Preface by Rebecca Bratten Weiss
In October 2018, the National Catholic Reporter published a story by Jenn Morson, reporting on the ongoing legacy of abuse and cover-up at Franciscan University of Steubenville.
Morson’s article focused particularly on the experiences of one student, Karen. Karen was repeatedly assaulted by Samuel Tiesi, TOR, chaplain at Franciscan University during the 1980s and 1990s. Then when she sought help, she was blamed and silenced by his fellow friars – including beloved Franciscan University president Michael Scanlan.
Other than removing a plaque commemorating Tiesi near the Portiuncula chapel he raised money to build, the university’s response was to do nothing to address the wrongs suffered by Karen and others.
I then agreed, in July 2019, to publish Karen’s open letter to Franciscan University and the institutional leaders who have failed her.
Since then, nothing has changed. Karen’s pain has not been acknowledged. The leadership at Franciscan appears to have taken an “if we ignore it, it will go away” approach, with respect to Morson’s reporting, and Karen’s story. Their show goes on.
But the victims still live, still carry their burdens. Ignoring them will not make them vanish. And some of them, such as Karen, are no longer willing to be silent. This piece is a follow up to Karen’s open letter.
As I wrote last time:
This story is difficult to read, and could potentially be triggering for other victims of assault and cover-up, so be advised.
This story will also, I am certain, be upsetting for many who admired or even loved the men she names. I am one who liked and admired Sam Tiesi, and who revered and loved Michael Scanlan. But my shock and perturbation, in facing the reality of what these men did, are nothing compared with the suffering of the survivors who were viciously betrayed and silenced, and who carry scars of sexual, psychological, and spiritual abuse for life.
If you truly care about reform in the church, justice for the wronged, and healing for the innocent, you will not let your desire to hold onto past memories and present affections deafen you to the witness of those who were silenced too long. If you and I feel pain in reading Karen’s account, think of the much greater pain she has carried with her for years, and ask yourself, please, what we the church can do to right these wrongs.
If we fail to do this, because we cherish the memory of a hero or the reputation of an institution, we become part of the problem that has been ravaging the lives of innocents for decades. And, if we do this while claiming to be Christians, we have driven one more nail into the body of Christ.
“If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off of your feet” Matt 10:14
I walk the campus of Franciscan University of Steubenville, barefoot and enjoying the crisp cool weather. Where are my shoes? After removing them a dozen or so times already, I decided to carry them as I walked. This campus did not welcome me and has not listened to my words. I have come to shake the dust from my shoes. I am here to release the places and memories of the abuse of Fr Sam Tiesi, TOR, that has kept me bound for decades. These places, blessed and holy, did not welcome my heart, mind, body, or soul.
Christ the King Chapel has been the center of my nightmares and memories for 30+ years. This is where I need to start. I spent most of my day here, journaling, praying, opening myself to feel the pain and accept the anger and finally start the process of releasing it. This is where my story began with Fr. Sam, and this is where my faith ended nearly 4 years later. So, it’s here that I start.
Christ the King Chapel. My Jesus lives here in the Blessed Sacrament. This is HIS house. So, in mid-September, 1987, when my best friend died of suicide, I went to God’s house. I went to my place of safety and consolation. But instead of finding healing and hope, I found a monster whose very office was in this chapel.
This was Fr. Sam’s favorite place to abuse me. God’s house. This was the place where Fr. Sam first put his hand on my breast. The first time he touched my rear. The first time he taught me about Mary and the first time he tried to pray with me. The abuse and God were intrinsically woven together here. It is here, in God’s house that my life and my soul were destroyed. I have never felt welcome in ANY church after you abused me and desecrated this holy space. It was a place of destruction and nightmares instead of solace and peace. Monsters lived here. So, I stand in Christ the King Chapel at the door to where your office was, and I shake the dust from my shoes. I shake them vigorously and with great prejudice.
But there are more places and memories in this Chapel to face and leave behind. The holy water font was the next place I went.
