and made her feel more mature than her peers.They both prepared my second grade class for our sacraments of penance and Eucharist. Ten years my senior, Gretchen had been a responsible middle child in a large family. Often if our parents were out, Gretchen would assume the duties of dinner and bedtime.

Houston and another priest often joined our dinners. Afterwards, the adults sat in the living room for drinks and conversation. I recall a set of Irish coffee cups muted greenish brown that Father Houston had given to my parents. For a long time the cups had been in the china cupboard in our dining room. I don’t remember at what point Houston stopped being a family friend but by the time I was ten or so he no longer visited.

In May of 2002, I was vaguely aware of the sex abuse cases being reported out of the Archdiocese of Boston. I recall thinking of that line “power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” To be honest—my life was more focused on tending to the needs of my two small children. My philosophy was not to think about it.

Sitting upstairs on a hot May morning in 2002, I began to read Gretchen’s emails-one by one. They broke down my sister’s facade and likewise my denial. When I was 12, Gretchen had married a man who always felt like an wise older brother and they raised two smart well adjusted sons. She also was the first and only member of my large Irish Catholic family to earn a doctorate degree. We were and continue to be competitive and like many families we had things we didn’t talk about. We didn’t talk about the times when the adults drank too much and things turned ugly or when our other sister spent nine months in Tennessee: the child given away. This time the lines opened up, after all we were all adults.

I’m not sure I said that right things to my sister. What does one say? Except of course, I know that anyone needs to know that he or she isn’t at fault. Because my sister’s situation happened when I was so much younger- I realize now I had been between the ages of 4 and 7, I hadn’t felt the full impact of her disclosure. I hadn’t wanted to feel the full impact of her disclosure.

Houston’s letter of three lines apologizing for his actions written in 2002 felt inadequate to my sister. The church full of compassionate words failed to do much to amend the wrong. The Bishop had seemed more concerned with giving Houston a graceful exit. Needing more closure, my sister enlisted the help of the Scranton diocesan vicar to set up a restorative justice and mediation prayer service in March of 2006. To Houston’s credit, he agreed to participate in the restorative justice prayer service at his wife’s urging and took full responsibility for his actions. What would I ask Joe Houston if I had the opportunity to meet him? Why? How many others did you use? What was it like for you to come back to Scranton and look my sister, her husband and my parents and apologize? Why did you and your bishop evade the truth when you slipped away from your ministry for good?

I kept my inner turmoil about the deceit of the Church at bay until November of 2007 when a classmate of mine, a priest from the same diocese, was on trial for raping an altar boy. The fact that a Monsignor in the diocese testified that the diocese had knowingly shuffled this priest from the now defunct St. Pius X Seminary to a parish in 1992 stunned and angered me. Clearly by the 90’s, it was common clinical knowledge that pedophiles would continue to rape and abuse children. However, Bishop Timlin opted to put this priest into a parish where he abused a young man for three years. In an ironic twist, the attorney representing the victim was also a childhood acquaintance who went to the same Catholic grade school and knew Houston as his parish priest. I’m not alone in grappling with this contradiction. For every victim who comes forward, there are friends and family who must come to terms with the hierarchy which has shielded wrong doers and obstructed justice instead of coming forward with the truth. I can only speak from my perspective as a witness raising the questions, doubts and thoughts on the brokenness and the hope which comes from honestly looking at the past.

2 thoughts on “Guest Blog: “Upon being a Witness””

  1. I am so sorry for your sister. Please always remind her in some way, it was not her fault. Father Houston was our parish priest at St. Vincent’s in Plymouth. We were all surprised when he left, and thought he told the truth, that he is just a man, like everyone else and he decided to retire.. I thought that it must have been the truth, because soon after he got married. I and many people respected and, naturally, trusted him. My son was very close buddies with him. I thought what better friend to have. WOW!! MR. HOUSTON WAS NO PRIEST. He was a common criminal. Not common, actually, the worst kind he committed crimes against a child. HE IS A PREDATOR…A PEDOPHILE and he should be in jail with every other pedophile.

  2. I am in shock and disbelief. I have been a member of St. Vincent’s Church, now All Saints Parish since my birth. The deceit I feel right now is unbelievable. It is so hard for me to comprehend this tragedy. Words can’t explain how sorry I am for the victims. I am so disgusted with Joe Houston! I will never again give him the title of Fr.
    I am also totally shocked at how many priests from the Scranton Diocese have been accused and processed for this horrible crime.

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