Le Sueur County, Minnesota, 1956
I flew down the wooden steps of the white farmhouse and ran up the slope to the hay barn, where Ann was waiting behind the wheel of the red tractor. She had promised I could sit on the driver’s seat with her as she drove down the gravel road that circled the pasture, where the cows knew to follow the tractor home.
Was this a dream? My father had an entire week of vacation in the middle of July, and he had driven my mother and my seven brothers and sisters and me up to Minnesota to stay at a farm.
Eight of us, raised in the city, cut loose on hundreds of acres of hills and fields with what amounted to a petting zoo of 300 chickens, 60 pigs, three dozen cows and several dogs and kittens. It was like a planet for kids. You could close your eyes and never stop running.
The farmers, Steven and his wife, Sarah, did not yell like regular parents. They reminded me of Ozzie and Harriet on television with the way they genuinely liked children. And they had a party line telephone in their kitchen, on which you could hear neighbors talking. Sarah was supposed to answer only when there were two long rings and four short ones.
During our second morning there, Sarah showed us how to feed the chickens and collect eggs in the henhouse, though several chickens denied us permission. Next we followed Steven into the shady, cool barn where he showed my father the milking machines. And when Steven stooped beneath a large, black cow, pink and white underneath, to demonstrate the “old-fashioned way,” he squirted Dad in the forehead with a shot of warm milk.
That Tuesday was my seventh birthday. I woke up and went downstairs to the kitchen to find five giant platters on the table. One was piled with fried eggs, and Sarah pretended to be astonished when I didn’t know the meaning of “sunny side down.” She was even funnier than Steven. The other platters were stacked with toast, thick chunks of ham, bacon, and a steaming nest of shredded chicken with peppers, onions and mushrooms.
We never had such meals at home — breakfasts that looked more like suppers — and I thought it was all in my honor until Steven came in from the fields and sat at the head of the table. Will and Don, who were nearer the age of my two older brothers, arrived shortly after, scrubbing their hands at the kitchen sink and taking their places on each side of their father. They had all been up since 4 a.m. to handle the milking and feeding and what other chores needed doing before this first feast of the day.
Sarah told my mother this was not much different from breakfasts on any other morning. The exception, she explained, was Sunday, when aunts and uncles followed them home from church, and all the women worked in the kitchen while the men took coffee or lemonade in the living room with the pastor, Father Kenneth, who came alone in his own car after saying Mass. Once everything was set on two tables brought together, the 13 children and adults took their places, no one touching a fork till Father Kenneth said grace and blessed the food.
Father Kenneth was not there on the morning of my birthday, but he would be coming for dinner every night that week since he was the one who had arranged for our family to stay on the farm. My parents had become friends with him back in Chicago, and Steven and Sarah did likewise after he was transferred to Minnesota. So everyone was together because of a holy, jovial Franciscan whom I got to sit next to at dinner — partly because of my birthday, but also because I had become his favorite.
Father Kenneth liked all my brothers and sisters, too, but I played catch with him and sat up on his shoulders. He let me work the Zippo lighter to fire up his cigar and sit up front when he drove to town for ice cream. What was crazy, and best of all, were the presents. A cap gun, a wristwatch, a fishing rod and reel. And those were all before my birthday. I could barely imagine what I’d get that night.
After breakfast, instead of going back out into the fields to work, Don, who at 13 was Steven and Sarah’s oldest son, asked if I wanted a ride on his motorbike. All week he had been revving and racing around the farm with it.
I climbed behind him and hung on. Don was tall and broad, and his crew cut made him look even bigger. I got hold of his belt, and good thing, too, because of the engine noise, the dust, the speed and the wind. It was a thrill, but I was glad when it was over, and I asked how he’d gotten his very own motorcycle.
“It was a present from Father Kenneth,” he said. “So’s I can ride to church every morning and serve Mass.”
