There are stories. There are memories. There are deeply held beliefs. They are the bedrock of who I have become. So many of them include an old man with thinning hair and a quick smile and a sharp wit who often shared a drink or a cigar with my father. He was ever present in our lives. Now that I think about it, I have to assume he had a housekey. He’s been dead for years, but I think of him often. Once, when I was taking too long to tell a story, he stopped me and handed me a business card. Then he barked his beautiful laugh. “I am somewhat of a …. Bullshitter myself But please go on with your story,” the card read. Twenty years later the card is still in my wallet. It will always be there. No matter what I read today. No matter that my opinion of the man has been rocked. That card will be a reminder of a man I admired. A man I loved. A man who I have no doubt loved me. Thankfully, he never hurt me. But he hurt others. I’ll someday comes to grips with that.
There were the times my parents and I would be arriving home from some night out — maybe a party or a late mass or a game Dad was coaching — and we’d spot a car in front of the house. Inside, we’d find Father sitting on the couch. Or sleeping on the couch. He’d crack a quick joke. My parents’ reaction upon seeing him wasn’t much different than mine at that time if Santa had walked out of the fireplace.
There were the jokes. He always had jokes. Some with sometimes colorful language and would shock me. Others would make me think.
There was the trick with the dollar bill. He’d challenge me, or one of the Irish kids who were staying with us for the summer, to hold our thumb and our finger an inch apart. He’d hold the bill right in front. If we caught it when he dropped it, we could have it. We never caught it. Sometimes, he’d let us keep the dollar.
The stories were my favorite. He’d talk about his missionary trip to Africa. Sometimes he’d talk to me about other priests. When I was in middle school, the curmudgeonly old priest at our elementary school gave a sermon about the evil’s of Disney. When another student and I brought this up with our parish priest, he laughed and showed us that he was wearing a Mickey Mouse T-shirt under his collar. Later, I saw Father and told him about the two priests saying two different takes on Mickey and Co., he laughed and said “Sounds like someone has some Mickey Mouse beliefs.” So, he sided with the old monsignor, I said. Oh, no. Father Duggan said the old man was being small.
We’ll start with death. I was 10. My grandfather, the man who will always be the gold standard by which I measure every hero, had just died. I was no different than any kid who loses a beloved grandparent at that age. I was lost. Then Father stepped to the pulpit at my grandfather’s funeral. In the middle of it, he brought me up. He called me “The dean of the little people.” See, my siblings are all older than me by at least 12 years. So at that point, I was already an uncle three times over. More would no doubt be coming. He and I talked about Poppy Abdalla. “I bet your Poppy’s proud of you,” he said to me out of the blue one day when I was a teenager. He was there with me through the deaths of a friend and several other loved ones.
We’ll move onto life. We went on several trips with Father. Each produced a moment or two that my parents love to bring up. Father took my parents, my father and I to the Jesuit retreat house near Lake Winola a few times. One time my nephew was with us. He was just a toddler. Father took us fishing and showed us a small fish. He told us we could touch it, and I still remember being afraid of the scales for some reason. I was about 5. Somehow, my nephew ended up biting me that night. Father would always laugh at how I reacted and repeat my line “He bit me. He bit me.”
Another time, he took my father, myself and a little Irish boy named Craig we were hosting for the summer, to the Philadelphia Zoo. My Dad points out it was the hottest day of the year and that we were already roasting in the car when I said, “Poor Mom, she has to stay home.” In the air conditioning. I have so many memories of that trip. None of the animals. We went to a restaurant where there had been a mob hit. He brought us Hershey Kisses. We rarely had sweets like that at home. When my dad finally said we could dig in, Craig and I reached in the bag and it was complete mush. They’d all melted. Father laughed and laughed. While we were driving through a cutout in the mountain, Father turned around and looked at Craig, “You see those holes in the side of the mountain. They made Irish boys bring the dynamite down in there. Then they’d just blow them up.” It would be years before I realized he was kidding.
My favorite memory is from kindergarten. I came home from school scandalized. A kid had said “The D Word.” Father happened to be there, sitting at the table with mom. He started sprinkling his stories with “Damn” to see how I’d react. I didn’t. So he asked “What’s the D word?”
“Dick,” I said.
He and my mom roared. She still loses her breath when she brings up the story.
