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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"Brian's life basically flickered out the day he was raped," says John McDonnell.

He says Brian was an outgoing, fun-loving kid, the family jokester. He was handsome with a meat-and-potatoes build and thick dark brown hair.

"He had the Irish kick to him," adds his friend Jimmy McGlone. "He was happy-go-lucky, always with a joke to tell."

Brian's father owned a pub at the corner of 56th and Lansdowne in West Philadelphia, and the family--10 in all--lived in a two-bedroom apartment above the bar. Their mother and father were Irish immigrants and Catholic to the core. They believed priests were Christ's representatives on earth and that missing Mass was a mortal sin, and they made sure the rosary was said every night. Each morning, before going off to school, the kids had to say their guardian angel prayer.

Angel of God, my guardian dear
To whom God's love commits me here
Ever this day be at my side
To light and guard, to rule and guide

John and Alex became altar boys in grade school. Brian, perhaps the most religious of the McDonnell children, eagerly followed in his brothers' footsteps.

Father Gerard Chambers came to St. Gregory's Parish in West Philly in the mid-'50s. He was a slight, middle-aged man with thin, graying hair and pale skin. He was distant, quick-tempered, with a slight hunch in his back. He chain-smoked English Oval cigarettes.

Chambers had been a priest in the Philadelphia Archdiocese for just more than 20 years. Before coming to St. Gregory's, he'd been stationed in 13 different parishes, most of them in small working-class towns upstate. He'd already spent three years in a Downingtown hospital where pedophile priests were often sent for "treatment." Immediately before arriving at St. Gregory's, he was a chaplain in an all-male orphanage in Orwigsburg, Pa., an assignment that lasted just six months.

At St. Gregory's, Chambers quickly became involved in overseeing the altar boys. He would come up behind them as they hung their vestments in the sacristy closet.

"I remember just trying to get dressed and out of there before he decided to molest me," recalls Brian McDonnell. "I was overwhelmed with fear."

The McDonnells say Chambers took to fondling all three of them--John, Brian and Alex--in the sacristy. Eventually he began taking them on trips to the Jersey shore and to an orphanage upstate.

"He'd smile as he was touching you," says John.

The boys never spoke to each other about what was happening.

The brothers say that while Chambers limited himself to just touching Alex and John, he took things further with the younger Brian.

One day he led Brian to his big black Chrysler and drove him to a house at the Jersey shore, where Brian says he was anally raped.

"I remember when he got done," says Brian. "I was crying, and I said to him, 'Why don't you kill me now? I can't live with this shame.' And he just looked at me and smiled. And laughed."

The McDonnell suit is one of 23 that have been filed against the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and former Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua since December. All of the lawsuits allege the archdiocese systematically covered up abuse allegations and allowed known pedophile priests continued access to children. The suits represent the first wave of civil litigation against the Philadelphia Catholic Church since the scandal first broke in 2002. Dozens more suits are expected to be filed in the upcoming months.

John Salveson, head of the Philadelphia Chapter of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), says the McDonnell brothers' experience dealing with the archdiocese--lengthy or no response to correspondences, denied requests for information or financial assistance, seemingly little concern for the pastoral or spiritual needs of the victims--is pretty much par for the course. He says the archdiocese has brought these lawsuits on itself.

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