Behind the Walls of St. John’s

Arlene Krieger

Hundreds of victims suffered abuse at St. John’s School for the Deaf, a Catholic institution in St. Francis, Wisconsin, outside Milwaukee. In 1974, a priest was accused of having molested as many as 200 deaf boys at the school since 1950. The scandal proved hugely embarrassing and costly for the Milwaukee Archdiocese; the school was closed in 1983. Subsequent investigation by, among others, crusading attorney Jeff Anderson revealed that the lone priest had not been the only abuser active at St. John’s.

One of the additional victims was Carolyn, who had become deaf in childhood and placed in St. John’s School. Author Arlene Krieger interviewed Carolyn extensively using sign language and through email. This excerpt describes how Carolyn’s story began. —Eds.

A loud cry from the nursery startled Margaret out of deep sleep. It was Carolyn, and it was a cry more intense than she had ever heard. Touching the baby’s soft face, it was damp and her forehead was burning with a fever. Bundling the baby into a blanket she woke Tony, ordering him to watch the other two children as she fled to the hospital. The on-call staff did what they could to save the infant’s life but after several days the meningitis had left its mark—Carolyn became deaf.

A pall hung over the home, drastically changing the rhythm of the household. Their once docile sweet child, stricken with meningitis, became an unending source of tireless work, frustration and profound sadness. Communication ceased and the only sounds Margaret heard were the guaranteed whimpering and grunts of a sick and unhappy child.

Tony coped with the news the only way he knew how. Alcohol eased his heartache. He loved his youngest daughter but the lines of communication had closed and he was unable to find another pathway. Arguments were constantly simmering between Tony and Margaret. Tony would find any excuse to blow up, ranting over insignificant situations. Neither parent could find a way to cope so they took out their pain and frustrations by yelling and screaming at each other. Carolyn was oblivious to the fighting and tension. When she was in her mothers arms she sensed she was loved and for a toddler that was enough.

Margaret was the last to join the family. Although Margaret never lost sight of her Catholic principles, she rebelled against the churchs stand on contraception and began practicing a rudimentary form of birth control. Margaret learned to say “no” to sex when she was ovulating, and for her it worked. She never became pregnant for the duration of their marriage.

The children grew tall, dropping one toy and grabbing another, replacing tricycles with bicycles, simple cloth books for hard covers, and babblings for real conversation. That is, all but Carolyn. Unable to hear, her ability to speak waned and further affected her ability to communicate with the ones she loved. “I could see their mouths move but I didn’t know what they were saying. I didn’t know what they wanted and I didn’t know how to respond.”

Tony had had enough. It pained him to see Margarets weariness. They had no way to learn sign language nor an inclination to do so. No one they knew had experience with this problem. There were no local community resources to assist them and if there were, the cost of the services would have been prohibitive.

He sat on the backyard stoop with a beer and pondered his life, his marriage and his children. Graduating high school by the skin of his teeth, he was cognizant that his relationship with Carolyn would never develop unless he put her education in the hands of professionals, those trained in teaching the deaf. All the prayers in the world would never restore his daughters hearing. After three years of prayer and anticipation, Tony finally came to the realization that his daughter would never hear again. He wanted Carolyn to flourish like her siblings. That would never happen in their household. Where would he turn for answers? The only place he knew, the only place where he felt safe, secure, and loved. He turned to the Catholic Church.

Margarets sister Tina walked into the noisy living room, shaking her head in amusement at the four children racing around the living room. Kissing Margarets forehead, Tina held Margaret tightly. “I promise you this will all work out. You have faith in God and in Jesus and they will pave the way and shed light. Listen to your priest; he will give you the spiritual advice you are seeking. The Catholic Church has guided your life and it will continue doing so. Just follow the path your priest advises.” Margaret loved and trusted Tina, and followed her advice as they grabbed their overcoats and trudged to the car for a meeting with the priest.

