Sins of the past

The news that Saint Bernard School’s property will be sold so the Roman Catholic Diocese of Norwich can liquidate its assets and compensate survivors of clergy sex abuse hits students and alumni with a visceral blow.

To understand how it feels to contemplate no longer having an alma mater, recall the outcry in North Stonington in 2012 when a serious proposal to close Wheeler High School and the town’s students was made to nearby cities at high school age. This is how it feels when you imagine losing an institution you owe for helping you keep your head through puberty and for showing you what you have to offer as an adult, when the hormones have subsided.

The students and faculty of Saint Bernard School, Bishop Michael Cote, and the current diocesan administration had nothing to do with Catholic officials’ protection of local, abusive clergy. Since the 1990s, there is evidence that the Diocese of Norwich has followed its stated policy of putting the protection of children and young people first. It took longer to weed out some of the perpetrators. Cases are still open for some of the remaining 142 people who have made allegations of abuse. Dozens of them blame a now-deceased man at Mount St. John Academy in Deep River.

We chose Saint Bernard High School for our own children because we felt that the school and parents were pretty much in agreement on what was expected of and for our children. Fortunately, no malicious abuse has proved us wrong. They received an excellent education and even better, lifelong friendships with students from all over Eastern Connecticut and Westerly. I picture all these old friends — who I can still picture as 16-year-olds — shocked and lamenting that the school they cheered, ran for, and donned their mortarboard for is up for sale.

But while that’s difficult for those who owe much of their adult success to their high school experience, at least they have the lifelong benefit of fond memories from an institution they trust.

Contrast that with the experience of children who have been sexually abused by people they have been taught to revere and who, now as adults, are suing the diocese over the negative – in many cases ruinous – effects on their lives.

It’s a sad loss. A home sale won’t erase past sins, but if it can help alleviate years of human suffering, it’s not pointless. Remember, it’s people being helped, and it was people who made the high school years special, not a building or a field.

As real estate, Saint Bernard is top notch. The building houses seven classes with a total of about 400 students. His 113 acres off Route 32 in Montville have been rumored to have been on the market in the past, not to satisfy bankruptcy creditors but because the campus is not far from the Mohegan Reservation and could be attractive to the tribe or a developer . The city has valued the property at $21 million.

In his letter to families and alumni, Principal Donald Macrino seemed to hint that a buyer might be around the corner and ready to lease the property back to the school. The diocese will also sell Saint Bernard’s longtime sports competitor, the larger, all-boys Xavier High School in Middletown.

For those who love the Saint Bernard, there is hope for its survival. For those who lived in survival mode after being exploited as teenagers, there is hope for justice. They need the lengthy and costly bankruptcy process to inject enough funds into the diocese to compensate them on a meaningful scale.

One of the tenets of the Catholic Christian faith that the St. Bernard School sincerely taught is that people do wrong and need forgiveness. Unfortunately, the actions of some US bishops during the clergy sex abuse scandal were far from sincere, allowing them to manipulate that doctrine so they could look the other way.

The sale of the Saint Bernard and Xavier schools will not change this ugly story. But they will remind people that justice is a right, even if it costs $29 million, funded largely by the sale of a beloved alma mater, to get it for them.

Lisa McGinley is a member of The Day’s Editorial Board.

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