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.

June 2002By Comments

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.

For the Lemberger family, the loss of Jay, the damaged trust in their church, and their lingering anger continue to test their resolve. The two generations have reacted to the challenge to their faith in different ways. Pat and Nancy have remained loyal to the church, but Jay’s sisters, Heidi and Tami, have left it. Pat was an altar boy himself in an era when a scandal in the church meant that the altar boys had snitched a little Communion wine. “God didn’t hurt my son,” he said. “Rudy did.” Pat and Nancy nonetheless remain angry with the hierarchy of the Dallas diocese. Even though Bishop Charles V. Grahmann expressed “regret” in a formal statement after the verdict in the lawsuit, the Lembergers resent that no member of the diocese was in court to hear the verdict and that no one reached out personally to them afterward. Pat, disgusted by the do-nothing attitude of the bishops, stopped going to church this year after Palm Sunday. Nancy is still a regular churchgoer at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Nacogdoches. “I love the church,” she said. “The church is us—not simply a bunch of sick priests.”

But their daughters feel different. “I don’t want anything to do with the church,” said Heidi, 29. “I realize not all priests are evil, but how do you tell one from another? The hierarchy is rotten.” She is the director of Giving Tree Cottage, a massage-therapy school and day spa owned by her parents, and sometimes encounters clients who have been sexually abused. “I see people on my table who are hurting the same way Jay was hurting,” said Heidi. “It helps me in dealing with my grief.” Her older sister, Tami, 33, believes in God and goes to other Christian churches on holidays, but more out of nostalgia than anything else. She no longer considers herself a Catholic. “If they lie about sexual abuse,” she said, “then what else will they lie about?”

The root of the current crisis is the conflict between sex and religion. As much as traditional denominations have tried to separate the desires of the flesh from the desires of the spirit, the two refuse to remain separate. In fact, they seem to be different sides of the same coin. If faith in God is an expression of a spiritual connection to something bigger than yourself—something that will not leave you—then it’s similar to the physical connection with another human being that happens in sex. Both sexual and religious experiences fill human emptiness and trigger profound feelings of union. It’s no accident that the denial of one produces a sick obsession with the other.

Pedophilia is not the result of sexual frustration, of course; there are many pedophiles outside the church and many priests who are not pedophiles. But the frequency of the problem inside the priesthood requires that the Catholic Church face the conflict between sex and religion in a straightforward manner. The fact that a few American bishops have raised questions about the value of celibacy is a timid but hopeful beginning. Celibacy, as currently practiced in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, is unnatural and an invitation to perversion. It’s not so much that the church is filled with entirely bad priests but that the priests are forced to practice a bad discipline—it’s not even a Biblical doctrine.

If nothing else, this scandal is out in the open and priests will be held accountable for their actions. That’s one of the few things that give the Lembergers true comfort. “Maybe it was Jay’s fate to help expose this horrible crime,” said Tami. “Maybe something good will come of it.” After all, that is what faith is all about.

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