A 26-year-old man has told the Mobile Register that Brother Victor Bendillo, a teacher and adviser at McGill-Toolen High School for 39 years, sexually abused him over a period of two to three months when he was a 14-year-old student at the school.
The man said Bendillo convinced him that he needed to adhere to a regimen of therapy and prescription medicine to cor rect a developmental problem with his genitals. He said that the therapy involved Bendillo using his hands to manipulate the student’s genital area.
The man approached the newspaper to tell his story on the condition that his name not be used.
The man said it took him years to realize that he had been the victim of sexual abuse, and that he reported it to Mobile Archbishop Oscar H. Lipscomb for the first time March 7.
Lipscomb issued a public statement April 2 that said Bendillo’s personnel file had been turned over to Mobile County District Attorney John M. Tyson Jr., who is investigating sexual misconduct and abuse allegations involving several clergy members from the Mobile archdiocese.
Tyson said Friday that his office has “received enough information to warrant opening a criminal investigation” into Bendillo.
Lipscomb’s statement said a verbal complaint against Bendillo was received in 1998, and that Ben dillo “was immediately removed from ministry.” Since then, Lipscomb said, he has received three other com plaints against Bendillo, who is affiliated with the New Orleans-based province of the Brothers of the Sacred Heart, a religious order of male teachers.
Neither Bendillo nor Lipscomb responded to interview requests for this story.
In recent years, Bendillo has been living in Baton Rouge, La., and volunteering at a Catholic hospital there. He is now being moved to the order’s home in New Orleans, where his superior can be closer to him, according to Brother Ivy LeBlanc, the New Orleans-based provincial for the Brothers of the Sacred Heart.
LeBlanc said that leaders of his religious order were informed about the 1998 allegation against Bendillo shortly after it was received. He said that information was not shared with anyone else. Since March 7, LeBlanc said, Lipscomb has informed him of two other allegations against Bendillo.
Bendillo was sent for evaluation after the 1998 allegation, LeBlanc said, and then spent five months in residency at a treatment center. LeBlanc would not say what the treatment was for or where Bendillo received care, simply identifying it as “a very reputable treatment center.”
Since then, Bendillo now 74 and retired from active ministry has continued to receive care through the center’s “after-care program” and has worked with both a personal counselor and spiritual director, LeBlanc said.
‘A really special relationship’:
The man who called the Register to tell his story said that during the fall of 1990, he like many students spent some of his study periods hanging out in Bendillo’s office in McGill-Toolen’s guidance department. As that fall passed, he said, his conversations with Bendillo became more personal.
“It was definitely at a very vulnerable time,” said the man. “My parents had gone through a bad divorce the year before. My father had moved out of the house.
“Mom’s telling me to look for a good male role model,” he said. “Along comes Brother Vic.”
He said Bendillo would tell him: “‘I feel like you’re my son. We have a really special relationship.'”
Around the beginning of December 1990, he remembered, Bendillo told him that boys going through puberty sometimes unknowingly experience developmental problems with their reproductive organs. Similar conversations followed over a period of weeks, he said.
He said Bendillo told him that the problems might be that a boy’s penis had not developed to its full size or that one of his testicles hadn’t “fallen down far enough.”
“‘People never know that this is a problem,'” the man remembered Bendillo saying. He said Bendillo told him that he would examine his genital development if he wanted.
That January, the man said, he agreed to allow Bendillo, who worked as an English teacher and later as an academic adviser at Mobile’s only Catholic high school, to examine him.
“In the examination, he pushed on tissue that made it appear that things would move forward in my genitals. When he released it, it moved backward,” he said. “I didn’t have an erection at this point. It wasn’t sexual in any way.”
Bendillo pushed on tissue between his scrotum and his anus, the man said, which moved his penis forward. After doing so, he said, Bendillo told him “there’s a lot of material stuck back there” and that he had a problem.
The solutions were a “painful surgical procedure” or a less-invasive treatment that would take longer to correct the problem, the man said Bendillo told him.
