A Boy in Church: Alone With Father Tom
by David Yearsley, March 31, 2010
The photo — this one in the New York Times, above the fold — had an uncanny vintage look to it: there on the front page was a black-and-white photograph from 1960—the first black-and-white that I can remember in a long time since the Times went to color — of the Rev. Lawrence C. Murphy, his hands folded in prayer and standing alongside two other priests. From out of the shadows covering his eyes like a mask, Murphy looks down at a row of kneeling deaf boys in starched shirts and crew cuts. Murphy molested as many as 200 students at the St. John’s School for the Deaf in Wisconsin. Warnings from several American bishops to Rome were ignored. According to the Times, letters to then Cardinal Ratzinger in his capacity as head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which remains the office charged with pursing canonical trials for the defrocking of priests, went unheeded. This was only one of thousands of cases of which the Vatican was informed and did not act upon.
This kind of publicity will not only shake the Church’s already creaking foundations; so evocative and troubling is the photo that it will have many revisiting their own memories.
I began to play the organ when I was 14, studying for a summer in Washington, DC. I took to it very quickly, and when I returned to Bainbridge Island in Puget Sound at summer’s end, I needed a place to continue my practice. A few miles away was an Episcopal Church with a mediocre organ but one that would serve the purposes of my improvement as an organist. My involvement with the Episcopal Church had purely to do with the convenience of the organ, but I soon became interested in the elaborations of liturgy, the relationship of religious text to music, and the mysteries of religion.
The church organist, a formidable woman in her early 60s, was happy to give me time on the organ and soon enough I was enlisted to play for the early Sunday services, mangling much Anglican Chant on the way to some kind of proficiency in accompanying a small, early-rising congregation.
The rector of the church soon discovered my presence. He was a middle-aged man with round, ruddy face, and constant grin, a very large round belly, an even bigger laugh, and bowl-cut, salt-and pepper hair, which, if it had had tonsure would have made him a fun-loving, monk right out central casting. He was beloved by the congregation for his infectious, often ribald, sense of humor. Married to a statuesque, taciturn woman with short hair and broad shoulders, Father Tom, as he was affectionately, had five adopted children.
Long had I been obsessive about practice on the organ as I had been on the piano, and I would often get to the church at five in the morning, dropped there by my father on the way to the 5:25 ferry taking him to his job in Seattle. But when I came to the church after school, Father Tom would inevitably appear for his afternoon visit and sit down next to me on the organ bench, which was in a kind of sunken box. He’d put his arm around me and jostle me back and forth as he laughed at one of his own jokes. A hand would land on my thigh to check my pedal technique and the proper “muscle tone.”
On those occasions when I was drafted to play for both morning services on Sunday, he would drive me, and perhaps an altar boy, and even an adult, down to the local diner in his big Mercedes for breakfast in the break between the masses. His knee would be against mine in the booth, his shoulder against my shoulder. After the pancakes had been finished the arm would come around me or another boy. On the way up the stairs into the church on our return he would slap my buttocks, “Get a move on,” he’d chortle.
At the Peace in the service, he would pull me off the bench and give me a big, lingering hug in view of the entire congregation.
On Christmas Day he came to my house and gave me a Book of Common Prayer and chatted with my parents, and talked about my wonderful contributions to the church.
Father Tom encouraged me to make use of his office if I needed a moment to relax from my practicing or after a service. I would occasionally breeze past the secretary and into his office and sit down in the high-backed executive office chair and survey the book-lined walled and look out over the firs to the Head of the Bay below. There were many books on homosexuality and pastoral care.
He loved music. One spring he invited me to an afternoon performance of Handel’s Messiah at the old Seattle Symphony Hall. When he picked me up I hesitated on getting in: there was a jockstrap sitting on the leather seat. He laughed, grabbed it, and said he’d forgotten it was there after his swim at the local pool. He tossed it in the back seat and off we went to the ferry.
At some point during the performance his hand went to my knee, which was in itself nothing new. But I became aware that the hand was inexorably moving up the inside of my thigh. I placed my own hand on my thigh to prevent progress. Clammily and relentlessly it continued to push towards its goal and for what seemed like an eternity his was on top of mine, which was desperately shielding my crotch from direct contact. At last the Hallelujah Chorus erupted and the audience stood and suddenly I, too, was standing and freed from his hand and could breathe again. That strange ritual of rising to one’s feet in emulation of George II has ever since had a particular resonance for me. I spent the rest the oratorio swiveled away in my seat in the most defensive posture I could assume.
At the concert there was a Seattle judge sitting directly behind us. He too was a middle-aged man in the company of a teenage boy. Father Tom introduced us, and I’ll never forget the way — I can only describe it as knowing — that the judge looked at me then at the priest. Several years later the judge blew his brains out outside of his Superior Court chambers after the Seattle Times broke the story that he’d been molesting boys for years. I recognized the photo of him instantly though I’d only met him that one time.
I remained involved in the church both as an organist and in the youth group. That summer the group undertook a trip to Vancouver across the Canadian border. Somehow Father Tom orchestrated it so he would drive me alone. He was late to pick me up, yet my parents did not raise any objections about sending their teenage son north alone with a middle-aged man. As one hears often these days from the Vatican to Wisconsin, those were different times.
As mid-summer darkness descended we were still far south of the border. He pulled into a motel. In the room there were two beds. He ordered two Heinekens. I had a sip and he moved closer to me on my bed, urging me to drink more. I feigned tiredness and rolled away from him. He began to massage my shoulders and back. After a few minutes he suggested I turn over so he could give me a “stomach massage.” I said no, and crawled under the covers and lay awake for a long time after he had retreated to his own bed. Eventually, I fell asleep, but I doubt that Father Tom did. Whether he was hovering over my bed in the night, pulling back the covers, I do not know.
I said nothing about all this to my parents.
Whether my subsequent disaffection with the organ, which endured a year or more, resulted directly from this I can’t say. Probably it had more to do with my interest in jazz and basketball. My senior year in high school, I disentangled myself from the church. I kept practicing but not with my former fervor.
That Spring before graduation I was in an afternoon English class when I received a note from the school office directing me to go to the payphone in the lobby of the theatre. This seemed very odd, indeed. But I did what I was told. After a couple of minutes the phone rang. It was the mother of one of my classmates and a former altar boy at the church. She had moved to Seattle after her divorce, and now over the phone she informed me that my classmate had been molested by Father Tom on a trip to Europe. Father Tom took many boys over many years on such trips, and it was seen by parents as an honor to be chosen to accompany him. I had declined my invitation. She asked me about my experiences at the church with Father Tom, and I recounted more or less what I’ve written here.
It is the only time in my life I’ve received a call at a public telephone and I’m unlikely to forget it.
As I talked, the occasional student aide came through the lobby on the way to deliver a note. I tried to lower my voice as I described to my classmate’s mother my encounters with a pederast. It was really the first time I’d said anything to anyone about it.
A group of parents from the island went to the bishop in Seattle. He drove a Cadillac convertible with the vanity plate “Bishop” and was always seen in Episcopal purple. He stonewalled the parents. No legal proceedings were brought against the priest or the diocese.
Father Tom resigned his post, and but found another church in California. A letter-writing campaign by parents to that church did succeed in alarming his new parishioners. His duties included overseeing a boys’ school. Only a fatal heart attack some five years later removed him from the company of those he coveted.
(David Yearsley teaches at Cornell University. He is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London,” has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at email@example.com.)