My parents desperately wanted me to be a priest. Ask Molly. We were engaged and my mother actually brought it up in front of her. There was a show on the TV about young men who were deciding whether or not to be priests. One was weighing leaving his girlfriend and my mom actually said, “See.” My senior service project was volunteering in the diocesan vocations office. I’m fairly certain several priests I knew growing up expected me to get ordained.
Father wasn’t one. One night he showed up at our door when my parents were out. As usual, I let him in. We sat at the table and talked for about an hour before my parents got home. I told him I was considering the priesthood. “Why?” “Well, Mom and Dad…” he cut me off. “It’s not about Mom and Dad. It’s about you and God.” From there on, we delved into the priesthood. Why he became a priest. Did he ever regret it? What makes a good priest? He talked to me like I was an adult. When we were done, I felt relief. Not only was I not wrong for not wanting to be a priest, but he told me I could serve God in any field I chose.
I loved his stories about Africa, though I can’t actually remember them very well. I do remember one time when he came over and was watching a news show with my Grandmother while I was drifting out of paying attention. Someone said something disparaging about some group of people or another and Father got irritated. I’d never seen him do that. My grandmother said something like “We’re all children of God.” That day, Father talked about treating everyone with dignity, no matter who they were.
“It’s not about you,” he once said to me, talking about serving others. It’s not about making yourself better or sacrificing for your relationship with God. It’s about your fellow man being made in the image of God and you respecting that enough that you’ll help them when they need it. In other words, You don’t do it out of selfishness; you do it out of selflessness.
One time, he talked about how prayer was more than just sitting and talking to God. That you had to act. Don’t just pray for a good grade. Study and pray that what you studied is on the test.
I’m not one for acting as if pure coincidences are divinely inspired. I’ve never thought God was some merry trickster who bends to our whims. That idea has just never made sense to me. But one night, one of the worst in my life, I was in an incredibly dark place. I was dealing with an issue I’m not quite willing to share yet publicly. But I was just a kid. No more than 15 or 16. I felt completely alone. I was sitting on the curb outside my house when Father’s car pulled up. He saw me with tears in my eyes and sat with me on my porch. He never visited my parents that night. He just guided me. If he hadn’t shown up, I’d have probably wandered up the street to my sisters’ or called my brother or even visited a friend. I’m sure they’d have given me good advice and lent me a shoulder. But it was Father who was there that night and his words probably meant more to me because he wasn’t a sibling or a friend. He was an adult. When we were done talking, he told me that someday I’d remember this moment and use the pain to help someone else in a similar situation.
I knew the Attorney General was going to release his report on sexual abuse within the Catholic Church today. And I had a sinking feeling that Father’s name would be there. His funeral was sparsely attended and I knew something was up. My parents, still trying to shelter me when I was in my 20s, wouldn’t really give me a concrete answer. But I knew what had happened in the Church. But I’d hoped it wouldn’t be on there. Or that if it was, it wouldn’t be horrifying.
It was there.
“John M. Duggan.”
And it was horrifying.
“In 1993, Duggan was sent for a psychological evaluation and admitted to sexually abusing young children in his early priesthood. He denied that any of the abuse occurred in the Diocese. Upon his release, Timlin reinstated Duggan. However, Duggan was restricted to supervised ministry and was required to meet regularly with his aftercare counseling team …..”
Sexually. Abusing. Young. Children.
My first thought was a selfish one: I’m lucky. Not only did Father never harm me, but none of the priests I was close with did.
My second thought was about the victims. They had an evil perpetrated on them. I feel terrible for them. I also feel bad they never had the chance to know the warm and wise man who I knew.
Who was the real Father Duggan? I expect both. I’m outraged at his actions. And I’m incredibly outraged at the people like Bishop Timlin who just moved these men around without addressing the issue. Damn them. Supervised ministry! Christ on a velvet bike.
How do I balance the fact that Fr. Duggan abused kids with the fact that he provided me nothing but comfort, laughter and joy? I don’t know yet. Am I going to leave the Church? No. I’ve decided I’m going to become more active. And in doing so, I’m going to advocate for victims and more reform. I thought about tearing up that card that’s been in my wallet for 20 years. I can’t do it though. Just like I can’t get rid of the memories, the stories and the beliefs.