Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from Episode 7 of Crash Barry’s new investigative true-crime podcast, Devils & Dirtbags. The first season of the podcast is titled “Child Molesting Priests.” According to data from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, at least 7,000 American Catholic priests have been credibly accused of sexual abuse over the past several decades. The Conference estimates that their victims number at least 19,000, the vast majority of whom were children when the abuse took place. Given the nature of the crimes, and the extensive efforts Church officials have made to protect pedophile priests by keeping their crimes secret, there’s good reason to believe those staggering numbers are very conservative estimates. Similar stories of evil could also be told about every single one of the 197 American Catholic dioceses plagued by sex abuse scandals.
“I’ll have a gin and tonic,” Father X told the waitress at the Italian restaurant on Boston Road in Springfield, Massachusetts, about a mile and a half from my childhood home. “And my friend,” he said, pointing at me, “will have a bottle of Budweiser.”
It was a cold January day in 1987. I was 18 years old. The priest was 44 and obviously didn’t care that the legal drinking age was 21. On several previous occasions he’d given me beer and holy wine with nary a second thought. “We’ll need a little time before ordering lunch,” Father X told the waitress with a smile. “This is a business meeting.”
The waitress left to get our drinks and Father X returned his attention to me. He’d just finished explaining the details of his upcoming two-week vacation to Barbados.
“And here’s how you could do me a favor. I need someone to babysit the rectory while I’m gone. And I think you’re the one to do it.” Father X grinned widely. “Very simple job, really. Basically, you just need to sleep there every night. If someone calls with an emergency, give them St. Al’s telephone number. The only other responsibility is to unlock the church doors for Father O’Brien, from St. Mary’s, who is covering the weekend. There won’t be any daily mass while I’m gone. Of course, if you’d come to church last weekend, you’d know all this.” He laughed.
“I’m prepared to pay two hundred dollars for your services.” He paused for effect. “Plus, I’ll throw in a couple cases of beer and the freezer will be full of food. You can make yourself at home while I’m gone. Just don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.” He giggled. “So what do you think?”
“Sounds good to me,” I said. “When are you leaving?”
Even today, I wonder why the hell Father X asked me to housesit the rectory. At the time, I was a fairly disreputable young man. Much to the dismay of my parents, I had stopped attending church several months before. As a legal adult, I was finally free to ignore the many Catholic rules, superstitions and magic rituals that had dominated my life up to that point. It felt so great to be released from guilt, shame, and other religious constraints.
My folks were also disappointed that I’d dropped out of community college after a single semester of theater classes. I’d taken a restaurant job, with vague dreams of becoming an actor. My immediate interests were beautiful women, psychedelic drugs and other debaucheries.
Father X made a big mistake asking me to watch the place. I didn’t totally trash the joint, but when he came home, his liquor cabinet was empty and his upstairs living quarters reeked of cigarettes, weed and spilled bong-water.
“You had a good time, didn’t you,” Father X sneered when I returned the church keys. “A real good time, huh.” His face looked stiff, mask-like, and his eyes were seething, dark and hard. Wrathful fury welled inside him, but the priest had no way to exact revenge, because I was not an altar boy under his control. Father X wasn’t used to being so powerless, and he clearly hated the feeling.
He sneered again, then slammed the front door of the rectory shut. Gotta admit, I was a little spooked. The dude was pretty friggin’ scary when angry. Luckily, three decades would pass before I saw that child molesting priest again.
For the record, I was never sexually molested by a priest. Pretty friggin’ lucky. Especially considering that I personally knew five priests on Springfield’s credibly accused list while serving as an altar boy from 1975 until 1982 at St. Matthew’s, in the city’s Indian Orchard neighborhood. Father Charles Sullivan. Monsignor Timothy Leary. Father Donald Desilets. Father Michael Devlin. And the worst of the bunch, the man I’m calling Father X, who molested at least five altar boys and was never arrested, punished, or placed on any sex-offender registry to limit his access to more children.
Flash forward 30 years and I’m standing in the lobby of a former railroad hotel that was converted into subsidized housing for poverty-stricken senior citizens and mentally ill adults. The sign above the building’s intercom system explains that the list of tenants is arranged alphabetically, with no apartment numbers, as a security precaution. Fortunately for me, that made it easy to confirm X lived there.
For the entire 250-mile drive from my home in rural Maine to this nondescript New England city, I’d worried about the accuracy of the address. During months of research, I found several possible addresses for X. He’d lived and worked in and around this city since 1993, after leaving Springfield and the priesthood. The subsidized apartments in this century-old hotel with a bad reputation for bed bugs seemed to be his most likely location. And so it was.
I left without pressing his button. Speaking to X over a lobby intercom wouldn’t work. The element of surprise was crucial to this mission, but the plan was pretty basic: get the ex-priest drunk so he’d confess his sins.
