Mea Maxima Culpa


Catholics are supposed to believe in the cleansing power of confession. That we can sheepsihly walk into a booth, and have an aging “celibate” hippie stand in for our Lord and Savior and tell us that it’s OK to be human and rip out the hearts of others and stamp on them, so long as we feel bad about it. Say a handful of Hail Marys, and one of those hard to remember prayers like the Memorare and all is forgiven. Unfortunately, we know better. The sadistic nuns Sisters of Mercy drilled it into our brains that we were pretty much unrepentant, irredeemable sinners. (For the record, they had the unrepentant part right). So even though we know that salvation is just a few muttered words in a dark phone booth away, we pretty much hold our deepest, and darkest sins in the bottomless well of our hearts, and share them with no one.

Except the internet.

Unfortunately, The Catechism of the Catholic Church is mum on the redemptive powers of online confession. (I’m waiting for the 2012 edition)

Why I am telling any of you this, I have no idea. Lack of shame. Need for closure. Pain of carrying it inside for 30 years. Take your pick. This is one of those stories that never stops burning when you think of it. Even telling it now, I am afraid that only more pain will come of it. So I lay it out to you with my eyes squeezed shut, hoping that it someone brings about some sort of karmic healing.

Todd was the second kid I remember meeting. Peter Carmichael was the first, when our Mom’s set us up on play dates at age 4. ( to help cut the apron strings that kept us bound tight to Jerry and Joyce.) Todd was the 2nd. He lived in the upstairs apartment right next door to 20 Prospect, with his parents, his 3 brothers, and his aunt. The apartment wasn’t any bigger than the upstairs of our house, and to this day I cannot imagine how they all managed to fit in there. It was another 100+ year old Queen Anne style home, owned by Onolee, the old lady that lived downstairs. In restrospect, one of the great oddities about the apartment was that it didn’t have a separate entrance. Todd’s family entered by walking through Onolee’s living room. In all the years we lived next to each other, I never went into Todd’s house further than the foyer for one very simple, but un-avoidable reason. His mother.

In the little self contained world of Prospect Avenue, Todd’s Mom was the most feared, and despised woman. She didn’t work, but seemed to watch over us like a constant dark cloud from her perch in the upstairs of 22 Prospect. We lived in mortal fear of the screech of her voice, screaming down at us from a screened window, or worse, from the open balcony. Looking up we feared the sudden appearance of her overweight, polyester bound visage, with curlers in her hair. Why she always had curlers in her hair I never understood, because she left the house only once or twice a week at most. Digressing…

Todd was the oldest of their children, and a kid that always stood out from the rest. Aside from the living situation of his family, there was one other thing that I picked up on. Todd was always spoken of by the adults in the neighborhood in a different tone of voice from the rest of his family. Despite the disparing remarks that our parents might make about his Mom when they assumed we weren’t listening, if Todd came up in a grown up conversation, it was usually quickly followed with a comment of pity, or a shrug or sigh of helplessness. You see, Todd was different from his siblings. Todd was adopted. But more than that, Todd was abused.

It wasn’t until years later that my Mom explained that Todd had the same Dad as his brothers, but a different mother. Once, in a moment of weakness, Todd even confided the same to me. That he had “another Mom”, who lived “somewhere else”. In the nuclear family world of the early 1970’s Western New York, this was beyond my comprehension. I had never heard of divorce, much less families of children from mixed marriages, unless they were named Brady. One week each summer a big Buick would appear in the driveway next door, and a nice looking older couple would come out. They would go inside and emerge a short while later with Todd and his suitcase. He would be beeming with excitement, and the car would back out the gravel driv, and disappear up Prospect Ave. One week later, they would return with Todd and he would be full of stories about life in an exotic foreign city named “Medina” where his grandparents lived in the country, on a farm.

But when I met Todd, I knew none of this. All I knew was that Todd was somehow different from the rest of us. Grownups spoke about him differently. Unlike myself and the other boys on the street, he didn’t have an older sibling. His family did not live in a house of their own. His Mom seemed to embody the Wicked Witch of the West, and the Abomidable Snow Monster, combined. I’m not sure when I first remember realizing that something was wrong with the way his Mom treated him. I’m guessing it was around age 6, when he emerged from the garage after having been taken in there by his Mom, showing us the teeth marks on his arm where she had bit him.

At age six, things like this stand out to you like an elephant in a supermarket. But children learn at a very young age to take their cues from their parents, and others around them. Little kids see things everyday that don’t make sense, and they look to Mom & Dad for guidance. Are they scared? Are they angry? Are they ignoring it?