“He made me feel that the problem, the medical problem that I had, was something worthy of shame,” the man remembered. “It was something to be embarrassed about, but I could be comfortable in keeping it between the two of us.”
The blue pill:
After thinking about his options, he said, he told Bendillo he wanted to see a doctor whom Bendillo had mentioned. He said Bendillo had described the doctor as a “friend” who could offer counsel in the matter.
Bendillo, however, cautioned that he should realize that the doctor was in the same medical practice as the man’s uncle, and that his uncle would be likely to find out about his problem as a result, he said.
“For some reason, he gave me the impression that the doctor was doing this undercover,” the man remembered.
The man said he was also frightened by the thought of having to explain being bedridden for a few days after the secret surgery.
After a day or two passed, he said, he asked Bendillo about the alternative to surgery. Bendillo expressed a need to first consult with his friend the doctor, the man said.
A few days later, he said, Bendillo told him that he could administer a sort of physical therapy and supply him with prescription medication provided by his doctor friend.
“The way that he made me feel about it was that he was going to do this thing for me even though it was awkward and weird,” the man remembered. “I just couldn’t believe that he was willing to do this for me. Not only did I completely trust him, but I thought that he was going above and beyond to help me out with this condition I was embarrassed and…I felt lucky that he was willing to do it for me.”
The man said Bendillo’s first treatment session occurred during the school day, in Bendillo’s office in the guidance department. He said he then underwent the treatment two or three times a week for the next couple of months.
During the sessions, Bendillo produced audiotapes of people having sex, the man said, and he told the student to listen to the tapes on headphones and to look at books of people in sexual positions. The man said he had to expose his genitals, but Bendillo did not expose his own.
He said that during the sessions, Bendillo would use his hands to extensively touch and explore the boy’s reproductive organs. He said some of those sessions lasted as long as an hour.
As the sessions progressed, Bendillo wanted to schedule them after class hours, and “came up with the idea of telling my mother that I was being tutored in Spanish by him” and had to meet him in his office after the final bell.
Later, the man said, Bendillo suggested they move the sessions to the Brothers of the Sacred Heart residence on North Catherine Street in Mobile. The sessions took place in one or the other of the home’s two front parlors, he said.
The front parlors had frosted glass panels on the doors, the man remembered, that allowed a person inside the rooms to see out, but didn’t permit outsiders to look in.
“I was just super uncomfortable,” as people visited and talked outside the parlor doors, he said. “That’s when it started for me being like, I don’t want this to happen anymore. I never voiced that to him because I guess for me to say that to him would have meant that something was wrong.”
Bendillo began giving him a blue pill before the sessions even began, the man said, instructing him to take it at least five times a week as part of his treatment. He said Bendillo never identified the pill, and he still has no idea what it was.
“I don’t remember any effects of it,” he said. “It has never occurred to me other than now that I don’t know what he was giving me.”
A growing crisis:
For more than a year, the Catholic Church has been embroiled in a scan dal over priests who sexually abused children and in some cases were shuttled by bishops from parish to parish. Reports indicate that the majority of the abusive clergy who have resigned or been removed in recent months have sexually abused teenagers, not young children.
Since Lipscomb on March 16 revealed that the Rev. J. Alexander Sherlock had admitted to sexually abusing three minors, Tyson has opened an active criminal investigation into Sherlock.
Tyson is also reviewing archdiocesan documents about several other Catholic clergy in response to an open-ended request for “all of their documents relating to Father Sherlock or any other priests with similar kinds of problems.”
Tyson said the archdiocese, which comprises the lower 28 counties of Alabama, provided him with information about Bendillo in recent weeks. In a statement released April 2, Lipscomb noted: “On July 20, 1998, a verbal complaint of abuse against Brother Victor was received and, in concert with his religious superior, he was immediately removed from ministry. Following the dismissal of Brother Victor, I received three additional complaints against him.”