X’s building was located across the street from a shopping center’s parking lot. The perfect spot for a stakeout. I was able to position my car with a clear view of the building’s front entrance. My surveillance operation officially began on a Wednesday afternoon, a week and a half before Christmas, 2017. The December air was frigid. The season’s first snow still hadn’t fallen and the downtown was decked in holiday cheer. I wasn’t cheerful, though. I was pretty friggin’ angry. And, to be honest, very depressed.
Eleven months earlier, I’d stumbled across a mention of X and references to his crimes in a wire-service news story about the death of another child-molesting priest from Springfield. Around the same time, I saw Spotlight, the film based on the Boston Globe’s stunning exposé about the Diocese of Boston’s handling of predatory priests. I was deeply saddened by the enormity of the crisis.
So I began to research X. Searches turned up a handful of news stories about a lawsuit, which provided a few details about his sexual abuse of an altar boy. It quickly became clear, though, that X was never punished for his monstrous crimes against children, which further darkened my gloom.
Next, via the website bishop-accountability.org, I learned a couple more facts connected to X, but not very much. Then I took a bad turn. I dove deeper into that wretched database of horror stories, learning about abuse by child-molesting priests that I didn’t even know, clerics with no link to Springfield. I spent days and days venturing down rabbit holes filled with tales of devastated and tortured souls, violated by priestly evildoers, with seemingly zero repercussions for those who caused this terrible pain.
And, I gotta admit, in the depth of my depression, I began to funnel my rage for all the unpunished crimes committed by thousands of priests into the figure of X. In my head, X personified the problem, became personally responsible for the acts of countless villains who destroyed countless lives.
In short, I was going insane with anger and sadness. Two questions — Why? and How? — dominated my thoughts. I tried to quit the research and the project, realizing it was having a negative effect on my mental health. But these child-molesting priests, and their enablers, wouldn’t leave my mind. I wanted answers to my questions. I needed answers.
That’s how I ended up sitting in the parking lot across from X’s apartment, equipped with binoculars, cameras, multiple audio recorders and, just in case things got rough inside his domicile, a can of pepper spray and thick wire ties, suitable to use as hand-and-ankle cuffs.
I didn’t want to have to hog-tie an old man. That’s a bit much even for my style of investigative journalism, not to mention the messy legal implications. I really hoped our past friendship, coupled with booze, would be enough to get the ex-priest to spill his guts. That being said, I didn’t drive 250 miles to take no for an answer.
Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, X’s neighborhood already felt familiar. I had strolled the streets through Google Earth and read reviews of local taverns trying to figure out which watering hole the ex-priest most likely haunted for happy hour. Embarrassingly, I’d already started the stakeout when it dawned on me: X was a 76-year-old retiree, living on a fixed income in a shitty apartment. Highly unlikely the dude had the cash to squander in bars. He undoubtedly got his liquor from a store.
Dusk came and went and the early night of winter fell. I sat there watching the sidewalks, occasionally starting the car to generate heat. After five hours passed with no sign of the subject, I decided X was probably fast asleep. Time to check into my fleabag motel and get some shuteye. The next day was gonna be a long one. I could feel it.
The sun was just rising when I returned the following morning. As soon as I pulled into my parking spot, I noticed that a fella who I’d dubbed Smokey the previous day was already sitting on the bench across the street from the apartment building’s entrance. This bench was apparently the unofficial smoking area for residents of the housing complex. And Smokey, an old-timer with a long gray beard and a cane, was a regular.
You could set your watch by his addiction. After each cigarette, and a short coughing fit, Smokey crossed the street and disappeared back into the apartment building. Then, exactly 20 minutes later, he reappeared, crossed the street, sat on the bench and lit another smoke. Coughing fit, cross the street, repeat.
Three hours into my watch, with no sign of X, a planned popped into my head, a way to get through the locked lobby door and past the security cameras without ringing X on the intercom. All I needed was some wrapping paper.
I didn’t want to abandon the stakeout — what if X left while I was gone? — but I also needed to use a toilet. After availing myself of the restroom in the shopping center’s Wal-Mart, I grabbed a couple rolls of Christmas wrapping paper and some self-adhesive bows and dashed reindeer-like for the self-service register to check out as quickly as possible. Paranoia convinced me the old priest had left the minute I left my stakeout spot.
Instead of returning to the car, my instinct urged me to run across the parking lot to the sidewalk leading into the city’s old business district. If X had left his building while I was gone, the odds were good he’d be headed toward the stores and coffee shops downtown.
I ran to the edge of the business district, and when I turned in the direction of the apartment building, lo and behold, the ex-priest was strolling toward me on the sidewalk. He was 30 years older and many pounds thicker, but I instantly recognized X. His hair was white and longer than it ever was in the ’80s. He wore a black beret and carried a notebook. His jacket ill fit his oddly pear-shaped frame, and his jeans were too long, with several inches rolled into cuffs. No longer the debonair man I knew back in the day, that’s for sure.
