Turlock California, 1978: Sacred Heart School eighth grade class photo, awkward me on left, O’Grady on the right.
“I’m writing a letter to each person that I have offended sexually in the past. I do want to apologize to them. But I don’t want that to be just a simple statement. I think that they…basically, what I want to say to them is that it should not have happened. It should not have happened. If I could invite these people to come and meet with me, one on one, and give them the opportunity to talk to me, tell me what I did to them, I need to hear that and I think that they need to say that. I can’t say that it’s hard to do this, and I’m happy that I am doing this. It’s going to be an interesting reunion, and I really, really, really hope they come.” I won’t be quoting scripture, I won’t open with a prayer, I don’t expect people to hug me when they leave. I hope they might shake hands with me, and say, ‘yeah, it’s over right now.’ And I’ll let them get on with their lives, and I’m sure they’ll be happy to let me get on with mine. And I’ll say Godspeed, and I hope I’ll see you all again real soon.”
Convicted child rapist, Father Oliver O’Grady
Turlock, located in California’s Central Valley can be a hot bastard of a town, even before the official arrival of summer.
My eighth grade teacher, Mrs. Shive, stalks back and forth in the front of the classroom, waving a piece of chalk and droning on about something history-related. She is completely oblivious to the fact that her twenty or so students slouch half-asleep at their desks, rendered lethargic by the high-carb cafeteria lunch we’ve all recently finished choking down.
There is a sharp knock on the door, and every head in the class pops suddenly upright, straining to see through the rectangle of wired glass above the doorknob. Mrs. Shive looks momentarily annoyed, then strides to the door, chalk still held out to her side, and opens it a crack. After a moment’s private conversation, the door open swings wide, and her somber face has gone suddenly sunny.
Father Oliver O’Grady strides – no, bounces – into the room, and every twelve and thirteen year old is suddenly wide awake, smiling wide at the unexpected appearance of this small-framed, hyper-white skinned priest.
Father O’Grady had arrived suddenly at Sacred Heart School last year, and his presence had revitalized a school atmosphere that until then had been informed primarily by the stodgy, semi-alcoholic rein of Monsignor Alvernaz, a tall gaunt Portuguese priest with a humorless, Jacob Marley-esque visage inspired near-terror amongst the student and faculty when he was sober and severe embarrassment when he not. Father O’Grady, or Father Ollie, as he insisted the children of Sacred Heart call him, was a small, wiry man with a heavy Irish brogue and an incessantly jovial demeanor that reminded me, absolutely, of the Lucky Charms leprechaun. Black Irish, my half-Irish grandmother called him, although with his whiter than white skin I wasn’t quite sure what that meant. Perhaps it was his black hair, which was slightly receding from his wide, pale forehead, save for one kewpie-doll like curl that hung forward, sticking to the white skin and giving him an almost cherubic appearance. He had brought joy to Sacred Heart, a youthful enthusiasm that had won everyone over, students, parents and most of all, the nuns. Even Sister Rose, our school principal and perhaps the most-hardboiled of the teaching nuns, was not immune to his boyish charms. “oh father,” she would reply, blushing and nearly giggling in response to one the playful ribbings he would give her. No one else dared joke with Sister Rose, but Father Ollie seemed supremely confident in his ability to engage and delight everyone, even this often cranky old woman.
“Hello, Children,” Father O’Grady says, waving his arms to quiet us down. Being called “children,” when we were so close to starting high school, would normally rankle. Coming from Father O’Grady, however, it didn’t sound demeaning at all. Even the toughest boys in our class worshipped Father Ollie, as evidenced by the increased number of boys volunteering for Altar Boy duty in the previous months. Father Ollie was fun, Father Ollie was a priest, yes, but Father Ollie was also our friend.
“I am here to ask if any of you would like to help me out with CCD this summer,” he began, with his oddly over-pronounced way of speaking. “I’ll need a couple of you for just a few hours on Saturday mornings.” CCD, short for Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, is basically Sunday School for the catholic students who attended public schools, except it is taught on Saturday mornings here at Sacred Heart. The public school kids, who do not study religion as part of their daily coursework, are required to attend CCD in order to be eligible for the sacrament of confirmation at the end of the eighth grade.
Despite his popularity, this request is met with a stony silence. Not a single hand is raised, the thought of waking up early and spending Saturday mornings in a classroom during summer vacation keeping every arm glued firmly to every side.
Father Ollie seems momentarily disappointed, and turns to Mrs. Shive as if seeking support. She gives us a “come on, help Father out” look, but that’s it.
“Okay, well promise me you’ll think about it, and come see me if you’d decide you’d like to help me out.”, he trills, a little disappointment evident in his lilting leprechaun voice.
When I hear his voice, I can help visualizing the Lucky Charms leprechaun: “Blue Moons! Pink Diamonds!”
Later, after the 3:30 bell has rung and I’m heading down the long beige hallway towards the parking lot and my mother’s waiting Cadillac, Father Ollie steps suddenly into my path. I tend to walk with my head down, staring at the terrazzo tiles, so I almost bump into him before I realize he is there.
I lift my head to look into his smiling eyes.
(Yellow moons! Pink stars!)
“Andrew” he says, and I like the way it sounds when he says it, all Irish-ey.
“I’d really be pleased if you would help me out this summer. Do you think you could?”