The room behind the pews was so dark that Tony knocked on the door to make sure the priest was inside. The lights flashed on, the door opened and the couple walked inside. They had never entered the private room and were fearful to speak—they didn’t want to offend the priest, or God, or Jesus or any of the saints molded into the ceiling walls. A conversation of this magnitude began with a few deep breaths. Tony had been rehearsing this conversation for months. Tonight was his chance to say his piece and embrace whatever command the priest would offer for their deaf daughter.

“It’s hard, not only for myself, but my wife and our kids. No matter how hard we try, none of us can reach our daughter. I believe the time has come to give her a chance to flourish. I believe, that is, Margaret and I, are holding Carolyn back. Our deaf child needs proper schooling and an education that reflects her inability to hear. We can’t give that to her. We have come here to ask you to point the way, we have lost direction, we don’t know…” before Tony could press forward with another word, he lost control and cried.

Margaret had never witnessed Tony cry, either tears of joy or tears of sadness. The priest, all too familiar with tragedy, gently handed Tony a box of tissues, stood up, walked around the desk and patted his arm. “With Jesus’s help, we are going to make sure your little one finds just the right place.” He returned to his executive bloodred leather chair and pulled a pamphlet out of his desk drawer. Handing it to the parents, he focused on their facial expressions. The priest was an expert in body language, well before the term became a popular phrase in psychological terminology. There was a crinkling of the forehead, an arch in the eyebrows, a shifting of the feet and when the last page was turned, a smile. They were convinced. What a deaf child meant to the church was another decade or so of tuition, money flowing into the coffers of the Catholic Church. In a subtle yet authoritative manner, the priest led a convincing discussion that would persuade the parents that he had found the solution to Carolyns problem: St. Johns School for the Deaf. It was a panacea, a haven to the children who were deaf and hearing impaired. It was not only the priest’s answer, for that answer was wrapped around the Catholic Church, that answer included God, Jesus and all the saints that decorated the cathedral. The priest’s decision was not one that he had made lightly on his own. Quite the contrary; it was backed by the sound spiritual expertise of the Trinity.

Thanking the priest, the young couple walked to the car and sat staring into the blackened sky. Tony had a clear definition of how to handle the situation but Margaret was torn. She began imagining what life would be without her beautiful child around the home. As a mother, she wanted what was best for her child, and she knew she was ill-prepared to teach Carolyn the necessities to forge through life; yet to give her daughter what she needed would mean removing her from the love of the household into a school that would provide her educational needs. The bond of love, ever so strong, was stretched so thin Margaret could hardly breathe.

In the end Tony won, and they decided to place Carolyn at St. John’s School for the Deaf.

Piling the children into the back seat the family station wagon, they drove to St. Francis, Wisconsin, the home of St. John’s School for the Deaf. Although Carolyn could not hear her parents speak, she sensed something was awry. Her siblings acted a bit odd, fidgeting in the car seat and opening their mouths wide; clearly, they were upset about something. After a long drive, Tony eased the car into a gravel parking lot. Carolyn looked out the window. The large stately brick structures loomed up to the heavens when viewed through the eyes of a small child.

There were several buildings on the sprawling compound, all with designated functions, but it was the church that caught Carolyns eye. It was so big, so old. It looked just like the church they attended each Sunday morning. Perhaps they were all going to a new church, she thought, but then her parents took Carolyns hand and walked her over to a spate of nuns. Everyone was smiling and appeared welcoming. One of the nuns took Carolyns hand and twisted her around so she didn’t have to witness her parents racing back to the car and speeding away. The serenity of the moment was quickly shattered when the newest pupil let go of the nun’s hand and raced back towards the parking lot. The car, her parents and her siblings were gone. Hysterical, Carolyn let loose her first round of tears.