He wouldn’t recognize me, of course. I was just another anonymous pedestrian. So when he passed me, I turned and followed.
X entered the barber shop on the next block. I watched through the window as he removed his beret and sat in the barber’s chair, gesturing as he explained his desired coiffure. I was dying to eavesdrop, but remained outside. Didn’t want to take the chance of X getting a closer look at me and thinking I looked vaguely familiar. At one point, the barber placed his hand on X’s shoulder. I imagined that was the most intimate human contact the former priest had had in awhile.
Hair freshly cut, the ex-priest walked out and headed back in the direction of his apartment building. I followed at a safe distance. But when he reached the entrance to his building, he walked by it without a glance.
I panicked. Had I mistaken a stranger for X? Had I wasted precious time watching the wrong man get a trim while my mark went off to god-knows-where?
My subject used a crosswalk and headed slowly toward the end of the shopping center occupied by a Price Chopper grocery store. I picked up my pace to catch up. I needed to hear the man’s voice to know whether this was X or not. So while passing him on his left from behind, I bumped into him, jostling him slightly.
“Excuse me,” I muttered, walking on.
“Quite all right,” the man said. “No problem.”
I recognized that voice. Bingo!
I ducked behind a delivery van in the parking lot and counted to 20, to give X a head start, then resumed the tail. I followed him into the Price Chopper and watched as he examined a rack of discounted bakery items, then stopped at the service desk, where he bought two lottery tickets. That was, apparently, the sole purpose of his visit — to try to get filthy rich. On the way out, he picked up a handful of free publications, then headed toward home.
Cutting across the parking lot, I speed-walked back to the car and grabbed my camera. I was able to snap a couple photos of him before he entered his building and disappeared through the lobby doors. I looked at the car clock. Twelve noon. My gut told me X was done running errands. No need to continue the stakeout. And thanks to the gift wrap and my new friend Smokey, I had a plan to gain entry to X’s fortress. Just had to wait for sundown.
The liquor store was a half mile on foot from the shopping center’s parking lot. I bought a bourbon gift set that included a bottle and two glasses.
A couple weeks before this road trip, I’d called my high school girlfriend, Megan, who’s now a respected professor of economics. Without prompting or providing any context, I asked if she remembered X, whom she’d met a handful of times back in the day.
“Oh sure,” she said. “You used to call him Father Perv. And Father Pervert. He’d give you lots of wine to drink. And you would tell me that he was always grabbing the younger altar boys’ asses.”
It was now a little after 1 p.m. More than enough time for a nice lunch, a nap, a swim in the motel pool and some gift-wrapping.
By 5:30 p.m., I was back in the stakeout spot, watching Smokey come and go. When he sat on the bench for his 6:30 smoke break, I got out of the car and crossed the street, lugging an armful of wrapped Christmas presents: the bourbon gift box and signed copies of my three books. While Smokey enjoyed his ciggy butt, I loitered in the shadows, waiting.
Finally, he finished his smoke, had his coughing fit, and shuffled back to his building. I entered the lobby about 10 seconds ahead of him and cradled my cell phone between shoulder and ear, holding the gifts with both hands.
“If she has to go to the hospital, then we’ll visit her there,” I said, to nobody, the moment Smokey hobbled into the lobby, stinking of tobacco. I gave him a bright smile of recognition.
“I understand,” I said into the phone. “And I agree.” Grinning at Smokey, I stood there and shrugged, shifting the cumbersome load in my arms. “Yes,” I said. “I hear you.”
Just as I’d hoped, Smokey unlocked the door and held it open for me. I walked though and, still feigning attention to the fake phone call, mouthed “thank you” to my unwitting accomplice. I followed him for a few paces as he made his way to the elevator, then I turned and strode quickly toward the stairwell. I didn’t look back. I opened the heavy fire door and climbed five flights of stairs. At last, I reached my quarry’s apartment.
I set up a hidden tape recorder. After all, this interview was for a podcast. And under this state’s law, it isn’t illegal to secretly record a conversation.
Knock. Knock. Knock.
I could hear X through the door ask, “Who is it?” I didn’t answer. I needed him to open the door. And he did.
“Hello,” he said, obviously confused. The door buzzer hadn’t rung, so he must have assumed I was a fellow tenant. And, of course, he didn’t recognize me. Over 30 years had passed since my rectory-sitting job for this son-of-a-bitch.
“Merry Christmas,” I said jovially.
“Who are you?” he asked.
For a second, I stood there, silent. In a moment, I would start giving him clues to my identity, to test his mental clarity. But in that moment I was a total stranger with an armload of presents, including a bottle of 100-proof bourbon that I intended to administer as truth serum. In order to get him to confess his sins. And crimes.
The first episode of Devils & Dirtbags, “The Suspected Murderer, Part 1,” will be available on Oct. 8 via Apple Podcasts, Spotify and other apps. Mainer subscribers get early access to that episode and the next 11 episodes of Season 1.