Ten years after Jay Lemberger shot himself dead at 21, his parents, Nancy and Pat, and his two sisters, Tami and Heidi, gathered around the family’s coffee table in the living room of their home in Nacogdoches. On the table was a box of horrifying drawings by Jay, representing what he felt about his years of sexual abuse by a notorious former Dallas priest, Rudy Kos, who is currently serving three life sentences in prison. “This one is called Surrender,” said Nancy, handing me a large penciled rendering of a single hairy hand with figures of small boys drawn between the five fingers. “Now that I know what happened to Jay, I see what power Rudy had over him and other boys. When I look at this picture, all I see is the grip of a priest’s evil and sickness.”
Most of us have only recently learned about the onslaught of priestly pedophilia that previously had been a dark secret of the Catholic Church. But the Lemberger family has been living with the shock and the consequences of the scandal for much longer. In July 1997 a Dallas jury found that the local Catholic diocese had covered up years of unchecked child molestation by Kos and returned a record $119.6 million judgment in favor of the Lembergers and other plaintiffs. The judgment—later settled for $23 million—was at the time the largest sex-abuse judgment against the clergy in history. Although it paved the way for hundreds of other cases involving the crimes of priests, its most significant legacy may be the shaken faith of Catholic families across America, including the Lembergers.
The questions now being asked in local parishes and at the highest levels of the Vatican—and which will be a major concern of the attendees at the National Conference of Catholic Bishops when they gather in Dallas this month for their annual meeting—are the very ones the Lembergers have been living with. How did a church that has at its focal point the worship of the birth of a divine child produce as many as two thousand priests who preyed on innocent children—and leaders who protected them? What makes holy men commit such unholy acts? What happens to your faith in God when those who speak for God violate your children?
It is only natural that distraught families would ask these questions. And yet, such questions by their nature are hostile to the entire notion of faith, which requires the unshakable belief of Job and places considerable responsibility on the believer. As Southern novelist Flannery O’Connor, a Catholic, once wrote, “Either one is serious about salvation or one is not.” Faith doesn’t come in degrees, which is why the doubts raised by the pedophilia scandal will have long-term effects on the church. A Christian has faith in redemption. A Christian must look past evil and see the good because the good is the ultimate reality. But it’s hard to see the good when priests are molesting children.
Leafing through Jay’s box of drawings, I saw what the dark-haired, slender boy did not live to tell in words—the story of his relationship with Kos, which probably began in 1982, when Jay was a twelve-year-old altar boy at All Saints Catholic Church in North Dallas, and continued until he shot himself on January 31, 1992, in his apartment in Denver, only a few days before Kos was scheduled to visit him for a skiing trip. One of the drawings, called Treads, shows a single tennis shoe. During the trial, the Lembergers listened to testimony about the macabre significance of tennis shoes. Four of Kos’s victims testified that the priest had asked them to remove their shoes when they visited him in the rectory and that he had used their feet to gratify himself sexually. Three said Kos had performed oral sex on them. “Once, Pat and I gave Jay a pair of tennis shoes to wear while he was in the hospital,” recalled Nancy. “I couldn’t understand why Jay tore those shoes to shreds. Now I understand.” Another drawing shows a figure throwing stones at a depiction of Jesus carrying His cross to Calvary. Underneath the figure’s eyes, Jay scrawled the name “Rudy.”
The Lembergers did not learn of Jay’s abuse until other families filed a lawsuit six months after he died. When he was fourteen, he was hospitalized for depression after he admitted he had contemplated hanging himself in the garage, but he never disclosed to doctors or family members the nature of his relationship with Father Kos. All his parents knew was that Kos was Jay’s best friend and mentor. From 1981 to 1985, Jay spent the night at the rectory with a group of boys several times. Kos taught him to use a computer, talked to him about becoming a priest, and counseled him about school problems. The first person outside the family Nancy called after learning of Jay’s death was Kos, who was then serving as a priest in Ennis, near Dallas. He drove to Nacogdoches and preached the homily for Jay’s funeral: “Blessed are they that mourn,” read Kos from the Book of Matthew, “for they shall be comforted.”
The memory of the priest extending his false comfort continues to fuel Pat’s fury. He believes Kos is directly responsible for his son’s suicide and can’t forget that the same priestly hand that gave him the Eucharist, the bread and wine that Catholics believe is the body and blood of Jesus, was also the hand that abused his son. “God forgive me, but there are still many nights that I long to kill Rudy Kos,” sobbed Pat, as he covered his face with his large hands.
Who can blame him? Kos was the only person allowed to visit Jay behind closed doors at the psychiatric hospital. “He regularly took Jay Communion,” said Nancy, with a visible shudder. “From Jay’s artwork and some of the entries in his journal, we believe there was psychological abuse while he was in the hospital”—in the form of intimidation.