IN HIS FINAL DAYS, FORGIVENESS
Abuse. Shame. Anger. Reconciliation. The Life and Last Days of Brian Dionne.
By Carol Eisenberg and Eden Laikin
It was seven days before his death, and Brian Dionne was having a bad day despite the morphine patch and all his spiritual preparation. His lanky body had ballooned to twice its normal size as his cancer-ravaged liver began to shut down. And now, even his agile mind was becoming sluggish.
"It's not like I'm the first one to die, or the last one, or that it's a rare event," Dionne said, as he shuffled around his apartment in giant trousers held up with navy suspenders to contain his changed body. "But that doesn't make it any easier. Damn, would I like to be hit by a bus... But then, who says that's easier, or less confounding? It certainly doesn't give you much opportunity to say goodbye."
And so, with characteristic grit, Dionne found the blessings even in these, his last, pain-filled days, as he had with so many of the crummy cards he had been dealt in life.
After years of struggle and searching, the 51-year-old had made peace with his demons. He said that his speaking out a year and a half ago about his childhood molestation by a Roman Catholic priest had freed him from the shame that had eroded his self-esteem and alienated him from his childhood faith. And that, in turn, had enabled him to reconcile over the last year with the religion that had once sustained him.
"I wanted to forgive the church and I have," he said simply. "I wanted to get past the politics and, also, my own anger and hurt, so that I could embrace my faith again."
When he died at home on Sept. 6, Dionne had come full circle. He said he had forgiven the man who had robbed him of his childhood and of his own vocation. He received the church's sacraments and was waked at St. Boniface Church in downtown Brooklyn - a tradition usually reserved for priests. Which seemed only fitting. For despite his lifelong battle with the church, all Dionne had ever wanted to do was become a priest. And though he never wore a Roman collar, those who knew him considered him a priest without portfolio who had ministered to others through the witness of his own life and his belief in the liberating power of truth.
"He was really purified by his experiences," said the Rev. Mark Lane, the spiritual adviser who helped him reclaim his faith in the last year of his life. "He turned abuse, sickness and the ongoing abuse of being a gay man, a faithful man with AIDS, and all the stigma that goes along with that, into constructive things. I've been a priest for 20 years and I've never seen anyone like him."
Mary Dionne liked to say that her son's first sentence was, "I want to be a priest."
The second of four children in an Irish-Catholic family growing up in the then-predominantly working-class, Catholic suburb of Kings Park, Brian Dionne was a devout child who aspired to the ministry as far back as anyone could remember. His older sister recalled how he asked her to cut up slices of white bread to make quarter-size wafers before his first communion so that he could practice. "He wanted to make sure he didn't make any mistakes," Mary Lopez said.
An idealistic kid who revered Pope John XXIII, John F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Dionne attended high school seminary in Bay Shore. But he had come to doubt his vocation by the time he received a philosophy degree from St. John's University in 1973. Some attributed his change of heart to falling in love, for he married Pat Feltham, a kindred spirit from college. Others chalked it up to the unsettled times, when so many men left the seminary. Only a few guessed at his inner turmoil.
Yet, if he did not become a priest, Dionne approached his new work as a vocation. He and his wife were hired by Catholic Charities and in a few years, they earned reputations as crusaders for the developmentally disabled. They opened some of the first community homes in the state after the exposés about sordid conditions at Willowbrook State School in Staten Island. Friends said that both of them were committed to living out their Catholic ideals.
"They were the classic, 1960s, Vatican II, young Catholic couple toiling in the vineyards, setting up group homes and even working as house parents," said Roberta Kyle, a close friend who would come to know Brian Dionne in the 1980s.
Seen from the outside, Dionne's life appeared golden. At 6-foot-2, with penetrating gray eyes and an easy smile, he was both handsome and well-spoken. Professionally, he was well regarded, and many believed he was destined for great things.
"He could talk to groups of people who said, 'Not in my neighborhood,' and afterwards, they would be begging him to open a place next door," recalled Ellen Ashton, who worked with him at the New York State Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities.
"People naturally responded to his compassion and intelligence and honesty."
And then, at age 28, his life imploded. His marriage collapsed, he was drinking heavily and soon after, suffered a complete breakdown.
Later, he would tell friends that the secret he had kept all those years was eating away at him like a cancer. "I can honestly say that there's not a day in my life when I haven't thought about him," he said, referring to the Rev. John R. Butler, the priest who Dionne claimed had molested him from the time he was about 8 years old.
The priest came to St. Joseph's parish in Kings Park in about 1960. "Father," as Dionne referred to him, "was tall and blond and dressed better than most priests we were accustomed to meeting," Dionne wrote in an unfinished memoir he shared with a reporter.