LeBlanc, Bendillo’s New Orleans-based superior, said Bendillo was at a treatment center last week for a prescheduled visit. Upon his return, Bendillo will live at the Brothers of the Sacred Heart provincial residence in New Orleans, LeBlanc said; Bendillo had been living at the brothers’ home in Baton Rouge.
Bendillo has volunteered at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital in Baton Rouge since 1999, according to a hospital official; LeBlanc said that the Brothers of the Sacred Heart did not assign Bendillo to serve at the hospital, but knew he distributed Communion there as a volunteer.
“We really didn’t think that was a threat to young people,” said LeBlanc, who said he did not believe hospital officials were informed about Bendillo’s background.
“Our main concern is that he not have access to young people in a way that puts them at risk,” LeBlanc said of Bendillo. “We’ve taken actions to try and make sure that doesn’t happen.”
Bendillo began working at what was then the all-boys McGill Institute in September of 1959 and remained at the school after it became a coeducational facility, McGill-Toolen High School, in 1973. He remained there until August 1998, according to the Rev. W. Bry Shields, president of McGill-Toolen High School since 1989.
Shields said that “students generally responded positively to Brother Vic,” and that he had not “officially” heard any allegations against Bendillo until Lipscomb’s statement earlier this month.
Shields also would not say what reason was given in 1998 as to why Bendillo left the school. The Very Rev. Michael L. Farmer, chancellor of the Archdiocese of Mobile, said he did not know what information McGill-Toolen officials received regarding Bendillo’s departure five years ago.
The Brothers of the Sacred Heart who work at McGill-Toolen are assigned there by their religious superior and remain affiliated with their religious order, but they serve at the school with Lipscomb’s permission. If a bishop has a problem with someone, that person can be ordered out of the diocese, Farmer said.
Pat Guyton, executive director of the Child Advocacy Center in Mobile, said he taught religion at McGill-Toolen in the mid’80s, and recalled that Bendillo would give some students “special help and counseling.” In particular, Guyton recalled one boy who he said told him, “‘Brother Vic gives me a massage and it makes me feel so much better.'”
Guyton said the man who approached the Register also contacted him recently to tell his story.
Generally speaking, Guyton said, sexual predators’ “method of operation” involves a “grooming process,” during which they gain minors’ trust, then establish close relationships with them. Slowly, Guyton said, abusers will begin to talk about sexual matters, then try to initiate sexual contact.
In some cases, victims may not realize they are being abused, Guyton said. Some individuals repress the incidents, he said.
“The other way is that the person who does the sexual abuse is so crafty and tricky they use words like ‘a medical procedure.'”
‘Kind of faded away’:
The man who spoke to the Register, said that as a 14-year-old he never considered that there was anything sexual about his sessions with Bendillo.
“I was not sodomized or anything like that,” he said. “What happened to me was all under the guise of medicine. He told me that this was a medical issue.”
Still, the man said, he was uncomfortable.
After spring vacation of 1991, he said, he never returned to Bendillo for the procedure. “We had this break where it didn’t happen,” he said. “Coming back, I think I just told him, ‘Oh well, let’s not do that this week.'”
But the man said he continued to take the blue pills Bendillo provided until the end of the school year. For that reason, he said, Bendillo would occasionally ask him about his supposed problem.
Other than that, he said, “it just kind of faded away.”
The man said he didn’t realize that he has been a possible victim of sexual abuse until four years later.
“In 1995, I was on a hunting trip with my father,” he remembered. “I shot a deer that weekend.” While butchering the male deer and cutting away its genitals, he found himself studying the buck’s reproductive system. As he inspected the deer, he said, he was struck by the awareness that he had never had any developmental problem, and he understood how Bendillo had deceived him in the initial examination.
“That was the first time I ever realized it was all a lie,” he said.
He said he wanted to confront Bendillo, but at the same time felt humiliated.
“I just kept it all to myself,” he said. “It was still really scary I didn’t have anybody to talk to about it.”
But a year later, he said, he told the woman who has since become his wife. In 1997, he informed his mother, he said.
