Sins of the past
News that the Saint Bernard School property will be sold so the Roman Catholic Diocese of Norwich can liquidate its assets and compensate survivors of clergy sexual abuse is hitting students and alumni with a visceral punch.
For a sense of how it feels to contemplate no longer having an alma mater, recall the outcry in North Stonington in 2012 when a serious proposal was made to close Wheeler High School and send the town’s high school-age students to nearby towns. That’s how it feels to think you might lose an institution that you owe for helping you keep your head on during puberty and, when the hormones subsided, for showing you what you had to offer as an adult.
The students and faculty now at Saint Bernard School, and Bishop Michael Cote and the current diocesan administration, had nothing to do with the protection of local abusive clergy by Catholic officialdom. Since the 1990s the Norwich diocese has demonstrably followed its declared policy of making the protection of children and young people the first priority. It has taken longer to weed out some of the perpetrators. Cases still remain open for some of the remaining 142 people who have made claims of abuse. Dozens of those accuse one man, now deceased, at Mount St. John Academy in Deep River.
We chose Saint Bernard High School for our own children because we believed that the school and parents were all pretty much on the same page about expectations of and for our kids. Fortunately, no malicious abuse proved us wrong. They got a fine education and even finer, lifetime friendships with students from all over eastern Connecticut and Westerly. I imagine all those old friends -- whom I can still picture as 16-year-olds -- shocked and lamenting that the school they cheered for, ran for and put on their mortarboards for is for sale.
But if this is hard for those who owe much of their adult success to their high school experience, they at least have the lifelong benefit of good memories in an institution they trusted.
Compare that to the experience of kids who were sexually abused by people they were taught to revere and who now, as adults, are suing the diocese because of the negative -- in many cases, ruinous -- effects on their lives.
It’s a sad loss all the way around. A property sale won’t erase the sins of the past, but if it can help ease years of human suffering, it is not pointless. Consider that it is people that will be helped and it was people that made high school years special, not a building or a field.
As real estate, Saint Bernard is prime. Its building houses seven grades totaling about 400 students. Its 113 acres off Route 32 in Montville have been rumored as being on the market in the past, not as a way to satisfy bankruptcy creditors but because the campus is not far from the Mohegan reservation and might appeal to the tribe or to a developer. The town has assessed the property’s value at $21 million.
In his letter to families and alumni, Head of School Donald Macrino seemed to imply that a buyer may be waiting in the wings and receptive to leasing back the property to the school. The diocese will also sell Saint Bernard’s longtime sports rival, the larger, all-boys Xavier High School in Middletown.
For those who love Saint Bernard, there’s hope of its survival. For those who have been living in survival mode after being exploited as teenagers, the hope is for justice. They need the lengthy, costly bankruptcy proceedings to result in sufficient funds for the diocese to compensate them to a meaningful degree.
One of the basic tenets of the Catholic Christian faith, which Saint Bernard School has taught with sincerity, is that humans do wrong and need forgiveness. Unfortunately, the actions of some U.S. bishops during the clergy sexual abuse scandal were anything but sincere, to the extent of manipulating that doctrine so they could look the other way.
The sales of Saint Bernard and Xavier schools won’t change that ugly history. But they will serve as a reminder that humans have a right to justice, even if it costs $29 million, funded largely by the sale of a beloved alma mater, to get it for them.
Lisa McGinley is a member of The Day Editorial Board.
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