Shortly afterward, the priest organized a boys' choir that cut an LP and appeared on "Wonderama," a popular children's television show. Dionne recalled him as a sort of Pied Piper, whisking choir boys off in his Cadillac for rides to McDonald's and to the local beach for hot dogs and sodas.
"I can't recall exactly when I became a member of 'the club,'" Dionne wrote in the memoir. "I know it was after Christmas ... because I sang a solo at midnight Mass, which remains very clear in my memory."
Dionne recalled that Butler asked him to stay late after choir practice to help him turn out the lights. In the darkened church vestibule, he said Butler pulled him close, took Dionne's hand and slipped it into his own pants. "I didn't protest, didn't pull away and neither of us exchanged any words," Dionne wrote in his memoir. "I trusted Father explicitly.... No one ever told us to be wary of the priests, or that priests could do wrong."
The encounters continued for several years, and included sodomy, Dionne said in interviews and in a lawsuit against the diocese of Rockville Centre brought by 23 plaintiffs. The priest later denied the charges, although at least one other man from an earlier period in Butler's life made similar allegations, church officials said.
"Soon I felt dirty and unacceptable," Dionne wrote in his memoir. "I had a growing sense that if people really knew me and became aware of my crime, no one would love me."
Dionne recalled that he tried to quit the choir and the altar boys, only to be sent back by his parents.
Although he said he did not tell his parents about the abuse until he was about 16 - "I had convinced myself either that no one would believe me or that the whole business was my fault" - he often talked about his shame when he went to confession.
And as he got a little older, he also recalled saying in the confessional that he was afraid he was homosexual as a result of his experiences.
"I'd be told, 'Let it go. It's not your fault. It shouldn't have happened,'" he recalled. "But there's nothing wrong with you. You're not gay."
As far as he knew, none of those priests took any action beyond absolving him of his sins.
Dionne said the priest left Kings Park suddenly in late 1964, apparently after another child made an allegation. But his own sense of being soiled persisted.
"I was in my 20s and 30s," he said, "when I finally sought psychiatric help and began to understand that something very bad had happened to me that was formative, that my childhood had been stolen and couldn't be replaced. And it was around that time, too, that I started meeting other victims and becoming aware that this was much more widespread, not just in society, but in the church."
When he was 30, Dionne came out as a gay man - the first in what would become a lifetime of "coming outs" for him.
By then, he was divorced from Feltham, who subsequently died of breast cancer. And he began to pull away from the church that had long been so integral to his life. He stopped going to Mass and became increasingly embittered at a church hierarchy that he now believed protected molesters.
"He was always on a spiritual quest after that," recalled Ashton. "He used to read Kierkegaarde, Nietzsche, Plato and St. Thomas Aquinas the way I might read Agatha Christie."
But even as he got back on track with his life, creating a long-term relationship with another man and achieving sobriety, the bottom fell out yet again, when on July 9, 1987, he was diagnosed with AIDS.
"I told Dr. Hennessey that I was shocked and saddened but that I had no regrets," he wrote in his journal that day. "I want to live for a very long time, and I want to see this AIDS as yet another vital physical, mental and spiritual tool through which I can achieve increased serenity and grow closer to wisdom...."
He concluded the entry on a note of hope:
"I did not create my life but I will master it with the help of a loving God who will in His time call me home."
At a time when many were terrified of "the gay plague," as the disease was called then, Dionne came out about having AIDS, not just with friends and family members, but with colleagues at work. By then, he had come to believe that keeping secrets was dangerous.
"Through his ... courage, he created this increased awareness and this sense of community," said Ashton, who with Dionne trained caregivers about AIDS precautions. "He talked frankly about his experiences. And what went on in the room afterwards was remarkable. Hands began to go up and people began to talk about family and friends who were infected. It became a very cathartic thing."
Not long after, he lost his job as director of development for the Brooklyn office of the state Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities - a fact that he would attribute to his openness about his diagnosis, though he could never prove it. He was episodically ill now and often walked with a cane because of chronic neuropathy in his legs, but his activism continued. He went on television to speak about living with AIDS, and lectured teenagers about intimacy and safe sex. He served on the board of Mercy Home, a Brooklyn- based agency dedicated to the care of the developmentally disabled, and got involved with AIDS advocacy in New York City, and later, on Long Island, where he moved to be with friends when he thought he was dying.
"He used to say that things are put in your path, and you can make something of them, or shrug your shoulders," Ashton said. "The choice is yours. Even of the most adverse things, he would say, 'You know, I'm going to learn from this, and tomorrow I'll be more evolved because this happened to me today.'"
Yet, despite his growing sense of self and his spiritual searching, a core conflict remained unresolved.