Since Don’s brother, Will, nearly always had his baseball mitt with him, I wondered if it were also a gift from Father Kenneth. Don played catcher on the local baseball team, for which Father Kenneth was the coach. It seemed funny to me, a priest and baseball. But in the evening, Father Kenneth would smoke a cigar and drink a beer with my father while they talked about pitchers Whitey Ford of the Yankees and Billy Pierce of the White Sox and listen to games on the radio.
Everybody in my family thought Don and Will were swell, but their sister Ann was nicest. And pretty. She acted like we were grown, letting me steer the tractor and feed the hogs. And she was sweet on my older brother James, who had wavy black hair and played the guitar like Ricky Nelson. I saw Sarah wink at my Mom one of the nights when James and Ann volunteered to wash the dishes together.
I did miss out on some of the fun that week, since I stayed some nights at the rectory and was still there the morning my brothers and sisters got to pluck chickens. And the morning when everybody else drove to town to see the prize bulls that were rented out to farms — the story was that Steven and Sarah couldn’t stop laughing after Dad said that the bull with a ring in its nose looked like Clark Gable.
But Father Kenneth had surprised me with an American Flyer train set that day, and he let me grab two fistfuls of nickels, dimes and quarters from Sunday’s collection basket before driving us both back to the farm.
Davidson County, Tennessee, 1973
Father Mitch was only in his 30s when he was promoted to associate pastor at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Nashville. It was a poor, African American parish in the northern part of the city, where Father Mitch’s youth, smarts and idealism were especially welcome.
He liked going where he could make a difference. Granted, Tennessee was not China or South America. But he still felt like a missionary.
Besides serving at St. Vincent, Father Mitch was a chaplain at Fisk University and Meharry Medical College, where he held office hours a couple of days a week. He welcomed the challenges of his new parish assignment and felt fulfilled and edified by his interaction with parishioners and college students over the next several years. Yet he was having a crisis of conscience. After all those years training for the priesthood, he had second thoughts and had begun dating women.
Complicating everything was a troubling situation at St. Vincent, a problem that cast a pall over the parish mission and added noise to Father Mitch’s growing disillusionment with his vocation.
His boss, the pastor, was Father Kenneth Gansmann, an elderly Franciscan priest who was arthritic, ornery and inhospitable. He was also a pedophile and a sex offender who had been quietly ousted from a parish in Minnesota 10 years earlier and banished to this congregation, but allowed by Church higher-ups to continue working with schoolchildren as if nothing had happened.
Father Mitch had not been apprised of his boss’s background or wicked predilection. But rumors and suspicions, along with Gansmann’s off-putting disposition, generated tension between the two.
During his fourth year at St. Vincent, Father Mitch discovered Gansmann’s awful secret firsthand. Decades later, he described what happened in an email he sent to friends, after reading a newspaper story about his late boss.
“It was in June of ’73 that I drove up to the rectory late one morning and went to my front door office which was across from Gansmann’s,” he wrote.
“The old man was hard of hearing and didn’t notice me come inside, and I was startled to see he was fondling a youngster whose pants were dropped to the floor as Ken sat in his chair. The boy was about 10 years old, one of many boys who often visited.
“I sat down to think about the strange goings-on, when Gansmann quickly came to my office and knelt to go to confession. Mystified, I stupidly let him talk, not realizing he wanted to prevent me from exposing him [by hiding behind] the seal of confession.
“I did not know what to do.
“I never heard of another friar being reported to the police for this sort of thing. And I didn’t want to give people the idea I might have broken the sacred seal.
“Besides, my mind was likely more focused on getting packed to move out of the rectory, since I was about to take a sabbatical from the priesthood.”
Father Mitch ended up extending that sabbatical, after which he left the priesthood altogether, got married and had a successful career as a writer and editor. He did not report what he knew about Gansmann and said he had felt relief and happiness when the friar died in 1974.
