A terrible story

Before I knock off for the evening and hand the keys back over to Ed, I wanted to write about an extraordinarily powerful article I happened to see when I was in New Jersey with my family for the holiday this past week. The article appeared in what was my hometown paper when I was growing up, the Bergen Record. It was published exactly a week ago, so it’s a little old, in blog years, but I thought it was well worth drawing attention to.

Giant honkin’ trigger alert here — the article concerns childhood sexual abuse, so if you find that subject unbearably disturbing, read no further.

It tells the story of a long-ago (1978-79) case of horrific childhood sexual abuse, that is of particular interest to me because my family knew the victims, Richard Schultz and Christopher Schultz. The Schultzes were a family who were committed to public service and active in the same Catholic church in northern New Jersey that my family attended. Christopher Schultz was an elementary school classmate of one of my brothers. His parents were friends with my parents.

I didn’t know the family well, but their tragic story first became vividly and unforgettably implanted in my brain when I heard shocking news: the younger of the two brothers, 12-year old Christopher, had died. Even more shocking was the way he had died. He had killed himself.

I was stunned, and for a time, Christopher’s death haunted me. I never knew anyone who had killed themselves, and I had never heard of anyone killing themselves at such a young age. I couldn’t imagine what unbearable torment caused him to do such a terrible thing. His family had seemed stable and happy. What could have possibly happened?

In time, this tragic story unfolded. Christopher had been sexually abused, by a member of the Catholic clergy, a Catholic brother who had been a Boy Scout leader. (The recent release of documents about sexual abuse within the Boy Scouts of America is apparently what inspired last week’s article). It was the same sickening story that later would become so familiar: the abuser, a Franciscan friar named Robert Coakley, had a history of abuse that was covered up. The Schultzes later tried to sue the Catholic Church for damages, but, in a case that went all the way to the New Jersey Supreme Court, the Court ruled that the Catholic Archdiocese of Newark, as a religious charity, was immune from lawsuits. Similar attempts to sue the Boy Scouts were also unsuccessful. New Jersey law was later changed to strip nonprofits and religious institutions of their immunity, but it was too late to help the Schultzes.

Reading the Bergen Record article about the Schultz case, which is by a reporter named Mary Jo Layton, I learned many new details, and the whole story is even more heartrending, and more horrifying, than I ever imagined. First of all, there is the fact that both the Schultz brothers, Christopher and his brother Richard, who was a year older, were abused by Coakley. He lured each of them, separately, to a trailer in a Boy Scout camp, within a few weeks of one other. Richard was the first victim, and has forever had to live with the guilt of never having warned his younger brother about Coakley, or protected him. Can you imagine?

Secondly, there is the nature of the abuse itself. Coakley was a monster, and the type of abuse he inflicted on the boys was profoundly sick and twisted. It was sado-masochistic and religious in nature. I won’t disgust you with the details, but you can read about them in the two articles I’ve linked to. Robert was abused “only” once, but for Christopher, it went on for months.

The aftermath of the abuse is just brutally heartbreaking. Christopher’s psychological state deteriorated rapidly. His parents knew something was seriously amiss, but it took quite some time before he finally, in anguish, unburdened himself of the agonizing memories of the abuse he’d suffered at Coakley’s hands. Things got so bad that Christopher’s family put him on a virtual 24-hour suicide watch; nevertheless, he got hold of a poisonous substance (wintergreen) in the family medicine cabinet and swallowed enough of it to kill himself. His heartbroken mother said, “My son was home in my care . . . I’m a professional nurse. And while he was in my care, he managed to take stuff that killed him.”

Even before Christopher died, the Schultzes had turned to the Church and to law enforcement officials for help. Help was not provided. Law enforcement officials in New York and New Jersey, the two states where the abuse took place, investigated Coakley but failed to prosecute. Astonishing, but there you are. The Church agreed to pay Christopher’s medical bills if the Schultzes kept quiet, but no financial help ever came. The only thing the Church did was to ship Coakley off to Franciscan headquarters in Ohio. Coakley died in Arizona in 1988.

As a family, the Schultzes were shattered. The parents, Marge and Richard Schultz Sr., eventually divorced. It speaks volumes about the capacity for human resilience that in spite of this tragedy, Richard Schultz Jr. was not utterly destroyed. Indeed, far from being destroyed, he is living a productive life, a life of service. He’s a cop who works to put abusers behind bars. He also volunteers for his kids’ scouting activities and he appears to be a devoted father. His heroism is rather remarkable.

Why did I decide to write about this? There are a couple of reasons. For one thing, aside from the tangential personal connection, it is a great and terrible story, and Layton’s article is a great piece of journalism.

For another, the story notes an important policy component: victims’ groups in New Jersey are working to “extend the statute of limitations on civil suits from two years to 30 years from the time adults realize they were harmed by abuse as children.” All too predictably, these efforts are being opposed by the Catholic Church, but they should be strongly supported. Experts say it often takes victims years to realize that they were abused, and to fully understand the extent of the harm that was done. Just because this particular crime is unique, its perpetrators and the individuals and institutions who enabled them shouldn’t be able to opportunistically benefit from it. Clearly, on a practical level it becomes increasingly difficult to prosecute cases many years after the fact, as witnesses die and memories become more hazy, but this is something the courts can deal with on a case-by-case basis.

Thirdly, this case points to huge institutional failures on the part of several major organizations involved: the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts of America, and law enforcement officials in two states. Admittedly, these events occurred in 1978 and 1979, many years before social consciousness had been raised about the issue of sexual abuse, years before mandated reporter laws, guidelines for police as to how to investigate abuse cases, and the like. Nevertheless, this was a particularly egregious and well-documented cases. Apparently there was photographic evidence of the abuse, and a child died. Coakley almost certainly would have been put behind bars for his crimes, had he not been a man of the cloth.

I’ll close by noting that is one of the many quiet and unacknowledged triumphs of feminism is that childhood sexual abuse was, at long last, treated with the seriousness it deserves. IVictims received therapy instead of blame. Professionals were mandated to report the abuse, rather than pressured to enable it. Law enforcement officials received training in how to investigate abuse. And perpetrators were far more likely to be prosecuted and put behind bars . . . even if they were men of the cloth. It’s highly unlikely that all of this would have happened without second wave feminists’ work on behalf of the victims of rape and sexual violence. Feminists were not the only activists working on behalf of the victims of childhood sexual abuse, but they were the leaders, at the forefront.

So if your kids are a little safer today, you can thank the tireless efforts of a generation of feminists activists, none of whose names you are ever likely to never know.

Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee