Fathers and Sins

A priest, a boy, a tragedy. Ten years before the current pedophilia scandal, a Dallas family faced—and is still coping with—a challenge to its faith.

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

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