With priest-abuse trial underway, former student's mind is in the classroom
My very best friends today are the people I went to grade school with. In 1998, we were passing notes in class and testing the authority of our new sixth-grade teacher, Bernard Shero. In early 2011, we were exchanging frenetic text messages as Shero's face popped on seemingly every TV screen in America. He and three priests from our Northeast Philadelphia parish had been named in a grand jury report for having allegedly sexually abused minors.
But since then, we've been relatively silent about it all. It's come up a few times in conversations, especially when we run into old classmates we've lost touch with. Despite having spent our childhoods surrounded by these men, none of us has much to say.
We weren't victims, fortunately, and so it almost feels unreal. There's a sense of shock, not because of the ardent Catholic faith some of my friends have, or because we'd never have expected these accusations. What's most shocking to me is that while I spent so many lunch periods with my friends groaning about Shero making us read The Phanton Tollbooth, somewhere in that same building, some of my schoolmates suffered in silence.
Shero is accused of offering a 10-year-old boy a ride home from school one day and then driving him to a neighborhood park and anally raping him. That boy is a year younger than me, one of probably 50 males in his class that year. Maybe he lived on my block, served at a mass I attended. He has not been named, but I must know him. He's not the only alleged victim, and Shero isn't the only accused.
Prosecutors will retry Rev. James Brennan in March. He was acquitted last year after the jury deadlocked on attempted rape and child endangerment charges. Rev. Edward Avery pleaded guilty, and the monsignor accused of covering it all up, William Lynn, got to three to six years in prison. Rev. Charles Engelhardt, accused of "sharing" a victim with Shero, is now on trial with my former teacher.
All of them roamed the halls every day I spent at St. Jerome's School, and some long before and after. In my head, I say, Do you mean to tell me that four men who were all at the school during the same time period and have all been accused of molestation and rape never raised suspicion for any other adult in the school? That while I sought out the behind-the-screen confessionals for a sacrament I considered bogus, somewhere a young boy was standing in line waiting to confess his sins to the man he says molested him?
A year with Shero
I remember five very specific things about Bernard Shero:
He taught us how to pronounce his name by repeating, "S plus hero equals Shero." He used pens that exploded so often that he eventually began wearing a pocket protector. He had glasses so thick they made his lazy eye — or was it a glass eye? — look even worse. He had breath so bad you'd be cloaked in it when he spoke to you, leaning in close and putting a hand on your shoulder. And he reminded us constantly that he wore very quiet shoes so he could sneak up on us during tests.
Shero's first year at Jerome's was my second. He was new to the school, and I had just transferred there the previous year from a different Catholic school in a different Northeast Philly neighborhood. I don't think I realized it at the time, but I quite enjoyed having a teacher who was so new. He was an easy target. My friends and I tested his limits in the not-really-bad way Catholic school students do. We wrote notes, talked in class, challenged his authority.
We made fun of him behind his back. He was a dork, we decided. Socially awkward. From the way he pushed his glasses up his nose with his index finger to the pink and purple shirts he always wore.
The girls giggled when, one afternoon, the three teachers separated the girls from the boys. The lone sixth grade female teacher passed out "sanitary napkins" while Shero and the other male teacher gave the boys whatever the Catholic school version of the "sex talk" is. Can you imagine what Shero is saying? the girls whispered as we pondered what the guy we figured didn't have friends was saying about sex.
To my friends and me — smart kids who stayed out of serious trouble — Shero was our chance to act out a little bit in a way we'd never do in front of our other teachers or the feared Sister Fischetti, the parish director. To a nameless boy across the hall in fifth grade, he was the worst kind of bully.
Not a victim
Even though I've run all those scenes through my mind a million times, I can't really identify an emotion to connect with learning of Shero's charges. Maybe that's because it was so long ago, or because I was never a victim.
As for the accused priests? I spent fleeting moments with Avery and Engelhardt, probably struggling to pay attention to a long-winded homily.
Brennan I remember more vividly, specifically for a speech he gave our class some time before we graduated from St. Jerome's in 2001. It was about bullying and name-calling and I'm sure there was a be-a-better-Catholic lesson thrown in there. He dropped in the words "bitch" and "slut" to appeal to his pre-teen audience, and he told us about his boyhood fights with his brother. He was relating to us, all the while allegedly targeting boys my age to fulfill his sexual desires.
No doubt I know the fifth-grade accuser, too, though he remains unidentified. He could have pumped a keg for me in high school. We might be Facebook friends. And yet for all the close-knittedness that exists in Philadelphia, I remained blissfully ignorant to the goings-on at St. Jerome's until a grand jury brought them front and center in 2011.
Did you hear about Shero? Weren't you guys altar servers? Remember that time Shero blamed Sara for breaking the Mary statue?
Even as my friends and I talked that day in 2011 about the charges, most of what we remembered from sixth-grade were funny moments and the effort we put into choosing our confirmation names. Christina, Marie, Felicity, Patrick, Mark...
It's not that we were shocked at the allegations, given it's not uncommon to hear of abuse charges against Catholic priests. It's not that we could or couldn't imagine Shero or these priests assaulting students. What still leaves me confused and a little guilty is that despite reading the gruesomely detailed report of a student's alleged rape, I have only fond memories of sixth grade. I'm sure that has plenty to do with having best friends so great that we still choose to be around each other.
It makes me sad that that fifth-grade boy probably didn't experience the joy of using colored pens to exchange end-of-the-year pleasantries with his classmates on his blue oxford shoes. I saved those shoes, knowing I'd never remember the messages scrawled on them. But that boy left St. Jerome's with terrible memories he'll never be able to escape.
As the trial for Shero and Engelhardt gets underway, I just hope everyone involved finds justice. I know I'll be paying close attention.