Innocence Lost

After decades of repression, a local man speaks out about the priest he says molested him. His actions may force the Archdiocese of Philadelphia to do right by its many alleged victims.

By Mike Newall
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Jul. 14, 2004

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Later, when the visit is over, Jimmy McGlone reminisces about the childhood he shared with Brian.

"Nobody ever messed with Brian McDonnell," he says in a hushed voice. "He was a big kid, but the nicest guy ever. An athlete. Good looking. Smart. Funny. He had all the goods."


"The relationship of the three of us as brothers has been ruptured because of this abuse," says John McDonnell over iced tea at a Center City Starbucks two days after the visit to Norristown State Hospital. "We always knew that all of us were being molested by this guy, but we never talked about it among ourselves, and we never really talked about it as a family for the longest time. Then, probably in the late '60s, Alex and I started talking about it. Over the next 15 years we tried to engage Brian, but he would just turn on a dime and walk the other way. Everybody knew he'd been molested too."

Like many victims of clergy abuse, Alex and John McDonnell felt emboldened to step forward after the pedophile priest scandal broke nationally in 2002.

In February 2002 Alex--who lives in Wynnewood with his wife--fired off an email to the archdiocese after a statement was released saying there had been 35 abusive priests and 50 victims in Philadelphia since 1950.

Alex McDonnell, at 61, the oldest of the McDonnell brothers, is a reserved man, thinner than his siblings, with the same blue eyes. For a long time he questioned his faith. He struggled with alcohol and shut himself off to people.

"If Gerard Chambers' name is not on the list, I request you add it," he wrote, citing the name of the priest who allegedly abused all three brothers. "As a victim of pedophilia from this predator, I know what I'm talking about."

Alex says he received a response confirming Chambers' name was on the list.

In a letter dated March 2003 John and Alex informed the archdiocese's victims' assistance office of their brother Brian's deteriorating physical and mental health. The McDonnell brothers also sent the letter to Monsignor Joseph McFadden, a onetime personal secretary to former Archbishop Cardinal John Joseph Krol, who knew the McDonnell family from high school.

McFadden, who was recently appointed an auxiliary bishop, says he never responded to the letter because he thought the archdiocese was handling the matter. But the archdiocese never did respond to the letter.

In November John flew to Philadelphia from his home in California to meet with two officials from the archdiocese's victims' assistance office. He told the officials about the abuse his family had endured and of Brian's deteriorating condition. He asked if they could cover Brian's future psychiatric, medical and housing costs. "He hasn't been able to work in 25 years," he told them.

He then asked one of the officials, Monsignor William Lynn, for a copy of Chambers' assignments.

"We don't usually give out copies of that," answered Lynn.

"You don't usually get molested at 12 or 13, either," John snapped back. "I want a copy."

Lynn handed over a copy of Chambers' personal files.

In 40 years of ministry (including the 17 years spent on seven different "health leaves"), Chambers was shuffled through 17 different parishes, spending on average just more than a year in each one. (At least five people have alleged that Chambers molested them in his two-year stay at St. Gregory's in West Philadelphia.)

Soon after the meeting, the archdiocese informed John and Alex McDonnell by email that it wouldn't cover their brother's housing costs, but it offered to provide him counseling through Catholic Social Services.

The McDonnell brothers picked up the phone and called a lawyer.

Responding through spokesperson Cathy Rossi, the archdiocese says it has "made a commitment to, as much as humanly possible, protect children from abuse. This includes, among other things, background checks of all religious and lay personnel who have regular contact with children, written standards of ministerial behavior, and a safe-environment program for parishes and schools that provides education and training in recognizing and preventing abuse."

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