The man said he told his mother he “needed to deal with this on my own time,” and asked her not to tell anyone.
Adding to his anxiety, he said, was the fact that Bendillo had been a friend of the family. His portrait hung on a wall in an aunt and uncle’s home, he said.
Around 1997, he said, he called a Mobile lawyer to discuss possible legal recourse.
He said the lawyer listened to his story before saying he would not take the case because he had children enrolled at McGill-Toolen, and thought it would be a conflict of interest. The local lawyer referred him to a Birmingham lawyer. The man said he called the Birmingham lawyer and told his story to the lawyer’s paralegal, who “didn’t really seem that interested.”
Weeks passed, the man said, and the Birmingham lawyer did not call him. By that point, he said, he lost interest in seeking legal advice.
Still, he said, he could never put things behind him.
“Every single year, around August, I just started getting all torn up in my belly.” He said he’d think: “All right, here’s the start of the school year, it’s about to happen again maybe” to some other boy. He said he felt ashamed that he wasn’t “man enough” to do something.
Last year, after the Catholic clergy sex abuse scandal erupted in Boston and the nation’s bishops sought to ad dress the issue, he resolved to call Lipscomb, he said.
“But I got scared,” he said. “I mean, the thing is, it’s like I revered the archbishop. He’s the man I was his altar boy.”
In June or July, he said he called the Mobile County district attorney’s office. He said he provided a brief version of his story to someone there he’s not sure who and was told that nothing could be done until he filed a criminal complaint with the Police Department.
Tyson, informed of the man’s description of the early summer phone call, said the man got the “wrong impression” if he thought that he needed to tell the police first.
“Without knowing who they talked to and those sorts of things, it’s hard to respond” to the man’s description of his call, Tyson said.
Only minutes after speaking to someone at Tyson’s office, the man said, he telephoned the Mobile Police Department. He said he told an operator that he wanted to report child sexual abuse by a clergy member; the operator transferred him to someone in the detectives’ unit, he said. That person transferred him again, he said, this time to another unit. At that point, the man said, he was placed on hold.
“You start thinking too much, I guess,” he said, recalling that after 10 or 15 minutes, he hung up the phone.
Mobile Police Chief Sam Cochran said that when calls such as the man’s come in, the right investigators aren’t always immediately available to speak to alleged victims.
Call to the archbishop:
On March 7, the man said, he called Lipscomb’s office and left his phone number and a message that he wanted to speak to the archbishop about clergy sexual abuse.
The archbishop returned his call, and the two talked later that evening, he said.
At first, the man said, Lipscomb thought he was calling to make an allegation against Sherlock, a longtime Mobile priest.
The man said he told the archbishop he was calling about someone else.
Lipscomb then asked who had abused him, he said.
“I said it was Brother Vic. He said, ‘Oh, well, Brother Vic.’
“That was the first time that I found the archbishop already knew something about Brother Vic.”
He said that during the conversation the archbishop told him he and the Sacred Heart provincial confronted Bendillo in 1998 and made sure he left Mobile immediately to begin treatment in Louisiana.
It was not until this year that the man said he learned, through a newspaper article, that no statute of limitations exists in Alabama for the prosecution of any child sex crime that occurred after Jan. 7, 1985, and involves someone 16 years old or younger.
In speaking to the Register, the man expressed concerns about the publicity that would ensue if he decides to pursue legal action.
“As long as my name’s not out there, he doesn’t have control over me publicly,” he said. He said he worries about coming back home to attend Mardi Gras events, and being talked about as the teenager who was touched by the Catholic brother.
“I just have been there,” he said of talk in Mobile. “I know the whispers.”
He said he brought his story to the newspaper only hours before Lipscomb made the past allegations against Bendillo public because he wanted the brother to be “exposed.”
“I personally believe that there are others out there” who are victims, he said.
As for the Catholic Church, he said he’d like to see “these people who run the archdiocese step up to the plate and admit the problems of the past. Personally, I think they’re shooting themselves in the foot by trying to hold onto it.”