Two years ago, he thought he was dying of pneumonia and checked himself into St. Vincent's Hospital in Manhattan. Friends recall he made a scene about writing "none" for his religious status and demanding that the crucifix above his bed be removed.
"He made a big stink about it," Kyle recalled. "I remember saying to him, 'Relax, Brian. Jesus can't hurt you. You may not be Catholic, but the Sisters of Charity are and they run this place.'"
Something about what that crucifix symbolized still haunted him then. He said he still had nightmares about Butler and wanted no part of the Catholic Church. And yet, he had found nothing to replace it and felt a spiritual void in his life.
"Brian, it's time," his friend Pat Lieber, an AIDS advocate from Setauket, e-mailed him a few months later, when thousands of secrets like Dionne's were being uncovered on the front pages of newspapers after the Catholic sex abuse scandal hit in January 2002. "Do what you have to do. Finish this chapter in your life."
Of all the coming outs in his life - about homosexuality, alcoholism, mental illness and AIDS - this was the hardest, he would say later. He told friends he feared that even now, no one would believe him. He recalled how an earlier attempt to report the priest to the police had been dismissed as years too late.
Braced for the worst that spring, he telephoned church officials in the dioceses of Rockville Centre and Metuchen, N.J. His friend Lieber had traced Butler to a parish there, St. John Vianney Church in Colonia, N.J., where the priest had landed after spending time in parishes in Brooklyn and Richmond, Va. Lieber found him in active ministry 38 years after he had left Kings Park amid whispered scandal. But this time, Dionne didn't leave it all to the church. He also called local prosecutors and reporters.
On April 11, he said he was stunned when Metuchen officials called to tell him that they had removed Butler based on Dionne's complaint, pending an investigation. They also said the priest had denied the allegations. "He called me up and said, 'We did it, Mary! We did it!'" his sister recalled. "He was very, very relieved and grateful."
Later, when Metuchen officials received a second, similar complaint, this one from a man who said he was abused by Butler in Richmond, Va., before the priest came to Rockville Centre, they made the priest's removal permanent. Last week, Butler, who did not respond to calls for previous stories, signed for a registered letter that Newsday sent him, but he has not replied. He has asked to retire from the priesthood, church officials in Virginia said.
(Citing Dionne's lawsuit, Rockville Centre church officials declined to comment for this story, even to corroborate the dates of Butler's service in Kings Park.)
For Dionne, going public with his story was a huge catharsis. "All the shame and guilt I carried for 40 years is completely gone," he said that spring, sounding almost astonished. And that cleansing laid the groundwork for an even more powerful healing.
It began simply enough with a thank you note to the Rev. Mark Lane of St. Boniface Church in Brooklyn, who had been quoted in a March 28, 2002, New York Times story calling on bishops to care for the victims of sex abuse.
Dionne expressed gratitude for the remarks and, almost as an aside, mentioned that he himself had been molested. "Simply, the church never helped me," he wrote. "No one did."
Lane, who had left for a mission in Africa, did not get Dionne's letter for five months. But on Aug. 28, 2002, he wrote back, expressing his sorrow and support - and mentioning that his church was just a few blocks away.
For all his distrust of clerics, Dionne was moved by this stranger. He wondered whether he could reach out to him for help - something he would have dismissed out of hand only a few months before. All his life, he said he had felt a powerful personal connection to God. But in the last few years, he felt that connection fading because of his anger, and he lamented it.
After much back and forth, he contacted Lane and the two men sat down for the first time on Dec. 18 in Lane's office at St. Boniface. Both recalled being apprehensive.
"I was very defensive," Dionne said. "I put all sorts of controls on what we discussed." Lane also was unsure how to proceed, though he was impressed that Dionne "seemed a very credible and honest gentleman."
"I wanted to pray with him at the end, but it seemed a little premature, given his uncertainty with his own beliefs and his difficult history with the church," he wrote in his calendar after the meeting.
From that point forward, the two men met nearly every week in the priest's office - "Thursdays With Mark," Lane dubbed it. They discussed the nature of faith, and how to reconcile painful truths with love and forgiveness. And they began to spend long hours praying together. After eight or nine meetings, Dionne mentioned that he was thinking of going to Mass.
"I told him, 'Don't get the wrong idea,'" Dionne recalled. "'I may not be signing on again. I'm just going to Mass.'
"And he said, 'That's fine.'"
On the Sunday before Easter, Dionne sat in the last pew of the 19th century red brick church, as if positioned for a quick getaway. But he didn't need to escape this time. After all those years, he said later, the Mass was balm to his soul.
"It was so comforting to me that I decided I wasn't even going to question it," he said later. "I was just going to do it. I suddenly realized that my whole life I had been Catholic and was trying to fight it because I was angry and hurt. The anger ... wasn't true to who I am. I wanted to be happy. I wanted to celebrate the Eucharist.