Father Kenneth had surprised me with an American Flyer train set that day, and he let me grab two fistfuls of nickels, dimes and quarters from Sunday’s collection basket before driving us both back to the farm.
DeKalb County, Illinois, 1979
In the movies, a psychiatrist hypnotizes a patient who is then able to visualize, minute by minute, a forgotten scene from childhood, retrieving a traumatic memory that had been buried in their subconscious mind. Once the details are exposed, the hypnotist snaps his fingers.
In real life, it doesn’t always happen that way.
In the 1970s, I was leading what I assumed was a normal existence with a wife, a couple of young children and a career. Had I been administered a polygraph and asked if I ever experienced childhood trauma, I would have answered no. And I would have passed.
Physically, no complaints. I was in my 30s, after all. Some trouble sleeping. And on occasion, Marianne would wake me up after midnight to tell me I was having a nightmare, about which I had no idea.
Of course, she tended to exaggerate. She claimed, for example, that I had “anger issues,” a trendy term to characterize my cursing at idiot drivers. Otherwise we were happily married. We had arguments about money or about too much drinking with my friends. But didn’t every couple?
One Saturday afternoon while I was fishing with one of those friends, it happened.
The fish weren’t biting, so we just sat there, talking. Gossip about other friends: Charlie’s new power washing business. Mike’s wedding.
My friend lit a cigar. I watched him lift his rod to feel for the lake bottom, then lower it again. He opened his cooler and extracted a Stroh’s beer, his first of the day.
It came to me slowly at first: The smell of cigar smoke. The Roman collar. The Franciscan priest I knew as a child: a sexual deviant who operated with impunity. For what seemed like the first time, a reel of vaguely familiar images began unfurling in my mind, how the priest sexually abused me when I was little.
The days and nights following our fishing trip, I thought about little else. How the priest had laid the groundwork for his assailment by befriending my parents and grandparents, my aunts, uncles and cousins, since my mother would invite everyone over like it was Christmas whenever Father Kenneth came to Chicago.
Gansmann reciprocated by inviting my mother and father up to Minnesota, where he was pastor of St. John, and where he arranged it so our family could stay with Steven and Sarah, his parishioners. They had three children but plenty of room in their two-story farmhouse.
My parents, who were good if not devout Catholics, felt privileged. For Irish Catholic families in the 1950s to have a priest for a friend was as good as hobnobbing with the mayor or one of the Chicago Bears. They jumped at his invitation to Minnesota, making the long drive from Chicago during my father’s vacation from his job at the tile store. Dad would make the same trip the following year and likely would have done so again, except that Father Kenneth was abruptly transferred out of Minnesota and was eventually assigned to a parish in Tennessee.
My mother outlived my father by 20 years. Till the day she died, she considered Sarah and Steven and Father Kenneth among her most cherished friends. In fact, everything in my parents’ lives, including their vacations, social life and holiday gatherings, was arranged so this priest whom they trusted without question could ensconce himself in their lives in such a way that it was perfectly innocent and perfectly natural for him to be alone with me — teaching me how to play checkers or reading to me from a storybook while he casually, seemingly absently, engaged in criminal sexual assault.
Now I could remember wondering about the strangeness of it all, especially since the priest never acknowledged it, as though he were mindlessly petting a dog while reading the paper. I would try to pull away without being mean. But he persisted, advantaged with the wiles of an adult and the aura of the clergy. Lots of things about adults were mysterious to me, and they never seemed to feel a need to explain. Here was an additional layer of mystery, since this particular adult was also a priest.
Repressed memory, for which the medical term is dissociative amnesia, is controversial. Some people who claimed they were victims of child sexual abuse would later recant their accusations, stating that their recollections were falsely imagined and inspired by therapeutic methods.
I wondered if my memory of Gansmann’s abuse had been “repressed.” However, I didn’t feel as if some black shroud had suddenly been lifted. Rather, this felt like other forgotten childhood hurts, such as tumbling down the basement stairs or falling off my classmate’s speeding bicycle — important events that had, nevertheless, faded from memory, but whose sudden recall is triggered by a smell, a noise, a color.
