January 1 – ‘the little disturbances of men’

I was an eleven year old boy the first time someone left me alone with Father Thatcher.

St Louis in 1850 was a rough place. If diseases didn’t claim you, there were plenty of unscrupulous people waiting for you to show a sign of weakness. So the way of the time, was to never to do so. While Pop had died while I was young, at least he’d taught me never to look down at my shoes, never show a sign of weaker character. The moment you do, someone like Thatcher, or worse, would prey on you like a wolf in the wild. My pop called them ‘the little disturbances of men’ – that as we moved out in the frontier, that men’s basic instincts would be to show their worst far earlier, knowing that fear is a powerful weapon over most folk.

As if to prove his lessons to me, Pop died that year. He’d gotten pneumonia and worked sick through the planting season – and he was dead by harvest. Ma did the best she could, wrestling what little money they had. Without him, she simply had to get to work.

We had moved to St. Louis from Montreal with barely a houseful of belongings a year prior. We spoke French, instead of Prairie English – so my words came to me slowly. What was my Mother to do but find somewhere I could take refuge, somewhere I could find some peace from other farm boys, for whom I was quick pickings. They’d learned from his schoolhouse how brutal his cane could be, so I would go to Thatcher’s rectory after school and wait for my mother to come get me.

Father Thatcher was not your stereotypical Catholic priest. He was the type of man you’d imagine fighting on the streets of New York or working the docks of Baltimore or Boston. He was a barrel of a man. It was if he’d cut trees like a lumberjack and one day, decided God was a stronger calling.

It’s forty years ago now – but I can still remember the first time he gave me that unusually strong hug one dark fall evening. It didn’t end quickly and socially like all the others before it. I realized he was aroused under his trousers.

Fearing what was coming next, I began trying to wriggle away. I screamed out at him, “I’ll tell someone.”

“Go ahead and tell, boy. Nobody will believe you.”, he said, calmly breathing hot against my neck.

He knew the impact that truth had on me. I thought in that moment, the fire and fury this man would have met if my father was still alive. How it would have cut through my Father’s faith in everything, God at the very least. I think that it would have destroyed my father – but in turn, he would have rose up and destroyed the bully towering over me in the rectory. But that is another boy’s story – this one is mine.

Instead Mother had slapped me off my feet when I told her, “You don’t you dare lie about a priest like that.”, she said, visibly disgusted.

I was no dummy. You beat me once for something, I’m not going to come back again and get beat again. So I didn’t tell anyone else.

She sent me back to him the next morning for counseling. Right back to the man who had license to rape me.

While I was under his influence he would bribe me with extra food to take home to the family or have a box of cookies or chocolates for my Mother. I think that was the worst part of it, was that not only did he have me, but I watched him manipulate my Mother into making me spend more and more time around him with equal precision and mastery. If I relented to his needs, my Mother would hear what a good Catholic boy I was turning out to be, otherwise, he’d tell her he was worried there was sin growing in me, and that only prayer and service to the Church would solve my continuing troubles.

I’d see him during services give that look he’d given me once – to another boy in the choir or that almost imperceptible pause in front of another altar boy during services. As gross as it sounds, at the time, I did nothing to warn others. His power in that rectory was absolute – whether he was rapping your knuckles in class or insistently rubbing his sweaty crotch against your face. There was simply nobody there that would understand. It was such a dark secret I didn’t even dare talk about it with the other boys my age, who might share a similar fate left in his care or advice.

The way things turned out, I never had an adult conversation with her about it. I never had a chance to ask her how she could let it happen to the child she was sworn to protect. I still wonder if she did know, but felt powerless. Because once someone knows, it falls on them, too. They become responsible, and for some people that’s too much to handle.

I don’t blame her. Here she was on the edges of the frontier, alone. She was left with so few real choices.