"And all this Sturm und Drang for 50 years about being gay and who would wear the red dress ... didn't have to get in the way.... It was about praying and worshiping God as I understand him."
Friends and relatives were stunned.
"You could have knocked me over with a feather when he told me," recalled his sister Mary Lopez, herself a devout Catholic.
She said she was relieved her brother was finding solace, but also had a strong sense of foreboding. "I just felt he had come full circle," she said. "I told my daughter that he would be gone before Christmas."
The diagnosis of terminal liver cancer came several months later, in July. Dionne said he was not afraid to die. He had always said he survived so long with AIDS thanks to "curiosity and grace - grace being an undeserved gift from God."
None of that changed now.
"There have been hours when I'm just overwhelmed with gratitude for what life is," he said several days before he died. "And that doesn't suddenly become a lie because I have liver cancer. Not after I've had a glimpse of people's generosity. Not when you've had a chance to experience your own mortality in as close a way as you're ever going to perceive it."
He told friends he did not want heroic measures taken, or to die in the hospital tethered to machines. He signed up for hospice care at home, and asked Lopez, a nurse, if she would spend his last weeks with him. She agreed.
"The last few times I saw him, he had this enormous tranquillity and peace and centeredness about him," said Kyle. "He really did heal emotionally and spiritually on a very profound level. And maybe that's why it was time for him to die."
He died on a crisp September morning just the way he had wanted: at home in Brooklyn, with his sister by his side. At the end, he had surrendered everything to God, even his sense of loss over his missed calling.
Lopez spoke at his church wake about the grief that had engulfed her brother anew when he made the decision to reveal his abuse. "The only thing I ever wanted to do was be a priest," he told her then, his voice cracking.
"I said to him, 'You know Brian, you dealt with each of these things in your life - abuse, alcoholism, AIDS - and used what you learned to help other people. You turned every tragedy into a triumph. If you had become a priest, I really don't think you would have touched this many people."
She said he put his head down, then, and he wept.
October 1, 2003
05.11.04 alexander caughey says:
|If forgiveness were only a matter of forgiving, then who would I be if the whole world were to be forgiven for its sins? I would be the recipient of forgiveness but I would still remain the perpetrator of sin and it is I who must live with my guilt and its consequences. If sin is the great separator, then must it be I who would seek to extinguish the consequences of my sin? Yes! without my clear willingness to remedy my act of wronging another, the sin will remain and I will carry the burden and its consequences for me. That the victim must also accept that being wronged does not end life unless the wronged also wish to carry the burden, is but our own willingness as the victim, to seek our own remedy in seeking out and forgiving the wrongdoer, to enable us to unburden the unwelcome load that we now bear as a result of being abused. That our church has now moved out of self denial into a more productive and creative frame of mind, would suggest that the victim must now stand up and be counted for his desire to confront his abuser and not only to count the compensation, for without a visible understanding that the abuser and the abused are joined by an act of evil, the evil may never be erased.
05.08.04 godshew says:
|Three Wishes: Grace Mercy Peace.Forgiveness, from the cross, is to "them"... because- they know not what they do (in crucifying the law)- if they knew, they never would have done itForgiveness, in Lord's Prayer, is mission impossible:- forgive us as we forgive... not likely to be merciful- PS notes if you don't forgive all men all trespasses, neither do you get forgiveness.- who the heck knows the secret sins of all men, or a neighbor, or a spouse, etc?Truth is, only forgiveness possible is via abolition of law, which forgives all by pure grace.TgooLJCwya. Amen.Daniel Miles
04.18.04 postulantinatlanta says:
|wow!Brian Dionne was most likely one of my closest friends that I have ever had. Tonite, out of the clear blue, I felt a need to run a google search on his name, and see whta turned up. The first link that appeared was the one for this newsgroup. I have no idea what kind of a group this is, however, just having reread this article has sent me through some very difficult but, ultimetly joyous feelings. Brian was the kindest most spiritual man I have known in my years. When I spoke to him in the last year of his life, it was always so powerful, he had a way about him, his character that just said "its okay" Jesus loves you, you are on the right track etc. Brian after years of pain and frustration in the church finnally found out that for him it was "ok" and that Jesus loved him. It gives me such great joy to see that this article on my dearest of friends has a place on your site, where I hope he can continue to inspire people. Brian would have hated the attention, but for me it's a wonderful tribute to such an amazing and loving man.Thank you for giving brian another way to influence people so positively.Mike D'Arrigo Atlanta, Georgia April 18, 2004
10.01.03 Godspy says:
|Abuse. Shame. Anger. Reconciliation. The Life and Last Days of Brian Dionne.