At four years old, she had no coping mechanisms in place to understand or accept the disappearance of her family. All she had ever experienced was the love, warmth, and security of her parents and siblings, and in an instant it had vanished. The nun quickly retrieved the runaway, sharply grabbed her arm and marched her into the building that housed the youngest children. The spartan sleeping quarters were dark and there were two rows of cots lined up against the north and south walls. The nun set Carolyns bag onto the cot nearest the bathroom and gestured; this was to be her bed and this was to be her home. Throwing a tantrum, Carolyns recollection consisted of a constant flow of tears. She had no other way of expressing her feelings. Unable to hear, unable to speak, unable to communicate with the world, her frustrations were expelled.

The following morning, she joined other children on the playground and quickly realized they too were unable to hear. At least there was one thing they had in common. With that knowledge, she had an inkling that she wasn’t quite as alone as she had initially felt. Observing the children sign to each other, she quickly learned a simplified version of communicating and began interacting with some of her classmates. Although she was miserably lonely, for the first time in her life she felt as if she fit in with other kids, that her inability to hear was no longer a factor. For the first time, she was just like everyone else on the playground. But this realization never softened the memory of her parents abandoning her and she continued to sulk.

The nuns, her teachers, had no patience for Carolyns behavior and began punishing her by swatting at her hands and mouthing the words, “No.” She couldn’t hear or comprehend and continued crying. This behavior was answered with stronger slaps, which turned into harsh spankings. Of course, the more the nuns spanked and punished her, the more she cried.

When nap time arrived, the youngest children were led into the red brick building and told to lie down on their respective cots. The lights were turned off and the nuns retired to other quarters on the compound. Carolyn was too frightened to sleep but the rest of her classmates had fallen into a relaxed slumber. She couldn’t hear the door open, but she felt a slight breeze as the wisps of the nun’s habit passed the front of her cot—it was Sister Henriella. Carolyn knew she should follow suit and at least pretend to be sleeping, but curiosity got the better of her inquisitive mind and she squinted just enough to see why the nun had arrived. Several cots over, the nun walked to one of the sleeping young boys, pulled down his pants and began kissing and licking his penis. Startled, Carolyns eyes opened wide. She was too young and too shocked to camouflage her feelings. What she observed was so bizarre, she had no idea what was happening. She was unable to judge the incident as right or wrong, good or bad. It was simply a foreign act. When the nun was finished, she looked up and caught Carolyns eyes glaring in her direction. Instantaneously, Carolyn snapped her eyes shut, pretending to be sleeping. Although she could never erase the image, she was quite sure the nun was convinced that Carolyn was sleeping just like the rest of her classmates. “I didn’t know what to think. I didn’t know if this was bad and if the boy was being punished. But I will never forget the look in his eyes. He stared blankly up at the ceiling and when the nun was done, she pulled up his pants and he rolled over on his cot and fell back to sleep. A couple of days later another boy and I were yanked from the playground and taken to the bathroom attached to the sleeping quarters. There were four nuns standing around looking at us. We were stripped from the waist down and given cold water enemas. I screamed and screamed and cried. I didn’t know what they were doing. I was scared to death. When they were finished with me, they did the same for the boy. If he screamed, I couldn’t hear him. I was too terrified to move. When the punishment was over, we were returned to our cots. It was nap time.”

It seemed an eternity before Carolyn could feel the warmth of her parents’ arms. A full month had passed before the family finally arrived early on a cool Sunday afternoon. When she spotted her parents, she fled towards the car and Tony picked her up and held her tightly and then transferred her into Margarets waiting arms. There were kisses and tears of joy spilt from their young daughters eyes. A nun walked over, shook Margarets hand and began discussing Carolyns progress. None of this was understandable to Carolyn, she did not want her parents sharing a moment of their time with anyone else. Tugging on her mothers arm Carolyn mouthed the word “penis,” but Margaret ignored her child and focused on what the nun was saying. Margaret was dubious that her daughter was trying to say the word “penis.” Where would she learn such a term? That word was never uttered at home. Frustrated, Carolyn began to cry and refused to give until finally Margaret picked her up and placed her in the arms of her father. “I remember watching my mother talk to the nun. It had to be about me but I didn’t know what they were saying. Mom must have been shocked at the word I used but I learned it from my classmates. The visit ended and like the last time, two nuns took my hand and distracted me while my parents left the school.”