I’m trapped. Of course I like Father Ollie, and of course I have nothing planned for any Saturday morning this summer, or for the rest of my life for that matter. I’m completely anti-social, one of the shyest kids in the entire school. I have only recently begun to make a concerted effort to speak in front of my classmates, having remained pretty much silent since I’d been ridiculed for my heavy long island accent upon arrival at Sacred Heart late in the fourth grade. For several years, I’d only spoken when called upon in class, and even then I had done so with a conscious flattening of my vowel sounds, swearing to God himself that I’d never, ever again open myself up to attack for accidentally saying “Dawg” instead of “Dog” or “Jawwz” instead of “Jaws.” Father Ollie has always seemed keenly aware of my lack of peer interaction, and has gone out of his way to demonstrate both his affection for me and his empathy for my social plight. That his hands have wandered seemingly absent-mindedly across the front of my school uniform pants during one of the hugs he would frequently give me would leave me feeling slightly confused, and strangely aroused in a confused way, I’ve chalked up more to my own confusion about my burgeoning homosexuality than to any malfeasance on his part.
I want to tell Father Ollie that I’d love to help him, but that I’m too shy around other kids, especially public school kids that I don’t know. I want to tell him that I’m afraid they’ll laugh at me, that the taunting and name-calling had finally subsided a bit amongst my classmates, and that the idea of it starting anew with a bunch of strange kids absolutely terrifies me.
But instead, wanting to please this funny little man, I find myself saying,
“Okay, Father. I’ll ask my mother if I can.”
Good, he says, and gives my shoulder a squeeze. He smiles at me, and maintains eye contact until I smile back. The smile is genuine. I put my head back down and head out to the long maroon colored Cadillac, my mother smoking her cigarette behind the wheel and my sister Theresa already in the backseat with her friend Mary, who lives around the corner from us. I climb into the passenger seat, shove my book bag down by my legs. I push a Linda Ronstadt cassette into the tape player, trying to drown out the chattering and squealing of the two third-grade girls in the backseat. My mother seems to have a lot on her mind, which is pretty common these days. Our family restaurant isn’t doing so well, and it’s affected the dynamic of our family in a hundred depressing ways. The only good thing is that it’s curtailed my mother’s annoying daily habit of cheerily inquiring, “How was your day?” on the ride home from school. When she asks me this, every fiber in my being wants to yell, “Well, I almost got beat up twice, I only got called faggot three times so that’s good, no one called me fat ass today, and I only intentionally fucked up one test to avoid being called a a nerd. And how was yours?”
As Linda sings of going back one day, come what may to Blue Bayou, my thoughts return to Father Ollie. He sought me out, I think. There were tons of kids in that hallway, and he picked me. I think of the smile he gave me, the twinkle in his dark eyes as he squeezed my shoulder. He likes me, I think. I’m not used to people liking me, not because I’m unlikeable, but mostly because I work so hard at being invisible. Even my teachers, except perhaps Mr. Jackson in the sixth grade, seem to look right through me. I like it this way, usually. The fact that Father O’Grady thinks I’d be a good assistant, which sounds important, and that he singled me out from all the popular, athletic boys, makes me feel good.. He sees me.
“Mom,” I venture, when we’re halfway home. “Father O’Grady asked me to help out with CCD on Saturday mornings”
My mother is thrilled. Anything that will give me something to do besides working in our restaurant this summer is a welcome idea to her. Over the years, she has made many futile attempts at socializing her shy oldest son. Judo lessons (three uncoordinated classes before stopping, no argument from my parents), art classes (not too bad), and worst of all, a disco-dancing class at the YMCA, where I hung at the back, doing a halting, chubby-kid version of the bus stop while secretly hating Ricky, a lithe, gymnastic fellow future homosexual whose expert moves in the front row and confident kick-ball-changes made me cringe in shame at my own stumbling efforts.
“That’s great”, my mother says, beaming. She, like everyone else in the Sacred Heart community, adores Father Ollie. In devout Catholic families, having a priest over to the family home is tantamount to hosting a foreign dignitary, and Father Ollie has spent a good amount of time in our dining room. Easter Sunday, Christmas Day, or just a regular old Sunday after mass, the priest has held court in our little green tract home, my grinning Grandmother at his side, clasping his arm in response to one of his just slightly off-color jokes, hand to her heart, “Oh Fathering” all over the place. We serve him lasagna, and eggplant parmigiano, and homemade cannoli. Though I’m generally not allowed at the table with the grownups, and we’ve never actually had a real conversation until today’s exchange in the hallway, he has always given me a smile and a warm, “Hello, Andrew!” No one calls me Andrew except Father Ollie and my grandmother, and I like it.
I find myself actually looking forward to helping out with the CCD classes, and am relieved when Father Ollie tells me the next day that before we actually begin the classes, he will need to meet with me privately for the next few Saturday mornings so that he can go over what will be expected of me. It reassures me that I’ll have a chance to learn what I’ll be doing before CCD actually starts, knowing that I’m less likely to look foolish in front of a roomful of seventh-grade strangers.
That Saturday morning, my mother takes me to the school adjoining Sacred Heart Church, and finding the doors locked, I wait on the brick steps, my mother standing by in the car until I get inside safely. At 9 am sharp, Father Ollie emerges from the adjacent rectory, wearing his black shirt, black pants, white-collared getup. He is one of the few priests at Sacred Heart who seem to wear their priest uniform constantly. Monsignor Alvernaz can often be seen shuffling/stumbling around in a cardigan, polyester leisure pants and white golf shoes, but not Father Ollie. He always looks like a priest. He waves to my mother, who waves back before backing out of her parking space and driving away.
Father pulls a ring of keys from his pants pocket, unlocks the door, drapes an arm around my shoulder and guides me in front of him and inside the building. It is unusually cool and quiet inside, and we proceed down the hallway, his arm still around my shoulders. The heavy doors swing shut behind us with a reverberating clank, and the shadowed hallway swallows us up.