"Why Did I Do It and How Do I Feel About It Now?" Priest Sex Offender Speaks Out

Fr. Cyril (not his real name) wrote me out of the blue six years ago in response to an article I published in the National Catholic Reporter, and we kept in contact. Two days ago my wife and I visited him in his "hospital," in reality a maximum security prison for sex offenders who have finished serving their time but have not been freed. I should explain that in California you can be incarcerated in a "hospital" surrounded by coils of barbed wire twelve feet thick and eighteen feet high for a crime you might commit if you were released. For every "patient"--about 1200 in all--there are three on staff, over 3600. It's a costly business for the taxpayer.

Cyril has been incarcerated for thirty years for crimes he committed with five boys, ages 10 to 14, over a period of five months in the mid-1980s. Why did he commit these crimes, and what does he feel now as he looks back at them? I was curious. Cyril had written a 44-page answer to these questions and sent it to me before the visit, my first.

He wrote that he had been sexually molested by an uncle when he was three or four, that his mother had been brutally beaten by her husband and placed in an asylum, and that he and his siblings were taken to an orphanage run by nuns. Under their tutelage he learned to love "the beautiful Mass and Benediction services." Much later, at the age of 24, he was ordained into the Orthodox Catholic priesthood and began a social justice ministry on the West Coast.

Eight years later, after two failed romantic relationships, one with an older woman and the other with a younger man, he closed down the Peace and Justice ministry and swung into what passed in the early 80s as the "gay night life":

I threw all I had ever known--my faith and the very foundations of all I'd considered my spiritual self-identity--into a cavern deep within the recesses of my soul. A truly frightening realization came over me at one point that I perhaps was not really who I thought I was; that I should never have become a priest of the Church of our Lord Jesus, and that I was not what I had hoped to become and never would be. I felt that I was nothing of worth. I sensed that I had no special qualities apart from or ahead of my time. My ministry had been an utter and absolute failure, the priesthood entirely a mistake. I was scared to death because I was lost and I knew it.

But Cyril had farther to fall before he hit bottom. After he watched two friends die of AIDS, one in his arms, he "became literally terrified of any sexual contact with adult men or women for fear of contracting AIDS." He began experimenting with minors. Surprisingly, it was not out of some

innate attraction for children that my mind went in that direction, but with the vulgar thought of using them; using them as substitutes for the adult partners I feared to go near--those I had concluded were just far too damn risky.

His prey consisted of neighborhood kids, and all the acts took place in his apartment far from Church property. He would lure them there by hiring them to "do chores--cleaning the yard, washing the car, vacuuming the apartment." Then the play would start.

Most incidents began with innocent tickling and then moved to touching, rubbing and massaging. From there, after the initial lewd acts, I devised grooming tactics, manipulations, gift-giving and money bribes to entice them each time they returned -- moving by stages with each victim. They were always alone; I never allowed anyone to be involved but the two of us--which facilitated my ability to secretly manipulate them into sexual conversations and play. And slowly I progressed to the point where oral sex was permitted and then anal penetration became gradually tolerable.

It all came to a halt when the father of two of the boys overheard them talking in the garage and called the police. Under interrogation the boys confessed. It was all over for Cyril. He was convicted on 17 counts of attempted and actual molestation. He would never hurt another child.

Today Cyril is in his early sixties. Like all the other patients in the visiting room where my wife and I met him, he wore a khaki uniform; but in almost every other way he looked like a misfit. Trim and cheerful, with kindly blue eyes and a ready smile, he bore no resemblance to anyone's version of a criminal sex offender.

Cyril doesn't feel like one, either. He looks back in horror at what he did, but he knows there is not the remotest chance he would repeat such offenses. Not that he is running away from these "awful truths" of the past. They have been permanently grafted onto his memory.

I have knelt many long years in my prison cell to contemplate the darkness of my failings, the pain and the anguish I have caused. I understand. I get it.

What he fears today is that he will probably have to spend the rest of his life locked up. He is being "hospitalized" for a hypothetical act the State feels he might commit in the future, an act he abhors. He knows well that almost no one walks out of that Hospital, regardless of a sympathetic evaluation by staff psychiatrists. But he refuses to feel sorry for himself.

I deserve no one's pity. No one knows this truth better than I know it. My conscience is seared by the betrayals of trust, the diabolical offenses of my youth, and my incarceration is my penance. I alone must endure it into my old age.

But I do pity Cyril. The public is ready to forgive almost every crime except the one he committed. On a radio show he participated in, a woman told him she would rather see her child murdered than sexually molested. He knows he has been demonized in the minds of almost everyone.

Inspired by his humility and contriteness, I wrote Governor Jerry Brown to try to win him a pardon. Other than that, what could I do? He edits a monthly Catholic bulletin for the hospital and provides unofficial counseling, and I told him he is probably doing more good for the hospital than he could do on the outside tucked away in a monastery--his goal if he should be released. He agreed. But still . . .

Gandhi believed in reincarnation and viewed it as a great mercy, for it gave the disgraced a fresh start. Cyril doesn't believe in reincarnation, but he is thankful that death is not too far away. One way or another, assuming there is some kind of afterlife where real justice is meted out, he will get a fresh start--one I believe is way overdue.