May 1, 2010


Ruminating over the sex abuse scandal in the Church today, I was reminded of a disturbing incident from my own childhood, which I didn't fully appreciate at the time, but which has taken on increasing significance with the passing years. My mother, Mary Jane Cameron, was a math and PE teacher at Marina Junior High School in San Francisco, at the corner of Chestnut and Fillmore Streets. and most of her students were blacks and Hispanics who had been bused in from the poor districts and projects of the city to this exclusive Marina neighborhood school for the very rich, a situation I never fully understood.  I can remember walking down the hallway to my mother's classroom and hearing her shouting authoritatively at her students, something I never heard her do at home,  and once I even witnessed her slap a boy in the face, which was truly shocking. It was a tough school and a very tough job and my mother hated it, because it required her to be so strict in order to be kind. The year would have been 1953, I was nine years old and attended the distinguished Madison Grammar School, which has since been changed to the Claire Lilienthal Elementary School.

These pictures bring back such memories of those years and I can still see myself being carried kicking and screaming down the hallway in the enormous arms of the gigantic Mrs. Mary O'Leary, our first grade teacher, because I was having a wild tantrum (the drama queen in the making). Mrs. O'Leary, because of her large bulk, always wore smocks that concealed the bumpy  outlines of her body. In the fourth grade, I was allowed to walk on my own the seven blocks from the Madison School on the corner of Divisadero and North Point Street to Chestnut and Fillmore streets, where I would skip up the stairs of Marina Junior High and enter my mother's classroom to wait for her school day to be over and the bus ride to our apartment in Pacific Heights, overlooking the San Francisco Bay.

On one bright, warm, sunny spring day, I was skipping down Chestnut street and had almost come to the corner of Fillmore, when a strange man stopped me and said, "Where are you going, sonny?" At that age, I was a very chatty, friendly child and would talk to anyone anytime anywhere, though I had been warned, and very severely at that, not to talk to strangers. Because the incident registered in my young mind at the time I have little difficulty remembering what I said to him. "Oh, I'm going across the street to meet my mother, she's a math teacher at Marina Junior High, and she also teaches PE and one time I went into the girls' locker rooms and I saw them in the showers together and once I saw a girl's titties." Babble, babble. The man laughed and then said, "Would you like a ride across the street?" and opened the door of a very large black limousine parked by the curb. I was delighted by the suggestion, and said cheerfully, "Oh, thank you very much," and jumped inside and began immediately bouncing up and down on the wide back seat. I had never been in such a large car before and this felt like such an exciting adventure. It never occurred to me until much later to notice that the car was facing in the wrong direction! The man walked around behind the car and came to the driver's door. He stopped and seemed nervous somehow, as I clearly remember it, because I got a good look at him at that moment. Very close cropped hair, almost balding, on a round head with a series of bumps in the back, stubble on the chin, not very tall, and chewing a tooth pick. After some moments of hesitation, in which he seemed to be looking at something behind the car, he opened the driver's door, leaned in and said, "Sorry, kid, I can't take you today." I was so disappointed that I just sat there with my mouth in a round little 'O.' Had I done something to offend him, I wondered, had I farted when I was bouncing up and down on the seat? Before I could figure the situation out, the man barked at me, "Beat it, kid, I'm busy." I scrambled out of the car, somewhat frightened, confused, and offended. What was that all about, I wondered, and I ran across Fillmore Street, into the swinging front doors of Marina Junior High School and up the stairs to my mother's classroom, determined to tell her all about it. However, by the time I got up onto her floor I had one of those 'uh oh' moments. My mother had always admonished me very severely for being so friendly to people on the streets and warned me time and again about the dangers of taking candy from strangers, getting into their cars, talking to them in parks. She had always advised me to "walk away" very quickly and if anyone attempted to 'interfere 'with me in any way, I was to shout out, "Police" at the top of my lungs. And so for prudence' sake, I decided to keep this little incident to myself. It would only be many years later that I would fully appreciate what a close call I had had that day, and had it not been for a fortuitous circumstance (someone staring at the man from behind the car?), I might never have seen my mother again.

My mother wasn't the only one to so admonish me. I remember an incident with my next door neighbors, Mary and Anne Murray, who had been accosted by a flasher in the park. I was in their living room when the girls told this story to their mother, and she asked very severely, "What did you do?" Anne, the oldest, said, "Oh, we just stood there and giggled." Mrs. Murray grabbed her daughter by the arm and shook her and shook her, yelling, "Don't you realize how dangerous that could have been. Don't you ever do that again. You run, you scream, you yell for the police, do you understand me? Do you understand me?" Repeated for emphasis and shouted at all three of us children. Both girls were almost in tears and I was stunned by the vehemence of the outburst, but it impressed on all of us children the fact that there were evil men out there in the world preying on young children, desiring to do nasty things to them, and we must always run and always yell for the police.

That was 1953, and the present day apologists for the sex abuse scandal in the church are trying to tell us that those were different times and people didn't appreciate the seriousness of sexual abuse and bishops wouldn't have felt the urgency to report incidents of abuse committed by priests to the civil authorities. To which my aunt Gini (mother of 13) would simply reply, "Bullshit."