Last week, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia announced that 21 priests were suspended from ministry after they were cited in a scathing grand jury report as child molestation suspects—in cases that go as far back as the 1990s—involved in a larger cover-up conspiracy by higher-ups in the church. One of the priests on that list, the Rev. Peter Talocci, was at my parish in the late '80s/early '90s (we knew him as "Father Pete") and I can't say I'm at all surprised. My strongest memory of him is of the private time I spent with him outside of school when I was about 9 or 10 years old, during which he made inappropriate sexual comments to me and my girlfriends.
All the kids loved Father Pete. He was young himself at the time, having been ordained just shortly before arriving at our parish. He was charismatic, told jokes, talked about pop music, and generally ingratiated himself to families who considered it an honor to have a priest as a dinner guest. More importantly, he was the first priest who didn't seem ancient to us kids. He took an active interest in our lives, visiting each classroom to give talks and meet all the students, and he would ride his bike around the neighborhood, always stopping to talk to us. He also made an effort to arrange get-togethers with children outside of church or school activities. Parents loved it because it was like getting a free babysitter. He was a priest — his trustworthiness was a given.
I began to suspect that something wasn't right with him.
But one day in the spring of 1990, Father Pete was abruptly removed from our church and placed at another parish in the dioceses. There was never any explanation. Last week I called my old church, St. Frances Cabrini, to ask why Father Pete was reassigned so suddenly. The parish business manager Karen David could offer no answers other than to confirm that Peter Talocci did indeed serve as a priest at Cabrini at one point in time. She also gave me the phone number for victim assistance, completely unprompted. I hadn't even asked about that.
After Father Pete left I never really thought about him again — until the Archdiocese of Boston's big sex-abuse scandal in 2002. Right around that time I was working at BUST magazine. We were putting together an issue with Cher on the cover. The combination of Cher and a Catholic priest sex scandal — two things that wouldn't normally go together — jarred my memory of an incident that I guess I'd never actually forgotten. But I'd not thought about it in a long time.
In 1989 I was deep into Pizza Hut's Book It! program, which awarded free personal pan pizzas for each book and book report a student completed. My best friends, twins who lived down the street, and I had collected enough pan pizzas that we could all go to Pizza Hut with a guest. I don't know exactly how it was decided upon — perhaps through the twins, whose mother was a teacher at our parish school — but we arranged to treat Father Pete. I remember looking forward to it because Father Pete was so popular and cool. (Honestly though, looking back on it, my definition of "cool" was pretty lax when it came to priests I guess. He had thick, turtle shell glasses and floodwater pants. Actually he looked a lot like Woody Allen. Can one describe a Catholic priest as "nebbish"?)
Over lunch we joked a lot and talked strictly about secular matters, like pop culture. At some point Father Pete brought up Cher's new video, "If I Could Turn Back Time" — you know, the one where she infamously wore a fishnet body stocking under a few strips of cloth, revealing some buttcheek tattoos — while performing for the Navy. Because of its "strong sexual content," MTV would only play the video after a certain time at night. Father Pete told us that he used to stay awake just so he could watch it. I remember this impressing me. It was fascinating to learn that the rectory got MTV, and I've always been drawn to people who admitted their own imperfections. Maybe that was Father Pete's angle, trying to humanize himself to kids. Or maybe he was trying to prove that he was straight. (But let's be honest, declaring oneself a Cher fan doesn't do much to assert one's heterosexuality.)
Then, as if it weren't weird enough already, the conversation about Cher took a strange turn. Father Pete began saying inappropriate things, stuff an adult shouldn't say to a 10-year-old. He talked about Cher's body, how it was sexy, how much he liked it — all with an overtly feigned sheepish grin on his face that was kind of creepy. I can't remember exactly what words he used, but I remember exactly how they made me feel: uncomfortable. Initially I thought, "Priests aren't supposed to talk like this!" Then I thought, "Adults aren't supposed to talk to kids like this." I didn't voice these concerns. Instead, I nervously giggled and tried to change the subject. Afterward, Father Pete drove us to Friendly's in the rectory car to buy us sundaes. And then he took us home. That was the last time that I ever had anything to do with him outside of school. I was too weirded out by what he'd said and I began to suspect that something wasn't right with him. But I was so young, I didn't yet have the language to articulate those suspicions.
I don't know why Father Pete thought that it was OK to speak to a group of little girls that way. (Even if the allegations of sexual abuse are true, I'm not exactly sure that little girls were his taste, if you know what I mean.) But 22 years later, thanks in no small part to Oprah and her dedication to bringing awareness to molestation and demystifying pedophilia, millions of people are now familiar with the grooming process in which offenders befriend and psychologically manipulate their victims. The grooming process can also extend to a child's family so that potential accusations of untoward behavior are found less believable. In hindsight, it was like Father Pete was grooming our entire parish.
In my research regarding the suspended priests in Philadelphia, I have not come across any information about "inappropriate non-sexual relationships," and instead have only found information regarding alleged sexual abuse of minors. Also, the crux of the grand jury's findings in this case — and of one monsignor's indictment for criminal child endangerment — was that the church knew about these allegations and that they did nothing to protect children from further abuse. Instead they shuffled these priests around within the Archdiocese, giving them unfettered access to children within other parishes.
My cousin posted a link about the allegations about Father Pete on her Facebook page. People from our grade school — names I hadn't heard in decades — came out of he woodwork to express their shock:
I would have never thought......what a shame....he was a nice guy too…the kids loved him!
One woman became angry in her defense of him, with several other people backing her up on this point:
I would just like to point out that Father Pete has not been charged or convicted of anything. Understandably everyone is freaked out, if he is ever proven to have done something then throw stones, in the meantime if you thought enough of his character to ask him to marry you then maybe you should remember exactly that. According to the Archdiocesan website he has been suspended due to inappropriate NON sexual relationships. He is a quirky guy and in this day and age people are quick to judge and assume.
Fair enough. But whether those allegations are true or not, Father Pete's behavior with me and my friends that day wasn't appropriate, and even though it was over 20 years ago, I can remember knowing it wasn't right. And while I am no longer long a practicing Catholic, I still have some sort of faith and my own beliefs — one of them being that this man should not be allowed around children.