At first glance, it was yet another list, released last week by yet another Roman Catholic institution, detailing yet another travesty involving sexual abuse of minors.

But overlay the timelines of the seven Jesuit priests, all admitted or credibly accused predators, who passed through Cheverus High School in Portland over the course of nearly a half century and something startling emerges:

The years 1978 and 1979 were a particularly dangerous time for a vulnerable teenage boy to attend Cheverus. During those years, no fewer than five predatory men worked simultaneously at the school– four so-called “men of God” and one layman coach.

Think about that. Five adults, all prone to sexually exploiting their power and authority in a school where hierarchal discipline ruled the day. All free to roam the teeming hallways, the packed classrooms and, yes, the lonely locker room with an eye out for those who might make an easy mark.

At the same time, we can only wonder: How many more victims, now in their 50s, are still out there, their lives forever damaged, their trauma still raw, their stories shared with no one?

And how much are Cheverus and its alumni community really doing to reach back and help them?

“I’m sure you’re right,” Mark Smith, who graduated from Cheverus in 1972 and went on to teach biology there for 41 years, said in a telephone interview Friday. “I’m sure there have to be some others out there.”

When Smith, himself a victim of childhood sexual abuse, joined the Cheverus faculty in 1977, two priests named on last week’s list – Richard Roos and James Walsh – were already there. So was Charles Malia, the legendary track coach who admitted to this newspaper back in 2000 that longstanding rumors he had sexually molested his young athletes were true.

Then in 1978, Eugene Orteneau arrived along with Stephen Dawber, who was elevated to president of Cheverus the next year.

In 1980, Dawber welcomed James Talbot to the school’s teaching ranks. Talbot, who worked at Cheverus for two decades, currently is serving a three-year term at the Mountain View Correctional Center in Charleston for sexually abusing a boy in Freeport during the 1990s.

Of those six, only Malia and Talbot have been accused of sexual abuse during their time at Cheverus, along with William Cahill, who taught there from 1950-60. Allegations against the others came mostly from other Jesuit schools where they worked before and after their time in Portland.

Still, they were all here. And given the shrouds of shame and secrecy that to this day surround this entire unholy scandal, it’s reasonable to suspect that behind that cluster of predators under the same roof at the same time lie more horror stories that have yet to be told.

The question is, how many? And will anyone ever hear them?

Marci Hamilton, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, is the founder and CEO of CHILD USA, a research and advocacy organization in Philadelphia that aims to protect children from sexual abuse and neglect.

Told of the Cheverus cluster in an interview, Hamilton said the cohort of students who attended the school during the late 1970s are now precisely at or near the age when most victims of child sexual abuse finally step out of the shadows. The average age for coming forward is 52, she said, while the median age is 47.

Why the long delay?

For starters, Hamilton said, many victims have spent their entire adult lives struggling with depression, addiction and other mental health disorders directly tied to post-traumatic stress rooted in their early years.

“These are individuals who frequently have had their prospects darkened. They aren’t able to achieve what they would have achieved otherwise and they tend to be facing more problems than your average individual,” Hamilton said. “It really does take into adulthood to try to grasp that you have not been the adult you should have been, to have all these problems, and understand the connection.”

Beyond that, she said, ample anecdotal evidence suggests that many victims, particularly those who were raised Roman Catholic, wait until their parents are deceased before divulging what happened to them.

“They don’t want to hurt their parents,” Hamilton said. “It’s disruptive to the family to have someone question the church. So, they’ll avoid both hurting their parents and also the discord with the family. And they’re struggling otherwise.”

In fact, according to Hamilton, research shows that fully one-third of all victims will tell no one and take their secret to their graves.

Which raises yet another question: What more can be done to make healing disclosure, be it private or public, less painful for potential Cheverus victims?

PUTTING UP ROADBLOCKS

In an email Friday, Cheverus spokeswoman Jeannette Wycoff acknowledged that “unfortunately, there were abusers on campus in the late 1970s and early 1980s … and our institution bears the shame of this history.”

Wycoff said the school has reached out to its alumni and pays for victims’ counseling. Noting that news coverage like last week’s “can be a trigger,” she said the school continues to encourage victims to come forward.

But for Michael Sweatt, who was molested by Malia as a Cheverus freshman in 1972, such entreaties ring hollow.

Sweatt still remembers, back when he was undergoing counseling paid for by Cheverus, that he and one or two other victims suggested setting up a group counseling session as a way for other victims to come forward in a safe, supportive environment. The school administration responded that it would only consider such an idea if it was provided the names of every attendee – thus precluding the chance that some victims might want to start by participating anonymously.

In a similar vein, Sweatt said, he’s proposed over the years that Cheverus allow him and other victims to speak to current students about what happened all those years ago, maybe do the same at an annual gathering of the faculty. He’s gotten nowhere – in fact, he can’t even get the school’s current leaders to respond to his emails.

“They put a roadblock up,” Sweatt said. “And they’ve put roadblocks up at every juncture.”

PROTECTING THE NAME

Mark Smith, the longtime biology teacher, was sexually abused by a relative when he was between the ages of 8 and 10. So he knows what victims go through – he didn’t disclose what happened to him until, at age 32, he refused to invite the abuser to his wedding.

Smith, for one, thinks the school could do more to make things right. For example, in lieu of civil suits long ago thwarted by expired statutes of limitations, it could establish a victim compensation fund supported by both the school and its alumni.

Or target its outreach to potential victims from those years when the risk of abuse was at its highest.

“Maybe some of the people there now, or the prior administrations before this came up, haven’t done anything wrong,” Smith said. But at the same time, he added, “they haven’t done anything right.”

Nor, in any organized way, have the alumni. As CHILD USA’s Hamilton noted, the tendency among many of those who were not abused as students is to “just view themselves as lucky, and that’s not good enough.”

She’s right. If a place like Cheverus taught them anything, you’d expect these proud alums, many now pillars of the community, to recognize the suffering endured by their peers and, however belatedly, do what they can now to help alleviate it.

Instead, when guys like Sweatt and the handful of other victims who have gone public walk down the street, it’s not uncommon for them to see fellow Cheverus alums go out of their way to avoid any contact.

“That place is like a fraternity,” Sweatt said. “It ran like a fraternity. And once you break that bond and point to the institution and those who are running the institution, their focus is more to protect that name. Because otherwise it tarnishes the high school they attended.”

LETTER TO ALUMNI

Last week, just as the news broke of the Jesuit list, a letter went out via email from the Rev. Robert Pecoraro, Cheverus’s current president, to the “Alumni Community.”

The letter, which alumnus Sweatt never received, listed the priests and their years at Cheverus. It noted that five of the seven priests are now deceased, that these are “difficult times” for the Catholic Church, that Cheverus today is a much safer place than it was all those decades ago.

“We may never realize the full impact that this abuse crisis has had on individuals, families, or communities,” Pecoraro wrote. He later added: “While we cannot erase the pain and suffering experienced by any victim/survivor of clerical abuse, I ask that you join me in praying for and with them.”

But for all the letter’s assurances, one thing was glaring by its omission. Nowhere, not once, did Pecoraro encourage more victims to come forward.

 

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