“The next day, I was taken to a room. It was completely dark, windowless and empty. The nun slammed the door and made me stay there all alone. I remember crying until the door finally opened and they set me free. It was like a prison, and it was terrifying. I didn’t know what I had done to deserve such a bad punishment. I was too young to understand any of this.”

The children at the school varied in their amount of hearing loss and in the amount of income. Those who were wealthier were treated far better than the poor children. None of the wealthy children were subjected to corporal punishment or sexual abuse; it was the poor kids who received the wrath from the nuns and it was the poor kids who stayed the weekends who received the worst wrath of all; sexual advances beyond anything Carolyns mind could ever imagine.

“My cot was next to the bathroom and every Saturday evening the nuns would enter the bathroom and take baths. There was a tiny crack in the door and I remember watching two nuns kiss each other on the lips, and naked, watch them kiss each others [genitals]. What I saw I didnt understand but intuitively I understood it to be wrong, simply because I had never witnessed such sights in my home. I didn’t know if they saw me watching them, but I was punished again and again. One of the nuns would pick me up, throw me across her lap and paddle my bottom. Perhaps it was a blessing in disguise that I was unable to hear my own tortured screams.”

“I felt so alone, especially on the weekends when most of the kids went home to be with their families. There were a few classmates left behind like me, but I didn’t dare share the secret of what I saw in the bathroom. I didn’t understand it so how could I explain it? I couldn’t.”

. . .

One cannot crawl inside the mind of a young child, let alone a young child who is deaf, but one can envision the terror and helplessness she must have been feeling. She had grown up in a house filled with love, where a broken finger meant a trip to the doctors office and a stop for ice cream to soothe the pain. It was a kiss and a deep hug that made the pain in the finger go away. That response was all Carolyn knew. But on the playground, when her finger was hurt, she was the recipient of abuse and disdain. Other than a patch-up from the hospital, there was no care. How can such a young child cope with such drastic changes in behavior over the same incident? How was she supposed to reconcile this in her young inexperienced mind? The most probable answer was that she couldn’t, and she would become very confused.

Letters home were routinely written by the nuns to let the parents know how happy and well the children were. Each letter began with a crayon note from Carolyn, which was obviously copied from the blackboard. “Dear Daddy and Mommy, I am fine. We had fun, Love Carolyn.” Then followed a serious note from a teacher. Sister Mary Bertrand wrote, “Just to reassure you again, please do not worry about Carolyn, if she is sick or something, we will be sure to let you know.”

The nun’s full-length habits held their sexual secrets and escapades. Back in the fifties, no one questioned the clergy, especially the nuns who had taken vows of chastity. The last thought on anyone’s mind was that these devout members of the church would harm and destroy their young charges. Margaret and Anthony, as had all the other 300 sets of parents, put their faith in the church and its clergy. It was all they had to cling onto. Carolyn had salvaged several of their letters. Although the paper has worn thin and yellowed, the writing can still be discerned. The letters told the nun’s version without an inkling as to the truth of what was going on behind the walls. No mention was made of sexual abuse, the punishments, the lack of caring and compassion, or the inferior education.

Excerpted from Behind the Walls of St. John’s: A Story of Catholic Abuse (2017) by Arlene Krieger. Reprinted with permission of Freethought House Press.

Arlene Krieger

Arlene Krieger is a former teacher and the author of several books, including Little Anthony, A Las Vegas Affair, and A Family of Friends. Born in Salem, Oregon, she now resides in Las Vegas.

Hundreds of victims suffered abuse at St. John’s School for the Deaf, a Catholic institution in St. Francis, Wisconsin, outside Milwaukee. In 1974, a priest was accused of having molested as many as 200 deaf boys at the school since 1950. The scandal proved hugely embarrassing and costly for the Milwaukee Archdiocese; the school was …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Subscribe now or log in to read this article.