Scandal engulfing Mobile Catholic high school expands; SNAP urges the faithful to demand accountability
For Immediate Release: September 12, 2023
McGill-Toolen Catholic High School in Alabama recently made international news because of reports that the Archdiocese, as well as the staff at the school, ignored complaints about a Catholic priest who absconded to Italy with a recent McGill graduate. Sadly, Fr. Alex Crow was apparently not the only case to be mishandled by school officials and the Church.
On Sunday, Mobile media outlet Lagniappe posted a major exposé on child sex abuse at the Catholic high school entitled, “Victims say leaders ignored past and present abuse at McGill.” The outstanding piece was written by Rob Hobert, with contributions from Dale Liesch and Kyle Hamrick.
We are so grateful to brave survivors Clark Glenn, Sallie McPhearson, and Brian Pierre for their contributions to this comprehensive report. It is because of courageous victims like them that information about abuse in Catholic institutions has been exposed and is being addressed, albeit far too slowly. According to the Lagniappe, victims of abuse perpetrated by clergy at McGill say there is one constant — an administration and Archdiocese bent on covering for abusers and squelching criticism of the school.
Fr. Bry Shields, a former Episcopal clergyman, has worked as President of McGill since 1989. For a married man who has adult children of his own, it is disappointing that Fr. Shield has done so little to protect the precious offspring of others in his care. It was, after all, on his watch that complaints about Fr. Crow's behavior were ignored.
Fr. Shield also allowed Br. Nicholas Vic Bendillo access to McGill students from 1989 until 1998. When the Archdiocese published its list of abusers in 2018, it only acknowledged that Br. Bendillo abused students between 1964-1989. This appears to have been a deliberate omission, since this Brother of the Sacred Heart was in fact convicted in 2004 of abusing Clark in 1991. Moreover, the Archdiocese apparently no longer even maintains a copy of their list on their website.
Clark told the Lagniappe that after he reported his abuse to Archbishop Oscar Lipscomb, he came away from that conversation convinced that Fr. Shields also knew about the Brother's crimes. In further support of that conviction is the fact that Clark observed that Br. Bendillo had a Guidance Counseling Office his freshman year, but by his junior year, the Brother had been moved to an isolated office on the second floor of the Toolen Building. By Clark's senior year, Br. Bendillo was only allowed to meet with students at a table in the middle of the library, where his interactions with students could be observed.
In addition, the Lagniappe piece says that Sallie, a contemporary of Clark's, reported Br. Bendillo's troubling behavior to school officials, including Fr. Shields. She said that the school acknowledged that the Brother had admitted her accusations. Sallie was asked to stay quiet about what she knew. Sallie's parents stipulated that she would stay quiet if Br. Bendillo would be removed not only from the school, also but from "ever, ever being with, working with, children of any age anywhere on this planet, period." Sallie said that school officials agreed to her parents' conditions.
However, Sallie later discovered that instead, Br. Bendillo's office had simply been moved to a more remote location. Shortly before her 1994 high school graduation, Sallie found Br. Bendillo meeting with freshman boys in the school library, and she decided that the deal to keep quiet was off. Her mother then took the problem to the Archdiocese. Yet, Br. Bendillo remained at McGill from another four years.
In addition, when the Archdiocesan list of abusers were published in 2018, Jennifer Hernandez and her daughter Alex Hunt also brought to light concerns about sexual misconduct by a teacher at McGill that they said were brushed off in 2014. Again, this was on Fr. Shields watch.
In addition to Fr. Crow and Br. Bendillo, there are at least six other priests/religious brothers with ties to McGill deemed "credibly accused" by the Archdiocese of Mobile: Fr. Vernon Dahmen, Fr. Patrick J. L. Nicholson, Fr. Arthur C. Schrenger, Fr.John Alex Sherlock, Fr. Edward Eugene Smith, and Fr. Robert Grabowski.
Fr. Sherlock apparently admitted to abusing at least three McGill students. Brian was one of those abused, while a McGill student in the 1970s. Brian told the Lagniappe that he first informed Archbishop Lipscomb about what he had suffered at Fr. Sherlock’s hands in 1997, and the archbishop did nothing. Archbishop Lipscomb finally removed Fr. Sherlock from ministry in 2003, following a fourth accusation.
From the Mobile list, it is not entirely clear when the remaining clerics worked at McGill, or whether they were accused of abusing at the school. However, it would seem likely that they may have had victims at McGill. According to the Archdiocese, Fr. Nicholson continued in ministry until at least 2000, and Fr. Schrenger, like Fr. Sherlock, until 2003.
Fr. Cordell Lang was also accused in a 1995 lawsuit of sexually abusing a student at McGill from 1988-1991. Again, Fr. Shields was working as the school's President during that time. Sadly, Fr. Lang prevailed at his trail, despite having pleaded the 5th in his deposition. Fr. Lang is mentioned on the Archdiocesan list as having been removed from ministry in the wake of the accusation, but it further noted that he was reinstated after the civil verdict. There was no mention of what the accusations were, or where they occurred on the Archdiocesan list.
False allegations of child sexual abuse are extremely rare. In non-custody cases, less than 10% have been shown to be untrue. Perhaps the jury did not understand this, or believe it, since this case was before the Boston Globe's game-changing 2002 coverage of abuse in the Archdiocese of Boston, which led to the development of the so-called Dallas Charter. The Charter promised transparency and openness, as well as zero-tolerance of clergy sexual abuse of children going forward.
We are hoping that the excellent article by the Lagniappe on the long-standing problems of abuse at McGill will spark a ground swell within the Mobile community to rise up and do something about protecting its children in the future, and supporting those who made outcries in the past. Parishioners and the public should demand that those who have not adequately protected children at the school be removed and replaced by people who understand the crucial importance of removing abusers from contact with children as soon as they are identified.
The community should also urge the Archdiocese to again publish their list of abusers on an easily located place on their website. This is important to help victims. The beginning of healing is often the realization that you were not the only one. There should also be serious pressure to ensure that the list accurately reflects the dates of abuse, unlike what occurred in the listing for Br. Bendillo. Other improvements would be to supply photos of the accused, provide dates along with their assignments, include lay employees and volunteers as well as clergy and religious, and, finally, to give more information about the accusations. The Archdiocese should publish the dates that the abuse was said to have occurred, where it took place, when and to whom it was reported, and what actions were taken as a result. It would also be helpful to include a general description of the accuser (age, sex), as well as a brief description of the accusations.
In the meantime, we urge anyone with information about abuse at McGill or anywhere else in the Archdiocese to report those crimes directly to law enforcement or to the Mobile Child Advocacy Center instead of to the Church. Professionals are always likely to take these outcries more seriously, and act appropriately. Internal Church "investigations" often lead to decisions that fail to protect children, as we have seen amply demonstrated by the history of abuse at McGill.
CONTACT: Melanie Sakoda, SNAP Survivor Support Director ([email protected], 925-708-6175), Mike McDonnell, SNAP Interim Executive Director ([email protected], 267-261-0578), Shaun Dougherty, SNAP Board of Directors President ([email protected], 814- 341-8386)
(SNAP, the Survivors Network, has been providing support for victims of sexual abuse in institutional settings for 35 years. We have more than 25,000 survivors and supporters in our network. Our website is SNAPnetwork.org)