Following that day of fishing on the lake, I told my wife about the priest. Some weeks later, my siblings. Then my fishing partner and his younger brother, who was also a close friend. But it was pretty much a given that I would never tell my elderly parents. Disclosing information in their twilight years about their lifelong friend manipulating them so he could hurt their child would be crushing, I reasoned. They would see it as a betrayal of their faith negating everything they believed in and lived for. What good would come from forcing them to face such unhappiness in their remaining days?
Instead, I kept it inside, where I could control the damage. And maybe, in the short term, I did. But I had to suck it up for a long time, since my mother lived into her 90s. In the last 20 years of her life, while I was writing for a dozen newspapers, exploring all manner of societal problems as a freelance columnist, I put off using my forum to expose the abuse.
When I finally did write about it, after my mother’s death, I second-guessed my decision to have kept it secret. I felt shame for not trusting my mother, who loved her children more than herself. Wouldn’t she have believed and stood behind her son, regardless of her religious piety or loyalty to a false friend? I considered how I may have made a mistake that has haunted me for years and which, admittedly, chilled our relationship.
After I published stories about the abuse in 2017 and 2020, I received that email from the former Father Mitch of Tennessee, who explained why he had never reported what he’d seen that day.
I also heard from Don, who still lived in Minnesota. More than 50 years had passed since I’d last seen him, the week he’d given me a ride on his motorbike for my birthday.
Don’s voice on the phone, his up-north “you betcha” dialect, seemed better suited to stories with happy endings. It brought me back to the farm, the sweet smell of hay stacked in the barn. The crackle of Bob Elson’s play-by play over the radio as my father drove beneath a million stars on Minnesota Highway 99, my brothers and sisters and I dressed in our pajamas, falling asleep as we traveled through the night.
I sat and listened to Don. And then he transitioned to the purpose of his phone call.
His wife Rose, he said, had gone to the Hy-Vee grocery store and bought the newspaper with my first-person account. Later she made copies for everyone in their family. “I didn’t know till I read it how bad it was with Gansmann,” he said.
He meant Gansmann’s serial abuse of multiple victims in Minnesota and Tennessee. And he meant that my description of Gansmann’s modus operandi with my family was exactly how the priest had used the Church to ensnare his parents — and gifts to ensnare Don.
“I loved that motorbike,” Don said.
But he hated it, too, dreading what would happen after he served the 6 a.m. Mass each day. And the cold fear: Some days it went away, but it was always there at night like a slab of ice.
Only when he was hospitalized with a potentially fatal disease did he ask for the chaplain. Unable even to sit up in bed, Don told the chaplain everything.
He recovered and was discharged after 10 days of hospitalization. Then he and Rose drove to his parents’ home, and he told them the sordid facts about Gansmann.
His mother’s anguished reaction: “What did you do?”
His father’s: “I forgive you. . . .”
When Don told me what his parents said, he paused and took a deep breath. He knew he did not have to explain their words to me.
To his parents, Gansmann was Christ’s surrogate, an icon of the Church and their lifelong beliefs. Instinctively, they wondered, what did Don do? What was the nature of his sinfulness, his complicity, without which this could never have happened?
Such victim blaming, of course, is illogical. When it involves family members, it’s a punch in the gut, the reason most survivors remain silent.
In time, Sarah and Steven came around to acknowledge difficult truths. But such deep wounds leave scars, as they have with thousands of victims and family members worldwide, owing to nearly a century of sexual abuse by Catholic priests abetted by the silence, coverups and obstructions of the hierarchy.
David McGrath is author of South Siders. His essay for this magazine titled, “His Intimacies with Lake and Stream,” was cited in Best American Essays 2022. Email him at email@example.com. Some names in this essay have been changed to protect privacy.