I told Mom about what happened, and so did Peter, then some hushed phone calls were placed. The next day, a long dark sedan appeared at the curb, and a man in a suit came got out with a woman in a dress. The went inside of Todd’s house for quite a while. When they eventually emerged, hours later, we watched them drive away. Todd was not with them. He came out later that day, crying and yelling at us that if we ever said anything ever again about it, those people were going to come and take him away forever.

So we took our cues from the grownups on Prospect, and we pretended nothing happened. But things did happen. Todd would always be singled out by his mother’s screech from the upstairs for some infraction, and called into the house while his brothers kept on playing. There would be screaming and crying from the upstairs apartment , and when he did emerge he had bruises on his arms and legs, and black eyes. As kids we lived in fear, and never quite understood what was happening or why. Injustice didn’t exist in our pre-teen minds. Surely, he must have done something to deserve it.

As the years passed, Todd always had an invisible scarlet letter sewed onto his sleeve. He stood out from the other kids. When conflicts arose during games, it was usually Todd that was the first to have the meltdown. we had our share of fist fights during those times, but after hearing the shreiks that followed from the windows of his upstairs apartment, my guilt always got the better of me, and I came to blame myself for losing it.

Todd and his siblings went to Robert Morris, but by the 8th grade, his folks had somehow managed to put together enough money to send them to St. Mary’s. It was strange at first to see Todd walking off to school in his parochial uniform. I always wondered what brought about the change, and assumed it was his umarried aunt, who lived with the family, and only ever left the house to walk to Mass, or work at Alberty Drugstore. I asked him once why he had switched schools, and he told me his aunt was paying for it.

By the time we were teens, there was no longer any mystery behind Todd’s situation. Even my 13 year old brain could put the pieces of this puzzle together. It was apparent that Todd was the result of an affair between his father, and another woman. His mother always resented him, and went out of her way to make his life a living hell. Like the lilacs leaning over the back fence, or the old barn slowly succumbing to gravity in our backyard, this reality was just another piece of the fabric of life at 20 Prospect. Somehow, having a friend next door that was abused became “normal”. As much as I hae to admit it, I also came to view Todd as “damaged goods”. Maybe in my immature preteen mind, I was afraid that if I got too close to him his pain would become mine. So I began to try to always keep a wall of indifference between us, lest I be pulled into his hell.

When I graduated from St. Joes, and enrolled at Noter Dame, I was amazed to learn that Todd had too. I thought there would be no way that his aunt would be able to pay for parochial high school. ND was a big jump in tuition from St. Mary’s. But there, on the first day of class, as Mom drove me up the street, I saw Todd walking on his way to ND. One of the big changes between St. Joes and ND at the time, was the uniform. In grade school, all of us Catholic brats dressed alike. White shirts, blue trousers, and clip on tie in the appointed school colors. But at ND, there was no uniform for boys. (Just girls). For the boys they had a dress code that dictated ties and dress pants for the boys, with sweater, vest, or sport coat during winter.This was a big change. For the first time in my life, I had to worry about matching my clothes.

But as stressful as dressing myself was, I can’t even imagine what Todd went through. He had nothing to wear to school, but a handful of white oxfords, one pair of blue polyester pants, and an old pair of his Dad’s dress shoes from the early 70’s. When Todd showed up at ND dressed like that, he had fresh meat written all over him.

I was never an outgoing kid, and I have never had an easy time making friends. So it only stood to reason that Todd and I would sit together at lunch, and talk. I was going out for JV football, and trying my bets to blend into the woodwork. as awkward as I felt and looked, Todd was 10X worse. In addition to his clothes, he also suffered a bad case of acne. It didn’t take long for the jocks in the freshman, and sophomore class to single his out for torture. It was painful to watch. He had never learned to handle conflict any better than when we were six. When kids pushed him, he pushed back. When they called him names, and humiliated him in front of others, he had no response but anger and fists. But the cuts and barbs of teenage teasing, don’t give you targets for your fists. Todd was soon a social pariah, and I was faced with a hard choice. Stand by the kid I had grown up with, and defend him, or cower in fear and shame.

It should come as no great surprise, that I cowered in fear. In his hour of need, when he needed a friend more than ever, I turned my back and denied knowing him. If only a cock had crowed three times, the scene would have been complete.

By the next fall, Todd had transfered to BHS, and I could breath a very loud sigh of releif. Now I could go about skulking in the shadows, and trying to build a false persona of my own to protect me from being the slowest buffalo in the herd. So I went about it with added fervor.

