Our uncle was on that list of priests

EDITOR'S NOTEBOOK

BY ART CULLEN

The many nieces and nephews of Father John Cullen, pastor of St. Matthew’s Catholic Church in Clare, were shocked to learn last month that he was credibly accused of abusing a girl at Sutherland in 1955. Many of those nieces and nephews are in their 60s and 70s, some near 80, trying to process the little information available in the context of our Catholic immersion.

Father John, as we called him, was a product of Whittemore, an athletic man with a square jaw and a wavy white mane who was as close a figure to God, or at least a bishop, as I had met. That’s the way we thought about him: He walked into our home wearing a Roman collar, would greet us children with warmth and a laugh, and then dispatch us to another room. As he left, we knelt for his blessing.

Brother Jim and I recall the ritual of being sent to summer spiritual boot camp with Father John. We served Mass for him every morning, roamed around Clare aimlessly during the day and got to hit off his batting machine. At night he drank cocktails and read his Breviary, a small black book of priestly prayers and devotions, while Jim and I watched TV in his dark rectory living room.

He seemed incapable of sin, since drinking too much wasn’t quite a sin in our morality. I had joked about that with Police Chief Mark Prosser several weeks ago. He tried to force a smile, but he had seen the file as a member of a review board that investigated and ultimately released a list of 26 priests in the Sioux City Diocese who had been credibly accused of abusing a minor.

I was familiar with most of the names. Msgr. A.W. Behrens’s signature was on my report cards as superintendent of diocesan schools. Many of us from St. Mary’s in the 1960s had heard tales about Father Charles Yetmar but they lacked information or a known victim, at least what I heard. I knew Father John Cain, who served at Sioux Rapids and who headed the Rural Life Conference at one time, and liked him.

My first reaction was shock and then confusion. Who did Father John assault, and how?

That information is not known to me or, I believe, all my cousins who were reared to revere him. I do not know if any of Father John’s brothers and sisters (including my father, much younger than the priest) knew about it. I asked Prosser about Father John, and he said he could not tell me anything. I understand. But I also know that Prosser is a good and experienced investigator. I do not know to whom the claim was made. I do not know if there was a money settlement or what reconciliation might have occurred, if any. All I know is that he is accused of abusing a female under the age of 18 while a priest at Sutherland in 1955. It would appear that this is the only claim that has been made against him. It also would appear that no claim was taken in the criminal justice system. Most important, it was deemed credible by the review board, which was formed after the diocese for years swept abuse claims under the rug and kept them secret.

We all try to make sense of it in our own ways. Some cousins are reflecting on Father John’s life in Clare and the many good things he did for boys and girls, such as paying for their tuition at Catholic high schools or colleges after they had left Clare. Maybe that was his form of reconciliation. I can’t judge it or even know what to do with that information with so little information about the 1955 incident.

I would like to know more about the victim so I could try to appreciate what her experience was, but I probably really don’t want to know all about that. We have heard much about the horror that children suffered in the hands of priests, pastors and others in position to abuse their power.

The massive cover-up by the church worldwide has caused many of us to question the very foundation of what we were reared to believe: that these men in vestments held the truth for us. That Father John was the Truth incarnate. It was not so far a logical leap for a young boy in Storm Lake steeped in the religion.

So it shakes me.

It’s good to know 64 years later the fact that it happened, two years before I was born. I’m encouraged that the church has taken steps to be truthful — not enough steps, but this list of 26 priests is significant certainly in our family’s life and understanding of our own story.

The list reminds me that power corrupts, that it is strange and clearly destructive for men to live like that in the dark and alone with a bottle and Breviary, and that when a Liberian nun spoke up to the conclave of cardinals recently in Rome it didn’t seem like the white-haired men took her that seriously. She was not appointed Pope Francis’s chief of staff or chief fumigator.

The release of the list and our reaction also illustrates how our lives revolved around the church and clergy, and how that indelible impression can make it more difficult to see what is true. Our world of priests and pastors on pedestals is crumbled.

Father John retired in 1985, 30 years after he left Sutherland in a cloud. He died in 1991. The St. Matthew’s boy’s choir sang “Panis Angelicus” at his funeral. The bishop who held his secret file, himself once accused of abusing boys, eulogized Father John as a holy man. And that’s all we knew. We were reared to believe that all sins are forgiven in Confession or Purgatory or by means we cannot fathom. So we leave it at that, confused and wondering.