It was here that Sam gave me a rosary ring. Not just any rosary ring, but the very one on his own finger. He blessed it with the holy water and placed it on my finger. I was so touched by his generosity and his Franciscan “unattachment” to worldly things. I was too naïve to realize that I was being “marked”. Sam would mention so often how happy he was to see that I was wearing his ring. It wasn’t about Marian devotion or about Franciscan poverty and generosity- it was about a predator marking his prey. Even now, 30 years later, I cannot bless myself with holy water or wear a ring without remembering this and feeling such shame. But the shame is not for me to bear. I leave it here. Christ the King Chapel and your holy water font, I shake the dust from you.
I remember the exact place on sidewalks that these things happened. I remember the words. I remember the fear. I remember the confusion. As I walk this concrete, my chest hurts and I can’t breathe. I can see Fr Sam standing there, swinging his cassock ropes in a circle playfully, and smiling when I walked over. I can hear Fr Sam’s raspy voice, “let me give you a quick kiss on the cheek before you go to class. Close your eyes.” Obediently, I closed my eyes but instead of my cheek, his lips were on my lips and his tongue in my mouth. I was repulsed and pushed him away. He laughed. I was in shock and my brain couldn’t comprehend what just happened and why he was laughing. My body kicked in and ran up the hill toward Egan Hall for class. Today, there will be no running. I understand and comprehend and Fr Sam no longer owns this concrete. He was wrong. And I shake the dust from my shoes.
I only move a few feet away, but on that sidewalk was another place that has had a hold on me. I avoid the square of concrete and hold my breath unconsciously. I sat on the wall nearby for 45 minutes trying to move through it. It is still clear in my mind, 30 years later.
It was cold outside and I was on my way to class. Fr Sam had this black cloak that he loved to wear in the winter. Now, this cloak was important, because it was large enough to wrap another person inside. And when we greeted each other with a hug, he wrapped it around me and I felt invincible. Like no one could hurt me now and that I was safe. I felt like a baby bird under the wing of a protective parent. At this particular time, I was struggling. I saw Fr Sam outside, and went to talk with him quickly and receive a quick reassuring hug from my father figure and best friend. He wrapped his cloak around, but instead of a quick hug, he didn’t let go. Then I felt it. His erection pressing against me. Panic is an understatement. I pushed away but he rubbed himself against me and held tight. I pushed away harder. He laughed at my wide eyed face. And I ran to class.
I was realizing slowly that no place was safe. Not the church. Not the chapel. Not Fr Sam. But, I still didn’t understand the truth. He was a friar, so I must be wrong. Now, I know the truth. Now, I understand. Friars are not always right. And sometimes, they can be monsters too. So now, I can step on that square of concrete and shake the dust from my shoes.
Christ the King Chapel. It was within your walls that a hug turned into a hand up the shirt. That turning around to leave chanced a pat on the bottom. It was in your holy house that a monster did sneaky despicable things. Fr Sam abused me for 3 and ½ years in this house. He also taught me about God, about Jesus in the Eucharist and the way he talked about Abba Father immediately drew you into a desire to know more. My faith became intrinsically interwoven with Fr Sam. To reject him was to reject God. I was dependent on him. I was dependent on the God he brought me to know. To leave one and reject the other was not possible. At this point, the abuse was unstoppable.
This happened just feet from the room full of students praying and adoring the Blessed Sacrament. God’s house was inhabited by a monster.
Fr Sam, you stole my love and safety of the church and did it from within God’s very house. I was not welcome here. I was destroyed here.
But now, I reclaim my life. And I speak my truth.
And I shake the dust from my shoes.
As St Francis said, “All the darkness in the world cannot extinguish the light of a single candle”. My story is my candle. I hold it for all the other victims who are afraid, silenced by confidentiality clauses, and no longer here to speak their truth. May my candle help them to shake the dust from their shoes.
all images property of the author of this piece