Despite living next door to each other, I saw him less and less. I was involved in sports, and then girls. I had little time for hanigng out at home, or playing catch in the street. Todd fell into a circle of other outcasts at the public high school. When we graduated, he enlisted in the Navy and disappeared. After that, our encounters were few. Whenever he was back in Batavia on leave he would stop by and talk to my folks to see how I was doing. If I happened to be around we’d sit on the front steps and he would tell me all about life in San Diego, and I would listen, looking for my first opportunity to get away, and hide from the shame that I felt buring within me. He never seemed to notice or care.

Gradually, his trips home became fewer and farther in between. The last time I saw him, he had gotten kicked out of the Navy for failing a drug test. He swore his innocence to me, and I nodded in silent agreement that life was not fair, and wished him luck in his appeals. He had found an apartment with friends, and was only coming by Prospect Ave to see his brothers. He told me he hadn’t spoken with his mother in years, and didn’t care if he ever saw her again. He was working stocking shelves, and saving up money to move back to California. I felt more happy for him that day than I had in my entire life.

Graduation from college took me out of Batavia, and on this long journey of my own, and it has been over 20 years since I have seen him. In that time hid family moved out of the apartment to a home of their own. A few years later his Mother passed away. Not long after that, so did my Dad, and then Prospect Ave. became a memory for our family too.

There are a lot of things in life that I claim to regret, but really don’t. Silly, superficial things that are easy to think and joke about. And then there is Todd. I do my best to try not to think about him, but ever few years something reminds me of him, and I feel that stabbing shame. He was a friend, and when he needed me, I turned my back on him. To make it worse, he never held it against me, but continued to treat me like a friend I never was.

Even now, at age 42, this story hurts like hell to tell. There are so many things I wish we could have done. Things that could have stopped the abuse and the pain that he sufffered as a kid. Then I remember that the one thing that I could have done, I failed to do. And I feel the stabbing pain of a Judas within my heart.

It has been over 28 years since I denied him. I have never paid for these sins. They burn like 30 pieces of silver in my pocket.

I speak truth.

And the truth hurts.

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5 thoughts on “Mea Maxima Culpa

  1. Duf will be along soon with the proper Catholic response. In the interim, you are stuck with me.

    I truly believe it is impossible for any of us to become truly understanding adults without having, in our childhood; been betrayed, betrayed another, failed at something monumental, succeeding at something monumental, and knowing the unchanging love of at least one other person throughout it all.

    You say you betrayed Todd, I say you protected Tom. It happens. I know that makes you feel no better. I suck as the interim commenter.

  2. Honestly there is no good response because every single person out there has a “Todd”.
    Sometimes a ship is sinking faster than you can work to save it and as a kid you fire a shot off the bow and jump off.
    I did the same thing with a girlfriend of mine who was going down in flames socially and emotionally and just “disconnected” because it was doing me no favors.

    I’m with Wicked, you saved Tom not destroyed Todd. Would you have wanted the eternal burden of being his go between every time some hulking upperclassman wanted a piece of him?

    If Catholic school teaches us one thing it’s Destroy or be destroyed. It’s not pretty but it’s real.

    God that wasn’t what you were looking for was it?

    Sorry, Judas. By the power invested in me by the Vatican I ABSOLVE YOU!!!

  3. New Living Translation (©2007)
    For the kind of sorrow God wants us to experience leads us away from sin and results in salvation. There’s no regret for that kind of sorrow. But worldly sorrow, which lacks repentance, results in spiritual death.
    See what this godly sorrow produced in you! Such earnestness, such concern to clear yourselves, such indignation, such alarm, such longing to see me, such zeal, and such a readiness to punish wrong. You showed that you have done everything necessary to make things right. (2 Cor, 7:9,11)

  4. Her name was Audrey. She was the child from her father’s first marriage and treated like a slave by the wife from his second. There were never marks on her body, but her soul was broken repeatedly. Even at 6 I could see it. When she was sleeping over one night I told her she didn’t have to do all those things they made her toil at but couldn’t finish because my mother, who was also in the room, rushed over to shush me.

    We never spoke of it again. Come junior high we grew apart and eventually, around 10th grade, they moved to the next town over. I never saw her again.

    Although I hear she moved North, married and had a beautiful little girl, I still feel a white-hot stab of seering shame every time I think about her.

    Every time.

  5. It sounds like you were more of a friend to Todd than most people were. I’d tell you not to feel so bad because it wasn’t your responsibility to take care of Todd and you did as much as you could handle. But I know that if I were in your shoes, I’d be carrying the Catholic guilt myself.

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