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S.J. Parish Struggles To Accept Dark Secret

Apr 28, 2002 | Mercury News

At church, in school, over the phone and across the kitchen table, members of a San Jose Roman Catholic parish have been confronting a painful secret.

Since a group of former students at the St. Martin of Tours parish school came forward last week and said they were fondled by the late Rev. Joseph Pritchard in the 1970s, mothers have been calling their adult sons to ask if they, too, were abused by Pritchard.

Sometimes the answer turned out to be yes.

In recent days, teachers at the school have found themselves responding to their students' questions about Pritchard. Many former students, now men and women, have been reaching out to old friends. And older parish members have been struggling to reconcile the news accounts with their own memories of Pritchard as a spiritual leader and friend.

``I'm having a hard time sorting it out in my own mind,'' said a 79-year-old parishioner, one of many from the affluent Rose Garden neighborhood and surrounding areas who have attended St. Martin for decades. ``I know it happened, but I can't make myself believe it.''

The Mercury News reported Thursday that 10 former students at the highly regarded St. Martin elementary school said Pritchard repeatedly fondled them in his living quarters, where the boys often spent time playing cards and watching television before going home after school. Pritchard died of cancer in 1988.

Most of the men said they had never told an adult what happened when they were 10, 11 or 12 years old because it was too difficult to acknowledge that Pritchard, who was beloved and respected in the parish, could have done something like that.

But since the article appeared, five more men have contacted the Mercury News to say that Pritchard did the same to them. One of the men who originally spoke out, 37-year-old John Salberg of San Jose, said he's heard from dozens of former students who have expressed their support. At least 20 have told him that Pritchard fondled them, too.

``As time goes on, I think they'll find more people,'' said Daniel Markey, 35, who told his mother for the first time this week that Pritchard had once reached under his pants in a way that was ``completely inappropriate.''

Markey's brother, Mark, told their mother last year that Pritchard had fondled him when he was a boy. A few weeks after he confided that secret, he leaped off a bridge.

Family members said they believe Mark Markey's suicide was the result of mental illness that was diagnosed several years ago; they don't blame Pritchard's actions as the primary cause. But they still have strong feelings about the former pastor, whom they once liked and admired.

``I do feel angry and I feel betrayed, but I'm also forgiving,'' said Calvin Markey, the father of Daniel and Mark. The 72-year-old retired court reporter said his religious faith is still strong, and he has no desire to sue the church. But he is glad that his son's classmates have spoken up.

``I think they did the right thing,'' he said.

As when any dark secret is revealed, there has been denial, anger, sympathy and relief.

``I've always carried a lot of guilt over why my son didn't come to me when it happened,'' said the mother of another former student, whose son told her when he was 19 about being fondled by Pritchard several years earlier.

``But when I read the article it said none of these kids could tell their mom or dad,'' the woman said Friday. ``Suddenly I realized it was hard for all of them.''

By the time she learned about her son, Pritchard had been transferred to another church. And her son made her promise not to tell anyone else -- even in their own family.

She kept that promise for 20 more years.

Even today, she asked not to be identified. Other parishioners of her generation have been uncomfortable seeing allegations made against a respected figure who has been dead so many years. Even some parents of men who say they were molested have found it difficult to accept.

``I think there's going to be a lot of healing that will need to happen,'' the woman said.

The Rev. Dave Mercer, pastor at St. Martin, agreed.

``It's like a grieving process,'' Mercer said. ``There is initial disbelief, then a struggle with how do you reconcile that with your perception of the man.''

He plans to acknowledge the disclosures during Mass today, and to extend sympathy to anyone who was harmed by Pritchard.

Another local pastor, the Rev. Gary Thomas, said he will do the same during Mass at St. Nicholas church in Los Altos, where Pritchard served in the 1980s.

Thomas said he has heard from members of his parish who can't believe Pritchard would have done anything like what was reported; he said no one has reported any misconduct at St. Nicholas.

``I want to say that we are very saddened and shocked by these allegations,'' said Thomas, who added that he will encourage anyone with information or personal experience to contact him.

At St. Martin, some of the parish's 2,300 families have complained about unwanted publicity in recent days. For them, especially parents with children born decades after Pritchard left the parish, Mercer said there is a feeling of ``saturation'' because the revelations about Pritchard came after weeks of other scandals about sexual misconduct at churches around the country.

As parents picked up their children outside the school Friday afternoon, 51-year-old Angela Martin said she still has confidence in the teachers and has no plans to pull her 12-year-old daughter out of the school, where the Pritchard story had been the topic of classroom discussion.

``Our teacher told us to talk about it with our parents,'' said her daughter Amy. ``She just said it doesn't mean all priests are bad. They're human.''

Even so, Angela Martin called the nationwide scandal ``as serious as the war going on.''

``People rely on their priests,'' she said. ``It's shaken the very foundation of the church.''

The allegations about Pritchard have also shaken others who knew him.

``There were never even rumors about anything like that when I knew him at Serra,'' said Dave Henry, who was a student at Serra High School in San Mateo when Pritchard taught there in the 1960s. Henry, a 58-year-old machinist, said Pritchard had been a friend and mentor all his life.

At Serra, Henry said of Pritchard, ``people considered him a resource in time of trouble. He'd be there, no matter what.''

Many of the former students at St. Martin also recalled Pritchard as a friend and someone they admired. But for Ken Cabral, now a contractor in Truckee, that doesn't change what happened when he was an altar boy in the fourth grade.

``He violated me,'' said Cabral, who contacted the Mercury News after the article on Pritchard appeared last week. ``It happened numerous times. You'd go in there, sit on his lap, and he would violate my privacy to the point where, in this day and age, it's totally wrong. And in that day and age too.''

Echoing other former classmates, Cabral added: ``I totally respect the Catholic church and I respect the Catholic priesthood, but this is something that should never have happened. I don't want any compensation of any kind or anything like that. I just want an apology from the Catholic church itself.''

Salberg said he hopes to meet with San Jose Bishop Patrick J. McGrath, perhaps as early as today, to explain why he believes the diocese should send letters to all St. Martin families, to acknowledge what happened, apologize and offer counseling to any other victims.

McGrath has said he would extend that offer to anyone who wants to meet with him, but the bishop said he fears a letter to all families would make some people uncomfortable.

Another former student agreed the church should take responsibility for what happened. Tom Kavanaugh, a 38-year-old electrician, said he also was fondled by Pritchard, whom he called ``a good person who had a tragic flaw.''

But Kavanaugh said he wishes Pritchard had been held accountable before he died.

``Those guys who want to be apologized to, they deserve it. But some bishop saying, `I'm sorry,' what's that? I want him to say he's sorry.''

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